Misleading political ad in Georgia makes ‘boogeyman’ of a surprising media target

Photo of Jon Ossoff by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

MILLIONS HAVE FLOWED INTO GEORGIA’S 6th Congressional District in the weeks approaching Tuesday’s special election to fill Tom Price’s seat, as the race becomes a clue to how post-Trump midterm elections might go next year. The biggest draw for that money has been Jon Ossoff, a 30-year-old Democrat who is attempting to turn the district blue for the first time since Newt Gingrich began a nearly 40-year GOP run. Ossoff’s campaign has attracted more than $8 million in contributions; the majority of that total has come from outside of Georgia.

Meanwhile, the Congressional Leadership Fund—a Washington-based super PAC aimed at supporting GOP House candidates, and whose donors have included casino billionaire and Las Vegas Review-Journal owner Sheldon Adelson—has sunk $2.2 million into attacking Ossoff. One digital ad employs a quote ripped from its context—a 2011 American Journalism Review article—to point out that Ossoff oversees a documentary film company that has worked for Al Jazeera. The ad deploys the quote, which says Al Jazeera has been called “a mouthpiece for terrorists,” then asks about Ossoff, “How can we trust him?”

The cost for distributing the ad is not clear. Calls to Strategic Media Services, listed on National Association of Broadcaster forms as an ad buyer on the Congressional Leadership Fund’s behalf, did not respond to repeated requests for comment. The fund also did not return requests for comment.

The ad is a direct appeal to voters using the inflammatory, often hysterical ‘media criticism’ language that has become commonplace.

The ad’s rhetorical move is “a misleading transitive property,” says Ossoff campaign manager Keenan Pontoni. “What the ad is really trying to do is to tie Jon to Al Jazeera, and Al Jazeera to terrorism, and … then to tie Jon to terrorism.” The ad has drawn attention for being “mostly false,” according to PolitiFact, and for perpetuating a longstanding anti-Muslim bias against the news organization, as former Al Jazeera America staffer E. Tammy Kim wrote in The New Yorker.

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The ad is particularly interesting as a smear tactic employed in a high-stakes election—a direct appeal to voters using the inflammatory, often hysterical “media criticism” language that has become commonplace since the presidential campaigns. With this ad, “you have two boogeymen,” says Erik Nisbet, communication professor at Ohio State University. “You have a twofer—the media, who ‘can’t be trusted,’ and Muslims.”

Several decades ago, it was common to critique foreign media for their biased coverage of US foreign policy, says Nisbet. Then Fox News helped establish the lexicon for criticizing much of the mainstream media for its liberal bias. Now, the average citizen feels in the right saying that all media, especially larger outlets, are somehow tainted.

But the spot is built on sleight of hand, starting with the “deceptive use of the citation,” notes Jay Hamilton, head of the entertainment and media studies department at the University of Georgia’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication. Not only is the line, “mouthpiece for terrorists” taken out of context, it is followed by the name of the journal where it appeared, the American Journalism Review. This “makes it look like the publication, a respected media criticism journal, is making the claim,” says Hamilton.

‘If one of my graduate students did that in class, I would fail them.’

The truth is that the 8,000-word story thoroughly examines the methods that the Emir of Qatar-owned organization used for newsgathering at its dozens of bureaus, in multiple languages. It also surveys a wide range of people for commentary about the organization, much of which was laudatory.

“If one of my graduate students did that in class,” says Hamilton of the ad’s citation, “I would fail them.”

Citizens should have similar criteria for evaluating media methods and results, says Dave Marash, a television reporter who has worked with the three major networks, ABC News’ Nightline and Al Jazeera English in a career spanning more than 50 years. “When they look at news on TV,” he says, “they should ask themselves: ‘Was there on-the-ground reporting? Was the coverage broad enough in concept to deliver a fair rendering of what’s being covered, and to cover a spectrum of views?’”

Such criteria are “the qualities that distinguish Al Jazeera … [and are] the essence of trustworthy journalism,” says Marash, who now hosts a radio show and podcast on events in the news. He also noted that the news organization’s Arabic language broadcasts are often “politicized,” more so now than, say, 10 years ago, but that the English-language channel “remains consistently high-quality … [and is] no more politically idiosyncratic than any comparable channel [in the U.S.].”

Still, says Marash, “the primary responsibility is on the viewers” to make such distinctions.

Leaving voters to parse the content of misleading ads by themselves may not be the best approach. Political scientist and former CJR correspondent Brendan Nyhan argued that a misleading claim is “always a newsworthy act,” and one that should compel reporters to action, regardless of “the marketplace or the people they cover.”

Hamilton, at the Grady College of Journalism, says Atlanta-area news outlets could have unpacked the claims made by the ad, promoting media literacy for voters at a time when mistrust is the currency of the day. “It’s a missed opportunity,” he says.

Dan Kennedy, associate journalism professor at Northeastern University and author of the “Media Nation” blog, says that he was skeptical about local news programs airing such a piece. “Maybe they would think viewers would find it boring,” he says.

Frank Volpicella, news director at WGCL, the local CBS affiliate, tells CJR that “it’s important to fact-check campaign ads.” However, he says analyzing the ad against Ossoff “is a little bit more cerebral” than the typical evening news story, and may be “more appropriate for Sunday morning political news shows, or a panel discussion.”

Greg Bluestein, political reporter at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, has written about the Al Jazeera ad several times, including to report on the recent PolitiFact rating, and to remind readers of the 2002 Senate race, when Republican Saxby Chambliss employed an image of Osama bin Laden in an attack on Democratic incumbent Max Cleland.

Political writer Jim Galloway wrote a fine column that ran three days before the election and examined Ossoff’s work and Al Jazeera. Galloway’s column refers to the ad content as “a slander,” and runs below a headline that reads, “Jon Ossoff and Al Jazeera: The Truth is Far More Interesting.” The column also included the candidate’s opinion on his best documentary work to date: “a film on sexual slavery in Iraq and the women who have taken up arms to fight ISIS, commissioned by the BBC3.”

Nonetheless, the AJC’s Bluestein notes that the millions aimed at the campaigns had bought at least 50 different ads. Atlanta’s main daily had one columnist and one reporter to cover “a race that is one of the biggest in the nation.”

Pontoni, Ossoff’s campaign manager, praises local organizations for their efforts in covering a race that has been increasingly under the glare of national news media. “There’s a big difference between what media outlets are attempting to do and super PAC sources, [to] which Citizens United gave unlimited power to spread misinformation and attack candidates,” he says.

He pointed out that Ossoff’s documentary work has “focused on exposing corrupt acts, and exposed atrocities committed by ISIS.” The website for Ossoff’s film company mentions a series of documentaries made by African reporters in partnership with Al Jazeera English, starting in 2010.

“Voters are getting a lot of information from unreliable sources,” says Pontoni. “We’re in a dangerous place where people are increasingly unsure of what to trust.”

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Timothy Pratt is a journalist based in the Atlanta area. He has written for The New York Times, The Economist, The Guardian, and many other publications. He also lived in Las Vegas and worked for the Las Vegas Sun from 2001-2009.