Dirty Politics: A good look at negative political advertising

I've been doing some reading lately, trying to get back in school mode. That means that once in a while, you can expect some serious scholarly (and boring) discussion again.

The last week or so, I've been reading "Dirty Politics" by Kathleen Jamieson. This book examines the history of negative political campaigns, with a focus on television advertising and on the presidential level, up to the 1992 Presidential primaries.

Jamieson is the director of the Annenberg Policy Center and former Dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, and has written and lectured extensively on political campaign advertising.

Annenberg Policy Center is best known for FactCheck.org, which does a really good job of examining political advertising at the national level, both by campaigns and independent groups. I highly recommend signing up for their list-serv. In the fall of 2002, I had the opportunity to sit in a lecture she gave while visiting the College of Charleston.

In spite of a rather big focus on the Bush 1988 campaign in the book, she does a good job of examing how negative political TV advertising works and what makes it effective.

Please note that my use of the term "effective" does not necessarily mean it is an appropriate or informative tool.

Jamieson argued that television campaign advertising has "dumbed" down campaigns, allowing them to avoid complex issues and use imagery to create perceptions of issue positions that might not quite square with the real candidate.

She also points out that negative political advertising is often intended to "short circuit" the political process by motivating people to react without considering both sides of an issue or avoid greater scrutiny of a candidate's undisclosed record or agenda greater consideration.

The news media is taken to task for not being more critical of the claims made in political advertising, and in some cases, for buying into the language and messages promoted by campaign advertising. She points out examples of where the news media even began to address issues from the perspective of the campaign, creating an unintended reinforcing effect.

In recent years, we have seen the media take on more active and effective role in that regard, but there is still much more they can do.

Another issues examined was the role played by indepedent groups. Again, the focus is on those groups allied with GOP campaigns, including Democrats for Nixon and NCPAC, and Democratic constitency groups get a pass. These groups, whose roles have long been controversial, have continued to grow, and her observations about these roles were solid.

While I fault this book for a lack of broader, more bi-partisan focus, the informed reader should be able to overlook this bias and understand that she "gets it" about what negative campaigning is and how it works. By reading this book, the reader should"get it" too, and in doing so, become a smarter consumer of political advertising.

In spite of its age, readers should still find this book insightful, thoughtful, and in some cases, an excellent forecaster of things and trends which would follow.

If you want to become more informed about how negative political advertising seeks to put control over the true dialogue essential to our democratic society, this is a book I'd recommend getting.

1 Response to "Dirty Politics: A good look at negative political advertising"

  1. Palmetto Republican 2/9/06 00:28
    I've never heard of it. Sounds like a good read; something you would like.

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