This weekend on Moyers & Company, Bill asks political communication expert Kathleen Hall Jamieson to analyze the misinformation campaigns of 2012 thus far. Jamieson runs the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, including the sites FactCheck.org and FlackCheck.org.
BILL MOYERS: Welcome. If you like to watch TV but live in a state that has endured one of this year’s primaries or caucuses, you have our sincere condolences. How you are coping with those endless hours of attack ads is beyond us. Nasty accusations, distortions, outright lies. Those ads will turn anyone’s words against them – even Honest Abe…
NARRATOR: Has President Lincoln, given up? At a speech in Pennsylvania, he even refused to dedicate a battlefield, still fresh with the blood of tens of thousands of Union soldiers.
ABRAHAM LINCOLN: We cannot dedicate. We cannot consecrate. We cannot hallow this ground.
NARRATOR: Lincoln believes that America will perish from the earth.
ABRAHAM LINCOLN: Perish from the earth.
NARRATOR: And that our soldiers have died in vain.
ABRAHAM LINCOLN: Died in vain.
NARRATOR: Honestly Abe, died in vain?
ABRAHAM LINCOLN: In vain, in vain, in vain, in vain.
NARRATOR: Abraham Lincoln, wrong on the war, wrong for the Union.
BILL MOYERS: Okay, that’s a joke, a fake ad to prove a point. It’s produced by a group called Flackcheck.org. Their mission is to debunk the negative political advertising that’s polluting the airwaves even more than usual. Flackcheck is the video counterpart to factcheck.org, an award winning organization that does the Lord's own work, trying to keep politicians on the straight and narrow, or at least factually accurate. Both are projects from the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, the director is Kathleen Hall Jamieson. Faithful followers of our programs over the years know that she is our master media decoder, so I’ve asked her to join me this week for a look at the campaign so far. She is the author of many books including her latest, “The Obama Victory: How Media, Money, and Message Shaped the 2008 Election”. It’s co-authored with Kate Kenski and Bruce W. Hardy.
BILL MOYERS: Kathleen, welcome.
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: Thank you.
BILL MOYERS: We've been doing this a long time.
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: Certainly, we have.
BILL MOYERS: Twenty years or more is—right? All right, so here we are.
BILL MOYERS: Have you ever seen a meaner campaign?
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: I've seen campaigns that I thought were mean. I've seen campaigns that I thought were deceptive and irrelevant to governance. I haven't seen a primary campaign that this early in the season has done so much damage to candidates from whom we will select a Republican nominee. And I worry a great deal about what that means for the general election.
BILL MOYERS: There has been a lower turnout than everyone expected this year and a real drop-off in states, in voting in states like Florida and Nevada, Colorado, Minnesota. All are down from 2008.
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: Republican voters didn't start out disillusioned by this field, but if you watch the number across time they're increasingly thinking that they don't have a very good field of candidates. In part because the super PACS have aired primarily attack and primarily attack not on issues, but on character, I think, has effectively undercut one sense of the standing of these candidates.
And so if you don't think you have a good field and you think that their characters might be, their character might be really fundamentally flawed, why would you feel energized and want to go vote? And listen to some of the character attacks in these claims.
There's actually a super PAC attack that suggests that Romney was implicated in illegality in the Damon Corporation which was, you know, guilty of Medicare fraud. But Romney wasn't personally accused. What's the implication of implicating your own candidate in an attack from your own side in illegality? There's the implication that Speaker Gingrich essentially takes any position he's paid to take.
Now, that's not a Democrat attacking. That's a super PAC ad run by people who favor an alternative candidate. This is cannibalizing one's own in the most devastating way. If I can undercut your character I can make it impossible for you to make a case on the issues because no one's going to believe you or trust you.
BILL MOYERS: Look what Romney's attack ads did to Gingrich.
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: Yes, and very effectively. It is remarkable in that environment that these alternative candidacies have been able to sustain themselves as long as they have been able to and that the Gingrich candidacy came back after the withering attack in Iowa is really an astonishing tribute to his success in the debates.
BILL MOYERS: Well, many people think that Gingrich and Santorum would not still be in the race if they hadn't been adopted by a couple of billionaires spending a lot of petty cash out of their accounts.
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: If it hadn't been for Sheldon Adelson coming in, in order to support Newt Gingrich and Foster Friess coming in to support Santorum they wouldn't have right now the ability to get their advertising level up enough to stay on the playing field with Romney. I think they would have withdrawn from the race had it not been, for that support.
Now, you could say that's a good thing. If you think that, with Romney having all of the money it's just simply unfair that the alternative candidates don't get a chance to have access, then maybe you should applaud the, you know, multimillionaires who come forward in order to keep the race running.
But what it does suggest is before one ever thinks about running for president in this post Citizens United world, one should find a few billionaires and determine how one can align one's issue positions with those individuals or find billionaires who are already aligned with one's issue positions and make sure that their wallets are open and ready to protect against assault from the other side and to assault when necessary.
BILL MOYERS: The political writer David Weigel wrote in "Slate" magazine the other day that super PACs are good for democracy. He says they're making the presidential race more competitive, more transparent and fairer. What do you think about that?
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: The problem is that that overemphasizes the amount of disclosure that we actually have and the capacity to hide behind company names. It also underestimates the ability of these groups to move to their charity arm and as a result, basically be able to get rid of the requirement to disclose. Nonetheless I do agree that the fact of disclosure has been very productive. Because at least it lets you ask, "What are the interests of those who are giving money?" And to watch the candidate in relationship to those interests.
I think what we ought to be thinking about is not simply saying that's a pro-Gingrich super PAC, but we ought to say that's a pro-Gingrich super PAC brought to you by largely Sheldon Adelson, that this is a pro-Romney super PAC -- now, the problem is now the list is much longer -- brought to you by these individuals with these financial interests. If journalism kept saying that, we would increase the level of accountability behind the attack.
BILL MOYERS: But you and I both know that journalism rarely catches up after the fact with the large impression put out there by an ad seen by people who may never see the story that verifies or doesn't verify.
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: That's true. And here's the reason that we should try to make them accurate before they, before they go on the air. They, right now there's one small place in the environment that individuals can actually act and potentially make a difference. Local broadcast stations have the right to refuse third party ads. They only have to accept ads by bona fide candidates for federal office, that would be presidential candidates among others.
BILL MOYERS: They don't have to take ads from super PACs?
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: From super PACs, that's correct. And if they take them they have an absolute right to say, "You prove every statement in that ad before I'm going to put it on my airwaves and let into my community's living rooms."
BILL MOYERS: But Kathleen, you know that those station managers reap a windfall out there from a presidential-- from an election year like this. They're not going to turn down these ads.
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: I grant you that. The financial incentive is just too strong, but there is win-win. They can insist on the accuracy of what they air.
What Flackcheck.org is doing is taking the fact checking content from the major fact checkers and posting it against the ads they're airing in the various primaries right now. So a station manager can go and look at our website and see for example, here are the ads that are airing right now and here are the deceptions in the ads. They can now go back to the super PACs and say, "Correct those or I'm not going to let you continue to air." You can fix these ads to make them accurate, station manager.
BILL MOYERS: The station manager can?
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: The station manager can, and has an absolute right under existing regulation. And so what we would like is every citizen in every media market to contact by email and by phone, and we're going to be posting a way to do this on our website. Contact the station managers, contact the stations to say, "We want you to insist on the accuracy of the third party ads you air not just for the presidency, but across the board.
And then when it comes into our living rooms, we will know that you protected us from that form of air pollution. It's a little things that citizens can do and station managers, but I think those station managers care about their communities, they live in the communities there after all. And I think they'd like to perform this public service.
Let me give you an example. In Ohio in October there was an egregious example of bad third party advertising.
WOMAN in OHIO POLITICAL AD: When the fire broke out there wasn’t a moment to spare. If not for the firefighters.
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: A great-grandmother whose grandchild was saved by firefighters made an ad supporting one side of a ballot initiative. The other side took her and put it in their ad, making it out that she would support their side of the issue. They basically pirated her content into their side of the argument thereby completely confusing voters. Stations in Ohio said no, they refused that ad. We have a piece on Flackcheck.org that says good for great-grandmother, good for granddaughter, Zoëy, and good for you, stations in Ohio. You've set a model for how other stations around the country can help protect us from air pollution.
BILL MOYERS: I want to ask you about President Obama and super PACs. Let me play for you, the tape of when Barack Obama told Matt Lauer that he didn't like Super PACs.
BARACK OBAMA: One of the worries we have obviously in the next campaign is that there are so many of these so-called Super PACS, these independent expenditures that are going to be out there. There’s just going to be a lot of money floating around, and I guarantee you a bunch of that’s going to be negative.
BILL MOYERS: Within a few days after the president told Matt Lauer that he didn't like super PACs he said, "I'm going to have a super PAC."
SCOTT PELLEY: The Obama reelection campaign told its financial contributors that they should feel free to contribute to so-called Super PACs.
BILL MOYERS: Were you disappointed? Were you surprised?
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: I was disappointed in 2008 when he rejected campaign finance. And so I didn't have much disappointment left by 2012.
BILL MOYERS: That’s not all he did. He said it was okay for his White House staff and cabinet secretaries to show up at super PAC events, that means face time for billionaires who support super PACs with government officials, face time ordinary people don't have.
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: It begins to look to the public as if this is a corrupt process when that happens. And it, there's a difference between having a process that is corrupt and having a process that looks as if it's corrupt. The danger is we now have both.
BILL MOYERS: Despite the fact that President Obama changed his plan on contraceptives, conservatives have been accusing him of a war on religion.
REP. JOHN BOEHNER: This attack by the federal government on religious freedom in our country, must not stand and will not stand.
SEN. MARCO RUBIO: Don’t let the media commentators tell you this is about this is about contraception, this is about religion. This isn’t even a social issue, this is a constitutional issue.
SEN. MITCH McCONNELL: The issue will not go away until the administration simply backs down. They don’t have the authority under the 1s Amendment of the United States Constitution to tell someone in this country or some organization in this country what their religious beliefs are.
MITT ROMNEY: And I will reverse every single Obama regulation that attacks our religious liberty and threatens innocent life in this country.
RICK PERRY: This administration is assaulting the Catholic Church and people of faith across our nation by forcing their pro-abortion agenda on religious hospitals, on charities, and on employees. The Obama Administration's war on faith must be defeated.
BILL MOYERS: I don't have the tape of this, but let me read you what Rick Santorum said in my home state of Texas the other day. Quote, "When you marginalize faith in America, when you remove the pillar of God-given rights, then what's left is the French Revolution. What's left is a government that gives you rights. What's left in the unalienable rights, what's left is a government that will tell you who you are, what you'll do and when you'll do it."
"What's left in France became the guillotine. Ladies and gentlemen, we're a long way from that, but if we follow the path that President Obama and his overt hostility to faith in America, then we are heading down that road." You can't say it, but I can as a journalist. That has all the refrain of a hallucination.
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: That is an example of the extremist language in which campaigning now takes place. The… on the Flackcheck.org site we have a whole block of attacks that we call Way Out of Whack Attacks, WOW Attacks, statements that don't bear any relationship to their literal referent. This is just one set of examples. At the point at which you're analogizing something to the French Revolution, in once case a Republican candidate analogized EPA regulations to a reign of terror.
If you're calling the opposing individuals barbarians at the gates or a mob (alternative sides of the political aisle by the way use that language), if you're on the floor of the House during the health care reform debate saying the other sides wants seniors to die (both Republicans and Democrats said that on the floor of the House), you now are existing in a world in which language is decoupled from anything that is reasonably a referent.
And as a result you not only are not describing what is out there, but you're exhausting the capacity of the language to express outrage. It is if we are campaigning at a level, a decibel level that only dogs are able to hear at some level and everyone has their ears perked up and they're fleeing, but nobody understands why it is that that's happening.
BILL MOYERS: So these are dog whistles?
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: These are dog whistles. This isn't actually about a specific statement about how we're going to deliver access to contraceptives under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. This is actually about an assault on the character and identify of the person who championed that bill, President Barack Obama. This is an example of the ways in which we take a policy difference and we translate it into a charge that someone is somehow fundamentally unacceptable as a human being to lead us. And we're seeing it in many ways within the Republican Party and across the Republican/Democratic divide right now.
And we ought to worry about language that escalates to that level because it makes it virtually impossible for us to reflect on the actual meanings of the policy distinctions which are real this year that will translate into governance in ways that will be real in the coming years and which will affect the well-being of the nature within the next decade.
BILL MOYERS: Conservatives gathered recently in Washington, the annual gathering of the base in effect. And there was one speech that really grabbed my attention. It was not by any of the candidates. It was not even by Sarah Palin. It was by the anti-tax ideologue Grover Norquist. Listen to this excerpt.
GROVER NORQUIST: We are not auditioning for fearless leader. We don’t need a President to tell us what direction to go […] We just need a president to sign this stuff. We don't need someone to think it up or design it. We have a house and a senate. The leadership now for the modern conservative movement for the next 20 years will be coming out of the House and the Senate so focus on electing the most conservative Republican who can win in each House seat, and the most conservative Republican who can win in each Senate seat. And then pick a Republican with enough working digits to handle a pen to become President of the United States.
BILL MOYERS: Now, what Grover Norquist is saying is that it doesn't really matter who the president is. We, the conservatives, the party, being elected in all of these House and Senate races will tell the President what to do and all he needs to do is to sign the legislation we pass. Is it conceivable to you that they don't want anyone with a vision or capable of leadership, they just a want a figurehead?
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: I think what Grover Norquist wants is someone who will promise that he would, subject himself to torture and die before signing a tax increase in any form as defined by Grover Norquist. And the problem with that is that you can't get out of the situation we're in simply by cutting spending. We're going to have to raise taxes. And we're going to have to raise taxes on that group called the middle class as well as that defined variously as the rich, the wealthy or those making over $250,000.
BILL MOYERS: What does it say about democracy when you do get locked into a mindset that, that responds in no positive way to the facts and to reality?
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: It says that we have-- have failed to conventionalize a structure that lets our leaders talk candidly to the public about the choices we actually. I think what we're seeing right now in the Republican primary is the fundamental shift from our philosophy of how candidates campaigned in the past.
My sense of many past elections was that the party eventually nominated a person who paid a role in telling the party what it was. They helped frame the platform, they then run on the platform.
In this case I think the candidates are trying to align themselves to -- on the Republican side -- the conservative base instead of telling Republicans where the party should be they're trying to tell people that they are conservative where the conservatives are. And I think that's what Romney is saying with his strange statement that he's severely conservative as Governor.
BILL MOYERS: Let me play a montage that we did of the times he mentioned the word conservative in that speech.
MITT ROMNEY: Be conservatives […] as conservatives […] American conservativism […] but conservatives […] we conservatives […] we conservatives […] now as conservative […] conservative causes. […] Conservatism […] My path to conservatism […] Conservative values […] These conservative […] Fiscally conservative […] Conservatism […] I know conservatism because I have lived conservatism […] Conservative […] our conservative […] But I was a severely conservative Republican governor […] Conservative […] conservative convictions […] as conservative, […] for the conservative […] conservative […] This is why we’re conservatives.
BILL MOYERS: So deconstruct that for me. What's going on there?
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: That's telegraphy to say, "If I use the word often enough you will identify the word with me." Here's what's missing. I'm waiting to hear from the Republican candidates a coherent vision of what conservative means to them. I'm waiting to hear a definition that was actually offered in the 1964 campaign by Barry Goldwater. You knew in '64 what you were positioning against because there was an ideology there and it was coherent.
And it was consistent with what he had acted upon across his career. It would have been a very interesting race had we actually had a debate between John Kennedy and Barry Goldwater as proposed or between Lyndon Johnson and Barry Goldwater because they each incarnated a philosophy that they could express, very different views of government, very difference-- different views of federalism, very different roles of the individual in society. It would have been a very, very interesting campaign because it was there.
I don't hear it there in the Republican candidates. I am not clear with these conservatives about what they mean by this ideology. And I have the sense that they're chasing this thing called the base and trying to identify with it without bringing the rest of us along in an understanding of what it is.
So fashion for me as a person who would like to understand what it is that you're saying when you say, "I'm a conservative," how this ideology coheres into a vision from which you will lead rather than simply telegraphing words to me that don't actually have meaning other than, "Don't raise my taxes."
BILL MOYERS: So here we are in a lull during the Republican campaign after 19 debates, nine primaries and caucuses and the Lord knows how much money, millions of dollars have been spent, but with no sure thing, no definitive outcome at the moment. Have you reached any conclusions about what's happening?
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: There's the notion that discourse can either ennoble you and increase your capacity for reflection and judgment or it can demean you and constrict your ability to make good judgments and make thoughtful judgments. And across the years we've increasingly moved to a kind of campaign structure that makes it harder to thoughtfully consider alternatives, to give the candidates the space to lay out alternatives thoughtfully.
And increasingly we've rewarded candidates who have deceived and taken words out of context and campaigned in ways that made it impossible for them to govern well. We've got to try to find a way to fix this. We're at a very, very critical time right now.
Politics is badly broken and if we can't find a lever in the system to minimize the kind of campaigning that strikes viscerally at our affective selves and instead move to a kind that engages us in consideration of a future that we need to come to through sacrifice and through tradeoffs among competing goods, we're not going to be creating a climate in which these elected officials can make decisions that will make it possible for us to become the kind of country in the future that we've been in the past.
BILL MOYERS: Kathleen Hall Jamieson, I'll be seeing you often at this table as this year unfolds. And I'll be going to Flackcheck.org when we finish this broadcast to see what you posted from yesterday. Thank you very much for being with me
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: Thank you.
BILL MOYERS: We'll continue this conversation with Kathleen Hall Jamieson on our website, BillMoyers.com. Join us there.