Web Extra: Kathleen Hall Jamieson Dissects Campaign Ads

  • submit to reddit

In this web-exclusive segment, Kathleen Hall Jamieson sits down with Bill to further examine some of the 2012 election’s most controversial campaign ads to date. Highlighting some of the patterns of deception commonly used by political campaigns, Jamieson provides viewers with the tools they need to spot these often-subtle techniques as the election season heats up.


BILL MOYERS: For now it's Obama versus Romney. Are you ready for that?


BILL MOYERS: Any telling vignettes so far?

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: I think the important thing to ask about the two candidates is what is it that they're saying about themselves and about the other candidate as they are positioning on the issues? And we're seeing that each side is willing to take the other out of context willy-nilly, and that's really unfortunate.

Let's take, for example, the ad in which you see President Obama using "I, I, I," about Osama bin Laden, about the death of Osama bin Laden.

DAVID GREGORY: Osama bin Laden has been killed.

ANNOUNCER: There will be no parades, they have already gone back into the shadows, without the outside world even knowing their names.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I can report…I directed Leon Panetta...I was briefed...I met repeatedly...I determined… at my direction...I called President Zardari...I, as commander in chief...

We don't need to spike the football.

I said that I would go after Bin Laden if we had a clear shot at him. And I did.

BILL CLINTON: Suppose the Navy SEALs had gone in there. Suppose they had been captured or killed. The downside would have been horrible for him.

ARIANNA HUFFINGTON: But to turn it into a campaign ad is one of the most despicable things you can do.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I said that I would go after bin Laden if we had a clear shot at him, and I did…I did…I did…I did.

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: That is the tactic du jour of this election. We've now had at least ten volleys in which one side or the other has seriously taken the other side out of context.

In this case, if you go back and look at the whole statement when the death of Osama bin Laden was announced and the whole answer in the press conference this last week, what you see is the President of the United States talking about "the United States did," "the SEALs did," crediting the military. And in that context, explaining what he did. You watch that ad and you'd think all he did was announced "I did this and I did this and I did this." And it does make it look as if he's taking inappropriate credit and not properly crediting the troops. We can't tolerate that kind of distortion in campaigns. It misleads people who are low news consumers about what actually happened.

And as the redundancy of that ad increases, or that Web video increases, and more and more people see it and they also see it in news, we increase the likelihood that that's what people remember having happened when it wasn't actually what happened.

BILL MOYERS: The partisan sponsor-creator of that ad, long active in Republican politics, says he was deliberately Swift Boating Obama. What does he mean, for my younger audience, by that term?

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: In 2004, a group called Swift Boat Veterans, that called itself Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, aired an ad against then-Senator John Kerry, who was the Democratic aspirant for President of the United States, that suggested that he hadn't earned his medals, that, in fact, that the claims that he'd made biographically about his record in Vietnam were bogus claims.

They aired it very few markets at very low dollars. The ad got its impact out of repeated and uncritical airing on 24-hour cable. We know that because we were in the field with the National Annenberg Election Survey. And we saw as nationally perception that he hadn't earned his medals was increasing. It couldn't have been happening as a result of the ad exposure. The ad was only airing in limited numbers of markets.

What does he mean by Swift Boating? Taking a strength of a candidate, the Vietnam record of Senator Kerry and his record protesting that war, and turning it into a liability. What do I mean by Swift Boating? Gaining an advantage over an opposing candidate by free airing in news of ads, news and cable talk, of ads that try to transform an advantage or strength of a candidate into a liability. And also, in the process, and this is the second part of my definition of Swift Boating, taking something that is part of a record and making it a character issue.

In the case of Senator Kerry, impugning his patriotism in order to undercut the perception that he was patriotic, a highly problematic set of ads. And out of this initial exposure on cable, that group raised the money to air more ads in more places, thereby creating more impact.

By the time journalism caught up with these claims, it was too late. The damage had been done to that candidacy. And the damage was done in the critical month of August of 2004, when the Kerry campaign, over-learning the lesson of Al Gore from 2000, was holding back its money so it would have enough in the last weeks so that it wouldn't be outspent. Remember, Kerry had an earlier convention and so got his federal financing earlier. He had less money per week to spend until the end of the election as a result. So they didn't respond as quickly as they should have. They barely responded at all. It hurt his candidacy.

BILL MOYERS: But ads like that are effective even if we don't like them, are they not? And, in fact, the following Sunday, after that Swift Boat ad, the talk shows were all repeating the arguments, claims, and accusations that that ad presented. So it's working again.

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: And this is why journalism is so critical in this equation. The effect of advertising is magnified by uncritical journalism and disparities in money magnified by uncritical journalism. And Kerry was the victim of both in 2004. To the credit of journalism in 2004, Ted Koppel went to North Vietnam to check out one of Kerry's claims. It turned out to check out. A journalist in Chicago stepped forward. He had been part of the group that was there in Vietnam. He said this claim by Senator Kerry does check out.

But by the time journalism got under some of the inferences in those ads, it was too late. The effect had already been created. It's very difficult, by the way, when you're dealing with something that happened that long ago when you have people who say they were there and witnessed for journalism to get under that story very quickly because, at some level, it looks like what he said and what he said is just different kinds of memories of an event.

BILL MOYERS: Meanwhile, George W. Bush was getting away scot-free even though he had avoided going to Vietnam by his service in the National Guard, right?

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: George W. Bush was able to say, "I honor his service." And so he was able to distance as the dirty work was being done elsewhere. Now, this isn't that same kind of case because we're not dealing with something that happened in the distant past. We're not dealing with a claim about something that President Obama did biographically in the distant past.

This is a more straightforward move to take a small segment of something from a much larger context and repeat and repeat and repeat. And we know that when you see a visual, he's actually speaking, he did say those words. He said them in a context in which you also heard praise for the Navy SEALs, praise for the military. And the opening sentence when he announces the death has the "United States has." The "United States" is the noun, not "I," Barack Obama.

But you're going to forget all of that as that plays and replays. And then a second thing happens. The affect that is attached to the end of that video clip makes President Obama look as if he's suspect, he's shadowy. You've got the echoing. You've got the words repeated. We know that how you feel about something affects how you process it. They're trying to attach negative emotion to President Obama and to drive the inference, now the print comes in, that he's claiming he was the hero and he's not actually honoring the heroes, that he's engage in an act of arrogance, that he's preening, that he's self-involved.

They're trying to drive out those inferences by what they've shown you visually, selectively edited, and how they've attached emotion to it underneath. I can give you a counter for the other side, however, I can give you something that from this same week showed the same kind of power of emotion. If you take a look at the Brian Williams piece from the Situation Room where they recreated what happened--

BILL MOYERS: This was on Brian Williams' weekly show called Rock Center with Brian Williams. And he spent some time in the Situation Room with President Obama.

BRIAN WILLIAMS: On Rock Center, from the chair the President was sitting in when this photo was taken, from this very room. Television cameras are inside the White House Situation Room for the very first time, as we look back on the death of Osama Bin Laden.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We had been preparing for months. We had seen mockups of the compound. We had looked at helicopter flight patterns.

DENIS McDONOUGH: The President said, “It’s a go.” And we looked at him and he said, “It’s a go.”

HILLARY CLINTON: When we got the message that they had killed Bin Laden, it wasn’t over.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The only thing that I was thinking about was, I really want to get those guys back home safe. This was the longest 40 minutes of my life.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA at Press Conference: Good evening. Tonight I can report to the American people and to the world that the United States has conducted an operation that killed Osama Bin Laden, the leader of Al Qaeda.

CROWD: U.S.A.! U.S.A.! U.S.A.!

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: If you look at the segment in that video in which people are gathering spontaneously outside the White House, chanting "U.S.A., U.S.A., U.S.A.," and just ask how do I feel when I see that segment? Don't you feel proud? Aren't you, don't you feel that the country has done something good? Don't you feel that we're resurgent and we're strong?

Now juxtapose that little moment at the end of the ad, the "I, I, I," with the shadowy visuals, with the anxious music, with that other moment.

PRESIDENT BARAK OBAMA: And I did. And I did. And I did. And I did.

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: And you see how affect and emotion are tied to content to drive our inferences. You can put that little piece tied to a statement by President Obama and you get a completely different take on what happened in the speech that night and what happened in the press conference–

BILL MOYERS: Does a report in primetime network television offset the impact of the Swift Boating ad that we saw before this?

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: Yes. In effect, the Brian Williams piece was the narrative that the Obama administration would like you to recall. And the so-called veterans group is offering you its counter narrative. And the question is which is more faithful to what actually occurred?

For practical purposes, the Obama administration didn't need to put together its Web video touting the success. Brian Williams had already recounted the narrative from a journalistic perspective. And that is ultimately more credible than any ad. The question is exposure. The people most likely to watch Brian Williams are not the ones most likely to be influenced by the Web video.

That Web video is going to gain its impact, if it does, by going viral, email to email, like-minded person to like-minded person. And the question is will it-- and by getting onto air where people will comment on it. And the question is, how critically?

BILL MOYERS: Listen, can you hear all those sighs out there? People are saying, "How do I find the time to go to FlackCheck.org or anywhere else and see for myself?" And I think that's a legitimate frustration.

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: When an issue matters to you and as a result it might shape your vote, it's always a good idea to check the fact checking sites on those things that you think may seem implausible, sound categorical, are being driven by strong visuals. And there's another thing that I think is very helpful. There are patterns to deception. And we posted on the FlackCheck.org website 12 of them from this campaign.

What it means is that you can start to recognize when there's likely deception. So in the early ad, when you just hear this little fragment of President Obama saying "I, I, I," and it's repeated, repeated, repeated, probably out of context. That's a pattern. When they say, "I, I, I," and they begin to manipulate the visuals to make them pulse, they're probably trying to distract you from context.

Ask where the context is when you see that pattern. There aren't that many of them and they do recur. So if you say does the issue matter me? Yes. I'm going to be wary. Here is a pattern of deception item. This is a categorical statement. This is a strong visual. What is it inviting? This sounds like it's one of those moves that is out of context. Go to the fact checkers. They're good. They usually agree. When they don't, it's instructive. When they do, it's instructive as well.

BILL MOYERS: Were you surprised when Obama released a video announcing that the theme of his campaign can be summed up in one word? Forward. Take a listen.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Today I say to you that the challenges we face are real. They are serious and they are many. They will not be met easily or in a short span of time. But know this America, they will be met!

ANNOUNCER: And now instead of losing jobs or gaining them, the first increase in manufacturing jobs in a decade. And over the last 25 months, 4.1 million new private sector jobs. And while there’s still more to do, there’s been real progress. Because President Obama never stopped believing in us and fighting for us. He took on the credit card companies, stopping unfair fees and hidden penalties. Took on the Wall Street banks, too, fighting for tough new reforms, to make sure they never again wreck our economy.

BILL MOYERS: Now, here is the rebuttal from the partisans on Romney's side. This particular ad was sponsored by an organization called American Crossroads. And instead of Forward, they call it Backward.

ANNOUNCER: Under President Obama, is America moving forward or backward? Under Obama 45 percent more people are on food stamps, three quarters of a million fewer Americans have jobs, and home ownership is the lowest in 15 years. It’s getting more expensive for health care. More expensive for gas. More expensive overall. The only thing moving forward under Barack Obama: our national debt up $5 trillion. Four years of Obama moving America backward.

BILL MOYERS: Which one is more effective? Forward or backward?

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: Depends on how you experience the evocative visuals.

As they put up the evocative visuals, the question is what do you associate with? If you're a student do you say they've taken the banks out of the equation and as a result now my student loans are easier to get? They're supporting lower student loan rates, as is Governor Romney, but the ad isn't going to mention that.

Are you going to identify with that and as a result say this is forward, we're continuing to move forward? Or are you going to identify with those statistics that say things are not good yet? One question is how much of that very large debt do you remember was accumulated under Republican leadership? And so it's a relatively sophisticated contest.

But forward isn't actually the pivot point for the Obama slogan. People who are asking is it forward rather than backward, backward meaning back to George Bush's philosophy, are missing the sentences that come before that in his speech and in the ads. The actual slogan of his campaign is that everybody should do their fair share. Everyone should get a fair shot. And everyone should play by the same rules.

And if we do that, then we are able to continue to go forward. That is an underlying organizing theme for the Obama launch speech. It's a powerful potential theme because it never mentions taxes. It never mentions what the Republicans cast as class warfare. Instead, it asks a simple set of questions that are based almost in folk wisdom. Don't you think everyone should do their fair share? Of course you do. Shouldn't everybody have a fair shot? Of course they should.

And shouldn't everybody play by the same rules? Yes, they should. Under that, you can say and as a result, tax rates. As a result, nobody should be able to shelter income in Swiss bank accounts. Attack on Romney, et cetera.

BILL MOYERS: So, the Obama ad is asking us to believe in the future.

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: Yeah, and the Democratic move only works if you say the economic philosophy of George W. Bush is the Romney philosophy. And it got us into that mess. And as a result, Governor Romney will make it worse by embracing the same philosophy if he is President of the United States. That's a very complex set of inferences.

It's easier to say look at those numbers. Look at the unemployment rate. And sometimes you have something that's called, in my vocabulary, the killer sound bite. Remember, say the Republicans, that the Democrats told you if they passed the stimulus that unemployment wouldn't exceed 8 percent. Well, say the Republicans in their ads, hasn't gotten down to that level in an awfully long time.

BILL MOYERS: Here's a footnote to the backward and the forward. Some conservatives seized on Obama's motto to claim that Marxists and Socialists used the same word to describe how the march of history was moving us forward beyond capitalism to communism and socialism, and to suggest, that if Obama uses the word that European leftists used, he must be one of them.

They even took up the fact that "forward" was the name of the newspaper in Germany whose writers included Ingles and Leon Trotsky and that the name in Russia for a magazine founded by Lenin was Forward. I mean, you could play this out in many ways.

Spring forward, comrades. Fast forward, red brigades. Forward march through Red Square. Put your best foot forward, leftie. Isn't this one more notion to keep alive the suspicion out there that Obama is not one of us?

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: Yes. And it's also a classic way in which guilt by association works. Find some coincidental similarity between something and something else. And then try to attach everything else that those two dissimilar things have in common to each other. And so, yeah, the point at which, fortunately, none of this has migrated into anything that is mainstream.

This is basically, you know, Web content-- talking to people on the fringe. But it's a classic pattern. You find some single use of language, find some other single use of language and say, "Ah, they both use that language," and as a result, you know, I bet if you went through the New Testament you could find a word for forward. And I bet you could find that Jesus used it, too.

BILL MOYERS: We’ll put somebody on that right away. Which is having more impact so far this year? These ads, the traditional media, or the Web?

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: They're so implicated in each other that you can't answer the question. So, for example, news programs are now following Twitter streams in order to find out which stories are trending. And they're reporting it back into news. News is monitoring the social media on a regular basis and featuring stories about it. Much of what happens in social media is commentary about the mainstream news stream.


KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: And as a result, what we now have is a new media universe in which they're increasingly integrated and, as a result, trying to figure out what affects what and how they might have separate and distinct effects is going to be extremely difficult.

BILL MOYERS: What do voters do in the midst of that Wild West of media?

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: You find places that you trust. And you go there on issues that are of central concern to you that might shape a voting decision to get context. That's what good journalism still does. And there's good journalism that's Web-based journalism.

And, you also, when you think that there might be a deceptive tactic, look more carefully at the issue that matters to you by going to the major fact checking sites and also broadly reading across the major editorial pages. It gives you a really clear senses of where one side is trying to call the other out. But at the same time, it tells you where the core issue positions are.

BILL MOYERS: We will link to those major fact checking websites on our own site, BillMoyers.com, including FactCheck.org and FlackCheck.org. Kathleen Hall Jamieson, thank you for being with me.


Take Action

Do your own fact checking on the ads you see by visiting Kathleen Hall Jamieson's websites:

  • submit to reddit