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INTERVIEW WITH KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON (part1)


Q: Advertising is so often viewed as the evil that undoes American politics. In your most recent work what are you seeing, actually, in terms of how negative things are versus how negative things have been in the past?

JAMIESON: We don't like to use the word "negative" because when we use "negative," people hear "dirty" or "illegitimate." When in fact a lot of attack is perfectly legitimate and important discourse.

If you don't have attack in politics, you're not likely to find out about the weaknesses of the opponent. The opponent isn't likely to indicate what those are on his or her own. So we prefer to say that you can divide the world of discourse up into that which attacks and makes a case against, that which advocates and makes a case for, and that which does both in the same message--it contrasts.

If one looks at the world that way, then the amount of attack has never been very high in politics. It's very low in speeches. It's comparatively low in debates. It's higher in ads, but even in ads it rarely approaches fifty percent of the message content. So those who are concerned about the level of attack in politics, first, are concerned about something that is not the dominant form, but secondly, are concerned with something which has actually been declining in recent years as candidates have recognized that an ad that contrasts is a more powerful ad.


Q: Alex Castellanos yesterday makes the case, as you know, that a certain amount of conflict and attack is useful because it does point out the differences between candidates.

JAMIESON: The basis of differentiation which is how you make a vote is the ability to say "This candidate stands for this, and that candidate does not." And in the clash of competing ideas, you're going to have what one would ordinarily describe as conflict and as attack, and you should have it--it's good, it's constructive.

So pundits and the press and academics say, "Oh they're going negative," when, in fact, what individuals are doing is making legitimate, fair attacks that are accurate and relevant to governance. What those pundits are doing is discouraging something voters actually need in order to make informed judgments.

What we ought to worry about is illegitimate attack, but we ought to worry about illegitimate advocacy and illegitimate contrast too.


Q: Advocacy ads or so-called positive ads can be more misleading than so-called attack ads, correct?

JAMIESON: There's an interesting synergy in politics that occurs because the press focuses on attack in advertising. As a result, the consultant, knowing that the press is going to focus more closely on the attack ad is more likely to carefully document the attack ad. So the level of inaccuracy in the attack ad is actually, on average, lower than it is in the contrast ad or the advocacy ad.

When people say that, they are assuming that attack is illegitimate more often than advocacy, for example, or more often than contrast, they're just simply wrong. Attack, because of the way in which our system works, is more likely to be something you can trust.


Q: So in some ways we ought to scrutinize all the more the sort of sweet-sounding, nice music, background bio "I did this, I accomplished this" sort of stuff?

JAMIESON: There are predictable ways in which candidates will inflate their record in advocacy spots. They will claim that anything that good happened, happened because of them. They will claim that what is good and is happening is greater than it actually is. And they will minimize any of the negative consequences of their own actions by suggesting those things were caused by other external forces.

Those subtle deceptions are problematic. What one is concerned about when one looks at the voter is whether or not that person has an accurate, informed sense of where the candidates stand on issues, of their comparative biographies, and of what they're going to do if they're elected. And in order to get to that set of judgments, what the voter needs to know is what is the candidate going to do, but also what the candidate has done. And the inflation of biography is as problematic as the likelihood that one will deceive about one's opponent.


Q: I've also heard you make the statement that you should pay attention to what candidates say they're going to do because in fact they go ahead and try to do that.

JAMIESON: There's a pervasive assumption that candidates are duplicitous and that they pander to us in elections, and so they're only telling us what we want to hear. But if you make a list of everything a candidate says he's going to try to do or she says she's going to try to do, and then you look at the candidates record in office, what you find is that on average, candidates will actively try to accomplish over two thirds what they promised to accomplish. And in the other third you have a reasonable explanation for why they couldn't. Circumstances have changed, for example, or the local climate just makes it simply impossible. And so it's very important to know what they're saying because what they're saying can matter in your life.


Q: You've commented that if given the choice between watching well-done advertising and your average political newscast, you'd make a surprising choice.

JAMIESON: If I had a choice between watching what you typically see in news about campaigns and typical ads, I would watch the typical ad. And I'd watch it back to back, so I'd watch both candidates advertising because in the give and take of advertising, you're likely to get more policy content than you are in the typical newscast.

Now that does not suggest that advertising is an ideal form, it rather suggests that too much of the news about campaigns tells us about the tactics, and the game, and the polls, and who's ahead and why, and too little about what these people have promised and what these people have done.

So when you look at the overall structure of much campaign news, you see a lot of information that would help the person who's watching to become a campaign consultant but not a whole lot helping that person become an informed voter. In that sense advertising's more helpful than news a lot of times.


Q: Are the Clinton ads in '96 an example of what you're talking about in terms of attack and comparative ads, you know, "Clinton is for raising the minimum wage, Bob Dole isn't," "Clinton is for this, Bob Dole isn't."

JAMIESON: The 1996 Presidential campaign is important because it produced what is effectively a new and valuable form of advertising. The Clinton campaign has pioneered the contrast form. We're now seeing it used extensively in the 1998 off-year elections. What's valuable about that form is that the candidate is in the ad, and so if you don't like the attack, you think the attack is unfair, you know who made the attack and you can blame the sponsoring candidate. It also creates an accountability because the candidate is likely to have to indicate what the candidate would have done differently.

You don't just attack in a contrast ad, you then have some obligations to say, "And I did or would have done something that my opponent did not do." So the level of accountability in contrast ads goes up because of the presence of the candidate's position--you can hold that candidate accountable--but also because you are now more likely to get the alternative positions on the issues. And it's out of that kind of contrast that electoral decisions are forged.

So, for example, in 1996, it's important to know that Dole and Clinton differ on the minimum wage, that Dole and Clinton differ on family medical leave. Those are important distinctions. You learn about those distinctions in the Clinton ads. You might, by the way, learn those distinctions and say "Given my philosophical predispositions, I want to favor Dole because I'm on Dole's side of the argument," but at least you have the ability to say "There is a difference here." And if it's consequential to you, you can make a judgment based on that difference if the difference is accurately portrayed. Our worries should be about accuracy not attack.


Q: So that ad, be it about minimum wage or family leave, is pretty dense in content and information in a way that sometimes news is not?

JAMIESON: If you take a look at the typical Clinton contrast ad, what you'll see is an unusual characteristic because it's packed with policy information, but it's highly telegraphic. And so if you don't know why someone would be for or against the minimum wage, it's not that informative. It presupposes that you have a position and when you hear Clinton's articulated position, you know how to position yourself in relationship to Clinton. It presupposes with the exception of one long ad on family leave that you know what it means that he favors it and Dole fought it.

And so the Clinton ads are actually addressing an audience that is presupposed to have a reasonable amount of knowledge about the substance of the issues, and if you do, those ads are highly informative. Now if you don't, those ads aren't going to be too helpful to you because they're so telegraphic that you're not going to have enough context in order to really fill in the inferences.


Q: The Clinton ads also used Dole's own words, quotes from Dole saying "I was out there fighting against Medicare" or "I'm not even sure we should have a President"--that kind of thing. How do you assess that? Is that fair, accurate? Does that meet the test in your view?

JAMIESON: When a candidate shows the opposing candidate on camera saying something, the first thing we ask, "Is this really the image of the candidate?" So if you had been in the event and seen the candidate would the candidate have looked like the picture in the ad? There's often a tendency in portraying the opponent's words to shift the opponent into black and white and to put the opponent in an environment that looks as if it is a little eerie and to accompany it with sounds that sound a little bit menacing.

And so the first question is: "What is the context that is being represented?" If the context looks like it would have looked to you in the real circumstance, it's fair. Then secondly, is the statement in or out of context? We've got some important examples, historically, in which things that people actually said wouldn't, weren't represented in a way that conveyed the context.


Q: Such as?

JAMIESON: For example, when in 1964, Barry Goldwater said that he'd liked to just be able to lob one into the men's room of the Kremlin, he was talking about the accuracy of our missile system and he didn't, in the context of which that statement was delivered, advocate that we ought to do it. He was asking in a humorous way, if in fact we had the ability to be that precise. When the Democrats made that into an ad, the context was gone and it suggested that he was carefree about the use of nuclear weapons. So often irony and humor are stripped out of a context, and something that a person didn't actually intend to say is what's conveyed. And so it's important to ask, "Is this contextual?" when you see the opposing person.

But when you've got an accurate physical representation of the image and an accurate representation of the context, that's one of the strongest forms of political discourse in advertising. And among other things we know that voters don't think that it's negative. They don't think that it's unfair because they remember the person actually saying it.

Some of the most powerful Clinton ads in 1992 simply showed statements by George Bush and then put out the facts that countered George Bush's statements. When we asked voters in focus groups to talk about the ads, they didn't even consider them to be negative ads. They didn't consider them to be attack ads. They said, "I remember him saying that. That's just a factual ad."

When we take advantage of television's capacity to draw out real instances of people actually saying things in context, we're helping individuals make informed decisions, assuming that the information is accurate, the context is real and the issue is one of which there is an important distinction.

Part of the problem with quoting a statement by an opposing candidate is that often one simplifies that candidate's position in the process and doesn't indicate what the full-context of the candidate's position was. So when the Clinton ads repeatedly quoted Dole opposing the beginning of Medicare, they didn't indicate that he favored an alternative program and so the inference that one might draw is that he just didn't want to help the elderly at all and that's a false inference.

But the question is should you expect the Clinton ads to tell you that or should you expect the Dole ads to tell you that? And a reasonable assumption is that it's going to be the Dole ads that are going to tell you what his alternative position is and in that in the clash between those two perspectives, you'll learn the full picture.

The problem in 1996 is you don't learn from Dole what his alternative was and as a result the Clinton campaign effectively makes the argument that he opposed it at the beginning and now he wants to cut a lot of it out. The other problem with the Clinton claim that Dole-Gingrich--and Dole-Gingrich became one person in 1996 in the Clinton advertising--would cut Medicare by a very large amount, was that the ad doesn't disclose that Clinton would have cut too almost as much. And neither Clinton nor Dole had composed a solution that would ensure the long-term survivability of Medicare. So it's important never to rely solely on ads to get one's information about politics. And the place that one would get the context to tell one what those alternative pieces of information are is by reading good newspapers and by watching good news.

  Kathleen Hall Jamieson
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