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Making a Killing: The Presidential Debate & the Business of Negative Campaigning


I’ve written before warning about the ways in which American elections have been transformed into a business.  Sadly, the second debate between Barack Obama and John McCain appears to offer more evidence of the same.  While the debate was unlikely to dazzle an electorate that’s been terrified about the housing collapse and the implosion of the economy, the business of negative campaigning has persevered, remaining insulated and unaffected by society’s larger problems.  Media corporations continue to make a killing off of negative campaigning, in the process poisoning our elections and turning off voters to the real policy issues at hand.

 

Media critic Robert McChesney warns against the dangers of the media’s profiteering from elections in his superb work: The Problem of the Media: U.S. Communication Politics in the Twenty-First Century.  In the book, he points out that media corporations’ percent of total revenues earned from campaign advertising increased from just three percent in 1992 to ten percent ten years later.  This dramatic increase has been accompanied by elections that are radically higher in cost; for example, the amount of money it took to successfully win office in the House of Representatives and the Senate (on average) increased by 85 percent in both bodies from 1998 to 2006 alone.  Sadly, the money required to buy these offices looks like it will continue to increase indefinitely into the future.

 

Coverage of the second Presidential debate has been heavily dominated by the business of election politics.  The following day’s (October 8th) coverage was noteworthy in the ways it subtly and not so subtly reinforced the interests of the election profiteers.  Online news sources like CNN.com and the Washingtonpost.com completely abandoned any pretense of objectivity by running profitable negative campaign ads for John McCain and Sarah Palin alongside stories on the debates and the election.  The Post and CNN ads, attacking Obama for denying middle class workers tax cuts and promoting McCain for being a "maverick" and the friend of the middle class, were shamelessly run alongside other marketing campaigns promoting Chevron, AT&T World Connect, Window’s Mobile Phone, as well as promotions of Lifestyle.com and auto insurance quotes.  That the candidates are considered little more than products to be sold alongside these other goods and services speaks strongly to the deterioration of American’s "choices" in this election.  Perhaps CBS.com expressed the perversion of democracy best, as it subsumed all of its reporting of Iraq under the banner "Presented by ExxonMobil," located at the top of the debate coverage page.  Such blatant corporate control over the election process would be comical if it weren’t so tragic.

 

Of course, the debate coverage was full of political spin as well.  ABC News featured a "Nightline Report Card" with media commentator George Stephanopoulos which asked "Who Dominated the Debate?"  Stephanopoulos answered that, clearly Obama had outperformed McCain in terms of strategy, accuracy, and style.  Why voters should take Stephanopoulo’s views even remotely seriously (considering he was a senior political advisor to Bill Clinton and the administratin’s communication director) when they decide who won the debate was left unexplained by ABC.  Did ABC executives honestly think there was any chance that Stephanopoulos, considering his background, would have seen John McCain as the victor?  This inconvenient and troubling question was never addressed.

 

Fox News resorted to its usually partisan hackery, only featuring stories glorifying the Republicans at the expense of Obama.  The major stories featured on the Foxnews.com website included such hardhitting investigative pieces as: "Cindy McCain: Obama Campaign Dirtiest in History," "Palin Keeps Focus on Ayers Ahead of Debate," and "Obama Admits Bumming Cigarettes on the Campaign Trail." 

 

The nation’s elite print media hardly fared much better in terms of substance.  Frank Bruni of the New York Times complained that "Tuesday night’s presidential debate was remarkable for the dourness of its mood and for the subdued demeanors of the candidates even as they tore into each other."  Americans have become painfully familiar with this lame, superficial approach to assessing candidates, divorced from their actual policy stances.  Perhaps the one ray of light in the media response was seen in the Washington Post, where Tom Shales attacked the media for its own failures in coverage.  Shales rightfully took aim specifically at debate moderator Tom Brokaw, who was seen as "the biggest wet blanket on the debate stage… [he] also played a kind of military role: Commander of the Clock.  Time and time again, the NBC newsman inflicted frivolous rules on the candidates that only served to frustrate true debate and the kind of give-and-take that a ‘town hall’ format supposedly encourages…Exactly what the rules were [in the debate] remained unclear, even though Brokaw explained them at the start of the debate.  He called for ‘discussion’ periods that seemed only a minute long; what kind of ‘discussion is that?  If a discussion really did threaten to break out, Brokaw got grumpy and called it off.  The least important thing on an occasion such as this is a bunch of arbitrary rules concocted by the debate organizers."

 

I couldn’t have said it any better myself. 

 

 

Anthony DiMaggio teaches Developing World Politics and American Government at Illinois State University.  His book, Mass Media, Mass Propaganda: Examining American News in the "War on Terror" will be released in paperback this December.  He can be reached at: [email protected]

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