Monday, October 20, 2008

On Radio Shows and Racial Politics

So, I've been mulling around the McCain ads and Republican strategy to connect former Weather Underground member turned college English professor Bill Ayers to Barack Obama.

It has struck me as deeply problematic that the McCain campaign would do this, because I read it as a fear tactic. Specifically, that in connecting Ayers, Obama, and terrorism it creates a cognitive and emotional link between the three of them, with the residual affect in the minds of voters, especially white voters, is that Obama is dangerous, scary, and "other".

I've been thinking of blogging about this for awhile, but I have over-the-top busy at work combined with unreliable childcare.

But, today, some radio station called while I was getting ready for a 2 hour faculty meeting to talk job candidates. The female reporter wanted to know what I thought of the presidential campaign ads. So, I blabbed on a bit about the unprecedented nature of the volume of advertising given Obama's massive spending abilities, and the high level of negativity, akin to the 1988 campaign.

She then asked if I'd like to be recorded, and I told her fine, but quickly.

So, she then asked me to tell me what I'd just said, so I did, but I wandered onto this subject of the McCain campaign's Ayers/Obama attack, arguing that the ads were designed to make people afraid of Obama.

At the end, the journalist asked me what my party affiliation is. I told her it was irrelevant and asked her why, and she said that I seemed pretty biased. I told her that when the dust settled and academics had a chance to really analyze this campaign, they would find exactly what I told her. I also told her to check out the University of Wisconsin's advertising project to get a fix on the amount of negative advertisements running right now by both campaigns. We then hung up.

Well, tonight I got this email from "ChuckWagon":

In what way has the John Mccain ads been negative?
I dont believe pointing out someone's voting record and history/
asscoiations is negative. Hillary Clinton raised these same questions?
I am a little confused by your accusations.

Oh. Here we go, I think to myself. I'm an idiot for answering the phone.

But, I penned a response. I'll share it with you:

Hi anonymous emailer,

You're quite right. It is legitimate and important to raise questions about voting records and about history. We need to know who these people are that might be our next president.
The problem is this. The advertisements and the attacks that link Obama to Ayers create a cognitive and emotional connection in the minds of voters, especially white voters, that Obama is scary and that he's a terrorist.

Now, if Obama were, indeed, "palling around with terrorists," I would want to know about it. But, several credible sources have provided useful evidence for how much of a link there is between Ayers and Obama., for example, has researched this connection, and has found 2 connections. 1) Obama when he was running for Illinois congress was invited to attend a coffee at Ayer's house for fundraising. 2) Obama and Ayers were both invited by Walter Annenberg (a Republican, a friend of the Reagans, and the endower of my alma mater), to participate in an ongoing panel dealing with education problems in Chicago. That's it. To my mind, drawing the connection between Ayers, Obama, and terrorism is therefore not a genuine effort to highlight a problematic relationship that the country should know, but instead is an effort to scare voters into thinking Obama is a terrorist.

I'm going to guess by your question that you are a McCain supporter, and there are lots of good reasons to support McCain. I just don't believe his advertising has been "playing fair." I don't think Obama's has either, but in this election McCain's ads have been more egregious in fear tactics than McCain's. [Ooops, should've typed Obama's there]

If you're interested, there are a couple of great books on political advertising that I'd recommend. One is The Race Card by Tali Menderlberg that maps out the argument I just made on race, fear, and negative ads in prior elections. Another terrific book is In Defense of Negativity by John Geer. In that book he makes a cogent argument about why negative ads are good for us.

By the way, I never actually caught what radio station was interviewing me. I was running late for a meeting when the reporter called, and I was ill-prepared to speak clearly on the ideas that I'm trying to do a better job here of explaining. Would you tell me where you heard the clip?

Best wishes,


I'm probably still not articulating the idea clearly or well, and it's tricky. As soon as one brings up scare tactics and those that have a racial message, then people like me get attacked for either being biased or for being too sensitive.

But, I feel quite confident that I'm right about the ads' and the campaign message's intended effect: to scare voters, and to do so in a racial twinged way.


brooklynkevin said...

Hi, Jenny. I'm glad you took the call, although I can assure you I'm glad it was you and not me having to field that question.

I feel strongly that the "cognitive and emotional connection in the minds of voters," is not only causing damage now, but will carry over after November 5. My own fears are that the seeds of fear and distrust are now being planted and will continue to be nurtured immediately after the election. It is being solidified on talk radio, on TV, and all across the internet. I think that talking openly about the issues, and continuing to be open to discussions is key. I wish you didn't have to take those calls, but please continue to do so.

I also think that understanding and listening to others fears are essential. Even if we only communicate locally, each conversation shines a little bit more light in the dark rooms. I was picking up my son from his Crew practice yesterday, and chatting with another dad, and his comment was "I'm just really afraid that after McCain wins there will be massive outrage. I asked him what he thought that would look like, and he commented on the Rodney King riots. I wondered out loud to him that if their were riots did he think that it would include a cross section of Obama supporters? He asked me what I meant and I replied that the majority of Obama supporters are Caucasian, and wondered again aloud if he thought that all Obama supporters would be outraged. He agreed that they would be angry, but that their anger would be expressed in different ways. In short, his fear was that blacks would be more inclined to riot and retaliate.

The ads are stoking fears. The misinformation is exciting the anger and resentment. I don't know any other way to be a part of the solution but to keep trying to listen, and, of course, talk.

Hope all is well. Tenure is in the bag, I'm sure :-)

brooklynkevin said...

p.s. Thought you might like this:

Great post, and check out the links to the Maddow interview.

Anonymous said...

For me there are two separate issues: the Ayers one (to which, Jenny, you responded very well) and the negative ads issue. I've heard the stats on the comparative negative ads but found myself wondering how the researchers code the the ads. Is it simply when the opponent is referenced, or is referenced with negative descriptors, or a claim turns out to be false, or what?

Scott Lawson said...

Wow. Uhh, because Clinton brought up the same questions that makes it ok? Unreal. And I will go out on a limb here and guess this emailer will definitely not be checking out the books you suggested, because that would actually involve doing a little work to find out something they don't care to know about!