High-minded reformers condemn negative television commercials as unfair, simplistic, and vile but, as we're seeing again in Iowa, these ads also can be very effective, and that's why they are so commonly used.
The big story in therunup to the Republican nominating caucuses Tuesday is the relentless barrage of attack ads directed against GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich over the past two weeks. As a result, Gingrich has dropped from front-runner with 33 per cent support among likely caucus-goers a month ago to 14 per cent now, leaving him in fourth place, according to the latest CNN/Time/ORC Pol in Iowa.
The former House speaker has complained about the inaccuracies and distortions in many of the ads sponsored by his opponents and their allied political groups. But those ads have clearly taken a big toll. Hour after hour, Gingrich is being accused of being a hypocrite, an unreliable conservative, and too much of a Washington insider.
Beyond the question of effectiveness, the academics and reformers who are so unsettled by negative ads have a point. A one-sided use of such techniques undermines the theory described in Areopagitica by philosopher John Milton that has been a cornerstone of democratic theory since he wrote in 1644: "Let [Truth] and Falsehood grapple. Who ever knew Truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter?"
The problem is that the marketplace of ideas is thrown out of balance when one side has a far bigger megaphone than another, and when criticism can be spread without an adequate response. This is often what happens when attack ads fill the air waves, as is occurring now in Iowa. And that's just a sign of things to come as the campaign heats up in other states.