Theory of negativity

Jamison Foser at Media Matters notices some very stunning idiocy and responds accordingly.  He writes:

The Wisconsin Advertising Project looked at a single week's worth of ads in determining that 56 percent of McCain ads and 77 percent of Obama ads were "negative." Aside from the dangers in drawing conclusions from such a small sample of campaign ads, the findings are of limited value given that the project made no effort to assess the veracity or fairness of the ads in question. In fact, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, the study counted any ad that so much as mentioned the opponent's name as "negative."

I suppose it might be mildly interesting to know that 56 percent of John McCain's ads mention Barack Obama, or that 77 percent of Obama's ads mention McCain. But it doesn't really tell us anything useful. How did they mention each other? Did the ads criticize policy positions or personality? Were they honest? The answers to those questions are essential to any meaningful assessment of the candidates' campaign tactics. (If you do find the project's findings compelling, you should keep in mind that in July, based on a much larger sample, the project found that more of McCain's ads were negative.)

Despite the study's failure to even attempt to assess the validity of the ads it declared "negative," several news organizations hyped the findings. Worse, some suggested the finding that more of Obama's ads have been negative undermines the recent conclusions of many impartial observers that the McCain campaign ads have been more dishonest than those of the Obama campaign.

The New York Post, for example, reported that the results of the study "clash with recent media coverage accusing McCain of distorting Obama's record in ads." Nonsense. That's like saying that the fact that this is September clashes with the fact that it is Friday.

Foser is right.  This is what one would call a "category mistake."  Also, I think I speak from experience that many people wrongly call anything critical an "attack" and assume that anything "negative" is wrong.  Foser's whole piece is well worth reading, as always.

3 thoughts on “Theory of negativity”

  1. I totally agree this seems like a category mistake, conflating false/negative vs true/positive…I wonder whether it’s actually a mistake though: the press is unwilling to call a lie a lie, but they *can* recognize whether something is negative!

  2. Coming back to this just now, I realize that I’ve been fighting a battle against this one in my online class (yes, I’m that desperate for money). The subject of the book The Secret came up, and some students were upset that a few folks (myself included) observed that this book was an insult to the idea of “infantile drivel.” I/we were informed that I/we should be more “open minded” and that people “have a right to their opinion.”

    Perhaps I wander too far afield here, but the contrast of negative (critical) vs. true Dagon mentions above seems rather central to the possibility of reason. If we are not permitted to critisize, out of fear of stepping on some sad soul’s delicate “Ow-y” feewings, then what is left of thinking?

Comments are closed.