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About this blog: Real power doesn't reside with those who make the final decision, but with those who decide what qualifies as the viable choices. I stumbled across this insight as a teenager (in the 1960s). As a grad student, I belonged to an org...  (More)

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Negative/Attack Ad? Wrong Question

Uploaded: Oct 30, 2016
The definition of a negative or attack ad is ambiguous. To some, it is any ad that contains any negative information about a candidate. To others, the ad needs to be unfair. Another definition focuses on intent: Is the ad not intended to persuade the audience to vote for a particular candidate, but rather to not vote for the candidate mentioned, or in the extreme case, not to bother voting at all in the election.

Part of wisdom is recognizing when you are asking the wrong question, or a badly formed one, and then moving on. California's voluntary Code of Fair Campaign Practices focuses on the campaign being in service of the voters and democracy, and not the candidates. In its preamble, it states "...follow the basic principles of decency, honesty, and fair play in order that, after vigorously contested, but fairly conducted campaigns, the citizens of this state may exercise their constitutional right to vote, free from dishonest and unethical practices which tend to prevent the full and free expression of the will of the voters." As to ads that would be called "negative" under the first definition above, the first clause of the Code explicitly declares them to be proper, if not encouraged:
"(1) I SHALL CONDUCT my campaign openly and publicly, discussing the issues as I see them, presenting my record and policies with sincerity and frankness, and criticizing without fear or favor the record and policies of my opponents or political parties that merit this criticism." (emphasis added). The remainder of the (short) Code focuses on what is unfair / improper.

Might Palo Alto have a more restrictive Code? No. Long-time Palo Alto politician and current County Supervisor Joe Simitian periodically gives a seminar for new candidates.(foot#1) He distinguishes comparative (contrastive) ads from negative ads. His criteria for the ad being proper were: Is it true, fair and relevant? To that, I would add significant. He advised attendees that they should carefully consider and explain the criticism of other candidates, and that they should focus on the positions of the candidate, not the person.

In the latter portion of my previous blog posting ("Disputing a Council Endorsement on Attitude toward residents", 2016-10-25), I took on the issue of so-called negative ads, but primarily in the context of the particular ad (the Keller-Kou video) analyzed there. This posting is the result of my being encouraged to provide a higher-level, standalone treatment of this issue, but some additional examples proved irresistible.

The analysis of that earlier ad relied on me having closely followed what was being said in the campaign, not the candidates' rationale for the ad. But often the voter doesn't need this level of knowledge. For example, the email ad by Vicki Veenker against Marc Berman presented in the latter part of the Weekly article "Assembly race splits Democratic establishment" (2016-10-28) can easily be shown to be improper with the simple response from Berman that the plastic bag manufacturer in question doesn't make single-use/disposable plastic bags whereas the ad strongly invites the reader to believe that it does. Furthermore, the ad is trying to turn into a negative what was an ethical action by Berman--recusing himself when not doing so could have sullied the vote.
Note: Don't cast me as a supporter of Berman (I'm not). And whether Berman deserves any sympathy is off-topic: The focus here is on assessing individual ads.

Sometime it takes only a little critical thinking to raise, possibly confirm, suspicions about an ad. For example, an ad by the combine of Fine, Tanaka, McDougall and Kniss has an attack ad decrying Keller and Kou for running "attack ads".(foot#2) That should alert you to look askance at everything in the ad (and I am going to come back to this).
Note: In the previous blog, I stepped through why I thought that the Keller-Kou video ad was a fair ad (comparative), not an unfair one.

The first thing I look for is sophistry--in part because of my professional background(foot#3) but also because it points you at what the author recognizes as the weak/indefensible part of their position. Witness the unavoidable TV ads on the "soda / grocery tax". Berman's response to the Veenker ad is straight-forward and on-point and hence has credibility. Fine's response(foot#4) is the opposite, indicating that the Keller-Kou video ad is a fair presentation. If not, Fine would/should have explained why what he has been advocating wouldn't produce the results that the video ad claimed. Instead he issues a denial "Never have I said that we should have high-rise office buildings", but as many have pointed out, he had advocated for significantly more office space and argued that growth should be through buildings taller than the current 50-foot height limit. Based on comments by supporters/surrogates on Town Square Forums, the key seems to be the precise, technical meaning of "high-rise".(foot#5) Then next part of the denial is "nor have I advocated for luxury condos." (emphasis added) Notice that he is not arguing that the policies he has been advocating wouldn't produce luxury condos. The difference in the wording of the two parts of the denials should trigger the question of why the author felt the need to be overly careful in the choice of words.

When I read a negative ad--proper or improper--and the response by the targeted campaign, I often learn more about the author than the target. For example, in the Fine response, (foot#4) he spends only 16 of the 437 words on the denial. Most of the letter focused on Fine being outraged(foot#6) that he was being called to account for policy positions he had taken in official meetings and in interviews. I found it very peculiar that, in the second sentence of Fine's response, he was upset about the fragment "We don't need Adrian Fine" from another Keller-Kou ad, choosing to characterize it as an attack. So, other candidates telling voters that they think they are the better choice than him causes him to get bent out of shape? Ask yourself whether someone with such a fragile ego is going to be able to function in politics.

Back to the attack ad by the Fine-Tanaka-McDougall-Kniss combine. It claims that Keller-Kou of "buying: misleading attack ads, negative innuendo and mailers with false accusations." Flipping through my collection of mailers and scanning the ads in last week's Weekly, I don't see anything qualifying as this. Ads that could have been better presented? Certainly. But nothing that would be misleading to an educated adult with normal skepticism. Additionally, I did a search of the PaloAltoOnline site for the easiest-to-find of the three-- "Keller Kou innuendo"--and it produced no relevant hits. Since it is implausible that such would not have already been mentioned by surrogates on TSF, the Fine-Tanaka-McDougall-Kniss ad would seem to be guilty of making false accusations.

----Generic Advice----
When assessing whether an ad criticizing a candidate is fair and proper, my advice is to at least initially ignore the explanation and rationalizations of the author: It may inadvertently bias what you look at and how you interpret it. Instead, start with information that is already public and try to reconstruct the assertions in the ad. Then look at the target's response. Only then should you consider what the author says.

Campaigns make extensive use of "astroturf": supporters pretending to be typical citizens (faking "grassroots"). I find them to be mostly annoying: noisy clutter in the political discourse. However, many campaigns use their astroturf operation to put out information with "plausible deniability", and this can give better insight into what the candidate believes and will do that the official statements from the campaign. Supporters outside the disciplined astroturf operation can occasionally reveal that what the candidate is saying to supporters is very different from what is being said to the general audience. The problem is separating valid leaking from supporters who are inaccurately projecting their own beliefs onto the candidate.

Be forgiving of small problems in ads. There is the obvious difficulty of trying to compress down complicated arguments. And inadvertent errors that occur under the pressure of deadlines and quick turn-around. But the graphic artist can also be a problem: By nature, they tend to see appearance being more important than accuracy, and some can be quite stubborn, even underhanded, about it. Similar to back in the days when there were copy editors and you could get stuck with one who would change the whole meaning of a sentence because s/he thought theirs sounded better.(foot#7)

You should expect a candidate's positions to change somewhat during a campaign. Some of these are simple refinements, such as better ways of stating the position and a shift in focus. There are also changes in the position that are a positive result of campaigning: The campaign exposes the candidate to a broader range of stakeholders and issues and the candidate adjusts what he believes should be done. Finally, there are the cynical changes, often called "pivots", where the change is not in what the candidate believes, but in what he says in order to get elected. When there is such a big change, listen for the candidate's reasons (if any) and if they seem credible.

In considering policy statements, factor in the context. For an interview, I would forgive some inarticulateness and expect some misrepresentation by the interviewer.(foot#8) However, for an official participating in an official meeting on a policy, there is the right to expect that they had done their homework and what they said was the result of careful consideration.

I judge it eminently proper for a "negative ad" to highlight and criticize a candidate for what he advocated before the campaign: The existence of the negative ad indicates that the author believes that the target hasn't offered a credible reason for the changed position (otherwise the ad would be ineffective and a waste of money).

Many "negative ad" are based not on what the target actually said, but on what the author sees as the consequences of the target's position. In determining if this is fair, you need to consider how likely/predictable those consequences are. A candidate who rejects accountability for predictable consequences of a policy is in effect arguing that he is grossly unqualified for the office he is seeking.

Remember that the Code of Fair Campaign Practices focuses not on what is fair to the candidates, but what is fair to the public, that is, what helps them make an informed choice.

The notion that all types of negative ads are bad is to place the egos of the candidates ahead of the public's right to know, and can have the effect of excluding the public from effective participation.

While one of the characteristics of an Establishment is its hostility to public criticism,(foot#9) over-reaction to legitimate criticism is one of the signs of a failing Establishment. In Palo Alto, this has been repeatedly evident in the elections since 2013. I, and others, who have criticized actions and inactions of government have been admonished that we are undermining public confidence.

1. The seminar typically includes Mary Hughes who is a highly experienced political consultant and Simitian's wife. The one this year was held in Mountain View and the attendees included many of the Palo Alto candidates.

2. Attack ad attacking attack ads: Instance: Palo Alto Weekly of 2016-10-28 in the lower half of page 14: Interactive version or PDF

3. Part of my career was spent working on computer security. Attackers were often very good at concealing what they had done, so you would look for evidence of something was being hidden, then start pulling on the threads to get small clues that you could weave together.

4. Response to the Keller-Kou video ad: "Open letter from Adrian Fine to the Palo Alto Community"

5. High-rise: A Fine supporter on TSF claimed that the technical definition of "high-rise" is a building more than 75-feet tall, and that Fine has never called for buildings to be more than 75-feet tall, hence he hasn't advocated for high-rise buildings. Note: The current default height for an additional (non-ground floor) story is 13 feet for offices, 10 feet for housing. Using these numbers, the difference between the current 50-foot limit and a "high rise" is 2 floors of office or 3 floors of housing.

6. Fine's outrage at negative advertising: This is either fake or hypocrisy. Consider that four of the eight "esteemed mayors" he cites were involved in a PAC (Political Action Committee) that produced a stream of negative ads against the Residentialist candidates in the closing days of the 2014 campaign. Furthermore, since that PAC was run by prominent members of the pro-development candidates and the ad had the appearance of speaking for their campaigns (and was not repudiated by the candidates), it had the appearance of having violated the law requiring there be no coordination. Provable? No. Stench? Yes.
More details in my blog "A reprehensible political ad", 2014-11-02

7. Humor: copy editors replacing words with synonyms for the wrong meaning: From the CIA's dated parody "The Hunt for Red October: The Untold Story", the word "exercises" as in maneuvers was replaced by "calisthenics" and "advanced submarine design" had substitutions of "hoagie" and "sandwich". The only standalone version of this is from Gawker (insecure and other apologies). Otherwise it is Appendix E in a Ph.D. dissertation (PDF; author: sociologist Bridget Rose Nolan).

8. Interviews: My first experiences with being interviewed (before Palo Alto) produced very low expectations. The advice I gave to my colleagues and successors was "If half your quotes are recognizable and rendered in a context vaguely similar to that in which the were given, you have had a very successful interview."

9. Establishment vs outsiders: (repeating from earlier blogs for new readers):
From Elizabeth Warren's book "A Fighting Chance", recounting an April 2009 conversation with Larry Summers:
"Larry's tone was in the friendly-advice category. He teed it up this way: I had a choice. I could be an insider or I could be an outsider. Outsiders can say whatever they want. But people on the inside don't listen to them. Insiders, however, get lots of access and a chance to push their ideas. People--powerful people--listen to what they have to say. But insiders also understand one unbreakable rule. They don't criticize other insiders.I had been warned."
-- Section: "Insiders Don't Criticize Insiders", pp 105-106, final two paragraphs.
More context: Warren was then the chair of a Congressional-appointed panel examining the government's response to the financial crisis. With Warren unwilling to play the insider game, she was forced to withdraw from becoming the first head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and had to settle for becoming a US Senator from Massachusetts.

An abbreviated index by topic and chronologically is available.

----Boilerplate on Commenting----
The Guidelines for comments on this blog are different from those on Town Square Forums. I am attempting to foster more civility and substantive comments by deleting violations of the guidelines.

I am particularly strict about misrepresenting what others have said (me or other commenters). If I judge your comment as likely to provoke a response of "That is not what was said", do not be surprised to have it deleted. My primary goal is to avoid unnecessary and undesirable back-and-forth, but such misrepresentations also indicate that the author is unwilling/unable to participate in a meaningful, respectful conversation on the topic.

If you behave like a Troll, do not waste your time protesting when you get treated like one.
Local Journalism.
What is it worth to you?


Posted by Double standards, a resident of Green Acres,
on Oct 30, 2016 at 10:29 pm

As an active follower of this year's election, I definitely see some double standards in comments about the pro-development and residentialist sides.

Not many people cried foul (including this publication)when the pro-development side was getting funds from developers (many of them from out of town) and using some Trump-like comparisons to describe the residentialists.

However, as soon as some generous local residents stepped forward w/ some significant funding for the residentialists to level the playing field, and some ads came out reminding voters of some controversial growth positions pro-development candidates Fine and Tanaka supported in the past, many started complaining about negative campaigning.

Don't see anything negative in highlighting what these candidates did/said in the past, regardless of what they are currently saying one week before many of us cast our votes (candidates can say anything to get elected. We were already fooled by two of them in the last election).

Given that I'm not that naive and have gone through these election cycles a few times, I'll go for consistency and will vote for candidates that I trust will fight to preserve the quality of live in our neighborhoods. I'm supporting the residentialists: Keller, Kuo, Stone, Carl. This is not the time to entrust the future of our community to candidates who have been flip-flopping and/or hiding their true positions.

Posted by SEA_SEELAM REDDY, a resident of College Terrace,
on Nov 4, 2016 at 5:45 am

SEA_SEELAM REDDY is a registered user.

It is distasteful to see two good hearted democrats attack each other via PACs.

We in 24th assembly district are mostly educated, well read, sophisticated, higher GPA people.

We do not need these attack mailers.

Same true for Palo Alto City Council.


Posted by Thanks, Doug, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Nov 9, 2016 at 5:26 am

thanks for helping get Tanaka and Fine elected. And for keeping Keller off the council.
Your steady attacks on Tanaka and Fine, plus your justifying of the dirty politics played by the PASZ gang, showed the public how to vote

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