NEH Lecture with University of Pennsylvania Prof. Kathleen Hall Jameison
It would be understandable, Prof. Kathleen Hall Jameison noted in introducing her September 23 distinguished lecture, if people read her title and arrived expecting a talk on candidate rhetoric in 2016. Understandable, she added, but in this case, off the mark. While the current media landscape certainly abounds with what she termed “fact-challenged political advertising,” the focus of her lecture would not be on the immediate impact of these kinds of ad campaigns on this year’s elections but instead on the broader question of whether or not duplicitous advertising can affect elected officials’ capacity to govern. Using the 1988 presidential campaign as one of two primary case studies, she answered this question with an emphatic ‘yes.’
In the lead-up to the ‘88 election, spurred by a horrific crime committed by furloughed prisoner William Horton, a TV ad ran that outed Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis for his “soft” stance on crime by attacking him for supporting a program that, at least according to the commercials’ dire voiceover, recklessly granted violent criminals weekend release. As we might expect, a rebuttal ad attacking Republican candidate George H.W. Bush on more or less the same grounds shortly followed. In unpacking the ways in which the advertisements from both sides were fact-challenged and the consequences of their deceptiveness, Prof. Jameison singled out how they wholly ignored both the actual literature on the efficacy of furloughs as well as the actual furlough data in Massachusetts and Texas. Specifically, by falsely presenting incidents like Horton’s crime as typical outcomes of prisoner release—decidedly not the case—the ads obscured the overwhelmingly positive relationship between furlough programs and recidivism rates. The result, of course, was that publicly supporting these programs became an enormous liability for governors seeking re-election, leading to a 59% decrease in the number of furloughs granted in the U.S. despite the fact that, it warrants repeating, furloughs had been proven to be highly successful in decreasing the number of released prisoners who relapse into criminal behavior. In other words, as the aftershocks of national political messaging trickled down, a very real fear of castigation at the polls had a significant effect on state-level governance and policymaking throughout nation.
There are a number of specifiable factors, Prof. Jameison went on to explain, that contribute to the likelihood of deceptive advertising having this effect: the ease with which message can be traced to action; whether or not the deception is consistent with party heuristics; evidence of media magnification; and, perhaps most importantly, whether the evocative claim naturally elicits a rebuttal that is abstract and thus far less convincing to a generally inattentive electorate. At the same time, there is some degree of overlap, she noted in concluding her talk, between these specifiable factors and the ways in which we might go about minimizing the likelihood that deceptive advertising will work. While data alone often fails to displace misinformation, when paired with an evocative counter-narrative, it can activate a chain of corrective mechanisms.
The author or co-author of 15 books and hundreds of scholarly articles, Prof. Jameison serves as Elizabeth Ware Packard Professor of Communication at University of Pennsylvania and as Walter and Leonore Annenberg Director of Penn’s Annenberg Public Policy Center. The Kinder Institue co-sponsored this lecture with the MU Department of Communication, the Reynolds Journalism Institute, and Mizzou Advantage.
The lecture was made possible in large part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities and was conducted in partnership with the Missouri Humanities Council. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed during or in response to the lecture do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.