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What is a hit piece?

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• In News Media,

There is a lot of discussion about this time every year on hit pieces and negative campaigning. So now I have to ask the question: What is the definition of a hit piece? Part of the problem is everyone likely has a different definition, so I am curious what everyone thinks. I have my own thoughts, but was curious what others think. When is something a "hit piece" versus good campaigning?

About Craig Mayberry

Closed Account • Member since Jan 17, 2008

While writing his articles from 2008 to 2011, Craig lived near Lynden and taught at both Whatcom Community College and Western Washington University. He was active in politics and ran for public [...]

Comments by Readers

Matt Petryni

Oct 29, 2009

A “hit piece” is a generally irrelevant negative campaign ad. For example: the mailer I got today from the Michelle Luke campaign trying to put blame (or at least, implying blame) on Carl Weimer for the County’s recession.

I’ll try to explain what makes this a “hit piece,” in my view.

Regardless of how you feel about Luke as a candidate, any reasonable person must acknowledge the absurdity of her argument here. The argument, paraphrasing the mailer as sympathetically as I can, is that Carl Weimer hasn’t done enough to create jobs during a recession (...that is largely well beyond his appropriate control, something Luke, and most voters, should definitely know). Giving Luke huge benefit of the doubt, I could maybe vaguely deduce from that that if Weimer did less to restrict urban development and more to restrict tax burdens, we’d have more jobs locally - nevermind the whole national housing and investment banking crises, issues well outside of Weimer’s purview.

Finally, Luke’s ad blames Weimer for tax “increases” that were little more than adjusting property tax assessments for market increases in property value, a routine practice. The whole ad is, unfortunately, little more than vitriolic and dishonest trash.

It is possible to say something negative about Carl Weimer without it being a “hit piece.” Preferably, Luke would focus on Weimer’s ideology: that Weimer consistently votes to restrict urban development in Whatcom County in order to protect the natural environment that makes this place so wonderful. It could be argued that by restricting urban development, Weimer’s ideology (perhaps, “practical environmentalism”) slows job creation and squeezes housing developers out of the market. I would say this is a well-reasoned, relevant, and fair criticism of the incumbent.

I would, of course, disagree with this criticism, as a sustainable and healthy environment is ultimately more important than economic development; simply for the reason that unless you preserve your natural resources in the short run, you cannot preserve your economic resources in the long run. And scientific surveys seem to indicate that most Whatcom County residents agree with me on this, which is maybe why Luke chooses to use a hit piece full of irrelevancies than challenge Weimer’s core ideology: she knows if she’s upfront and honest about her ideological differences with Weimer, she will - at most - yield some 30, maybe 40%, of the vote, according to very recent surveys of Whatcom County residents on their values.

But do you see how such negative campaigning, based in core ideological differences, would differ from the piece Luke sent out, which instead blames Weimer for issues almost wholly unrelated to his job? Basically, I think negative arguments relevant to the position up for election could be called “good campaigning,” while those based in issues that have nothing to do with the job at stake could be called “hit pieces.”

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Paul deArmond

Oct 29, 2009

It’s simple: a hit piece is any ad or literature that talks about the opponent instead of the candidate’s position or qualifications. 

If Alfred is running against Bob for dog catcher and Alfred puts out ads talking about Bob instead of talking about Alfred, that’s a hit piece.

The purpose of hit pieces is to create a negative impression about the opponent.  Usually used late in the campaign when a candidate has neither qualifications nor positions that would motivate people to vote for them.

Also known as “going negative.”

Like I said, usually done late and often torpedoing a candidate because it creates the impression they have nothing going for them so all they can do is bad-mouth the opposition.  The late attack usually doesn’t give the opponent time to reply, so it’s not really debate or back and forth.  Very late attacks are also known as “late hits” - as in foul.

The most effective (and hard to do) hit piece is one done early in the campaign.  This puts the opponent on the defensive and makes them put energy into defending themselves instead of informing potential voters about positon and qualifications.

Hit pieces and going negative are different from smears.  A smear is a flat out lie and usually run under false colors or no attribution.

If the voters spent more time selecting their public officials than they do picking a new television set we might see some campaigns that didn’t look like they were run by 9th graders.  But when politics can’t be distinguished from professional wrestling, this sort of inanity is the norm rather than the exception.

The shift to vote by mail has turned candidates into commodities and campaigning into a sales pitch with no consumer protection.  Without a clear date for voting, grass roots volunteer face-to-face campaigning is impossible.  And so it is mostly about advertising budgets and nothing about what will happen when any of these mutts end up in office.

(* hums Steppenwolf’s “Monster” *)

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Craig Mayberry

Oct 29, 2009

Matt,

Thanks for your insights.  I also got the Luke mailer today and would agree on blaming Carl for all of the county’s economic problems on one side of the mailer is questionable and I would consider that a hit piece as well.  What about the other side of the mailer, is that more in line with your thoughts on good campaigning.  I would view the other side as more of a compare and contrast with more specifics on the taxes and the aquarium study (which I frankly think Carl should get hit for).

Paul,

A follow up question to you as well.  Do you think a campaign ad that compares and contrast would be “going negative” or you are referring to ads that solely are negative about the opponent with no clear statement about the positive side of the candidate.

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Paul deArmond

Oct 30, 2009

What I said.

Time to step up, Craig.

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Craig Mayberry

Oct 30, 2009

You are right Paul, I got focused on Matt’s response and forgot to go back and reread your post, you were very clear.

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Paul deArmond

Oct 30, 2009

So here we are in the Last Days of campaign eschatology waiting for a slug of large donor cash to be spent.

The “plate of spaghetti” diagram for a GOP/Kremen/Mayors gutting of the county council with a bunch of what? - ringers, puppets, stealth candidates? - shows negative campaigning being tied directly to getting big money.  And how’s that getting spent?  Late expenditures usually go negative.

The tactical problem is undecided voters getting last minute negative ads can jump either way.  It can play into a surge of new or infrequent voters who were brought into play by reactionary appeals.  This is what happened in 1993 and 1994.  On the other hand, if that ideological surge isn’t there, it will backfire.

Not much gain from #1 and a loss from #2.  So starting out with campaign strategy planning on late hits is just plain dumb - or alternately an admission of weakness in experience, policy and process.

The notable feature of this year’s dog race is the absence of issues.  Sam’s explanation this is all about a tiff over the UGAs sounds more like an excuse or cover story fed to him as a handout. 

The whole story of the endorsements is one worth pursuing.  If endorsements are supposed to carry weight with the public, then how that happens should be a public thing, too.  That might be something interesting for the League to look into.

If the sweep succeeds, how it happened will be forgotten.  But if it flops, it could get interesting.

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Craig Mayberry

Oct 31, 2009

First, I would expect the opponents to be more negative than the incumbent, they have the uphill battle to climb and one way to get noticed is to go negative.  That does not necessarily make it right or wrong, but they have a steeper hill to climb so they will take more risks in going negative. I also agree with Paul that it is been an issue less campaign which then means you do not have much to talk about but being negative.  No one wins having a campaign that says I am nice and have a great family so vote for me.

I have not commented on John’s spaghetti Republican operating plan because I do not know the source of how he got it and therefore did not really want to comment on it.  I do, however, believe that he is giving way too much credit (or criticism) to an overall “plan”.  There may be someone behind the scenes trying to organize things, but I am not sure who has the skills or network that could do it, but it is certainly not the candidates.  In my conversations they have had little or no interaction with the BIA or realtors and the large donations have been a surprise to them as well as everyone else.  The Republican party has always been at a disadvantage because they have never had anything close to the McShane political mission that has their tentacles into everything.  Dan and Lisa have have an uncanny ability to pull strings that the right wing mission has never (and will never) be able to match. 

My take on this election is that the right wing is not necessarily better organized or doing anything new or different, but there is a lot more pent-up frustration in many individuals that is being manifest this year and it is translating into more money and possibly more votes.  I also think in many instances it could be driven by national issues and not necessarily coherent local issues.  At this point if you are politically right of center in Whatcom County you do not have anyone representing you in the local, state (except Doug Ericksen), or federal government which can leave you feeling helpless and not listened to.  The only way to change that in the foreseeable future is this county council race.

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Paul deArmond

Oct 31, 2009

Craig, that’s illuminating from a sociological point of view, but it’s not very explanatory of the facts on the ground.  The expenditure reports will settle it, but the staged group pictures of the mayors alone shows the mass-produced nature of the coordinated campaign.  Better for your position would be identifying four campaign strategists and multiple outreach coordinators.

Supporting evidence was supplied by John: the chart showed the photography and web development the same as it played out. He’s a photographer and has long experience with the web, so that’s where he went to look.

If you want to argue that the provenance is questionable, then you are asking John to betray a confidence or stating that he’s dishonorable and mendacious.  Maybe that’s not what you meant, but that’s what it reads like.

Some of your comments are remarkably in tune with this study:
http://tinyurl.com/yh8zv5o
I find it credible and insightful.

I think political campaigning is structured by the tempo of voting.  Grass-roots campaigning requires people to get out and talk with people.  Organizing that on a sufficient scale requires mobilizing a large number of citizens in a public process.  It’s participatory.

The spread-out nature of vote by mail makes it impossible to do volunteer campaigning, hitting the doors and doing community organizing, so from here on out funding is going to control the campaigns. Campaigning through the media (and shows like faux town hall meetings are just media, they are not participation) reduce the public to a passive role: target audiences, not players.

And that means the voters are going to be battered with nonsense—the triumph of the spectacle (in the situationist sense.)  With those ground rules, it’s just a market economy fighting for audience share, not a public thing at all.  There’s no policy being debated by the public—it’s private and behind closed doors.

Clay Jenkins made a very interesting comment on The Thomas Jefferson Hour (a program on KMRE that is also available for free on iTunes):  If you don’t think who gets elected matters, then you are living in a one-party state.  He went on to state that a living republic requires the sense that things will really change when political power changes hands.  He feared elections have become a form of amusement and the duties of citizenship are becoming impossible to exercise.

I liked going to the polls with a lot of people there.  This voting by mail thing and the way elections have been playing don’t give me any feeling of engagement with my fellow citizens, their views, their aspirations for the future or the value of their past.

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Craig Mayberry

Oct 31, 2009

Paul,

I am certainly not asking John to reveal his sources, nor am I saying he is wrong in his analysis.  All I am saying is that I have no idea who has the time, network, and capability to pull off what was in his chart.  My intention was to make a point that what is possibly appearing to be a coordinated campaign may be a more haphazard approach driven by other issues.

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Craig Mayberry

Oct 31, 2009

Paul,

I also appreciate your comments on mail-in voting and have been concerned about our voting process for the reasons you expressed.  It may save the government some money in the short term, but long term I fear it may have detrimental effects on the political process.  It would be nice to go back and revisit that decision, but I am not sure it is possible at this point.

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Riley Sweeney

Nov 01, 2009

I would like to bring up the Cultural difference here that needs to be considered. Pacific Northwesterners have a really low tolerance for political bickering compared to the rest of the nation. Usually, going very heavy-handed negative on a person backfires big time in this state. That’s why most negative advertising here goes after organizations (i.e. BIAW, Futurewise, NARAL, etc). Nice big targets that can be pummeled without hurting anyone’s feelings.

By comparison, the electorate in most southern states has a very high tolerance for negative advertising. They accept name-calling, push polls and smears as part of the process and it rarely raises an eyebrow there.

Just thought I’d share. What’s the use of a BA in Communication and Political Science if you can’t use any of it?

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Paul deArmond

Nov 01, 2009

Riley’s got a good point there:  the underlying phenomenon is mostly sociological though it is being expressed through the local political process.

Arguing from the general to the specific, there is ample knowledge about how various sociological forces play into local politics.  Two of the largest sources of illicit money affected by local elections are land use (by which public resources are converted into private profits) and organized crime.  Neither of these gets covered in the media in much detail, since this would be stepping on a lot of toes.

There are studies of these two factors and how they corrupt the political process.  The landmark study on political corruption in the Pacific Northwest is William J. Chambliss’ ‘On the Take.’  http://tinyurl.com/ya5te9w

The study was done in Seattle as Chambliss’ doctoral thesis in the late 1960’s.  At the same time as he was doing his street-level sociological study, what became known as the ‘pinball scandal’ was breaking through the Seattle papers.  So Chambliss took his work to Seattle Magazine (the original one run by Stim Bullit, not the one you see on the stands now.) 

My father was on the staff at the magazine as a contributor, and one other writer, Jim Halpin, had previously been a crime reporter for the PI who broke some of the important parts of the corruption story. ( a little more on Jim farther down) 

The Seattle Magazine series on corruption ultimately led to the demise of the magazine because of a boycott by major advertisers who were implicated in the scandals.  This was back in the day when the news media still practiced journalism to some extent. 

Chambliss’ thesis was that organized crime was largely due to an inelastic demand for goods and services that were malum prohibitorium ’ bad because they were against the law (like usury), not malum per se - bad in and of themselves (like robbery.)  So criminal law created an underground market economy that blended seamlessly into the legitimate economy. 

The borderland where the two economies meet revolves around high-interest short term loans and money laundering for criminal enterprises.  The big money is concentrated in drugs, gambling and prostitution.  Some of these enterprises have a need for large short term loans.  And this is where the ‘legitimate’ business community comes in.  What they get is large, fast-turnover tax-free income. 

The long-term finance and money laundering usually went through real estate.  The biggest fast money in real estate usually involves government expenditures or subsidies on new construction or conversion of land use.  Hence the connection to local politics, because it controlled the expenditure on new facilities, land use, and associated development fees. 

A tip on the future location of a state office building, truck route or light rail system can lead to the property changing hands just before the government acquires it, for instance.  New development (particularly residential sprawl) pulls on public infrastructure and services that makes the existing tax base shoulder the support costs, while the increased property values can shift the tax burden onto the community as a whole.  Corrupt real estate assessments can further push the tax bill from large holders onto smaller ones (Harley Hoppe being the bright and shining example.)

So the picture Chambliss painted was not at all like Marlon Brando in the Godfather, but very much business as usual.  I could go on in greater detail, but as you can see from the url link, you can get the book yourself for a couple of bucks.  And a good read it is, too.  Even better are the Seattle Magazine articles, but you will have to go to the University of Washington library to read them.

A little closer in time is the 1993 Whatcom County elections.  The background to that is covered in my work on Wise Use in Northern Puget Sound (WUINPS.)  I think there’s still a copy in the Bellingham Public Library or you can read it online at: http://tinyurl.com/wuinps

The sociological base that the property rights movement drew upon was a large number of retirees with nest egg investments in mostly useless property that would only pay off by corrupting the local zoning and land use process.  They could see very clearly that the process was corrupt (at least for the large players) and unless they could cash in, they were going to lose their retirement funds.  Essentially, they had been scammed by dishonest real estate purchases.  And like most scams, they let themselves in for it because they ‘liked the best of it’ (in confidence game lingo.) 

I interviewed property rights participants in three counties and their stories were remarkably similar.  The fact that they were being played by the same large operators (and their political allies in the BIA and the realtors association) responsible for the corruption never occurred to any of them.

In my previous post, the link to the conservative base focus study shows that this dynamic of a perception of being manipulated is still very strong in that sector.  But because they are displacing that onto scapegoats creates a vicious circle from which they can’t break loose without cutting loose from their current personal and social identities. 

As the con artists say, ‘You can’t knock a sucker or smarten up a chump.’  Which is a crude way of saying that cognitive dissonance acts to reinforce mistaken impressions of the world.  The more wrong they are, the more resistant they are to changing their beliefs.

The point that I’d like to make here - and it’s not something I’ve ever written about before - is that my mentor and partner in writing ‘Steal This State’ and ‘Merchant of Fear’ was the redoubtable veteran writer and reporter, Jim Halpin.  And that means my work is an extension of Chambliss’ study on Northwest organized crime in both methodology and analytic framework.

Craig has said that he thinks the coordinated conservative campaign is ‘haphazard.’  I’ve covered my take on that in the thread John started on the conservative campaign organization chart.  If I’m interpreting Craig’s comment correctly, what he’s saying is that how it was conceptualized and how it played out is slightly different.  I agree.  The chart’s a picture of how they saw they were going to play it.  Of course, it’s going to differ slightly from how it works out, but that’s a specific that doesn’t change the general analysis.

The essential point is that we have four county council candidates (legislative branch) being promoted by Kremen and the mayors (the executive branch.)  So there’s a clear separation of powers problem right there.  On top of that we have what is clearly an operation that was conceived as subversive of public process and public interests.

Add to that forty years of sociological research on the interface between civil and uncivil society at the nexus of crime and politics in the Pacific Northwest and what do you get?  The details may be lacking, but the general structure is unmistakable.

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Paul deArmond

Nov 02, 2009

While we sit around just twiddling out thumbs, Sam Taylor has once again weighed in with a hard-hitting, in-depth piece of solid reporting.  No doubt the Herald will once again sweep the Washington journalism awards for excellence.  By tomorrow, we should see the wires pick up the story and by week’s end it will doubtless be mentioned in op-ed pieces in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal.

Riley, I think he liked your lede.

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David Camp

Nov 02, 2009

If I may add something to this discussion - what we are talking about here is in microcosm the problem with American “democracy” - it is continually hijacked by interests motivated by short-term profit against the interests and preferences of most people. And arrayed against the poor citizen volunteer who wants to engage in the process are all the paid activists whose livelihoods are dependent on keeping the political process in the control of these moneyed interests.

There is no way Sam Taylor can do any kind of investigative journalism for the Herald - because even if you grant that it’s not part of the corporate oligarchy (which I don’t), they simply can’t offend advertisers. (Look what happened to the Independent).

The fact that Kremen, he of the self-dealing raise and gold-plated pension, is endorsing candidates is reason enough not to vote for any of them. He’s just another odious example of the problem - abuse of power to convert public goods into private wealth.

The corruption is endemic and entrenched, and I’m afraid it will take a total depression to change anything. But Whatcom County may be wise enough to see these greedy sinners (yes, in any religion, greed is sinful, as is lying: in our tradition, they are both in the Commandments: thou shalt not bear false witness; and thou shalt not covet) for what they are.

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