The gloves came off this past week in political advertising on Baltimore TV. Attack ads arrived on the airwaves in two of the biggest and most hotly contested races, for Baltimore mayor and Barbara Mikulski's Senate seat.
But despite the conventional wisdom — or maybe the phony conventional piety — that demands public denunciation, I am not automatically willing to join those decrying negative advertising. Maybe our media have become so confused and cluttered in recent years that sharply focused attack ads are one of the only ways to cut through all the spin generated by high-priced consultants and frame a productive debate.
Or maybe such ads rightfully remind us of candidate flaws and mistakes that the media might minimize or ignore altogether for fear of being seen themselves as too negative. Even though I am very much a part of it, I have long felt some parts of the Baltimore media are too nice to local leaders — from City Hall and Annapolis to Camden Yards and M&T Bank Stadium.
The first TV ad from Rep. Donna Edwards appeared early last week in Baltimore and went right after Rep. Chris Van Hollen, her opponent in the Democratic primary for Senate, over his positions on Social Security, gun control and taking money from Wall Street banks — all issues that generate visceral reactions from voters.
And as sure as night follows day, Van Hollen was on TV on Friday in Baltimore with an attack ad that opens with a woman's voice asking, "Why is Donna Edwards attacking Chris Van Hollen?" A male voice answers: "Because she doesn't want to run on her own record." The ad goes on to attack her record and characterize her as one of the members of Congress "least willing to find common ground" — the opposite of Van Hollen and Mikulski, in the rhetoric of the ad.
Meanwhile, Clean Slate Baltimore, a PAC that has been dogging former Mayor Sheila Dixon since December about her criminal past, launched an ad on WBAL, WJZ and various cable channels Thursday titled "Sheila Dixon: Forgive, Don't Forget." It features speakers directly addressing the camera as if talking to Dixon, saying such things as, "You stole money meant for poor folks at Christmas."
That is a reference to Dixon's conviction for stealing gift cards intended for needy children. She resigned as mayor in 2010 following a guilty plea she entered in a perjury case and for the embezzlement conviction in December 2009.
The TV ads are scheduled to run through April 25, the day before the Democratic primary election. The initial buy, which includes a confirmed $48,500 on WBAL (Channel 11) alone, looks to be over $100,000 across Baltimore broadcast TV, with more to come down the stretch on other channels.
And while it might seem old-school compared to TV or online ads, Clean Slate Baltimore also struck a nerve in the mayor's race with fliers it has been paying workers to distribute. The fliers show Dixon in what the former mayor described as a "fake mug shot." They frame her as a criminal with that image and include quotes from the sentencing judge saying Dixon left office in "total disgrace" and will carry a "badge of dishonor" for the rest of her life.
That's a hardcore attack ad — make no mistake about it.
"This is a contact sport," Walter Ludwig, managing partner of Indigo Strategies, a consulting firm working with the PAC, said in an interview. "But nothing we have said about Dixon in any of our ads isn't true."
Dixon's campaign, meanwhile, has a flier of its own that's generating controversy. It attacks Catherine Pugh over questionable contributions to her campaign and, according to Common Cause, mischaracterizes a quote from the watchdog organization to make it seem as if the group is saying Pugh's campaign "crosses the line into clearly-illegal territory" when, in fact, it did not say that.
Analysts predict even more negative and attack ads in the last two weeks of the races for Baltimore mayor, U.S. Senate and, perhaps, president if the campaigns for Democrats Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton and Republicans Donald Trump and Ted Cruz follow up on their rate inquiries and buy their way onto Baltimore airwaves.
Will they influence the votes of some citizens? Will they debase the conversation we are having about the future of our city and nation? Will they turn voters off altogether to the political process, as some political scientists have said negative ads generally do.
"Negative ads can educate, and they can distort," says Roger E. Hartley, dean of the College of Public Affairs at the University of Baltimore.
"In this case, there's a distortion," he adds, referring to the flier featuring Dixon in a faux mug shot. "That's not a real mug shot photo. But what they're trying to do is educate voters by saying, 'If ethics matter to you, she actually had a conviction.' Is that fair game to say? Sure it is, absolutely."
Still, Hartley warns, "It might backfire on you if it's done in an unethical way by putting a fake photo up. All sorts of things can go wrong with negative ads. But if you believe the research, negatives closer to the time of the election can have an impact."
That's one reason, analysts say, that we are starting to see them now in Baltimore as we enter the homestretch of some very close races.
Social science research on negative advertising is "all over the place" with "all kinds of qualifiers" to any firm conclusions about its effects, according to Steve Passwaiter, senior director of business development at Kantar Media-CMAG (Campaign Media Analysis Group), which measures the effectiveness of political advertising.
"But ultimately, there is that old adage that negative ads work," he adds. "And it seems the people putting these campaigns together are believers, because they keep doing it. ... And now that we've got these groups [PACs] that aren't 'officially' supported by candidates, sometimes it's easier to let the outside groups lay the wood to the opponents while the candidates themselves stick to the issues in their own ads."
That's exactly what's happening in the Pugh-Dixon duel, with Clean Slate Baltimore hammering Dixon, while Pugh is provided some distance from the hardcore attacks.
In the end, Hartley and Passwaiter say, what matters with attack ads is whether they lie or tell the truth.
"If what it is being stated is truthful, I don't think there is anything inherently wrong with making somebody defend their record," Passwaiter says. "I don't think anything gets lost by doing that. It's when those ads veer off into uglier areas where there's just innuendo. That's when I think it gets a little dangerous."
While I denounce the use of fake mug shots, I am glad to see media messages from any source that truthfully remind voters of Dixon's criminal past. I want Baltimore voters to be clear about what she did and why she had to resign in 2010 when they go to vote for our next mayor April 26.
But I also want all the scrutiny we can get as to where Pugh's money is coming from. If that information comes in the form of an attack ad, so be it.
"Can attack ads help focus the debate?" Passwaiter asks. "Do they help focus on certain issues that might be important to a district? Yeah, as long as it's done in a truthful manner, they can certainly do that."
You can use all the loaded talk you want about mudslinging and how attack ads take our politics into the gutter.
But I say, as long as they are telling the truth, bring 'em on. From Baltimore mayor to U.S. senator and president, these candidates need all the vetting we can muster.