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Blog Comments Become Fodder For Attack Ads
New Way to Go Negative Seen in Va. House Race

By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 22, 2007

RICHMOND, Sept. 21 -- A Republican state legislator from Fairfax County has launched an attack ad on cable TV against his Democratic opponent that features unidentified, unverified quotes from a blog.

The ad by Del. Timothy D. Hugo points to a new form of negative campaigning in which information for an attack ad is sourced to comments posted on the Internet instead of more authoritative sources such as news reports or public records.

Hugo's ad highlights critical comments about his Democratic opponent, Rex Simmons, that someone with the screen name "Pitin" posted on the Democratic blog Raising Kaine.

Ads that quote from blogs, on which it is often difficult to identify the author, represent a benchmark in increasingly negative political campaigns, several political analysts said.

"This is one of the places where the old way of doing politics and the new way is coming into conflict," said David Weinberger, a research fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School. "We have developed a blogosphere that is full of lively debate . . . but at the same time we have political marketers who will use anything they can to advance their own cause."

In Hugo's ad, a narrator recounts what "others are saying" about Simmons. As quotes flash across the screen, the narrator says Simmons is "running the most cowardly campaign I have ever seen" and "has been lying to voters the entire campaign."

"We just can't trust Rex Simmons," the ad concludes.

The ad, which also says Simmons supports amnesty for illegal immigrants, cites Raising Kaine as the source of the quotes about Simmons.

Raising Kaine, named after Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) but not connected to him, is a site where Democratic activists talk about Virginia politics. The site allows anyone to post an entry or comment on one, even anonymously, after registering.

Lowell Feld, one of the founders of Raising Kaine, is calling on television stations to pull Hugo's ad, saying it misleads voters into thinking that Raising Kaine opposes Simmons.

Feld added that Hugo's ad signals "a dangerous precedent" that could affect all organizations that allow people to contribute anonymously to their Web sites.

"If someone is allowed to post on a blog, does that mean the organization is responsible and a political candidate can then source an ad to them?" Feld asked.

In an interview, Hugo defended the ad and said he will not pull it. He said the posting on Raising Kaine was not anonymous because it is widely known that "Pitin" is a Democratic activist who supported Simmons's opponent, Morris Meyer, in the Democratic primary.

"It is not anonymous to me," Hugo said. "A lot of Democrats have said that Rex Simmons runs an appalling, negative campaign."

Hugo said the ad is designed to counter mailers Simmons sent out criticizing his vote in favor of the transportation bill that included higher fees on bad drivers. Many Democratic challengers are using that vote against their GOP opponents. Republicans are trying to paint Democrats as soft on illegal immigration.

"He has done nothing but drop negative mail because he wants to hide from what his real positions are on illegal immigration," Hugo said.

Simmons said Hugo "is attacking me out of the gate because he has no positive issues to run on." Simmons said Hugo has reserved more than $150,000 worth of airtime on cable to run the ad.

"This sort of negative campaigning has been rejected in the past, and I believe voters in Virginia will do so again," said Simmons, who said it's not true that he supports amnesty for illegal immigrants.

The man Hugo identified as Pitin -- Nate de la Piedra, executive director of Next Generation Democrats -- did not return several telephone messages Friday seeking comment. Feld declined to confirm Pitin's identity, but other sources familiar with the Web site confirmed Pitin is de la Piedra.

A review of Raising Kaine shows Pitin frequently contributed diary entries, and de la Piedra supported Meyers in the Democratic primary. Pitin often accused Simmons of negative campaigning.

Hugo campaign advisers stressed that Pitin's entry is fair game because blogs are ultimately responsible for the comments that are posted on them.

They also said that much of future political advertising, especially in local races, probably will be sourced to blogs because that is where candidates and their supporters are migrating.

By attributing the ad to Raising Kaine, Feld said, Hugo wants voters to think Kaine opposes Simmons's candidacy. Kaine has endorsed Simmons.

Even though it appears that de la Piedra, 24, wrote the comments about Simmons in Hugo's ad, several people who study political advertising said Hugo's ad appears to violate a well-known standard in political campaigns that a charge against an opponent should be easy to verify.

"In political advertising, you always have to have a source, and that source has to be credible," said Sean T. O'Brien, executive director of the Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership.

Karen S. Johnson-Cartee, a political science professor at the University of Alabama who has written several books on negative television ads, said Hugo's ad "means we have sunk to a new low."

"To me, it is like quoting graffiti off the underside of an underpass and using it in a political ad," she said.

Gary Nordlinger, a Democratic consultant and past chairman of the American Association of Political Consultants ethics committee, said unnamed comments on blogs should be off-limits.

"The AAPC code of ethics says don't run anything misleading, and arguably this could be misleading," Nordlinger said. "All a candidate has in his campaign is his or her own personal credibility, and when you run advertising that can be easily revealed as baseless, the attacking candidate puts their credibility at risk."

But Nordlinger and others say it is inevitable that blogs will increasingly become fodder for television commercials.

In Virginia, blogs have been a mainstay of the political culture, where activists swap gossip and strategies. They have become so influential that political candidates and elected officials often conduct live chats on blogs. Some elected officials even consider bloggers part of the press corps.

Weinberger said the advent of political blogs means partisan researchers are spending more time on them scanning for information about their client's opponent.

Nordlinger said verifiable remarks from candidates on a blog should be fair game for a political ad.

But by using blogs for political ads, several political observers said the public is going to find it even more challenging to judge truthfulness.

"Most people, especially older Americans, are unfamiliar with the blogs," Johnson-Cartee said. "They have no way of testing the veracity of something posted on a blog."

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