Late-night comedian Stephen Colbert's running satire about money in politics has likely left his fans laughing. But there’s no guarantee everyone is in on the joke. And, for those left out, Colbert’s mockery of political sausage-making stands to do exactly what it ridicules — mislead voters. This is according to Kathleen Hall Jamieson, the director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center and a University of Pennsylvania communication professor.
But that doesn’t mean Jamieson, a leading expert in political rhetoric, is entirely against using humor to counteract misinformation, as the Annenberg Public Policy Center’s latest project, FlackCheck.org, makes clear.
In June, the Federal Election Commission allowed Colbert to create his own “SuperPAC” — a political action committee that allows the comedian to raise and spend unlimited amounts of money during the 2012 election under his PAC, which is formally called ”Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow.” (Any donations from Colbert’s employer, Viacom Corp., are considered “in kind” and must be filed with the FEC.)
He has collected cash from viewers, featuring the donors in a scrolling ticker at the bottom of the screen during his show. The PAC has aired campaign ads mocking Texas Gov. Rick Perry, the Republican presidential candidate. The ads, however, called on Iowans to cast their Ames Straw Poll ballot for Rick Parry — yes, with an “a.”
To regular viewers of “The Colbert Report,” the ad’s purpose was clear. But that may not have been the case for a casual viewer coming across one of these ads without full context — the PAC made two ads mocking Perry, and two more addressing the NBA lockout.
“There are positive things about it,” said Jamieson, when asked whether Colbert’s parody was innovative or even effective, “but it potentially has a down side. The danger is you actually confuse the political environment by becoming a surrogate candidate.”
“At the point at which you start airing parody ads as if they are real ads in a real place when there’s an actual election, I start to worry,” she said, “because I think you’re beginning to tamper with the electoral dynamic in a way that’s inappropriate for comedy.”
But to say Jamieson is against using humor to educate voters would be wrong, and factual inaccuracy is no small thing for Jamieson, who founded the non-partisan, non-profit political-ad vetting site FactCheck.org and its educational companion site FactCheckED.org.
Jamieson’s Annenberg Public Policy Center has a new project, and it’s all about using laughs to slice through rhetoric. The site, FlackCheck.org, goes after “the worst political ads of 2011” — an ad attacking California Democratic congressional candidate Janice Hahn — and “the worst” of 2010.
The site features only a preview page with 18 videos. The full site is scheduled to go live Jan. 2, with regular updates of videos going after the worst ads. While most of the response videos are from the 2010 election, the responses go after the tactics — many of which are popular rhetorical tricks-of-the-trade. Take, for example, the repeated use of the word “could” in the Americans for Prosperity ad “Hands Off,” which came out against the health-care overhaul legislation:
And FlackCheck.org is an equal opportunity mocker. The site also features responses to the infamous “Taliban Dan” ads from former Democratic Rep. Alan Grayson’s failed re-election campaign. In the ad, Grayson excerpted part of a speech made by his Republican opponent to make it seem as if he was a religious extremist.
Ad tactics aren’t the only element on the table. Hyperbolic language, such as the relatively liberal use of the word “treason” early on in the Republican primary, will be subject to scathing critique by the FlackCheck.org crew. The site will feature ads that George McClellan's campaign might have run against Abraham Lincoln during his reelection campaign in 1864 to illustrate how today’s tactics could have made even Lincoln look like a defeatist tool of the Confederacy.
If you’re eager to try your hand at turning the power of viral video and comedy against misleading ads, FlackCheck.org is taking submissions that they plan to start featuring in February.
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