The Mother of All Fear-Based Political Advertisements

Alright, I am ready to get off my ”kids and fear in political advertising” kick, but thought I should end by sharing the famous daisy commercial.

Take a look at the classic  “vote for me or your kids might be in danger” ad.   The almost unbearable irony of watching this now is the realization that the candidate in this ad who in 1964 was promising to keep kids like me safe, President Lyndon Johnson, proceeded to escalate a war in Viet Nam that killed thousands upon thousands of those same kids.  

Truth in advertising: Barack Obama is my candidate. But I know that some of you who see this blog are my students and it is important to me that you feel free to make your own political choices.

But neither did it seem to make much sense to hide my choice.

Obama Strikes Back With His Sleeping Kids

Now the Obama campaign has struck back with their own sleeping kids.

Is this a presidential campaign or a remake of “When a Stranger Calls?”

The next commercial will probably have a voice saying: “We’ve traced the call. It’s the next President and it’s coming from inside the house.”

How Would You Explain a Mistake Like This To Your Editor? This Really Happened Today.


WASHINGTON — Kill the short headline in BC-White House-Plagiarism, 9th Ld, which moved at 6:35 p.m. EST. A presidential aide resigned, not Bush.

The AP

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Copyright © 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

Kids As “The Nuclear Option” in Political Advertising

 I just saw a television commercial being used by the Clinton campaign, and wanted to share it. This is not about my own political preferences, but about a moment in the current campaign that should be noted by those interested in politics and media.  

Children have long been a “nuclear weapon” in political campaign advertising.  You can go on and on about how your opponent will muck up the world, accuse them of everything from unpaid debts to adulterating the food supply, but suggest that they might put your kids in jeopardy and you just may start a firestorm. Raising this specter has always been controversial. In fact, in the larger culture – advertisements, news coverage, popular culture – the endangered child has long been familiar and highly charged icon.  

One of the most notorious examples was the so-called daisy commercial created by President Lyndon Johnson’s re-election campaign in 1964. Broadcast only once, the commercial depicted a little girl pulling the buds off a daisy who was about to be annihilated by a nuclear explosion. The implication was that Johnson’s opponent, Barry Goldwater, might recklessly start a nuclear war. The use of the little girl was immensely controversial and the ad was pulled. So check out this ad now being run by the Clinton campaign.

It will be interesting to see what, if any, controversy ensues. I would love to know if children have been “cast” in the recent commercials of any other candidates. And I’d love to know what you think.

Sr. Cpl. Victor Lozada-Tirado

I don’t know where or when I heard this morning that the officer killed in Dallas was a young woman. I wouldn’t be surprised if I imagined it, given the thoughts running through my head. But as a friend near Dallas tells me, the officer was Sr. Cpl. Victor Lozada-Tirado.  Sad.   

Any of You Use the Internet for Time Travel? I Do.

I have to ask you a question. 

I have been using the Internet for almost a decade now in sort of a strange project. Very early on, I realized that digital tools could make it very easy to find lost friends, people from many decades in the past who had somehow touched me, and even to locate people who had caused me pain.  It has been an astounding journey, full of surprises and sadness and sublime joy.

And what I wonder is whether any of you have had this same driving desire to use the Internet to find people.  What kinds of discoveries have you made? Have you been knocked for a loop by the unexpected paths taken by people you find?  Have you learned things about people that were unexpected, or maybe even life-changing? 

I have so many stories to tell that a colleague has been suggesting that I write a book. I have come to see my hobby as a kind of time travel or excavation of the past. Sometimes I call it “personal archaeology.”  And some of my “digs” have led to truly jarring discoveries. Others have lead to powerful insights about my own past and present. Is this something any of you do? 

Two quick stories. 

1. I am fortunate to have had many wonderful teachers in my life.  But in 8th grade I had a genuinely abusive teacher who belittled me and demeaned me and caused me great pain. I have always planned that some day I would tell him how he hurt me, but he truly did disappear. Until several months ago.  Now my dilemma is whether I contact an 85 year old man in a nursing home and tell him the deep sadness he caused me. Or is the fact that I am even debating this a sign of my own failure to process and resolve such an old wound? 

2. As a late adolescent, I knew one guy who was revered as a golden boy. He was an athlete and a brilliant student and handsome. Yet he also had another little problem: He viciously and relentlessly sexually harassed young women. If you knew him at all, you despised him. If you saw him from afar or knew him only superficially you were dazzled. Three years ago I decided I needed to know the life path that someone like that took. Did he end up dazzling or disintegrating?

Actually both: Sometime after medical school, in the midst of a successful practice, he was charged and convicted as a sex offender. While I still rage over a society that was so blinded by the light that they enabled or overlooked his violent misogyny, I felt that my early suspicion and loathing was, however belatedly, confirmed. 

Have any of you gone in search of people?

Why a Blog? And Why “Media and Mayhem?”

I have resisted doing a blog for some pretty flimsy reasons. And while I could keep resisting it, and continue to keep the reasons to myself, I think that time, place, and technology and the demands of my teaching just may have caught up with me.  More and more, I find myself with some idea or gripe or news content that I would like to share with my students or colleagues, some article I think might provoke vigorous discussion, or video clips or photographs I have seen that seem to illustrate some urgent public debate.

But this forces a confession: As crazy as it will sound, from an early age I remember feeling that there was something unseemly about assuming that people would be interested in something I had to say. Dumb, huh? You’d think I was born and raised in the Massachusetts Bay Colony under the guidance of Cotton Mather given my puritanical reluctance to be conspicuous.  And the pilgrim shtick hardly applies to a loud, smart-aleck kid from Southern California who grew up on a block roughly similar to the set of “The Wonder Years.”

But lemme keep this confessional going for a second, because I hear my hypocrisy-alarm going off.   For a guy who is so sensitive to spin and bloviation, I sure have contributed much more than my share of hot air. And while I have always been lucky that my “clients” have been either people or causes or institutions I believed in,  I can’t say that I have never found myself defending  policies with which I disagreed or publicly expressing enthusiasm for something that, deep inside, I found less than scintillating. And that experience, I think, is probably a large part of my reluctance.

In fact, in 2000, I wrote an essay that the Washington Post put on the cover of the opinion section in which I “confessed” to being an occasional bloviator and swore off ever opening my mouth unless I really felt truly competent. My gripe was, and is, against those self-proclaimed media experts for whom breaking news is more a chance for self-promotion and career advancement than a chance to serve the public good with empathy and sound information. This still eats at me.

But enough is enough. I am lucky enough to have one of the best jobs anyone can have, a job that allows  me to come to work wanting to know what my colleagues and students are thinking, wanting to see their films and their web designs and art, eager to read their prose. In fact, if you do this job even remotely decently, it is not even an open question as to whether you should share and put forth ideas. Of course you should. The real question is whether you do it with humility, with an understanding that ideas exist to be contested and not to be pronounced as received wisdom, and whether you show genuine respect for diverse and conflicting ideas and the people who put them forward.

So I am starting a modest and occasional blog –primarily for my students — in which I will share ideas, brief impressions, films, podcasts, images, links to other articles, and interesting student work.  My posts will inevitably reflect the basic interests and obsessions that drive my teaching and research, so here they are:

  • I worry a lot about the decline of civility and humility in media and culture. I know that these are each different concepts, sometimes seen as antiquated, but the general point I am making is my unease at the harshness and volume and incivility that marks much public debate and news production.  And while this is a complex issue, you do need to know that I target 24 hour cable news channels as a major incubator for this poisonous tone.  These bottomless news holes seem to invite trash-talk. Not to mention all of us, myself included, who have opened our trap only to immediately regret some comment offered more out of anger than contemplation.
  • In a related vein, I love vigorous, contested and even angry debates. But sometimes people seem to forget that, when expressing all their deeply-felt and even explosive passion, they are addressing other people with their own deeply-felt feelings, fears and vulnerabilities. Staying aware of our basic humanness in a disembodied digital age is no small challenging age when your adversary might be a continent way. We have relationships with people we never see.   But it is imperative, lest we gain our Blackberries only to lose our hearts and souls.
  • I believe, especially in some of my work in risk and crisis communications with agencies faced with the need to communicate difficult or complex news, in what might be called “radical honesty.”  And this commitment to telling painful truths rather than hiding them is grounded in both ethical and practical considerations. Lying or shaving the truth will always be something people try. Who, after all, relishes the thought of delivering bad or painful news? Who wants to tell a community about a violent incident that has just occurred? Who wants to announce that some long anticipated medication might not work that well? It’s just that the digital age presents an almost unlimited number of ways that even slight shavers of the truth can be exposed. So especially when public health and safety is at stake, “radical honesty” is crucial.
  • I understand and respect the almost insatiable demand of the public for sensational news, often about celebrities. It is lofty and respectable for the elite to scorn these fascinations, but it also futile. Many of them relate to fundamental human anxieties and fascinations that can be seen just as strongly in antiquity. Death, violence, infidelity and all the other titillating fascinations have not persisted solely because we are venal or voyeuristic, but because we are human beings. So while I may dismiss Page Six of The Post as a source of information with the power to fuel serious civic engagement, and while these fascinations do often divert our attention from profoundly serious issues, I do understand their power and lure. And, yes, I sometimes enjoy Page Six.
  • Finally, I should say something about public frenzy, or what one 19th century observer called “seasons of excitement and recklessness, when (we) care not what (we) do.”  Since my earliest research about children, the media, and moral panic, I have had an almost knee-jerk concern about those periods when society, with frightening certainty, identifies a folk devil from some racial, religious or ethnic group and decides that all problems and pain are traceable to this group. This is when, in our frenzy, we suspend normal standards of fairness and skepticism and take actions and pass laws that ignore normal legal protections. None of us, in the right historical or social context, are immune from being caught up in these episodes. We can all get nutty in the right time and place. The trick is self-awareness of our vulnerability to losing our way, not claims of immunity.

So here goes nothing. I have no idea what my posts will be like and when they will occur. They will range from one sentence questions to links to videos and to longer posts. Because they will be irregular, you probably should subscribe to the site’s RSS feed so you will be notified when I have posted something. And of course, I would be thrilled if you are moved to comment on any post.

Finally, why “Media and Mayhem?” I enjoy peace and quiet and serenity as much as anyone. But I will always have a special fascination with those periods of heightened social tension and anxiety when, for good or bad, society casts caution to the wind and, in the process, reveals in media and culture some profound and sometimes unsettling facts about who we are, who we think we are, and everything from our most noble hopes to our most troubling and venal impulses.