What McCarthy Means for Pro-Romney SuperPAC

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Recap from It's a Free Country.

Welcome to Politics Bites, where every afternoon at It's A Free Country, we bring you the unmissable quotes from the morning's political conversations on WNYC. Today on the Brian Lehrer Show, Jane Mayer, New Yorker staff writer, discussed the career of Larry McCarthy, one of the most successful negative-ad makers in history, who is now working for the pro-Romney SuperPAC Restore Our Future.

Donning the brass knuckles again

Can Larry McCarthy make the 2012 campaign even more vicious?

McCarthy, the mastermind behind such seminal political attack ads as the 1988 Willie Horton spot, has thrown his hat in with Restore Our Future, a pro-Romney SuperPAC that's been pulling in huge money.

Jane Mayer said that working with a SuperPAC should feel familiar to McCarthy, who has decades of experience operating just outside of political campaigns: in the corners of campaign finance that most Americans didn't think about before Citizens United.

He's almost always been with outside groups, groups that were predecessors of SuperPACs. And those are the ones that really use the brass knuckles.

The Willie Horton ad

Of the many ads created by Larry McCarthy over the years, the one that used convicted felon Willie Horton to hammer former Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis on crime remains the most infamous. 

The Horton ad stands out for its explicit imagery and gruesome bravado: flashing the words "kidnapping", "stabbing", and "raping" before showing a picture of a presidential candidate takes it to a level that most attack ads dare not go. And yet, the ad is like most others in one fundamental respect: it distorts the facts.

Mayer pointed out that the ad never mentions the furlough program was started not by Dukakis, but by his Republican predecessor.

The Willie Horton story had taken place 12 years before [Dukakis] was running for president, and the furlough program was similar to furlough programs in 45 of the 50 states, and the national program that had been set up by Reagan.

That's not the only thing McCarthy swept under the rug. Mayer said that when he was originally shopping the ad to television stations, he offered a version that didn't include Horton's mugshot. The spot that eventually aired—which included a picture of Horton, a black man—was more inflammatory for its perceived racial coding than the one most stations thought they were airing.

[McCarthy] decided they shouldn't show [the version with the mugshot] to the stations when they were going to try and get approval to put the ad on the air. Then later, after it was approved, he sent a second version, which he said just had a correction in it. They didn't look at it carefully—he knew it would get by station managers and get on the air that way.

Unlimited money, killer ads

Jane Mayer said that inserting any sort of similar racial coding—intentional or otherwise—in a 2012 political advertisement wouldn't fly. But spinning the facts and taking information out of context remains par for the course. With McCarthy and unprecedented millions of dollars in the mix, likely more than in any election ever up to this point, Mayer said the attack ads aren't going away anytime soon.

What you can expect is killer ads, an awful lot of negativity. It's entertaining in some ways, and some of the ads are actually informative too, but they have the end effect of so degrading the debate and making both candidates look so awful that it increases cynicism among voters and decreases idealism.

That might be what this campaign ends up being remembered for more than anything else.

2012 is the year of unlimited humongous money. You can't compete without it. It's really changing the face of presidential politics.


Jane Mayer

Comments [21]

Rob MacKay

On this show, Lehrer claimed to a caller that he is balanced because he also provided a negative ad by Obama's camp. However, the entire show was dedicated to throwing muck on Romney's ad guy, and there was never any investigation into Obama's ad people. The reporter from the New Yorker is completely biased against Republicans, just like her publication. If Lehrer really wants to be balanced -- as he claimed he is -- he should do a show that investigates Obama's ties to racists, liars, cheats, thugs and other undesirables. He will find that Obama has worse friends than Romney. Lehrer, NPR and WNYC are smart and overeducated. They know what they are doing, and they are intentionally slamming Republicans while feigning balance. I'd rather they be more forthcoming with their beliefs, like the NY Post.

Feb. 07 2012 09:54 PM
Jack Jackson from Cental New Jersey

@phoebe -

The wheels of civil justice turn far slower than can meet the needs of an election cycle. By the time a 'libelous' ad is withdrawn or corrected, voters have been fully imprinted with the falsehood. Even if the offending campaign is forced to retract it, some of the stain of the initial falsehood remains. Prior restraint is blocked by that pesky First Amendment. The only relief is an informed electorate but with so many biased outlets and propaganda it can be very, very hard to separate what is serious from what is circus.

And from my seat, the trend looks like it will get harder rather than easier.

Feb. 07 2012 11:43 AM
John A

Stay connected with WNYC and WNET and just ignore those ads. Pretty serious on this matter.

Feb. 07 2012 11:35 AM
Mike from NYC

The famous "Daisy" anti-Goldwater ad was made by Tony Schwartz, a pioneer of ethnographic sound recording and a life long New York City resident. He may have had a show on WNYC at one time...but that was before my time. Judging the Daisy ad by today's standards is unfair. The threat of nuclear war was omnipresent in both public debate and usually used as an anti-Soviet scare tactic by conservatives. The most important thing about the Daisy ad was it turned the right wing scare tactics against the people who usually deployed them.

Feb. 07 2012 11:35 AM
Sheldon from Brooklyn

MichaelB, you are right. Violent crime was a legitimate issue, and in a perfect world using Horton should not have been an issue - but the makers knew what they were doing.

Feb. 07 2012 11:34 AM
Amy from Manhattan

Is there any effective way to counter this type of ad?

Feb. 07 2012 11:32 AM

aren't there any laws about lying in commercials? Slander or something?

Feb. 07 2012 11:26 AM
Harry Bewels from nyc

thank you caller, You are a racist and proud of it.

good for you

Feb. 07 2012 11:25 AM
Jack Jackson from Central New Jersey

I'm a right-winger and I want to take up airtime by saying that WNYC is being unfair to my prejudices!

Typical GOP c*ckblocking.

Great job responding!

Feb. 07 2012 11:25 AM
Harry Bewels from nyc

You go my racist brother, he was black and we need to point that out.. you racist whitty

Feb. 07 2012 11:23 AM
7eco from Germany

So how many Swift Boat Veterans are we going to see this season?

Is there any reason that those would not occur this time?

Feb. 07 2012 11:23 AM
MichaelB from Morningside Heights

Glenn Howard from Bound Brook -- Here! Here! Great point... what we get are very lazy analysis and characterizations, all slanted by the commentator's politics.

Feb. 07 2012 11:22 AM
John A

Sorely missing from life: A thumbs down button for these ads themselves.

Feb. 07 2012 11:19 AM
MichaelB from Morningside Heights

I have heard the Willie Horton ad described for decades alternately as infamous, controversial, racist, and the like.

The implication of this is for the audience to simply accept the characterization of it on its face.

But I have yet to hear anything that proves the ad wrong. The context during that era was when crime -- violent crime -- had been rising for decades and people were alarmed about it. And the back & forth between liberals & conservatives about how to deal with it were legitimate issues.

What did we expect from political ads.... and hasn't the left characterized conservatives with inflammatory images & rhetoric about abortion... does the image of the coat hanger ring a bell???

The fact that Horton was black -- well, he's the one who did this horrific crime.

I don't excuse any abuse or over-the-top stuff, but I resent the left simply repeating the characterization without proving why it was either factually incorrect or something equivalent. By doing so, you take my politics for granted, and that's an insult.

BTW, I am a strong supporter of Obama.

Feb. 07 2012 11:17 AM
Jack Jackson from Central New Jersey

It's pretty clear that 2012 is going to be one of the dirtiest campaigns in Presidential election history. Ample mudslinging on both sides which amounts to "If you're not going to vote for me, stay home". What a great day for the republic that will be. We KNOW that the GOP and Obama-haters will go to the polls simply vote Obama out. How many Democrats will show up to just to keep Obama in? Not enough. The Democrats need to sell a vision of why the future for our country works better than when an out-of-touch richboy runs the country.

Feb. 07 2012 11:17 AM

Got to love the double standards and the hypocrisy.

The left virtually created Super PACs between Michael Moore's "Farenheit 911" and Hollywood (not to mention the vast majority of the rest of the media). When Citizens United made a movie about Hilary, she successfully had it silenced. They field suit and that lawsuit became the Citizens United decision.

I love how the big bad Republicans are destroying our freedoms with their Super PACs but Mr. Obama is having a "change of heart" and giving his "reluctant blessing" to his Super PAC. I would expect nothing short of this soft coverage of this issue.

Feb. 07 2012 11:16 AM

So here we are once again with Obama backing down off his criticism of big-money in politics. Why? He, like all of them, are owned by the banks and the billionaires. The system is BROKEN. Occupy Wall Street!

Feb. 07 2012 11:13 AM
Robert from NYC

I'm also watching the parade of heroes for the Giants and I see ticker tape has degenerated into rolls of toilet paper? Do you throw toilet paper at heroes? I'm confused. I have no interest in the Super bowl but I'm a sucker for heroes.

Feb. 07 2012 11:12 AM
Robert from NYC

WRONG! He obviously is a fan of the super pacs or else he's just a hypocrite! Well, he is a hypocrite so I guess this is ok.

Feb. 07 2012 11:10 AM
Glenn Howard from Bound Brook, NJ

Once again, the crucially important topic of political advertising is discussed in terms of the anti-concept "negative," which irresponsibly conflates the unethical (lies, distortions, irrelevancies), the distasteful (mean-spiritedness), and the unobjectionable (the record, the political philosophy, the politically relevant flaws of an opponent). A given ad can combine the unethical, the mean-spirited, AND the unobjectionable, or it can combine any two of these elements, or it can exhibit only one. Analysis which is terminologically committed to blurring rather than illuminating the all-important distinctions between the three quite different categories that characterize so-called negative ads ought itself to be vehemently, though not unethically nor mean-spiritedly, attacked.

Feb. 07 2012 11:09 AM
Martin Chuzzlewit from Manhattan

LOL..... uber-PC women’s rights advocate Jane Mayer has an ironic slip near the end of this article.

“Representative Bob Etheridge, a North Carolina Democrat, fared worse. He was targeted by another McCarthy client......Etheridge narrowly lost the 2010 election to a nurse running with the support of Sarah Palin.”

OMG....a NURSE.....just a lowly NURSE.....beat a male professional political hack like dare she !!!!! (And running with the support of “you know who”....the woman who dares not mention her name.) Yes, lefty “progressive” politics even trumps the Sisterhood.

Maybe a conservative magazine should do a similar multi-page article investigating the career and personal background of Jane Mayer.... the ”Attack Dog for the Democrats.”
And disparager of nurses.

Feb. 07 2012 10:30 AM

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