08/15/2012 02:55 pm ET Updated Aug 15, 2012

Super PAC Ads: Here's What The Media Can Do About Them

Ah, super PACs. It seems like only yesterday they came steaming into our lives, promising to play havoc with our politics on a thick cushion of dark money and lies.

But it seems that the media has become seriously concerned about the effects they are having on the political discourse only recently. Well, thanks for catching up with the rest of us, guys! Now that you're getting up to speed, let's talk about super PACs for a minute.

The flashpoint for all of this sudden concern is a recent political ad created by Priorities USA Action, a Democratic-leaning super PAC that is not technically affiliated with President Barack Obama's campaign. Their ad, which made it to the airwaves in Ohio, has -- if we're being charitable -- a vertiginous relationship with the concept colloquially known as "the truth." One can summarize the contentions made by the ad thusly: 1) man works for GST Steel, 2) GST Steel gets acquired by Bain Capital, 3) man loses job when the plant at which he works is closed, 4) yadda yadda yadda, 5) man's wife dies because they no longer have health insurance.

That whole fourth part, where "yadda yadda stuff" happens, glosses over important details, such as the fact that the wife of the ad's protagonist died many years after the GST Steel plant was shuttered. Bill Burton, who runs Priorities USA, maintains that they never meant to imply that Mitt Romney, the founder of Bain, was directly responsible for her death. That's odd, because the ad was actually constructed with great care to ensure the viewer would take away that precise implication.

Last week, Mark Halperin criticized the ad in a piece titled, "Why the Obama Super PAC Ad Is Different." To Halperin's mind, all of the aforementioned issues make it a thing apart:

This new super PAC spot, called “Understands,” which the White House and the Obama campaign decline to repudiate, is a horse of a different color. It really isn’t about policy (although some Democrats will claim otherwise). It is meant to use the emotion of a tragic story told by a bereaved widower to make voters think Governor Romney is callous and indifferent, and even is accountable for a woman’s death.

Fair enough. But the important thing to grapple with, actually, are all the ways that this ad isn't different to the ads we've seen from super PACs and other, more secretive political non-profits. The Priorities USA ad is not different in the sense that it is orthogonal to objective reality or that it muddies the factual waters to make an unsupported claim. In this way, the Priorities ad is actually quite typical.

Here, for example, is a Crossroads/GPS ad that says that Elizabeth Warren is a champion of Wall Street -- a charge that's about as far from true as Nashville is from Sri Lanka. (And the people at Crossroads know this -- their previous attack ad linked Warren to Occupy Wall Street.)

And, more importantly, the Priorities USA ad is not different in the sense that it has suddenly crossed a line that no one in the world could have possibly expected them to cross. If you believe that, you've not been paying attention. From the very minute the world became aware of super PACs, we became aware of the relationship they would have with the actual political campaigns they align themselves with, and what that meant in terms of the strategy they would pursue. It was always -- ALWAYS -- crystal clear that super PACs would do all the low-down, dirty mudslinging so that the campaigns could continue to appear pure as the driven snow.

But as I said before, I'm glad we're now, finally, on the same page. Now we need to figure out what we're going to do about it. I'm going to recommend we don't leave matters to the fact checking industry. Right now, journalists are treating the members of the fact check industry as the end-arbiters of all disputes, referees who get the final word on the matter. That's bad! Treating the fact check industry that way is tantamount to saying, "No further journalism needs to be done." The career factcheckers should be treated as well-meaning hobbyists -- the sort of people who point out that Ben Kenobi clearly met R2D2 in "The Phantom Menace." Their work should be used as fuel for further investigation and scrutiny, not the end of the discussion.

Why? Because if you really want to do something about super PACs and the way they degrade the discourse, you can't come at it passively, waving links to fact check blogs. You have to adopt an active stance, and go on offense. Fortunately, this isn't hard to do.

STEP ONE: Toss out all the previously agreed-to definitions of super PACs: The most important thing you can do, right now, to police super PACs is to entirely reject their central premise -- that they are operationally distinct from the actual campaigns. They are not distinct in any way. American Crossroads is the Romney campaign is American Crossroads. Priorities USA is the Obama campaign is Priorities USA. Full stop.

Previously, you might have been of the mind that various legal requirements prevent super PACs and campaigns from coordinating with each other. If you swallowed that line and walked away, then regurgitate that nonsense immediately. Super PACs depend on people like you accepting that notion and adding all those little caveats -- "not affiliated with the campaign," "legally barred from coordinating with the campaign" -- to your reports and critiques.

Let's all agree to stop doing that. It's an assumption we've accepted, because absent omniscience, we can't prove that these super PACs are coordinating with campaigns. But the super PACs and campaigns cannot prove that the opposite is true, they can only insist we take their word on it. So if we're stuck having to make an assumption, let's assert our own: everyone is coordinating.

STEP TWO: But what do I do when the front man for a super PAC or a campaign official insists that they are different entities and that they don't have anything to do with one another? Oh, that's simple! You look the person in the eye and you say, "That's bullshit."

Because it is bullshit! Don't just sit there and agree to have that served up on a plate with a spoon for you to devour in front of the whole world. Nut up and call it out. (Obviously, the vagaries of FCC regulations may prevent those of you who ply your trade on the teevee from using the word "bullshit," and you have my sympathy on that. But take courage! Or be creative. Say, "That's a hot sack of barnyard leavings!")

You have to be the aggressor. You can't just sit there and let people who represent super PACs breezily tell your readers and viewers, "Oh, well, we don't coordinate with campaigns." You have to relentlessly deny that assumption, and put those that would proffer it into a crouch where they get desperate and defensive and whiny. Remember, they are counting on you being a submissive accomplice to their actions. You need to make it clear that you intend to hang the things that super PACs say around the necks of the candidates they support.

Now, look. If you're simply of the mind that super PACs are just an interesting part of America's political fauna, with an "intriguing point of view" and "interesting, bold claims" that are equal to everyone else's points of view and claims, that's fine. Keep saying things like, "Thus and such super PAC is out with an ad today that I hear some factcheckers have problems with but could prove to effective in swaying swing voters." Just know that if these ads are effective, that's on you.

Everyone says that they want a clean and substantive discourse. And if super PACs did nothing but walk in the light, making keen arguments and thoughtful, substantive points on the really important issues of the day, then we wouldn't have this problem. But if all anyone wanted to do was make keen arguments and thoughtful, substantive points on the really important issues of the day, we wouldn't have these super PACs in the first place. What campaign wouldn't want to straight up own a keen argument or a thoughtful, substantive point?

But if you really want to police the discourse, then take the minimum amount of effort to make it clear that you won't abide, even for a minute, to being told that super PACs are a distinct entity from the campaigns they claim to support. Let it be known to the people that represent super PACs that you will pummel their candidate, mercilessly, for their misdeeds, and if they desire that pain not be inflicted on the campaign they support, then they need to cut the crap. You need to make it hard for both sides of this relationship to continue their shady partnership. Make it costly. Make it hurt.

There is, quite simply, no reasonable argument to the contrary. What? Are you worried about someone saying, "You know, guys, it's really not polite to link the candidate to this outside group?" Feh. Those people are the worst.

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