So Mitt Romney’s first campaign ad was released, with a glaring falsehood created by manipulative editing — see if you can spot it:
Several years ago, philosopher Harry Frankfurt wrote a fascinating book called, “On Bullshit.” Among other things, the book sought to draw a distinction between b.s. and lies, and at the risk of oversimplifying a sophisticated point, the key difference is considering the truth irrelevant.
A liar makes false claims. A b.s. artist doesn’t much care what’s true or false, because facts are irrelevant in the person’s larger agenda. Liars care what’s true and deliberately say the opposite; b.s. artists are indifferent to what’s true and tend to see facts as inconveniences that simply get in the way.
The Denizens love Harry Frankfurt — indeed, I used this concept a few times while teaching first year students about the relationships between rhetoric, truth, and critical thinking. It’s almost a truism for most casual observers of politics that politicians exercise bullshit in the Frankfurtian sense: a wanton disregard for truth or falsity in favor of expedient persuasive success.
(Let’s just get this out of the way — the naughty word is being used here as a philosophical concept, and so let’s not get worked up as I continue to use it.)
But that’s really a too-easy overreach — many political candidates engage in ethical, informative public discourse, too many to dismiss political rhetoric in toto as unreliable and manipulative. Of course, many of them also engage in bullshit. So we need to call it out when we see it.
Romney’s latest televisual bullshit is instructive because it’s a classic illustration of an ethically suspect use of televisual rhetoric that the media literate need to engage: videostyle. The “videostyle” concept was developed by the late political communication researcher Lynda Lee Kaid. Videostyle refers to the ways in which television as a medium is leveraged to engage in rhetorical appeals, and has been studied extensively with regard to campaign ads.
Videostyle operates on several levels. One can examine the use of verbal videostyle, or the use of spoken and written language in the message. We can see this at work in the juxtaposition of large white phrases like “Record Home Foreclosures” as Obama is heard to say “We need to find relief for homeowners.” This editing (within the overall narrative of this ad) suggests an ironic reversal: Obama promised help, but conditions degraded under his watch. Of course, logically, one can’t reasonably make this leap — while Obama called for relief for homeowners, the “record home foreclosures” precipitated by a massive series of economic failures starting in 2008, while perhaps occurring under Obama’s watch, aren’t necessarily linked to his bad economic policy. (To be fair, it may be that Obama screwed up. The point is, the link is never established with anything close to evidence — only with implications made by editing.)
One can also examine the use of nonverbal videostyle, or the use of visual images and appearances. These are usually studied in terms of the appearance of candidates, opponents and other persons — how they are dressed, how they are depicted visually in a particular setting, etc. Again, digital television technology can be deployed to alter nonverbal appearances for evocative effect. Note in the ad how Obama’s New Hampshire rally is depicted through grainy, yellow, blurred and distorted video stock, to convey an uncomfortable emotional dissonance (paired well with ominous music building to a sudden climax). Contrast this nonverbal depiction against that of Romney, in which (accompanied by a stirring orchestral score, complete with swelling strings ending in a triumphant cymbal flourish) crystal-clear, full color video displays the candidate with sharpness, clarity, and a color palette that highlights the reds, whites and blues.
What Benen and other observers are exercised, and rightly so, is the use of production videostyle, or the use of technological effects and narrative constructions to guide the viewer’s reception of the message. Obama’s statement from the ad, “If we keep talking about the economy, we’re going to lose,” is clipped wildly out of context from Obama’s quotation of a McCain staffer:
Senator McCain’s campaign actually said, and I quote, if we keep talking about the economy, we’re going to lose.
This out-of-context clip is bullshit not just because it’s out of context, not just because the complete statement says precisely the opposite thing, but because, according to ABC News, the Romney campaign knew what they were doing and said so publicly:
The Romney campaign did not deny that it took the president’s words out of context and even provided Obama’s full quote in a press release accompanying the ad: “Senator McCain’s campaign actually said, and I quote, if we keep talking about the economy, we’re going to lose.”
“We want to engage the president,” explained Romney spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom in the spin room. “We look at him as our rival. It’s all deliberate; it was all very intentional.”
Romney adviser Ron Kaufman, an RNC committee member and longtime operative, simply said that the ad “worked.”
“They always squeal the most when you hold a mirror up to them,” he said, “and they overreacted, clearly. All they did was make the ad more effective.”
So, to declare the Romney “Believe in America” ad bullshit is by no means a partisan reaction. Using Harry Frankfurt’s philosophical frame of reference, it’s an objective conclusion from careful analysis.