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I saw this on CNN’s Inside Politics the other day and tracked it down on the web. Moveon.org, the digital activist site which has been generating so much buzz this past year, has launched a “Bush in 30 Seconds” competition. Amateur filmmakers are making their own “attack ads” against Bush, which are being judged by a panel of leading lefties – including Michael Moore, Donna Brazile, Jack Black, Janeane Garofalo, Margaret Cho and Gus Van Sant. The winning ad will be announced at an awards ceremony at the Hammerstein Ballroom in New York and will be run during the week of the State of the Union.

One side of me was intrigued. CNN showed people making ads using camcorders and their home computers in the hopes of getting them broadcast on national television. This is a powerful example of what happens when you put tools of media production into the hands of average citizens. More than 1000 ads have been submitted so far, according to the Moveon site. The site provides a range of resources on the history and rhetoric of political advertising which can help produce a more literate and critically aware electorate.

Another part of me was disgusted. I have no love for the current Resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. But, attack ads represent the worst of our current political system. The importance of Moveon.org is that it is getting more people excited about the political process and that it may help generate higher voter turnout in an election which many predict will be hair close. Yet, as Stephen Ansolabehere and Shanto Iyengar note in their book, Going Negative, attack ads rarely motivate people to vote. For the most part, their impact is to dampen voter participation across the board and that for the most part, this plays into the hands of incombants. Attack ads are the tools of people who have lost faith in the system and more interested in motivating us through fear than through hope. I can’t help but wonder whether this approach won’t prove counterproductive in the end.

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