"There's nothing inherently wrong with negative advertising, if it's accurate," says Brooks Jackson, a former journalist and director of the Annenberg Political Fact Check project. "A positive ad can also be inaccurate and misleading. That's political disinformation that's also a bad thing."
Often, though, negative ads contain a kernel of truth that is distorted beyond the point of fairness. Take the "fantasy hot line" ad unleashed against Michael Arcuri (D), district attorney in New York's Oneida County, who hopes to fill the seat of retiring Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R). The National Republican Campaign Committee (NRCC) created a spot accusing Mr. Arcuri of billing taxpayers for a phone call to a sex hot line, and depicting Arcuri with the silhouette of a dancing girl. According to records released by Arcuri's campaign, the truth is that someone misdialed the hot line in a call from Arcuri's hotel room, hung up in seconds, and dialed the intended number – the state Department of Criminal Justice Services in Albany.
Arcuri's Republican opponent, state Sen. Ray Meier, also denounced the ad and called on the NRCC to pull it, but by law, political campaigns are barred from conferring with groups that make independent expenditures on candidates' behalf. Ultimately, the ad did not air on most stations in that part of New York, according to the local press.
Democrats are also producing their share of negative ads deemed unfair by watchdog groups. Mr. Jackson's group, which posts its findings at www.factcheck.org, found 11 ads by Democrats that accused Republican incumbents of voting against a $1,500 bonus for US troops.
One such ad, produced by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) and aired in New Mexico to support House challenger Patricia Madrid, accused her opponent of voting against the bonus (and for a congressional pay raise) – but failed to note that the bonus would have come at the expense of reconstruction funds for Iraq. Rep. Heather Wilson (R), the incumbent, is locked in a tight race with Ms. Madrid, state attorney general.