During the third Democratic debate on Thursday, a series of mostly inane ads aired between the candidates’ sparring. It was business as usual for a cable news debate — except for one shocking spot, which garnered plenty of outrage.
It was an ad taken out by New Faces GOP, a Republican PAC founded by former Senate candidate Elizabeth Heng. Heng, who lost her race in California last year, had been described by The Wall Street Journal as “an [New York Rep. Alexandria] Ocasio-Cortez for the GOP.”
But Heng herself seems to feel differently. In the segment her PAC ran during Thursday’s debate, a photo of Ocasio-Cortez, the freshman Democrat who has described herself as a democratic socialist, appears and slowly burns. While flames consume the portrait, Heng begins to list in a voiceover the ills of socialism and the reasons Ocasio-Cortez is bad for America.
The ad impicitly compares Ocasio-Cortez’s actions to the Cambodian genocide, which … is a stretch. As Slate puts it, Ocasio-Cortez’s “politics would be considered center-left in many other Western countries.” But Heng is undeterred. “Does Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez know the horror of socialism? My father was minutes from death in Cambodia, before a forced marriage saved his life,” she says in the commercial, while photos appear on screen of the Khmer Rouge genocide. “That’s socialism: Forced obedience. Starvation.”
She continues: “Mine is a face of freedom. My skin is not white. I’m not outrageous, racist, nor socialist. I’m a Republican.”
“Republicans are running TV ads setting pictures of me on fire to convince people they aren’t racist. Life is weird!” Ocasio-Cortez wrote on Twitter in response. She also reminded her followers that the ad “wasn’t an ad for young conservatives of color — that was the pretense.” Rather, it was “a love letter to the GOP’s white supremacist case.”
The ad aired on certain ABC affiliate stations carrying the debate, adding to an already fraught election cycle where violence has featured prominently — particularly racist violence, as seen in the August mass shooting in El Paso, Texas, that specifically targeted the city’s Hispanic population.
It might seem unfathomable that ABC decided to take New Faces GOP’s money — $100,000, per Roll Call — to air such a provocative ad during the debate. But looking back at the history of cable news, it’s but the latest in a disturbing pattern of how the media can be mindless in its constant effort to fill airtime.
On Tuesday, Paul Brandus wrote for MarketWatch about the many downsides of cable news in the modern era. Experienced staff are pressed to produce content for a 24-hour news cycle; meanwhile, local news reporting shrinks, leaving millions of Americans to get their news from national organizations like CNN and Fox News, where the bottom line can appear to have just as much strategic impact as news integrity.
In June, Vox’s Emily Todd VanDerWerff wrote that CNN seemed to learn few lessons from the 2016 election, when constant coverage of then-candidate Donald Trump and his increasingly bombastic statements led to a warped perception of him. “The structure of America’s presidential elections — a huge field of candidates gradually winnowing itself down to two, in a high-stakes competition where everything is on the line — makes for inherently good television, the ultimate serialized drama or reality show,” VanDerWerff wrote.
In 2016, Dean Baquet, the executive editor of The New York Times, called CNN and Fox News “bad for democracy.” He explained to the Financial Times that “this mix of entertainment and news, and news masquerading as entertainment, is kind of funny except that we now have a guy who is a product of that world nominated as Republican presidential nominee.”
This isn’t the first time the ads run on a cable news network have been the subject of controversy — though normally, it’s the content of the programming, not the ads, that garners attention. Over the summer, when Fox News host Tucker Carlson dismissed white supremacy in his prime-time talk show, many people threatened to boycott the companies who continued to advertise during his time slot if they did not pull their ads. Similar incidents have occurred with other Fox News hosts, as viewers and critics aim for the network’s pursestrings in an attempt to effect change.
But the offending Ocasio-Cortez ad is a bit of a different ball game. While viewers can choose to no longer watch ABC in the aftermath, the next debate will be hosted by a different network; the damage of Heng’s ad has already been done. It can’t be unseen by the thousands of people who watched it last night in real-time. It’s just one more question as to whether cable news should really be the primary medium Americans use to participate in our democracy.