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CNN Classroom Edition: Broken Government - Campaign Killers

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  • Students will identify historical examples of negative political ads
  • Students will examine the Internet's role in the dissemination of political ads
  • Students will analyze the words and images of political ads
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(CNN Student News) -- Record the CNN Special Investigations Unit Classroom Edition: Broken Government: Campaign Killers when it airs commercial-free on Monday, January 14, 2008, from 4:00 -- 5:00 a.m. ET on CNN. (A short feature begins at 4:00 a.m. and precedes the program.)

Program Overview

As the 2008 presidential campaign heats up, CNN anchor Campbell Brown reports on the rising temperatures -- and the pugilistic punches -- that come with the territory of running for the nation's highest political office. Although Americans say they are turned off by negative political campaigning, attack ads can have an enormous impact on elections. In her first documentary for CNN, Brown examines negative ads, past and present.

Teachers, please preview this program, as its content may not be appropriate for all students.

Grade Levels: 9 - 12, College

Subject Areas: U.S. History, Government, Political Science, Media Literacy


The CNN Special Investigations Unit Classroom Edition: Broken Government: Campaign Killers and its corresponding discussion questions and suggested activities challenge students to:

  1. Identify historical examples of negative ads, also known as "attack ads;"
  2. Learn how the Internet plays a role in the dissemination of political ads;
  3. Formulate opinions on the role of the Internet in the political process;
  4. Examine the words and images of political ads to assess their effectiveness.

Curriculum Connections

Civics and Government

II. What Are The Foundations Of The American Political System?

7. American national identity and political culture

8. Character of American political conflict

III. How Does The Government Established By The Constitution Embody The Purposes, Values, And Principles Of American Democracy?

14. Political parties, campaigns, and elections

The National Standards for Civics and Government ( are published by the Center for Civic Education (

Social Studies

Standard VI. Power, Authority, and Governance: Social studies programs should include experiences that provide for the study of how people create and change structures of power, authority, and governance.

Standard X. Civic Ideals and Practices: Social studies programs should include experiences that provide for the study of the ideals, principles, and practices of citizenship in a democratic republic.

The Curriculum Standards for Social Studies ( are published by the National Council for Social Studies (


Standard 5. Digital Citizenship

Students understand human, cultural, and societal issues related to technology and practice legal and ethical behavior. Students:

a. advocate and practice safe, legal, and responsible use of information and technology.

b. exhibit a positive attitude toward using technology that supports collaboration, learning, and productivity.

c. demonstrate personal responsibility for lifelong learning.

d. exhibit leadership for digital citizenship.

The National Educational Technology Standards (NETS) for Students ( ) are published by the International Society for Technology in Education (

Discussion Questions

1. What is "mudslinging"? Why do you think that some political candidates and organizations choose to attack opponents in their ads?

2. What is "swift-boating"? What is the origin of this term? Who sponsored the Swift Boat ad mentioned in the program? According to the video, why was the Swift Boat ad effective against John Kerry's campaign for the presidency?

3. Describe the negative ad seen in the video that ran against George W. Bush. What issue was the focus of this ad? Why do you think that some saw the ad as "race-baiting"? Do you agree or disagree with that label? Explain.

4. According to the experts interviewed in the video, why do negative ads often work?

5. How does Mark McKinnon, former media adviser to George Bush, account for the discrepancy between the public's distaste for negative advertising and its effectiveness?

6. What ad does CNN's Campbell Brown point to as "the first swift-boating attempt of 2008"? What is the point of this ad? What do you think of it?

7. What is How did the organization get its start? Describe the full-page newspaper ad that MoveOn bought in September in the New York Times. Who was the focus of this ad? Why was the ad controversial? What were the positive and negative political consequences of the ad for MoveOn?

8. What are some of the other ads that MoveOn has produced? What is your opinion of the MoveOn ads shown in the video?

9. Who is Richard Collins? What is the name of the political project that he has started? How would you describe his organization's treatment of Hillary Clinton?

10. Cite examples from the program of the use of humor in negative ads. Why do you think that humor is an effective tool in these ads?

Don't Miss

11. Who is Michael Dukakis? What was the Willie Horton ad? According to the report, how did this ad impact Dukakis' run for the White House?

12. According to David Schwartz, chief curator at the Museum of the Living Image, why were the negative ads against Dukakis successful? What words of advice does Dukakis have for anyone who is running for president?

13. According to the video, for how long have attack ads been part of America's political landscape? Were you surprised to learn about the attack ads aimed at Thomas Jefferson? Explain.

14. According to the program, how has television impacted the reach of attack ads?

15. What was the issue behind the negative ad that Lyndon Johnson's campaign ran against Barry Goldwater in 1964? According to the program, why was this ad effective?

16. Who is Bill Hillsman? What kind of candidate does he typically represent? What does he mean when he talks about "contrast ads"? Why does Hillsman think that contrast ads are "a plus to the political discourse"?

17. According to Hillsman, how can a person "make a poll say anything"?

18. According to CNN senior political analyst Bill Schneider, what is the difference between commercial advertising and political advertising? What is the Federal Trade Commission? How does this agency protect the public when it comes to commercial ads? Does it have a role in the production of political ads? Explain.

19. How can visual images be used to the benefit or detriment of a political candidate? According to the report, what "tricks of the trade" can producers of political ads use to enhance or damage a candidate's image?

20. Why did Phil Devalese decide to create a negative ad? What alias did he use when making his ad? Who was the target of this ad? Who was Devalese supporting for president? Where did his ad air? How did his ad get seen so many times?

21. What controversial comment by George Allen was captured on the Internet? According to the program, what impact has the Internet had on Allen's presidential hopes?

22. Do you think that attack ads that air on the Internet and television are necessary elements of free speech or have they gone too far? State your rationale.

Suggested Activities

1. The Internet and the Democratic Process

Refer students back to the examples of Internet attack ads and viral videos seen in the program. Write these quotes about the Internet, from political consultant Mark McKinnon and director for the USC Center for the Digital Future Jeffrey Cole on the board:

"The impact that it has on us is that we've lost control. It used to be that we could control our message and control the political messages out there. Now it's just the Wild West out there." --- Mark McKinnon, Republican Political Consultant

"The real long-term effect is empowerment. We found, after the 2004 presidential election, 40 percent of Internet users thought they were gaining power online." --- Jeffrey Cole, Director, USC Center for the Digital Future

Generate a class discussion on these quotes and the rise of the Internet in the political process. Challenge students to cite examples, both positive and negative, of the impact that they think the Internet has had on the political process and political discourse. Write each example on the board beneath the quote it supports. Ask students to consider whether they agree more with McKinnon or Cole. Have each student write a script for and videotape a two-minute editorial in which he or she responds to this question: Is the Internet a place of political lawlessness or electoral empowerment?

2. Political Ad Journal

As they watch television and surf the Internet, challenge students to keep journals of the political ads that they see. Students will want to answer the following questions for each ad in their journals:

  1. Who or what is the focus of the ad?
  2. What is the message of the ad?
  3. What words and images are used to convey this message?
  4. What production elements (e.g., video and audio manipulation) are used to convey the message?
  5. Who is sponsoring the ad?
  6. What emotions does the ad evoke?
  7. Is the ad effective in conveying its message?
  8. Would you classify this ad as negative or positive?

After a designated period of time has elapsed, direct students to finalize their journals and share their findings with the class.

Next, generate a class discussion focusing on these questions:

• What makes a "good" political ad?

• What are the some of the memorable elements of the ads that you saw?

• Which of the ads that you saw might motivate you to take action? Why?

• Overall, would you rate the negative ads that you saw as more or less effective in prompting a voter to take action?

EXTENSION: Challenge each student to select a candidate or issue and create a storyboard, outline or script for a campaign ad. The ad can be either positive or negative. Have students present their ad ideas and explain why they chose the approach and elements that they did.


Negative ad, attack ad, Willie Horton ad, swift-boating, race-baiting, liberal, conservative, swing voter, advocacy ad, political discourse, satire, extremism, momentum, "viral video," accountability E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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