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Franz Appears Live On Al Jazeera, Debates Negative Campaign Ads

This story was written by Claire Collery, Bowdoin Orient

On Monday, an estimated 42 million viewers, rather than the 50 faces typical of a Government 150 class, watched Assistant Professor of Government Michael Franz talk politics.

Franz was interviewed on Al Jazeera, the independent Middle Eastern news station which serves both the Arab world and beyond.

Franz participated on the live-broadcast, current affairs show "Min Washington," which means "From Washington" in Arabic. The show was aired in Arabic at approximately 3 p.m. EDT Monday.

He went to Boston to film the interview, which was simultaneously telecast to the station in Washington and televisions around the world.

Franz was joined by host Abderrhaim Foukara and fellow political scientist Shanto Iyengar of Stanford University. He and Iyengar debated the effects that negative political ads have had over the course of the presidential campaigns that will come to a close on Tuesday.

Franz's research suggests that negative ads either increase or do not effect Election Day turn-out, whereas Iyengar has long advocated that negative ads diminish voter interest.

Franz was a good candidate for Monday's edition of "Min Washington" because he has written extensively about how negative political ads are good for democracy. In 2007, he published a book entitled "Political Advertising and American Democracy."

Franz's interest in doing the show stemmed from his desire to "broaden outreach to so many people," which becomes possible when dealing with "such a major media outlet."

Despite Al Jazeera's "complicated reputation," stemming from its broadcast of terrorist-produced videos, Franz said he decided that the interview was worth doing especially in light of the fact that there was no discussion of the war on terror.

"I don't think I would ever want to censor myself in which media I was talking to," he said.

"Talking about the actual impact of negativity in American elections helps how we understand this presidential election," he said. "Being able to [do the show] was nice because it airs in a part of the world that might not understand everything about American democracy."

Franz called the experience "exciting, daunting, and humbling, but also surreal."

Franz said he felt comfortable participating in the talk-show format, but did mention at least one limitation: "the inability to get into an in-depth conversation." He contrasted his experience Monday with a longer radio interview he did with Maine Public Broadcasting Network's (MPBN) Jennifer Rooks.

"The ability to follow up on questions [made that format] better, or more comfortable," he said of his experience with MPBN.

Though he has done television interviews on other networks before, such as WCSH 6 based in Portland, Maine, this was the first time he had been contacted by Al Jazeera. They reached him by e-mail last Thursday.

He described how he sat alone in a small room during the interview, with nothing but a camera in his face, a picture of Boston at his back, and an earpiece in his ear.

"The added burden was the translation in this one," he said.

Everything Franz said had to be translated from English to Arabic, for both the show's audience and host. Of course all the questions to which he responded had, conversely, just been translated into English. Because of these limitations, "there was no dialogue; it was basically just an interview," he said.

Franz said he found the broadcast to be non-partisan.

"In general the host was balanced. The tone of the interview was that McCain's advertising strategy has been too negative."

Franz countered the argument that McCain's campaign has aired a larger percentage of negative ads than Obama's, instead arguing that "Obama has run a very negative campaign, in terms of quantity." He cited the Illinois senator's bigger purse and subsequent ability to air more ads in total.

The effects of campaign ads have long been the study of political research, but Franz believes that they have played a more important role in this year's presidential race due to "the imbalance of ads in many states for Obama. This allows Obama to be the only one talking in certain states."

"Ads will matter a lot," he said.

Ads "speak directly to the American people," said Franz, an opportunity not afforded too often to candidates. "Twenty, 30, 40, years ago the media had a deeper coverage of campaigns that was more policy-focused," said Franz. Today, "politics have to compete with entertainment" and thus tend to focus more on polls than on policy.

Barack Obama, however, was able to afford an opportunity to talk straight to America when he paid millions for an unprecedented 30-minute infomercial which aired on national television Wednesday.

The move may not be just unprecedented but could prove unsuccessful. Franz thinks that "most American voters don't really want to get involved in policy," preferring instead, the "nugget information" so effectively delivered in an ad.

In the upcoming days, Franz is scheduled to provide election night coverage on WCSH.

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