It started in depressing fashion, but the 2020 election season may have officially begun when a right-wing group aired a vicious attack ad last week against Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York. The spot, which aired on a couple of major-market ABC stations the night of a prime-time Democratic debate, featured Ocasio-Cortez’s image being consumed by fire, followed by a black-and-white image of human skeletons in an apparent reference to Cambodia's Khmer Rouge genocide in the 1970s.
The ad was so outrageously over the top that it instantly recalled the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth smear campaign from the 2004 presidential election, which targeted John Kerry and his war service in Vietnam. Those 2004 accusers famously manufactured nearly every allegation they made about Kerry. They lied about documents. They lied about eyewitnesses. And they lied about their partisan leanings and connections. Back then, the news media helped amplify the phony GOP claims by repeating them as legitimate news. There's no indication the news media will do the same with the slanderous claims about Ocasio-Cortez's socialist leanings.
But here is the question as we head into 2020: Will media outlets—and particularly television networks—stand up to GOP slander campaigns when conservatives come peddling more bogus attack ads? There's simply no way the Ocasio-Cortez hit piece ever should have aired on an ABC affiliate in prime time, especially in conjunction with a presidential debate. But that commercial was just the beginning. As President Barack Obama's former assistant Ben Rhodes noted on Twitter, if they're burning pictures of Ocasio-Cortez now, imagine what they're going to be doing one year from now during the frenzy of a Donald Trump presidential campaign season.
The attack ad not only set fire to Ocasio-Cortez’s photograph, which clearly sends a dangerous message in the current culture of violence on the right. The ad also suggested that the socialist Ocasio-Cortez somehow supports, or is politically aligned with, the historic mass murder in Cambodia, an absolutely outrageous claim that no member of Congress should face on the public airwaves.
The key, though, is that media outlets helped spread the super PAC's out-of-bounds message of hate.