Back in the Spring of 2006, Colin Hanna was deeply involved in helping the Pennsylvania Pastors Network (PPN)—a project of Let Freedom Ring, Inc., his 501(c)(4) West Chester, Pennsylvania-based non-profit organization—get conservative evangelicals to the polls in support of Rick Santorum, the then-incumbent and now former Republican Senator from Pennsylvania. These days—at least for a stitch in time—he’s marching to a different drummer, setting his sights on a decidely younger, and more open-minded demographic; folks that watch MTV, the station that basically introduced the music video to the world.
The Let Freedom Ring/MTV partnership seems to be another example of the old saw about “politics making strange bedfellows.” After all, throughout most of its twenty-seven year existence, MTV has been a persistent thorn in the side of the Religious Right’s culture warriors. However, as Hanna told me in a telephone interview, running the ad on MTV was strictly “a business relationship.” In fact, he said, “we added [the station] to the buy list because there was a sales person at MTV who heard that we were making an ad buy and hustled” to get MTV on board.
“A large portion of the MTV audience—a younger demographic—have been uncritically supportive [of Obama] in part because he is seen as hip and cool,” Hanna noted. “I thought it was important to plant some seeds of doubt within that group.”
In a June 2004 profile of Let Freedom Ring in Human Events, the longtime conservative weekly, writer Joseph D’Agostino pointed out that Let Freedom Ring’s website stated that its goal was “to counter the millions of dollars being spent to attack and discredit President Bush by leftist organizations supported by billionaire George Soros, Hollywood liberals and others.”
According to D’Agostino, Hanna pledged that the organization would “promote a positive political philosophy based upon respect for constitutional principles, economic freedom and traditional values. We think that Americans are basically positive and optimistic, and want to be inspired rather than repelled by politics. That’s why Let Freedom Ring will not engage in negative personal or partisan political attacks.” D’Agostino also cited an interview in which Hanna said that LFR will “only accept positive spots.” Hanna added that LFR’s work “will be modeled on what MoveOn.org did.”
In 2004, Let Freedom Ring “didn’t run any negative advertising,“ Sarah Posner recently pointed out at The FundamentaList, her American Prospect-sponsored blog. “Instead,” she added, “it touted George W. Bush’s religious faith. With little material from McCain on that front,” the group has run a 30-second anti-Obama television advertisement on MTV; the first political ad that station has ever run.
“I don’t see it as a attack ad,” Hanna told me. “I see it as a more humorous lighthearted approach,” he said. “I thought that Sen. Obama was getting away with a pattern of deception which was so outrageous that it needed to be brought into view.” In that sense, Hanna added, “it does represent an advertising shift.”
Titled “Both Ways Barack,” the words “worse than a flip-flopper” scrawled across the opening screen, the 30-second spot claims that Obama is “worse than a flip-flopper” because he holds “two positions at once.” The ad also appeared on MSNBC, Fox News and VH-1, with a radio version in rotation as well. According to the nonpartisan political research think tank Politifact.com, the ad’s charges about Obama holding multiple positions on the Iraq war are false.
Hanna said that MTV—where a third of the viewers aren’t of voting age—“reaches a young demographic and it’s important for some of these people who have been uncritically supportive of Sen. Obama to come face-to-face with some of his credibility issues. And when you’re addressing a political candidate’s credibility, ridicule can be very effective.”
According to an article posted at MTV.com—which called the spot an “attack ad”—Hanna said that donors liked the ad well enough to fund it. It was scheduled to run around 100 times from July 23-25 on MTV, VH1, MSNBC, CNN and Fox News (all but MTV began airing the ad on Tuesday), costing the organization “several hundred thousand dollars.”
Hanna told me that he didn’t think that the ad was an example of “swiftboating” Obama: “It has a humorous purpose and a serious purpose: the humorous purpose is to poke fun at Sen. Obama’s rather intriguing efforts to be on both sides of controversial issues; the serious purpose is to call him to account for the way he dances around issues at a time when most of the traditional media seem perfectly willing to give him a pass. Therefore the purpose is to challenge his credibility.”
Curiously, while there is an icon on the LPR website that you can click to view the “Both Ways Barack” ad, no mention of the placement of the ad appears on the site. Instead, as of July 31, stories with headlines such as “Non-citizen voting—election fraud in the making” and “The Girl Scouts’ new radicalism,” are featured.
On the Pennsylvania Pastors Network website, in a section titled “About Pennsylvania Pastors Network,” the group points out “that today our society is struggling morally and spiritually [and there is a] constant battle—the family’s fight for its soul. The attack on our culture is imminent, and the truth is: We can stop it. As clergy, you hold the hearts of the people in your hands, and when people need someone to turn to for answers, you are there. We want to help equip you with the information and resources to help deal with today’s moral, social and spiritual dilemmas.”
The PPN is made up “of Biblically-faithful clergy and church liaisons whose objective is to build a permanent infrastructure of like-minded clergy who:
How much “salt or light” liable to be evinced by Hanna’s Let Freedom Ring’s MTV ad remains to be seen. (As of July 31, there was no mention of the MTV ad on the PPN’s website.)
Hanna is also the founder and president of an immigration-issues focused group called WeNeedAFence.com. In 2006, FactCheck.org, a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, pointed out that Hanna’s group ran “a pair of ads promoting the idea of building ‘a state-of-the-art border security fence’ along the US boundary with Mexico.” The ad showed the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center and claimed that “illegal immigration from Mexico provides easy cover for terrorists,” FactCheck.org reported. Let Freedom Ring spent $100,000 on air time for the ad which was seen nationally on CNN and Fox News.
In 2001, Hanna also gained some national attention by refusing to remove a plaque of the Ten Commandments from the county courthouse, while he was a member of the Chester County Commission. According to SourceWatch, a project of the Center for Media and Democracy, Hanna “lost the suit [and] the plaque was covered for sixteen months, and then they won on appeal and the plaque hangs now today.”
Let Freedom Ring also sponsors a website called “TheirOwnWords.com—Are We In Danger From Radical Jihadists.” According to its website: Our goal is simple and straightforward: to raise awareness among Americans concerning the statements of radical Jihadists. Our goal is not to add to the chorus of those who attempt to describe the Jihadists in our words—but rather, to let the words of the Jihadists speak for themselves.”
Hanna told me that he hadn’t heard from the McCain campaign and that he didn’t expect to, nor had he received any feedback from members of the Pennsylvania Pastors Network. “The purpose [of the ad] is to make people aware that Sen. Obama likes to have it both ways on several issues,” Hanna said. He pointed out that it is conceivable that the ad, albeit slightly adjusted, could be run again during the campaign. Regardless of whether the MTV ad is repeated, Hanna acknowledged that Let Freedom Ring will be active throughout the campaign.