A “gutter flyer” is a political attack ad, traditionally distributed in paper form. It is also typically anonymous, so that nobody can be held accountable for it or asked to verify the information contained in it.
Gutter flyers are a prime example of mudslinging and negative campaigning.
In 1963, opponents of President John F Kennedy distributed around 5,000 copies of a flyer to people in Dallas, Texas. (The distribution came just ahead of a presidential visit to Dallas.) The flyer read “Wanted for Treason” and accused JFK of a long list of crimes, including “betraying the Constitution,” being lax on communism, and appointing “anti-Christians” to federal jobs.
Attack ads and gutter flyers are almost as old as the United States itself. In 1828, Andrew Jackson ran for president in what historians have called the first modern American campaign. Jackson’s opponents circulated a flyer decorated with coffins and depicting the former general as a killer responsible for the deaths of his own men, in addition to those of Native Americans and lawbreakers. In response, Jackson’s supporters depicted John Quincy Adams as a political insider who had served as the Czar’s pimp while he was a diplomat in Russia.
Because gutter flyers are usually anonymous, they can be an effective way to spread dirt about a candidate without getting anyone’s hands dirty. Politicians normally distance themselves from political mudslinging, wanting to give the impression that they are above the fray. Gutter flyers are a fixture in American elections at every level, from the city council to the presidency. However, they’re also routinely denounced. Virtually every election cycle includes a good deal of hand-wringing about how politicians are slinging mud at one another at a greater frequency than ever before.
All of this explains why it’s relatively rare for a politician to take responsibility for a gutter flyer. It does sometimes happen, of course. In 2000, Bill Bradley was running for the Democratic presidential nomination against Al Gore. Bradley told CNN that he was angry at the way Gore’s supporters had been behaving; Bradley claimed that they had literally thrown mud at Bob Kerrey, who was campaigning on Bradley’s behalf. Bradley was especially indignant because, he said, he had taken responsibility for his own campaign’s good manners. “When my campaign in New Hampshire put out a flyer that I didn’t like, I took responsibility for it and apologized,” he said. “When this kind of incident occurs, you have to take responsibility for it and apologize.”
In the United States, libel laws tend to favor the defendant, making it difficult to sue anyone for the content of a political flyer. In many other countries, however, libel laws tend to favor the plaintiff. In Canada, for example, the mayor of Dieppe, New Brunswick was able to sue two of his constituents after he found that they were behind a brochure that criticized him. Mayor Yvon Lapierre sued the two men for defamation and eventually settled; the pamphlet they circulated claimed that he had broken the Municipalities act and that he was mismanaging money and contracts.