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I wasn’t surprised to see a new website pop up last week attacking Mark Walker, the Republican running for Congress in the 6th District.

The tenor of all the campaigns this year has been so unrelentingly negative that any time I see time or money spent on anything that isn’t an attack, I’m kind of shocked.

I was surprised to see that the dominant image on the website’s front page was a photo taken by renowned News & Record photographer Jerry Wolford.

The image, a candid shot of a scrunched-faced Walker taken on the campaign trail, appeared previously in the News & Record. Cropping it and putting red lettering over it does not make the image fair use for political attack ads or websites.

Since no one should be using the image without the newspaper’s explicit permission, you could be excused for thinking — as some people who wrote, tweeted or messaged me Friday on Facebook did — that we had something to do with creating the site.

We did not.

Our copyright people reached out to the website, which was paid for by the Wake County Democratic Party Federal Campaign Committee.

I also called Forward NC, the group which launched the site, to get the image taken down.

They said they weren’t aware that they had used our photo and that they would get it changed out.

Since it’s a very basic WordPress website with a minimal design, I expected that this would happen pretty quickly. I could have redesigned it and replaced the image myself in maybe 10 minutes.

But hours later, the photo was still up.

By late afternoon Friday, Forward NC simply disabled the website until it could replace Wolford’s photo with one that it owns.

We all make mistakes. I make plenty myself. It’s easier to do in the rush of campaign season.

But this kind of thing is particularly egregious.

Wolford is a great news photographer. Just looking at any of his photographs would tell you that, even if he didn’t have a trophy case full of awards and hadn’t been named photographer of the year by the N.C. Press Photographer’s Association so many times that I’ve lost count.

Wolford doesn’t deserve to have his work stolen and used to smear politicians. That’s not his business, and it hurts the credibility of any journalist to be drafted against his or her will into a political campaign.

The people who created this website owe him an apology.

Frankly, this kind of thing isn’t doing Walker’s Democratic opponent, Laura Fjeld, any favors either.

Political action committees and groups not technically connected to candidates all seem pretty off the rails in North Carolina this year.

Their advertising spending has helped make the race between Democratic U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan and her Republican challenger, N.C. House Speaker Thom Tillis, the most expensive in U.S. history — on track to top $100 million.

The ads these groups created can be so vicious, so personal and so unmoored from the facts that they lower the bar on civil debate until it’s easy to trip over it.

The candidates generally strike a “Hey, it wasn’t me” stance on these ads. Then they snigger to themselves over how much money they’re saving with outside groups doing their dirty work, how much political mud they’re keeping off their own shoes.

But as has often been the case this season, the Hagan-Tillis ad war is an interesting exception.

A recent 30-second campaign ad — with Tillis himself unequivocally “ approving ” it right at the beginning — goes after Hagan so negatively on the issue of her husband’s company getting federal grant money that it contradicts statements Tillis himself has made on the issue.

“Days after Kay Hagan took office, she pushed Obama’s stimulus bill,” the ad says, ignoring the fact that Hagan and Obama were elected at the same time, and that work on the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act began well before his election and ultimately was crafted by congressional leaders.

“Grants tucked away in Obama’s stimulus bill paid the Hagans,” the ad continues — ignoring the fact that officials from the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources say there was nothing unusual about the grant awards and independent examiners monitored and audited the projects throughout the process.

“She’s 96 percent for Obama, 100 percent for herself,” the ad concludes.

How does Tillis square that sentiment with his comments, during televised debates with Hagan, that he believes she and her husband are good people? With Tillis saying he doesn’t believe she voted for the stimulus to profit her family’s business?

This late in the campaign, with things still this close, it seems not to matter.

And how did the Hagan campaign react?

With a TV ad — approved by Hagan herself — that isn’t satisfied with setting the record straight on the stimulus flap. It also digs up ethics questions Tillis himself faced over a trailer park land deal in 2007. Yes, 2007.

The Hagan campaign has done its opposition research. It had to know about the trailer park thing for some time. But there were so many better things to hit Tillis with, so much ammunition provided by his work in the General Assembly the past few years, that it didn’t seem worth dredging up a 7-year-old mini-scandal that most people don’t care about anyway.

That was a good instinct. The Hagan campaign should have continued to follow it because harping on the 2007 land deal looks as petty now as it would have earlier in the campaign.

It doesn’t matter if you’re doing it in reaction to your opponent’s pettiness. It’s not fighting fire with fire. It’s two kids screeching and squawking in the backseat of the car, arms flailing at one another, insisting, “He started it!” “Nuh-uh! She did!”

Enough already. Don’t make us turn this car around.

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Contact Joe Killian at (336) 373-7023, and follow @JoeKillianNR on Twitter.

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