What is being called the first general election campaign ad has hit the airwaves. It is a biographical ad for Sen. John McCain that features him in a North Vietnamese hospital bed. Most of the Conventional Media is reporting on this as if it were somehow newsworthy. The New York Times covered the ad’s release on its political blog, The Caucus, and they have shown the same level of cluelessness as every other media outlet. In demonstrating how little they seem understand even the simplest truisms of modern candidate marketing, they note that the ad…
“…for now will play only in New Mexico – a sign that the campaign expects that state to be a major battleground this fall.”
The Times doesn’t provide any support for their contention that the New Mexico ad buy is a sign of the campaign’s view of the state’s role in the upcoming election. They haven’t interviewed the candidate or queried the campaign managers. They haven’t provided any context such as the ranking of the state in the electoral college (36th, with only 5 electoral votes). They simply make a dangling statement that fails to inform the reader of any substantive facts, and they present it as if it were verifiably true.
And the Times is not alone. Here is how the Associated Press covered it:
“For now, the 60-second ad will air only in New Mexico – a signal that McCain plans to compete in that swing state come the fall…”
And this is CNN’s take:
“The ad will air for now in the battleground state of New Mexico […] a sign the presumptive nominee will focus heavily on the swing states this fall.”
Sound familiar? Did these guys synchronize their alibis?
The truth, however, is likely quite different than these portrayals suggest. The McCain campaign, like most politicians and interest groups these days, knows that they can purchase a small amount of airtime in inexpensive television markets like New Mexico and announce the release of the ad to the press. Then the media will dutifully regurgitate the ad repeatedly, giving the campaign what amounts to hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of free airtime.
The McCain people know that they can manipulate the media to serve their ends. The media knows that they are being manipulated, but they allow it anyway. It should make one wonder what these big media corporations expect to get in return for their willingness to be exploited. After all, if they declined to provide free promotion for theses ads, the candidates would have to pay for them. That means the media is not only making valuable in-kind contributions to the candidates, they are also forfeiting untold millions in lost revenue. For what?
I previously wrote about this phenomenon with some historical examples of its use. I also recommended these reforms:
- Don’t bother to report on any ad that has not exceeded a defined threshold of paid impressions. In other words, if the campaign doesn’t make a significant purchase of air time for their own ad, it isn’t news.
- If the ad is shown it should be confined to a small percentage of the screen with a video watermark over the whole piece labeling it is a campaign ad. This would serve to blunt the promotional value of the airing and focus on the news value.
The press needs to start thinking about ways to be better servants to the public than they are to the powerful. But first they need to acknowledge their shortcomings. For the New York Times, the AP, CNN, etc., to make the wholly unsupported assertions that they did in the articles linked above is shameful. For them not to acknowledge their role in the campaign hype is an abdication of their journalistic integrity. They know better. They just hope that we don’t.