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Media coverage of campaign spots: “Man bites dog” lives on

- September 24, 2008

It hardly needs to be said that there’s a widespread and long-standing media bias toward coverage of the new, the unusual, the exciting, the sensational, the “different,” and a corresponding bias against coverage of the mundane, everyday events of life and, for that matter, of political campaigns. The latter makes for boring viewing and reading and isn’t really “news.” Thus, for example, candidates may deliver campaign speeches multiple times per day, multiple times per week, in which they say 90 or 95% of the very same thing they said in their speeches the day before. And yet the media stories about these speeches won’t say, for example, “Senator Barack Obama again today repeated his oft-delivered criticism of the Bush administration for …” Rather, they’ll pull out something new and different, if they can find it, from the latest speech — the 5 or 10% that’s new today (a gaffe, a one-line zinger, whatever) — and make that the story du jour. This incremental coverage approach has consequences. If most of what one reads in the paper every day are “Man Bites Dog” stories — that is, coverage of the unusual — then one might well come to think that the unusual is in fact the norm and lose sight of the fact that “Dog Bites Man” is the far more common occurrence. In the political context, a candidate’s main message, repeated over and over and over again, may be X, but a citizen who follows the campaign by reading the daily newspaper or watching the evening news would be justified in perceiving that message as a smattering of other points (call them A-W) that change every day and don’t add up to much of anything.

With these considerations in mind, I was especially interested to encounter, in this morning’s Washington Post, an story by Howard Kurtz on the McCain and Obama campaigns’ TV spots, and more specifically on which spots they’ve spent a lot of money on showing and which ones they haven’t.

Here’s the general pattern.

The most negative ads — the ones the media have devoted the greatest space to — are the ones that the campaigns themselves have aired least often. “The pattern,” as Kurtz puts it, “is that campaigns are putting the least money behind their most slashing spots, the kind that tend to drive news coverage,” and are instead investing much more heavily in softer-focus ads proclaiming the virtues of their own ticket. Some cases in point:

bq. “Obama drew substantial media attention for a spot declairing: ‘John Mccain is hardly a maverick … Sarah Palin’s no maverick, either. She was for the “Bridge to Nowhere” before she was against it. Politicians lying about their records.” During the two weeks after the Republican convention, that ad aired a total of eight times.

bq. “McCain’s best investment may have been the spot accuring Obama of supporting sex education for kindergartners in Illinois, although the legislation called for “age-appropriate” teaching. It aired 43 times during the two-week period.”

bq. “An ad calling Obama’s “lipstick on a pig” comment an insult to Palin never ran on television.”

bq. “An ad accusing McCain with dismissing the wage gap between men and women ran twice.”

None of these commercials aired often enough to have caused much of a splash nationally. But now take notice of “McCain’s most frequently aired spot during this period, casting him and Alaska Gov. Palin as the ‘original mavericks,’ [which] aired 15,938 times.” To be sure, Obama’s most frequently aired spot (14,809 showings), which detailed lobbying activities of McCain’s ads, was critical of McCain, but it was by no means the hardest-hitting or most directly McCain-focused of Obama’s ads. And it was the exception rather than the rule.

To oversimplify just a bit, what’s happening is that the campaign are producing ads that they have no intention of spending much, if any, money on airing, but they nonetheless manage to get these ads into the public domain via free coverage in the media. That’s because the media, adhering to standard media norms, are chomping at the bit for fresh meat in their daily campaign coverage. As Kurtz puts it, “both campaigns are flooding the market with what amount to video press releases,” and the media are avidly reporting them at the top of the daily news. This arrangement works very nicely for both the campaign and the media, and it provides a distorted view of what the overall campaigns are really about.

None of this, by the way, is a recent development. The infamous “Daisy” spot in the 1964 campaign aired only once, but still remains one of the most highly publicized campaign ads ever made.

For the full story by Howard Kurtz, click here.