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Campaigns Drive Stories, Media Rides Shotgun

by Cally Carswell 

Tags: Media, campaign coverage, election 2008, John McCain, Barack Obama, political advertising, Jonathan Martin, Politico,

Cable NewsThere are some ads political campaigns never intend to air themselves, but that doesn’t mean you won’t hear plenty about them. Rather than doling out cash to beam these ads into American living rooms, campaigns route them directly to the online and cable news media to shape the day’s story lines. The ads themselves are the story.

According to Politico’s Jonathan Martin, a look at ads airing nationwide on a Sunday in mid-September illustrates how this messaging strategy works. Martin turned to Evan Tracey from the Campaign Media Analysis Group for the numbers: On one Sunday, Obama aired 1,589 commercials to McCain’s 1,490. But the ads that were being talked about most by journalists—Obama’s ad with a huge '80s-style cell phone painting McCain as out of touch, and McCain’s pack-of-wolves spot depicting sexist attacks on Palin—never aired as paid spots.

Of course, that doesn’t mean these spots didn’t get airtime. As raw material for cable news and online chatter, these sorts of ads are aired by talk shows and posted on websites at no cost to the campaigns. Former Al Gore aide Chris Lehane told Martin, “The ads have become far more provocative and entertaining, making it really hard to ignore them. . . there is such a comprehensive media environment between the traditional media and online media that these pieces get picked up and end up impacting the daily news cycle. Think news cycles within news cycles—like the small hands of a clock turning the bigger hands—and that is how these spots work.”

Another key strategy in the campaigns’ efforts to drive media story lines: Give reporters very little access to the candidates. In a related article about the campaigns’ relationship with the press, Politico contends that the reporters traveling with Obama and McCain have “little impact on the broad campaign narratives and daily story lines that supply most voters with their impressions of the candidates. . . A combination of technology and iron message discipline by heavily centralized campaigns has consigned these reporters—once the storied “boys on the bus”—largely to feeding off the public material available to almost anyone over the Web, with very little interaction with the next president of the United States.”

Is this why we hear so much about lipstick and pigs?

Image by Inside Cable News, licensed under Creative Commons.