At a time when the candidates stonewall the news media and occasionally vilify them, the ads illustrate another attitude: Both campaigns are happy to embrace the media when they appear to back up their latest claims or criticism. No ad in this campaign seems fully dressed until it wears the mainstream media’s Good Housekeeping seal — a bit of print containing an approving comment or a corroborating factoid sourced to a brand-name news organization.
Political campaigns have always been happy to ride on the media’s coattails when it suits them, of course, but the current cycle may be distinctive for the speed, aggressiveness and ubiquity of the practice.
The tactic suggests that campaigns still view the mainstream media — or “MSM” — as the standard for credibility and impartiality despite an erosion of public esteem and a media landscape atomized by a million partisan blogs and a billion snarky tweets.
In recent weeks, Obama’s ads have cited the Los Angeles Times, NPR, the Associated Press, the New York Times, ABC News and other full-fledged members of the media elite. One Obama ad mentioned the Wall Street Journal three times.
Romney and groups running ads on his behalf have referenced the New York Times, Boston Globe, Philadelphia Inquirer, Columbus Dispatch and USA Today. One Romney spot may have been the ultimate in MSM validation; it consisted of a clip from “Face the Nation” in which journalists from CBS News, Time magazine and the New York Times appeared to express disappointment that Obama hadn’t fulfilled his promise of “hope and change.”
Some of the ads even show copies of newspaper articles or headlines to prove that, indeed, a newspaper actually said whatever the ad says it said.
At the same time, both sides keep up a constant crossfire of news releases, tweets and e-mails that also base their claims on the MSM’s say-so. “Can GOP Manage the Mic in Tampa?” asked a headline from an e-mail sent by the Democratic National Committee’s Rapid Response team. Only it wasn’t the DNC posing that question; it was flagging a story that appeared that day in Politico. The goal in circulating such stories: to influence reporters from other mainstream news organizations to pick up a theme or line of attack.
The practice may reflect the record amount of political advertising that has been unleashed, with independent groups, national party organizations and the candidates themselves pouring about $2 billion into commercials. Add in statements made via Twitter and Facebook, in Web videos and news releases, interviews and media appearances, and the need to dress up partisan arguments with well-known sources grows.