Mitt Romney’s media operation has sustained some criticism this campaign season. Give them this, though: They know precisely where to position an “Are You Better Off?” sign in a New Hampshire hardware store prior to a round of television interviews.
If you were wondering whether that question was central to the Romney message before Carl Cameron’s Wednesday interview with the presidential candidate, you certainly weren’t wondering after the interview. After all, the “Are You Better Off” sign enjoyed about 10 minutes on Fox’s air, framed nice and visibly behind Romney’s left shoulder, amid the rugged and work-evoking wares of LaValley’s Building Supply of West Lebanon, N.H.
The sign looks just as good during a nearly six-minute hit on WVEC-TV in Norfolk, Va.
It also starred in a three minute-plus interview on WSOC-TV in Charlotte.
Nor did its performance ebb in this two-and-a-half-minute segment on WMUR-TV of Manchester, N.H.
A great many interviews with high-flying politicians go down without a campaign billboard looming over the proceedings. The presence of the “Are You Better Off” sign throughout these interviews drills home a campaign mantra likely to resonate beyond any of the answers that Romney provided to his questioners. Why pay for ad blitzes in North Carolina, Virginia, et al., when you can just hang the sign and sit down with a broadcaster or four?
Fox News didn’t respond to a question regarding its policy on allowing campaign propaganda to hang in the backdrop of an interview. The Romney campaign also declined to comment.
A network TV producer says, “It’s not uncommon for round-robin interviews to lead to a loss of control of the setup.” And that’s what appears to have happened. Julie Szulczewski, news director at WSOC-TV, says her Charlotte station was eager to snare a Romney interview because its coverage was so heavy on the convention in town. “The bottom line is we were seeking Romney out pretty diligently,” says Szulczewski, noting that the camera setup, angle and props were beyond the control of her station.
Mark Feldstein, a journalism professor at the University of Maryland, sneers at the arrangement:
I think the bosses I worked for at the mainstream TV networks — ABC, NBC, CNN — would have blown a gasket if an optional interview like this had been staged with such blatant propaganda in the background. The “industrial” setting to burnish Romney’s image as a job creator is bad enough, but the strategically placed “Are You Better Off?” sign positioned over Romney’s shoulder is really over the top. Yes, it’s common for politicians to want visual backdrops that make them look good and television producers often have to make various accommodations to snag interviews with top newsmakers.... In this case, though, Fox News clearly could and should have resisted such shameless shilling for Romney.
Alisha McDevitt, news director for WMUR-TV, says that the “background was set” for the interview when the station’s personnel arrived. “We have very little control unless it’s in our studio,” says McDevitt. “They provide the backdrop and we have the candidate, so...”
But what about perhaps taking a different angle with the camera, so as to exclude the campaign propaganda? “I wasn’t there, so I don’t know how big the space was, so I can’t answer that,” responds McDevitt. “It’s hard for me to say, not being on the ground there.”