Political war of attribution
By Paul Farhi,
In a new 30-second TV ad, Mitt Romney attacks President Obama and his aides for their campaign claims. Or, more precisely, the ad lets others do the attacking: “Scraping bottom,” reads a quote attributed to the Chicago Tribune. “Disgusting,” says another that identifies ABC News as the source. “Unfair attacks,” says a third, crediting CBS News.
Not to be outdone, Obama has his own movie-review style blurbs in his ads. In a series that questions Romney’s business career and personal wealth, the commercials carry quotes from Vanity Fair, The Washington Post and the Boston Globe, among others.
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.
“There are simply more messages now than ever before, and each of these needs some kind of backup,” says Bill Adair, editor of PolitiFact.com, the fact-checking watchdog site owned by the Tampa Bay Times. In such circumstances, Adair says, there’s more demand for independent verification, or at least the illusion of it. Familiar names provide that, he says.
Adds Stephanie Cutter, Obama’s deputy campaign manager: “Voters see an independent source as more credible than the campaign just alleging something about their opponent. Fortunately, this cycle, we’ve had ample opportunity to do that.”
Adair notes, however, that the campaigns are just as quick to criticize journalists as to trade on their credibility. Last month, the Virginia Republican Party wrote an “open letter” accusing PolitiFact of being biased in its assessments of statements made by the state’s leading Republicans. Yet on the same day, George Allen’s campaign for Senate cited PolitiFact’s research in a news release that criticized Allen’s Democratic opponent, Tim Kaine. The state Republican Party then posted Allen’s release citing PolitiFact on its Web site.
“They love [the media] when it suits them, and they hate us when it suits them,” Adair says. “It’s very conditional love.”
What’s more, using the MSM to provide credibility can be a deceptive practice, says Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a communications scholar at the University of Pennsylvania. Viewers assume that a campaign ad that quotes a news organization is citing a news story from that publication, she says. In fact, the citation may have come from a partisan source writing an editorial, an op-ed column or a letter to the editor published by the news outlet. But viewers wouldn’t know that from an ad that simply lists the name of the publication.
For example, a video from a group called Veterans for a Strong America cited The Washington Post as the source of a quote describing the president’s “shameless gall” in taking excessive credit for the death of Osama bin Laden. The Post did publish such a quote, but it was in a blog written by Ed Rogers, a veteran Republican political operative.
The two campaigns also went to the same source — The Post — in a recent battle over outsourcing. An Obama ad cited the paper to back his claim that Bain & Co. invested in companies that sent American jobs overseas when Romney headed the firm. Romney strongly objected to this characterization, and responded with an ad that featured a quote from a different Post article that had found some of Obama’s statements about outsourcing “misleading, unfair and untrue.”