Print Journalism Is Alive and Well -- in TV Ads

By Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 8, 2009

Anyone concerned about decreasing newspaper circulation and the waning influence of print journalism might get a dose of comfort from watching television in Virginia these days.

Some people still think residents pay attention to what newspapers publish. Those are the people who write and edit television commercials for political candidates.

Using newspaper quotes in political advertisements is a strategy that goes back ages. But it does seem as though this year in Virginia, it's impossible to switch on the TV without hearing "the Roanoke Times says" or "The Washington Post confirms."

At least three of Republican gubernatorial candidate Robert F. McDonnell's most recent ads have featured quotes from one or more of the state's newspapers. Even more of Democrat R. Creigh Deeds's spots have done the same.

What the quotes are intended to do is bring credibility and a measure of objectivity to bear on a candidate's message.

Never mind that the quotes are often taken from opinion pieces that were not intended to be objective in the first place.

And never mind that useful information is often omitted and quotes are sometimes sliced and diced to make them mean something a little different than when they were produced.

In ads airing simultaneously now, we hear that The Post is "not aware of any legislation to keep contraception away from married couples" supported by McDonnell. But we also learn that The Post has confirmed "that McDonnell voted to deny access to birth control."

Could both be true? Actually, kind of. The two quotes are taken from two items in The Post that were both intended to convey the same information about McDonnell's record on contraception.

The quote used in the McDonnell ad came from a live Internet item written to check facts as the two candidates debated before the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce last month. The quote in the Deeds ad was taken from an item that ran in the newspaper designed to check the veracity of a different Deeds television ad.

At the risk of producing yet more quotes for use in ads, the point of both items can be summed up thusly:

McDonnell did vote to restrict access to the so-called morning-after pill on college campuses, to remove information about birth control from the literature automatically handed out to those applying for marriage licenses and against legislation to require insurance companies to cover contraception. However, McDonnell says he does not oppose birth control for married adults, and the General Assembly has never considered legislation that would ban married couples from using it.

So both campaigns were able to find a sentence in the two items that served their needs and to lean on The Post to bolster their view.

Ironically, the same force that is thought to be the cause of the print newspaper's decline, the Internet, serves to boost its utility to a political campaign. In the Internet age, newspaper reporters and columnists have begun producing many more words a day. In addition to articles in the paper, innumerable blog items and Twitter feeds provide campaigns a vast new array of words put out under any given publication's banner to sift through for helpful content.

Top campaign operatives have been known to beg reporters to be careful when zipping out quick items for the Internet, to remember that those words can have an effect in a campaign equal to those constructed more carefully for the print newspaper.

The other force that has probably boosted the ubiquitous newspaper quote this year, particularly words taken from a certain paper that circulates between the banks of the Rappahannock and the Potomac, was The Post's perceived influence in this spring's primary election.

With The Post editorial board's endorsement of Deeds considered a key to his victory over fellow Democrats Brian Moran and Terry McAuliffe, it is not terribly surprising that both candidates are looking to see whether they can harness that influence this time around.

In coming weeks, editorial boards across the state will start making endorsements in the race. Those will provide all sorts of new fodder for campaign ads.

In the meantime, some humble advice: Don't look to campaign advertising to find out what newspapers have written about the campaigns. Check out the primary source. And feel free to buy a copy while you're at it.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company