Ehrlich press chief's faux news reports part of growing campaign trend

Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. hopes to reclaim the job of Maryland governor from Democrat Martin O'Malley.
Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. hopes to reclaim the job of Maryland governor from Democrat Martin O'Malley. (2007 Photo By Susan Biddle/the Washington Post)
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By John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 22, 2010

As viewers watch scenes from a Little League baseball game, a familiar face appears to tell them that former governor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. routinely steps off the campaign trail to watch his 10-year-old son play.

"Family first and always, and that's the way it needs to be," Ehrlich (R), standing on the sidelines, tells Andy Barth in a three-minute piece that has a similar look and feel to many pieces Barth churned out during more than three decades as a television news reporter in Baltimore.

Only this video was not cut for television. It is appearing on the Ehrlich campaign's Web site and Facebook page. And Barth is no longer a TV reporter. He's Ehrlich's press secretary.

In other installments, Barth has "reported" from the Ocean City boardwalk about why people there like Ehrlich better than Gov. Martin O'Malley (D); from a Howard County high school about how impressed the students were by an Ehrlich visit; and from the Eastern Shore about how businesses are struggling with taxes and other burdens blamed on O'Malley.

If that doesn't sound like objective reporting, it isn't. But that's the point. The faux news reports by Barth build on a growing trend among political campaigns to bypass traditional media and generate the kind of spots a candidate wants aired. In Ehrlich's case, he is doing so with the help of a veteran reporter who spent three decades building credibility with viewers.

"Every campaign, every candidate, especially in today's digital age, looks for ways to communicate directly with voters and get around the media filter," said Mo Elleithee, a Democratic media strategist. "I don't see anything wrong with that. But I've never seen this exact situation."

O'Malley's campaign has produced several videos capturing events on the campaign trail, including a statewide tour after his announcement that he is seeking reelection. Like Ehrlich's, those are distributed via YouTube, Facebook and the candidate's Web site. But none gives the feel of watching a news report.

"We're not going to hire a former reporter to play a reporter," said Tom Russell, O'Malley's campaign manager. Barth said the idea for his series was hatched in a meeting a few weeks ago with other senior Ehrlich staffers, long after he signed on as press secretary.

"We realized we have a capacity in this campaign no one else has," said Barth, who spent 35 years reporting on politics and other topics for WMAR (Channel 2), Baltimore's ABC affiliate. He later freelanced for WTTG (Channel 5), Fox's Washington affiliate.

"I was quite content to consider my TV career over," Barth said. "But I like to tell stories, and I'm telling people stories about Bob Ehrlich. The difference, and I recognize this, is this is advocacy. But I'm very comfortable advocating for Bob Ehrlich."

The audience for Barth's videos has been relatively modest, with the most watched logging just more than 500 views on YouTube as of Monday. Ehrlich aides said the pieces have helped keep supporters engaged and expect the audience to grow as more people discover them.

Precedents

Other campaigns -- as well as government agencies -- have attempted to mimic traditional news broadcasts in recent years with mixed results.


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