Or, rather, they air the ads that they deem worthy of analysis and debate. In other words, they air the ads that are, generally speaking, most controversial. So if you’re a campaign communications strategist, how do you ensure that your ad gets exposed among the media? You make it offensive or ridiculous or otherwise controversial. You make it, in other words, “good TV.” (“Hi, I’m Troy McClure. You may remember me from such ads as the really controversial ones.”) The term “free media” has expanded: no longer does it simply relate to journalists interviewing candidates and covering their events; it also relates to journalists unintentionally amplifying campaign messages in the name of “analysis.”

And what do we get in return for acting as candidates’ megaphones—and, for that matter, for incentivizing salaciousness? We basically write ourselves—or air ourselves, as it were—out of the equation.

Nowhere was this on more display than last night, when the analyses of the Obamamercial added precious little value. There’s a role for the press to play, of course, in parsing the candidates’ other direct-democracy appearances—the conventions and the debates—as there’s relatively more substance to discuss in each case. But noting a commercial’s production value and tone and narrative may be a fun little intellectual exercise for journalists; for everyone else, though, it’s pretty much a waste of time.


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Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.