News Hog(wash)

McCain wins battle for headlines. Will he win the election?

The central question that Michael Tomasky asks in the most recent New York Review of Books is this: “Can a strategy of sidestepping the media defeat a campaign that’s organized around the media in the media age?” He’s referring to the notion that Obama’s campaign, though technologically much more savvy, has distinctly not catered to the daily news cycle, whereas McCain’s campaign distinctly has. It’s an astute, if brief, rumination on whether a post-media (apologies for the word) approach can work in today’s political media landscape.

Writes Tomasky: “The McCain campaign is organized entirely around daily news cycles—the belief that winning the media war will win the election.” He cites two decisions that illustrate this philosophy: the Sarah Palin vice presidential pick, and McCain’s choice to “suspend” his campaign to return to Washington for bailout negotiations. “Virtually every major move McCain has made has been about trying to win that day’s headlines,” he adds. If the last few weeks have shown anything, it’s that these make the news priorities haven’t been very effective.

A good example of the two campaigns’ approaches lies in the continuing hubbub surrounding Joe the Plumber. Tomasky’s observation is evident in the way the campaigns have responded to this everyman “news item”: Palin has been trotting it out continually (and introducing a new working class hero every chance she gets—see “Tito the Builder”). Both she and McCain have taken a “he said it” approach, spinning Joe’s words into a cry of Socialism! against Obama.

The McCain campaign’s desire to milk the media fixation on Wurzelbacher and his proliferating compatriots is palpable. (And this isn’t the first time. Remember Palin’s approach to the Ayers question? Her comments, then like now, weren’t motivated by a desire to clarify; they were designed to inflame.)

Obama, on the other hand, has returned to talking seriously about the economy.

Tomasky doesn’t explicitly say that Obama’s approach—to play the long distance game when it comes to media exposure—is the inherently successful one. He merely says that the Illinois senator has “tripped [McCain] up…by not playing the game.” And if Obama’s lack of grandstanding for the cameras and notepads is a big, trip-inducing wrinkle in the rug for the McCain camp, as Tomasky suggests it is, it’s because the strategies that the latter has employed traditionally thrive when used against an opponent who would consider “losing” a days’ worth of headlines, well, a loss.

Nevertheless, the verdict seems to be in for Tomasky: Obama’s decision to make his campaign not about grandstanding—and to spend time instead on a carefully spread out field operation that he hopes will prove its worth on election day—will prove the more successful strategy.

It’s a decision that speaks to the levelheadedness of the Obama team just as much as it underscores any distinct philosophy, but it’s still an interesting point—made more interesting by the fact that the Obama campaign has been much better at managing tech-aided communications outreach than has McCain’s.

In this sense, it’s a bit misleading when Tomasky writes: “Barack Obama’s campaign is less concerned about coverage by blogs and television than any other presidential campaign in the short history of this media age, and…John McCain’s operation seems utterly consumed by it.”

Because while it’s true that the Obama campaign hasn’t pandered as much to the media for inches or minutes of exposure, in no way has it shunned or turned its back on coverage of any kind. The Obama team is far from indifferent to media coverage. It may be “less concerned” with being a news hog in any flashy way, but strengthened by its own media-savvy ways, it’s also just better at appearing as though it’s standing still in the attention wars—rather than running full-speed towards the headlines.

What Tomasky doesn’t cover in his piece is how the media have responded to the campaigns’ differing approaches. (That wasn’t his angle.) But the media response, after all, is the variable that determines what works and what doesn’t in those two equations. It’s also why, even after this election is over, we won’t know if a “strategy of side-stepping the media” is smart, effective, or just a sidebar to Obama’s smoothly-run campaign. There’s no control group in this experiment of cause and effect.

(For a different angle on Tomasky’s argument, read the first three paragraphs of this Steve Coll post on the New Yorker’s Think Tank blog, which argues that the media have been too malleable in printing or running McCain campaign language.)

Whatever the outcome of the attention wars game in political media (and whatever can be said for Obama’s atheistic approach to such coverage), Tomasky’s point is really about the following simple summation: losing the headlines battle doesn’t necessarily mean losing the election war. And for a political media bombarded by little decisions—Tito the Builder, or Jane the Engineer, or Ed the Dairyman?—that’s a takeaway worth pocketing.

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Jane Kim is a writer in New York.