Schmidt Me, Baby, One More Time

Obama’s like Britney…(don’t) pass it on!

Well, it’s official: the campaigns have Gone Negative.

And in this case, alas, negativity’s harbinger was none other than…Britney Spears. (Sorry, Brit!) Yesterday, the McCain campaign released an ad, “Celeb,” which condemns Obama’s “celebrity” status and compares the Dems’ nominee presumptive (oops!) to Spears. And also (he did it again!) to Paris Hilton. The connection being that the two starlets are celebrities, and Obama is also a celebrity. And the implication being that Obama’s just as image-focused and vacuous as they are. (The ad pratically writes itself!)

“Do the American people want to elect the world’s biggest celebrity or do they want to elect an American hero?” McCain strategist Steve Schmidt asked on a conference call yesterday. The only imaginable answer, in Schmidt’s conception, is, of course, “no.”

But the political merits of deeming one’s opponent “the world’s biggest celebrity” are, at best, dubious. And “Celeb,” for that and other reasons, has been largely—though not, of course, completely—disparaged. (And not just from the left. John Weaver, McCain’s own former strategist, called the ad “childish,” and characterized the general denigrate-Obama strategy that brought it about as “tomfoolery.”) Some critics have suggested that “Celeb” preys on xenophobia and traffics in violence and is perhaps just a little too reminiscent of Triumph of the Will. Many have deemed “Celeb” to be self-defeating, arguing that, in an American culture that worships the golden calf of celebrity, being dubbed one such idol himself will actually make Obama more appealing, not less. And most, regardless, have dismissed it as a cheap shot.

But here’s where the plot thickens (as much as something that involves so little substance can, in the end, thicken). Rather than letting “Celeb” implode under the weight of its own negative reception, the Obama campaign instead parried with its own ad. “Low Road” frames McCain’s attacks—and his political policies—as “the politics of the past.” “John McCain: Same old politics, same failed policies,” it declares. (“Same old politics?” Get it? Because McCain is old? Sly, guys, sly.) The Obama campaign’s ad is nearly as silly as McCain’s—though the spot, at least, spares itself and its viewers the painful rhetorical contortion that “Celeb” employed to link Obama’s supposed status as the Paris of Presidential Politics to his support of “foreign oil.” And, to be fair, “Low Road” also offers some detail about why people should vote for Obama—instead of focusing, as McCain’s spot did, only on why they shouldn’t vote for his opponent.

So, fine. Two campaign spots, both alike (basically) in dignity. And both alike (basically) in inanity. The whole production could have ended there.

But, no. Instead, enter the anchors. The fact that Camp Obama responded to Camp McCain in the first place—with a statement, and then, of course, with its own ad—made the whole thing, you know, a story. So, yesterday evening, we got this:

Good evening. It is a pledge made by every candidate in every campaign, to run on the issues and avoid negative attacks. Just last month, John McCain pledged that throughout the campaign, he would “show my admiration and respect for Senator Obama.” As for Obama, he pledged to “run a different campaign, run a positive campaign.” Well, that was then. Today the attacks were flying so fast and furious, it was sometimes hard to keep up.

That was Charlie Gibson, introducing yesterday’s World News Tonight.

And this:

On the broadcast tonight, going negative. And here’s the question: What do Britney Spears and Paris Hilton have to do with Barack Obama? Well, that’s the question being asked about the new John McCain attack ad and now the Obama campaign is hitting back.

(Brian Williams, leading NBC’s Nightly News.)

And this:

John McCain sharpened his attack against Barack Obama, trying to turn his popularity against him. And late today, Obama fired back.

(Katie Couric, on the CBS Evening News.)

Yep. The economy’s plummeting and we’re waging two wars—but the standard-bearing curators of human events, the evening news shows, have decided that, more than almost everything else that happened in the world yesterday, the American public needed to know that McCain likened Barack to Britney. Which…ugh.

That isn’t to say, certainly, that there’s no news value in the ads. There is. The spots come from two candidates, after all, who’ve both promised us that they’re different—and who’ve both spoken out against that classic political bĂȘte noir, Politics As Usual—and who are now both engaging, with what appears to be glib aplomb, in PAU’s favorite pastime. Which is a turnabout for both of them—not just in terms of politics, but also in terms of simply being politic. There’s a story in that, sure. But that story is not “McCain called Obama names and then Obama called McCain names and now everything’s all negative.”

If the networks insist on covering all the attack-ad drama (as, I acknowledge, they will: one corollary to the press’s fixation on the horse race is their particular fixation on campaign ads), they could at least give viewers something a little more substantial than the empty-calorie he-said/she-said they served up. (“It’s getting ugly early,” ABC’s David Wright informed us, “and some Republicans are expressing concern about McCain’s tone, in particular one former McCain aide calling the new celebrity ad childish, though the McCain campaign insists that Obama went negative first.”) They could go beyond implying (false) equivalency between the two ads and consider each spot’s implications in more detail. Or they could take a stand against inanity, ignoring the juvenile name-calling and addressing only the ads’ (meager amounts of) substance. Anything would have been better, from the viewer/voter perspective, than what they gave us: reductive narration told in tones—the Drama! the Sound! the Fury!—of sermonistic schadenfreude.

And perhaps the networks could have questioned the wisdom of airing the ads, in their entirety, in the first place. Here’s another instance, after all, in which the existence of a provocative image—in this case, two entire ads’ worth of them—fuels a news item’s Storyhood (see “Wright, Jeremiah” and, more recently, “Pointer, Three-“). The ads are easy air-fillers, convenient for news producers and reporters alike. And they’re particularly convenient, of course, for campaigns.

Indeed, when political strategists discuss their campaigns’ reliance on “free media,” they’re not talking about the First Amendment. “Political campaigns have for years sought to broadcast their ads free by making them intriguing enough to draw wide coverage from news outlets,” The New York Times’s Jim Rutenberg pointed out yesterday. “And Mr. McCain’s campaign,” he continued,,

has proved particularly adept at getting such free air time in recent weeks, as news stations endlessly repeat the advertisements, which feature provocative visuals that can fill time during a relative lull in the campaign season.

Rutenberg pegged that observation to his discussion of McCain’s now-infamous Landstuhl ad, which—erroneously, as we now know—accuses Obama of canceling his visit to wounded troops when he learned he couldn’t bring cameras along with him. But the analysis applies just as well, if not even better, to—dare we dub it?—“Toxic”-Gate. When news organizations devote air time to inane, substance-free campaign ads, they’re not only playing directly into the campaigns’ hands; they’re also, to some extent, taking the election out of the voters’. For my money, Keith Olbermann, discussing the Cause “Celeb” on last night’s Countdown, had it right. The title he gave the segment? “Ad nauseam.”

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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.