Gaming the Media 101

By Liz Cox Barrett

Any political campaign advisor worth his six-figure paycheck knows how to game the media. For example, a campaign will unveil a new advertisement (or press release or statement) knowing that it will bounce around for a bit more or less unchallenged — often on cable news networks or on the wires, given their minute-by-minute need for news and the general journalistic aversion to being scooped.

So the first iteration of a wire or cable news report on, say, a new political advertisement, often involves very little in the way of interpretation or balance. Sometimes reporters flesh things out in subsequent reports, and include comments from the other side about — or even independently fact-check — claims made in an ad. Even so, the campaign spin has already enjoyed an hour or two of unchecked airtime; it’s out there.

A reader suggested that Campaign Desk have a look at the on-air evolution of Kelly Wallace’s report on CNN Tuesday about how rising gas prices might factor into the presidential campaign. Watch how Wallace’s report morphs from an initial barebones, interpretation-free segment, to a confusing claim/counter-claim bit, to a report that — to Wallace’s credit — included CNN’s own “fact checking” of (some) of these claims.

During the 1:00 p.m. “Live From …” show Tuesday, Wallace filed her first report on how gas prices could be “one of the biggest pocketbook issues of the presidential campaign.” Wallace led with a clip from a new Bush ad which, she said, is “painting John Kerry as someone who is in favor of raising taxes on gasoline.” Viewers saw a clip from the ad in which three claims are made: That Kerry “supported the 50-cent a gallon gas tax;” that “raising taxes is a habit of Kerry’s;” and that “[Kerry] supported higher gasoline taxes 11 times.” Wallace cited a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll showing that 58 percent of people polled believe taxes would go up if Kerry were president as evidence that “these ads are having somewhat of an impact.”

Wallace then announced that Kerry would be speaking in San Diego to “outline his strategy to try and bring gas prices down” and would “accuse the Bush team of not doing enough.” Viewers were treated to footage of Kerry joking that Bush and Cheney might have to carpool to work. No effort was made to tell readers how to interpret either Bush’s or Kerry’s claims.

Some two hours later, Wallace reported again on “Inside Politics.” This time, viewers got Kerry’s carpooling crack, clips from the Bush ad, plus clashing input from “a senior Kerry advisor” and from “a Bush-Cheney aide.” Again, no interpretation for viewers of the barrage of claims and counter-claims.

Still later, during “Wolf Blitzer Reports,” viewers got another iteration. Wallace led with a different CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll showing that “69 percent of those polled believe rising gas prices are either a crisis or a major problem.” This poll, Wallace said, could be bad news for both Bush and Kerry (the only bit of interpretation viewers got). Then it was back to Kerry’s carpooling joke, followed by the Bush ad clip and the earlier-cited poll results.

Perhaps Wallace was holding her fire for her appearance later that evening on “Anderson Cooper 360 Degrees,” during the program’s “Fact Check” segment. This time she led with a previously reported Kerry camp charge that Americans have paid 12 percent more for gas under Bush — which she “fact checks,” telling viewers that gas prices have actually gone up 17 percent since the start of the Bush presidency. Next up, the Bush ad with three claims about Kerry—one of which Wallace then “fact checks” (Kerry’s supposed support of a 50 cent gas tax hike was based on a comment in a decade-old media interview, but Kerry never proposed the hike in the Senate and doesn’t support it now). The other two claims in the Bush ad never got the fact checking treatment. But Wallace repeated a Bush campaign criticism of one of Kerry’s ideas to reduce gas prices, “fact check[ed]” that idea itself, and concluded that Team Bush’s critique has some merit.

Too bad “NewsNight with Aaron Brown” doesn’t have a “Fact Check” segment. For Wallace’s final appearance Tuesday — on “NewsNight” — she was back to the confusing claim/counter-claim format. She did, however, toss in this new “check” on a previously reported Team Bush assertion that Bush’s “comprehensive energy plan” to reduce gas prices “has been thwarted by congressional Democrats” — “although,” Wallace added, “the House and Senate [are] controlled by Republicans.”

This is just one example of how campaign ads often wind their way through a news cycle — and the brains behind the campaigns know it.

Viewers would have had to do like our forbearing tipster and watch CNN all afternoon and well into the evening Tuesday to get something close to the full picture. Campaign Desk wouldn’t wish that on anyone.

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.