This week, campaign trail chatter has been all about ads—John McCain’s ads, and their accuracy, to be specific. On Monday, we criticized the media for not thoroughly dissecting a McCain ad implying that Barack Obama had snubbed U.S. troops at a hospital in Germany. By Wednesday, however, we credited the press for remedying that oversight.

Later this week, the pattern continued after another McCain ad compared Obama to Britney Spears and Paris Hilton. Predictably, the media focused on the implication that Illinois senator is a vacuous celebrity unfit to lead. The conversation then quickly turned to race, both in the context of the “celeb” ad and remarks Obama made at a campaign stop in Missouri. Granted, race is a more meaningful topic than stardom. But, most media failed to note that the real issue being debated in the ad, and certainly the one that most concerns the public, was energy.

A tip of the hat to The Washington Post’s Juliet Eilperin, however, who led a post on the paper’s The Trail blog with an astute observation and some much needed fact checking:

The few campaign watchers who aren’t transfixed by the images of Britney Spears and Paris Hilton in Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) new attack ad aimed at Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), might be asking themselves right now, “What’s this about an Obama electricity tax?”

Short answer: there isn’t one.

Long answer: both McCain and Obama would make electricity derived from fossil fuels more expensive, since they’re both committed to setting mandatory limits on greenhouse gas emissions through a cap and trade system. In fact, they would raise energy costs by the same amount over the next 12 years, since they have identical short-term emissions goals.

Apparently, the McCain camp based its “electricity tax” charge on comments that Obama had made to the San Antonio Express-News in February. Asked whether he would tax clean energy sources like wind, the senator replied, ” What we ought to tax is dirty energy, like coal and, to a lesser extent, natural gas.” Obama’s campaign says that he was talking about his cap-and-trade program, which he has long supported in preference to a carbon tax.

A smart journalist might point out that Obama’s plan, unlike McCain’s, would auction 100 percent of the pollution credits, which experts say is akin to taxation. McCain’s ad is still misleading (and previously, he seemed to misunderstand his own cap-and-trade plan) because Obama certainly does not support directly taxing carbon, but the point is that few journalists have critically examined the candidates’ argument in such detail.

The Associated Press’s AdWatch project had a good analysis of the “celeb” ad, which observed that “The McCain campaign is betting the television audience will look past the images and sounds of Obama’s prominence and concentrate on the underlying criticism.” On that point, however, the AP might be slightly mistaken; there’s been plenty of coverage the candidates’ positions gas prices and offshore oil drilling, but not really in the context of the ad itself. One exception is The New York Times’s Paul Krugman, who criticized McCain in his Friday column:

A McCain campaign ad says that gas prices are high right now because “some in Washington are still saying no to drilling in America.” That’s just plain dishonest: the U.S. government’s own Energy Information Administration says that removing restrictions on offshore drilling wouldn’t lead to any additional domestic oil production until 2017, and that even at its peak the extra production would have an “insignificant” impact on oil prices.

The EIA report isn’t news; journalists have been quoting it since McCain first announced his support for offshore oil drilling last month. Given that a CNN poll this week found that most Americans are open to such drilling, however, the report’s conclusions bear repeating as much as possible. Indeed, an article from Wednesday’s Washington Post found that, in oil, Republicans “think they have found their best political issue of the 2008 campaign.”

Curtis Brainard is the editor of The Observatory, CJR's online critique of science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.