VIRGINIA — Presidential race advertising dominates swing state airwaves, but viewers in Virginia are also being bombarded with an influx of ads in a high-profile Senate race. Democrat Tim Kaine’s campaign has laid out $4.5 million on advertising, while the campaign of Republican George Allen will spend about $5 million on ads through October, The Washington Post’s Ben Pershing reported recently. And those millions don’t even include the vast sums spent by super PACs and other outside groups seeking to affect the race, mostly conservative outfits such as Crossroads GPS that are targeting Kaine.
Just since last week, Kaine literally took to the air (via helicopter) in
a spot touting his energy policy, released a new Spanish-language ad, went on the air with a new ad comparing his fiscal record with Allen’s, and debuted two more ads touting his bipartisan credentials. For his part, after a late August hiatus Allen has returned to the airwaves with a spot promoting his economic vision.
It’s admittedly a lot to keep up with. But unfortunately, many newsrooms in the state are lagging in their efforts to bring perspective and scrutiny to the ad blitz, and sometimes doing little more than amplifying the messages coming from the campaigns.
The standard format for covering the Senate ads is one that has become common across the industry—a short article or blog post that features video of the ad, a description of its content, and a note about how it fits into the campaign’s strategy. For balance, a retort from the opposing campaign is often included. This was the approach taken by Julian Walker of The Virginian-Pilot in Hampton Roads in a Sept. 12 item that paired a description of Kaine’s “Actions Matter” ad with a counter-point comment from Allen campaign spokeswoman Emily Davis. It’s a classic case of he said/she said, with no real attempt at vetting either side’s assertions. (There’s also no attention to Kaine’s accurate-but-bizarre complaint that Allen voted to raise the debt ceiling four times while sitting in Congress; Democrats and many independent observers criticized the current crop of Republicans for threatening not to raise the debt ceiling in 2011.)
Often, coverage is just a sentence or two in a blog that says, “here’s a new ad, here’s what it’s about”—little more than any viewer would find out on her own simply by turning on the TV. The Roanoke Times covered the “Unleashed” ad in its political blog, Blue Ridge Caucus, with a simple description of its content and a paragraph on the candidates’ rhetorical and substantive differences. That was followed the next day with a post on the Allen campaign’s retort—which took the form of a press release republished in its entirety. The release offered a long list of sources to back up its claims that Kaine was full of it, but again, the Times offered no independent vetting of the assertions from either campaign.
On the bright side, reporters here have sometimes added important context or pushback about misleading claims. Michael Sluss’s write-up of Kaine’s “Actions Matter” ad in the Times notes that, “Kaine takes credit for balancing the budget, which is required by the state constitution. Allen did the same when he was governor.” Sept. 19 posts by Sluss and the Virginian-Pilot’s Julian Walker explains how an ad from a Democratic super PAC distorted a statement by Allen (though the bulk of Walker’s post is devoted to the release of Kaine’s new ads on bipartisanship). And Sluss’s long Sept. 9 story about the role of super PACs includes a graf on how a Crossroads GPS ad misrepresents Kaine’s record on spending.
Then, of course, there’s PolitiFact Virginia, a partnership between PolitiFact and the Times-Dispatch. They’ve been busy, covering topics ranging from an Obama campaign ad to speeches by Kaine and Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell at the national conventions. The outlet’s most recent focus on ads in the Allen-Kaine contest dates from Aug. 31, when editor Warren Fiske scrutinized a Crossroads GPS spot attacking Kaine. It’s a strong item that unpacks the math of government and how state budgets work—typical of PolitiFact Virginia’s thorough and nuanced reporting. The only downside was a lack of timeliness: It dealt with an ad that first aired nearly three weeks earlier.