When ads attack in Virginia

Roanoke’s WSLS-TV, Hampton Roads’ Daily Press did more than repeat claims and counter-claims

VIRGINIA — Turn on a local morning television newscast on any given day in Virginia and you’ll likely get a bit of political bashing to go with your coffee.

For months now, an influx of outside money has paid for a barrage of televised advertising here from the Obama and Romney campaigns and their super PAC friends. So far, the presidential campaigns and their allies have spent $11.2 million on television advertising in Virginia, according to The Washington Post.

And in a race that some see as a key to which party will control the US Senate, two former governors, Republican George Allen and Democrat Tim Kaine, are also drawing national interest and outside spending.

Last week, the day after Allen easily won the GOP’s June 12 primary here, he was the beneficiary of an ad titled “Behind,” from American Crossroads, the heavy-spending super PAC co-founded by Karl Rove. The spot, which will air in Virginia for two weeks as part of $1.6 million ad buy, attacked Kaine for his ties to President Obama, and claimed, among other things, that the former governor left Virginia “behind” when in 2009, overlapping with his governorship, he assumed the role of chairman of the Democratic National Committee.

The sort of press coverage typically prompted by the introduction of a shiny, new attack ad—and not just here in Virginia—looks something like this: a short, online recap on the day the ad is unveiled in which some or all of the ad’s claims are repeated (and the entire ad is embedded for the watching), followed by counter-claims from the other side, and maybe some warning about more attack ads sure to come.

In this case, in the state capital, the Richmond Times-Dispatch offered just such a piece on June 13: a recitation of the ad’s claims and an assertion by the Kaine campaign that the ad is “misleading” along with some counter-jabs at Allen (and no help for readers wondering what’s true). The Washington Post’s Virginia Politics blog ran a comparable post that day—accusation, counter-accusation, embedded video of attack ad, no help for readers navigating any of it.

Readers of The Virginian-Pilot’s blog, Pilot on Politics, got a similar summary on June 13, in which the reporter noted that Kaine has “heard [one of the ad’s claims] before”—good context—but then didn’t tell readers whether this “repackaged” accusation has any merit (the Kaine campaign is quoted saying that it does not, and offering some pro-Kaine talking points and some anti-Allen talking points, which readers are left on their own to digest and process.)

With the benefit of one extra day, Roanoke reporter Aaron Martin of WSLS-TV (NBC) was able to do a bit more for his viewers in his June 14 report. Martin concluded on a relatively strong note what otherwise looked like a typical, less-than-informative segment (repetition of the ad’s claims, reinforced by brief statement-via-Skype from Crossroads spokesman, recitation of Kaine campaign’s rebuttal packed with pro-Kaine claims).

Reported Martin at the segment’s end:

Now, I was able to do some factchecking of the American Crossroads ad and found that there were actually some problems. The ad claims that Kaine supported $500 billion in Medicare spending cuts, with that number coming from the president’s healthcare law. Now, while that number is true, PolitiFact groups in Ohio and Oregon found similar claims against politicians in their states to be “false” since the $500 billion is in future spending cuts not current benefits.

(Those PolitFact assessments can be found here and here.)

Martin went on to promise to factcheck the rest of the ad and “bring you the details as soon as we have them” (I haven’t yet seen or found such an update).

On June 15 the (Hampton Roads) Daily Press’s Tod Allen Wilson did some solid dissecting of the ad, calling the claim that Kaine supported $500 billion (he mistakenly wrote “million”) in spending cuts to Medicare “one of the biggest false claims” in the ad, and “a major GOP talking point” which “has been repeatedly debunked by PolitiFact” (a link to the debunkings in the online version of Wilson’s piece would have been nice).

Wilson also pointed to the ad’s “underlying assertion that Kaine shouldn’t have taken the job as DNC chair while serving as governor” and noted that

Kaine was not the only recent Virginia governor to head a national party organization. In 2000 President-elect George W. Bush asked Gov. Jim Gilmore to head the Republican National Committee.

Many media oulets at the time wrote piees showing that Rove himself [who helped found the group running the ad] was the driving force behind Gilmore’s appointment.

Some helpful context for readers in Hampton Roads.

Yes, the pressure is on in newsrooms here and around the country for reporters to do six different things simultaneously. But, readers need more from their coverage of This Week’s New Attack Ad than unexamined claims and counter-claims.

To end on a hopeful note, here is a list of some useful Virginia resources which reporters here might use (some reporters already do) to enhance and improve their coverage of campaign claims and the spending behind those claims (in addition to the resources CJR reviewed here):

PolitiFact Virginia, as many folks know, assesses the accuracy of campaign statements.

The Virginia Public Access Project helps track money in politics at all levels in Virginia.

Opensecrets.org tracks money spent in Virginia (presidential race, US House and Senate races).

Campaign finance filings, of course, can be found at the Virginia State Board of Elections website.

And, for the presidential race, The Washington Post has a great tool for tracking television ads and spending in each market across the nation.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Tharon Giddens logged more than two decades in newspapers in Georgia and South Carolina as a writer and editor. He is now living on an alpaca farm east of Richmond, Virginia.