united states project

As Senate ad war heats up, time for press to step up

Readers need closer scrutiny of campaign messages in Kaine-Allen contest
September 20, 2012

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.)

The same approach was used by Richmond Times-Dispatch in its coverage of Kaine’s “Unleashed” ad promoting his energy policy, and a radio ad contrasting his stance with Allen’s on women’s issues.

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.

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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.

PolitiFact Virginia might better serve its readers by spending more time in the waning days of the campaign by vetting ads in heavy rotation or common stump speech lines, and putting projects like its series on McDonnell’s 2009 campaign promises on the back burner. Even so, with its staff of three, the outlet will be hard-pressed to address every questionable claim coming from the Senate campaigns.

Resources are stretched in other newsrooms too, of course, and most political reporters can’t—and shouldn’t—devote all their time to factchecking ads. And regardless of their accuracy, the messages in the ads reveal something about which constituencies the candidates are trying to appeal to; that’s news.

But too often, these ad write-ups read like the work of journalists on the hamster wheel—a short summary and a stray thought on the latest campaign message, posted quickly so reporters can keep fresh copy on the site and move on to writing up the next campaign message. It’s hard to hop off that wheel and take a moment to think and plan a more nuanced report when your editor wants you to spin it ever faster, but news consumers deserve more. They can read a press release or watch a commercial on their own. They’re counting on the reporters to help bring it into perspective, keep the campaigns honest, and make sense of it all.

This and that

A laurel to the Richmond Times-Dispatch for stepping up and out of its coverage area on Sept. 16 for a detailed look at how Prince William County in northern Virginia may be the county that determines how Virginia, and the nation, go in the presidential election.
It’s a solid thinker that succinctly covers a lot of territory (among other issues: how this county has gone from a GOP stronghold to an Obama pickup in 2008, its changing demographics, and efforts to court the Hispanic vote by both campaigns this year). It’s an interesting look at the micro-campaign aspects of the national race.

Related posts:

“When ads attack in Virginia”

“Political money talks. PolitiFact Virginia listens—and then talks back”

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.