CJR takes a much-needed look at a key, overlooked media story from the campaign season. It's about the way newspapers provided wholesale distribution (at a cost, naturally) to 22 million homes in swing states for a right-wing documentary about the evils of Islam, Obsession.
And how newspapers themselves then provided free publicity in the form of news coverage to document the controversy being kicked up by newspapers distributing the DVD.
Most publishers insisted they had no choice but to cash the right-wing checks and ship out the DVD's because newspaper can't censor advertisers. But as one readers asked in a letter to a North Carolina newspaper, "Are you planning to accept money from those who would like to stir up hatred against immigrants from Mexico?"
Decades ago, conservative activists moved to the forefront of information wars when they embraced direct mail as a way to spread propaganda. Do newspaper inserts represent the next chapter?
So says the Boston Globe's Washington bureau chief: "McCain could benefit from anything that puts bin Laden back in the news."
We've already noted how dopey we think Politico's daily tabulation is of which candidate "won" each day. We think it's dopey because it seems to be such an obviously bad, forced idea to declare at dinner time every night who "won" that day.
It's a bad idea because most days on the campaign trail are not won or lost. But journalists obsessed with the horse race are determined to pretend that each day a victor emerges. (Why stop a daily winners? Why not announce which candidate won each passing hour?)
Instead, we'd guess that between September 1, and November 4, there will probably end up being just five or six truly important, momentum-changing days on the trail. (We're thinking of the afternoon McCain "suspended" his campaign as an example.) As for the other 50+, they'll end up looking pretty much just like each other, with no winners or losers.
Nonetheless, Politico persists with its manic who's-up-who's-down approach (i.e. insert manufactured drama here) and pretends to be able to pick the winners and losers. So let's take a look at how the tea leaf-readers at Politico arbitrarily decided that McCain had "won" Tuesday.
According to Politico, the Republican ticket won because (and this was the only proof presented) Sarah Palin picked up a comment Joe Biden made over the weekend about how he and Barack Obama would be tested with an "international crisis" within six months of taking office. Palin ridiculed Biden during her stump speech.
Politico conceded the Biden comments did not constitute a gaffe and that put in context they were "pretty tame." And yes, Politico mentioned that on Tuesday new polling data from Pew Research showed Obama up 14 among likely voters.
But because Palin made a passing reference to to the "crisis" comment in a speech, that meant Republican "won" the day.
Did we mention this exercises is dopey?
The blogosphere doesn't do history. Certainly not its own. It's hard enough to remember what was posted last week, let alone the debates waged and initiatives launched last year.
Over the Huffington Post, blog guru Peter Daou, looking ahead to Election Day, starts putting some of the blogosphere's recent accomplishments in perspective.
Go read the whole thing. Here's a sample:
We should acknowledge that the netroots kept hope alive when our system of checks and balances was in mortal danger, kept hope alive when civil liberties were fast becoming disposable niceties. We should realize that back when Billmon and Bob Somerby and a gentle soul with a sharp pen named Steve Gilliard were required reading, when Digby was a mystery man and Firedoglake was a new blog with an intriguing name, when citizens across the country began logging on and conversing from the heart, there was no glory in political blogging. There still isn't. No one knew if blogs would become quaint artifacts. Many hoped they would. Blogging was about speaking up for America's guiding principles, liberty, justice, equality, opportunity, democracy.
It's obvious that since Wall Street's meltdown commenced five weeks ago, and since America's economic crisis became a tsunami of a news story that's not only dominated the media landscape, but also irrevocably altered the course of the campaign, the Drudge Report has become largely irrelevant in terms of the setting the news agenda for the White House run.
That's because a story like the unfolding credit crisis -- sober and complicated -- knocks Drudge completely out of his element of frivolous, partisan gotcha links.
Read more here.
And that's what we find so depressing about the nearly two-year-long coverage of the current campaign. That huge, sweeping portions of it were devoted to nothing more than insider tactic talk. What a waste.
The trend actually seems to be intensifying (if that's possible) as we hit the homestretch. From Journalism.org:
The coverage is also taking on an increasingly tactical lens in the final days. Last week, attention to tactics and strategy-including McCain's invocation of the plumber to represent the working man-accounted for 26% of the newshole, making that general theme the biggest component of the week's election coverage. Coverage of these strategic aspects of the race included the fight over key battleground states (7%) and the parade of polls, including numerous daily tracking surveys, at 5%.
We think the survey actually underplayed the tactics count because it did not include all the debate coverage as part of that category, even though debate chatter is overwhelmingly tactics-based.
Meanwhile, note what's been left on the newsroom floor [emphasis added]:
The economic crisis and elements of the economy not directly related to that crisis combined for 13%. After that, all other policy discussions accounted for a total of 3% of the newshole. The subjects of health care, terrorism and security issues, Iraq, and Afghanistan, each accounted for less than 1% of the election coverage.
Open Left's Matt Stoller makes the case.
Responding to my last column, Eric Alterman says the reason the media obsessed over Barack Obama's ties to William Ayers while ignoring John McCain's relationship with Gordon Liddy is that McCain raised Ayers and Obama did not raise Liddy -- even though the recent media frenzy around Ayers began not with a McCain attack, but with a 2,100-word front-page New York Times article:
Liddy is not an issue because Obama never raised it; Ayers is an issue only because McCain did. The inverse to Foser's question: do you think the media would have found an education board Obama served on years ago, and tied him to the 40-year-old radical history of one of his many colleagues on that board, all on its own? After having been aware of the tangential relationship for many months, would the MSM have raised the issue and gone wall-to-wall with coverage in October 2008, weeks before the election, without the Republican Party pressing the issue? You know the answer.
That's a common explanation for disparate coverage of seemingly analogous situations, but I don't buy it.
The basic problem is that the theory relies on circular logic. How do you explain the disparate coverage of Ayers and Liddy? The Republicans are pushing the Ayers story and the Democrats aren't pushing Liddy. Well, how do you know the Democrats aren't pushing Liddy? Because the media isn't covering him as much as they're covering Ayers.
In this case, the assumption that Democrats haven't urged reporters to cover Liddy is shaky at best. The DNC hit McCain for his ties to Liddy in a press release as long ago as May. And they were promptly ignored. And others have brought up Liddy -- including Media Matters, repeatedly, in pointing out the double-standard the media was applying. More importantly: we don't know what people are doing behind the scenes. You can assume no one has been urging reporters to cover Liddy if you want; I think the much more realistic assumption is that some people are doing so.*
More broadly: Over the past several weeks, the media has swarmed to cover several McCain attacks - "lipstick on a pig," Ayers, ACORN, "Joe the Plumber," and more. All of those attacks got considerable coverage, driving the media's coverage of the campaign for days at a time. I can't think of a single Obama campaign attack that the media has rushed to repeat over and over again in the same way. It isn't that the Obama campaign isn't criticizing McCain. It is, every day. But the media hasn't entered feeding frenzy mode around those attacks. That's a blow to the "the media simply covers the campaigns" attacks" theory.
Alterman argues: "[T]he mainstream media frequently allows the campaigns to exercise almost total authority over campaign narratives. ... By ceding narrative and investigatory authority to the campaigns, the mainstream political press is rendering itself useless."
But this doesn't happen uniformly. The media cede far more narrative and investigative authority to Republicans than to Democrats. Even many reporters will acknowledge this - indeed, Alterman provides examples of reporters doing so. But they claim it is because Republicans are simply better at pushing negatives.
This, too, is circular. Who decides what gets coverage? Reporters. Why do reporters give more attention to GOP attacks? The attacks are better. How do reporters know they're better? Their attacks get more coverage.
The Republicans may be a bit better; there's no way to objectively measure that. But the gap certainly isn't large enough to explain the disparate coverage. If the media was really equally responsive to attacks from Democrats and Republicans, it wouldn't take the world's greatest political operative to sell a story as simple as "John McCain said he was 'proud' of a guy who plotted the murder of a journalist and urged people to shoot law enforcement agents in the head."
To be clear: I am not saying that disparate efforts by the campaigns (and others) to push the Ayers and Liddy stories have played no role in the disparate coverage those stories have gotten. I'm saying that is only one factor, and probably not the most significant factor.
* Sure, some will say: "But the Democrats aren't talking about Liddy publicly." First, enough people have invoked him publicly over the past few months - including a DNC press release - to cast doubt on that explanation. But more importantly: campaigns, party committees, and others push stories to reporters on background all the time. But if you insist that such things don't count, then how do you explain that 2,100 word front-page New York Times article about Ayers? Either GOPers working on background urged the Times to write it, in which case Democratic behind-the-scenes efforts to get reporters to cover Liddy count. Or the Times came up with the Liddy story completely on its own, which fatally undermines the "reporters just cover campaign attacks" theory.