Media failed to resolve question of which members of Congress Freedom's Watch ads are targeting

››› ››› BRIAN LEVY

In reports on a recent advertisement buy by Freedom's Watch in support of the Iraq war, media reports have failed to resolve the question of which members of Congress the ad buys are targeting, despite the apparent newsworthiness of the issue. For instance, The Washington Post suggested that the ad campaign is an attack on Democrats, a suggestion repeated by Time's Karen Tumulty; other reports have not even mentioned the issue; while still others have asserted that the ads target both Democrats and Republicans. However, according to analyses by war opponents, the buys target mainly Republicans, a charge Freedom's Watch called "propaganda by our enemies."

Discussing a recent advertisement buy by an organization named Freedom's Watch in support of the war in Iraq, former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer, a member of the organization's board, told The New York Times that the ads are targeted at "[a]nybody who is considering switching their vote." Despite the apparent newsworthiness of the identities of the congressional members Freedom's Watch believes are "considering switching their vote" on Iraq, media reports have not resolved the question of who the advertisements target.

For instance, as Media Matters for America has noted, in an August 22 article, The Washington Post suggested that the ad campaign is an attack on Democrats, a suggestion repeated by Time national political correspondent Karen Tumulty on the Swampland blog; other reports have not even mentioned the issue; while still others have asserted that the ads target both Democrats and Republicans. But two analyses of the Freedom's Watch ad buy by anti-war organizations concluded that some 90 percent of the members of Congress targeted by the campaign are Republicans. Freedom's Watch president Bradley Blakeman reportedly called one of these analyses " 'propaganda by our enemies.' " However, Freedom's Watch has reportedly refused to identify who the organization has targeted.

In an August 22 post on Americablog, Tom Matzzie, Washington director of MoveOn.org Political Action, wrote of the Freedom's Watch buy: "41 Congressional Members are targeted"; "37 Members, or 90%, are Republicans." Similarly, in an August 22 entry on the Chicago Tribune blog The Swamp, reporter Frank James wrote that the Freedom's Watch ad campaign is aimed at the same "vulnerable" Republican lawmakers who have been targeted by anti-Iraq war groups. James cited a press release from the progressive group Americans United for Change that broke down the Freedom's Watch ad buy by candidate. A list of the group's ad buys reproduced in James' entry identified 32 Republican members of Congress as targets, but only two Democrats -- Sen. Mark Pryor (AR) and Rep. John Barrow (GA).

Politico chief political correspondent Mike Allen asked Blakeman about what Allen called the "opponents' tally" of the ads. According to Allen, "Blakeman would not confirm the buys, calling the list 'propaganda by our enemies.' " When asked by Mike Barnicle, guest-host of MSNBC's Hardball, to name "a few of the states" in which Freedom's Watch had bought ads, Fleischer stated that the ads were bought in "more than 20 states, and it's in those places, as I indicated, where there are still chances of members of Congress voting to keep the troops there, voting to fully fund the troops and not abandon the mission." Barnicle then asked if the ads targeted Republicans and Democrats. Fleischer responded: "Absolutely right, both Republican and Democrat."

In addition to The Washington Post and Tumulty, who suggested that the ad campaign is an attack on Democrats, the following are media descriptions of the Freedom's Watch ad buy:

  • An August 22 USA Today article and an August 23 McClatchy article did not mention Freedom Watch's potential targets.
  • On the August 22 edition of CNN's The Situation Room, congressional correspondent Jessica Yellin claimed that Freedom Watch's ads "target[] wavering Democrats and Republicans."
  • In an August 23 article, The New York Times only quoted Fleischer on the possible targets. Fleischer said: "Anybody who is considering switching their vote is somebody we care about."
  • On the August 23 edition of NBC's Today, White House correspondent Kelly O'Donnell asserted that Freedom Watch's "aim is Congress."

By contrast, other media outlets have reported on the anti-war groups' analyses of where the ads were placed, as well as the fact that Freedom's Watch would not reveal its own list of targets -- or themselves implied that the Freedom's Watch ads primarily target Republicans:

  • In an August 22 article, the Associated Press reported: "Organizers of the effort would not identify the targeted lawmakers, but a review of the initial TV ad placements done by a group opposed to the war shows most of them are in Republican congressional districts.
  • An August 22 article in The Politico asserted that ads by Freedom's Watch and anti-war organizations "which could top $30 million in expenditures in coming weeks -- is centered on cities and states represented by politically vulnerable Republicans." The Politico added:

Americans Against Escalation in Iraq, which has raised $12 million, has launched anti-war ads targeting Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), and GOP Reps. Thelma Drake of Virginia, Fred Upton of Michigan and Phil English of Pennsylvania.

It's no coincidence that Freedom's Watch, the Republican group, has also made major advertising buys in most of those lawmakers' hometowns.

The biggest media buy taken out by Freedom's Watch in terms of advertising saturation will be in Salisbury, Md., home of Rep. Wayne Gilchrest, one of a handful of Republicans who have turned against the war.

  • On August 23, the Los Angeles Times reported: "The group did not specify which members of Congress would be targeted by the ads, and Blakeman and Fleischer did not respond to calls seeking comment" before including Matzzie's study and a quote by him.

As Media Matters noted, several media reports, including those on Today and the Situation Room, did not mention that two of Freedom's Watch's ads attempt to link the Iraq war to 9-11.

From the August 22 USA Today article:

Freedom's Watch, a conservative group, plans to launch a $15 million advertising campaign in 20 states today. The group's spokesman, former Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer, says the goal is to tell people that the buildup of U.S. troops in Iraq is working.

"We want to get the message to both Democrats and Republicans: Don't cut and run, fully fund the troops, and victory is the only objective," Fleischer says.

One of the main voices in the anti-war movement is a coalition called Americans Against Escalation in Iraq, which includes such liberal groups as MoveOn.org, the Center for American Progress and the Service Employees International Union. The coalition is running advertisements attacking senators and representatives who support Bush's Iraq policies. "Our ads are about defining the Republicans in the minds of the voters as sticking with Bush on Iraq," says Tom Matzzie, director of the ad campaign.

Matzzie said the group spent $12 million on its "Iraq summer" campaign, which includes political organizing on the local level.

From the 4 p.m. ET hour of the August 22 edition of CNN's The Situation Room:

YELLIN: Democrats are pouncing on those words. While they acknowledge the surge has had some military success, they insist the president is missing or avoiding the larger point.

Says Senator Hillary Clinton [D-NY]: "The surge was designed to give the Iraqi government time to take steps to ensure a political solution to the situation. It has failed to do so."

Senator Ted Kennedy [D-MA] agrees: "Political reconciliation continues to elude Iraq's leaders."

And Majority Leader Harry Reid [D-NV] adds: "It's time to change direction in Iraq and Congress will again work to do so in the fall."

JOHN KRIESEL (Iraq war veteran) [Freedom's Watch ad]: If we pull out now, everything I've given in sacrifice will mean nothing.

YELLIN: This comes as a new conservative action group unveils a series of ads targeting wavering Democrats and Republicans.

VICKI STRONG (mother of soldier who died in Iraq) [Freedom's Watch ad]: We're starting to see results. The price is being paid. Don't give up.

YELLIN: Part of an effort to stymie Democrats' chances of building a consensus for a drawdown.

[end video clip]

YELLIN: And Wolf [Blitzer, host], those ads will run in dozens of congressional districts for five weeks, through General [David] Petraeus' testimony and the debate that will follow here on the Hill.

From the August 23 McClatchy article:

Meanwhile, a new pro-administration advocacy group said it intends to pressure Congress to back Bush's Iraq policy by spending $15 million on a month-long radio and television ad campaign in more than 20 states.

"Our mission is to get out the message that surrender is not an option in Iraq - to stiffen the back of Congress to do the right thing and not to switch votes for political reasons," said Freedom's Watch President Bradley A. Blakeman.

Opponents say the group's a front for the White House. Both Blakeman and Ari Fleisher [sic], another member, are former senior members of the Bush White House staff. Blakeman dismissed the claim.

From the August 23 edition of NBC's Today:

O'DONNELL: As the president called Vietnam a tragedy, the lasting wounds of today's war are on TV.

KRIESEL [Freedom's Watch ad]: We are winning on the ground and making real progress.

O'DONNELL: Twenty-five million dollars spent in competing TV ad campaigns in a message battle over the war. From the side that says, "Stay in Iraq," an injured veteran:

ANDREW ROBINSON (Iraq war veteran) [Freedom's Watch ad]: To hear Congress talk about surrendering really makes me angry.

O'DONNELL: The mother of a fallen Marine:

STRONG [Freedom's Watch ad]: We've already had one 9-11, we don't need another.

O'DONNELL: Paid for by a group that includes donors and friends of the president and former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer. Their aim is Congress.

LAURA YOUNGBLOOD (husband died in Iraq) [Freedom's Watch ad]: Call your congressman and senator. Tell them surrender is not an option.

O'DONNELL: And from the side that says "It's time to get out of Iraq":

ANNOUNCER [Americans United for Change ad]: After four years with no end in sight, nearly $500 billion spent --

O'DONNELL: Congress is also a target.

ANNOUNCER [Americans United for Change ad]: -- Iraq in religious civil war and over 3,700 Americans dead. Susan Collins is still standing with President Bush on Iraq, voting time and again --

O'DONNELL: And all of this is important because of the timing. In about three weeks, Congress will get that expected report from General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker and so, both sides -- the president and those who oppose the war -- are very much trying to compete for Congress' attention and the public's as well. And we'll be hearing more from the president in the days to come.

From the August 23 New York Times article:

As the battle lines are drawn, a new advertising war is beginning to heat up, focusing on lawmakers, especially Republicans, who face tough re-election campaigns. On Wednesday, a new interest group, Freedom's Watch, led by allies of the Bush administration -- including Sheldon G. Adelson, a Las Vegas casino magnate who ranks sixth on Forbes Magazine's lists of the world's billionaires -- began a monthlong, $15 million campaign intended to support the president's policy.

Ari Fleischer, former press secretary to Mr. Bush and a member of the group's board, said the ads would run in 20 states, in more than five dozen Congressional districts. ''Anybody who is considering switching their vote is somebody we care about,'' he said.

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