Thursday, August 07, 2008

The McCain campaign figured out what will get the media's attention

A Pew Research analysis found that, by releasing the "Celebrity" ad, McCain was able to pull even with Obama in media coverage.
Barack Obama was a significant or dominant factor in 81% of the campaign stories compared with 78% for McCain, according to PEJ's Campaign Coverage Index for July 28-Aug. 3. That was a high water mark for McCain in the general election season (his previous best was 62% from June 30-July 6) . And the virtual dead heat in the race for exposure between the two candidates also marked the first time his weekly coverage had even been within 10 percentage points of Obama's total. Indeed, in the eight weeks since early June when the general election contest began, 79% of the stories have significantly featured Obama, compared with 55% for his Republican rival.

The spike in press attention to the McCain campaign came a week after Obama's tour of the Middle East and Europe commandeered the headlines, accounting for half the election coverage for July 21-27. It also came a week after the media engaged in a spasm of introspection, amid a wave of accusations that the media was being unfair to the GOP standard bearer. The third biggest campaign storyline for July 21-27 was the issue of whether the press was biased toward and lavishing too much attention on Obama.
The media had one of their spasms of guilt about being imbalanced in their coverage similar to when SNL made fun of how they were covering the primary battle with Hillary Clinton. So they spent a week with more balanced coverage by time allotted to each campaign. Expect them to return to their natural inclinations during the fall campaign.

Of course some of that media coverage was discussion of whether McCain was going too negative with his ads. The media always pretends to be distressed about negativity in campaigns and then give lots of free TV time by running the ads over and over. If they really didn't want those sorts of advertisements, they could rob the ads of some of their impact by not discussing them and giving them free air time. The McCain campaign had to pay for only a few actual airings of the ads and then could sit back and let the media do their job for them.

If the media wanted to discourage being used that way, they could spend more time on substantive analysis of the two candidates rather than just talking about horse-race sorts of questions. And if they'd treated Obama as a more usual sort of politician they wouldn't have provided McCain with this opportunity. And it seems to have worked. Another Pew poll found that almost half of those polled are getting tired of hearing about Obama. About a third of Democrats said they had heard too much about Obama and, more ominously for Obama, 51% of Independents said they have heard too much.

Maybe with the Olympics beginning, we can all get a respite from politics. And the media can figure out what role they want to play. Perhaps, if they think that adulatory coverage of Obama is actually backfiring, they might tone it down some. That would be a big relief for everyone.