Co-opting the MSM

To hear most conservative activists talk, the Mainstream Media is a cesspool of liberal bias, full of America-hating, Christ-hating elitists who (in league, I guess, with ACORN) won the presidency for Barack Obama in 2008 by refusing to “vet” him and hyping his every utterance.

But man, they sure are useful in attack ads!

The New York Times‘ John Harwood has a rueful column today about the utilization of his own words and image (from a CNBC appearance) by Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS:

It was merely a three-second factual observation — “The worst job-adding quarter in two years” — and not especially elegant at that. Yet beginning July 11, it was shown 6,136 times over six days in battleground-state media markets from Denver to Tampa, Fla., according to Kantar Media’s Campaign Media Analysis Group.

The theory here is simple enough: factual claims made in attack ads are more credible to viewers when made by “objective” or at least “third-party” sources. Indeed, that’s been the primary utility of newspaper editorials in recent years: few voters actually read the things, but they have a way of popping up in campaign ads. Footage from TV shows is even better, of course, because they don’t require that viewers stare at the screen and actually read the words damning the ad sponsor’s evil opponents as, well, if not evil, then as purveyors of bad public policy.

Network anchors, as familiar faces, are particular prone to co-optation, as Tom Brokaw used to complain:

“I don’t like it,” said Tom Brokaw, for years the face of one of the three major broadcast networks as anchor of “NBC Nightly News.” “It’s so hard to stay in what I call the ‘umpire mode.’ ”

Mitt Romney did not help him with an ad during Florida’s Republican primary this year. Fighting to fend off Newt Gingrich, the Romney campaign broadcast an ad consisting solely of Mr. Brokaw’s “Nightly News” report on a 1997 House ethics vote against Mr. Gingrich, then House speaker.

Mr. Brokaw and NBC News worried that the ad “compromised” his role as a journalist and asked that it be stopped. As they expected, the request was ignored; by Kantar’s count, the ad ran 2,225 times before Mr. Romney’s Florida victory.

Once campaigns feared such complaints from prominent TV journalists — and the hassle of responding to the lawyers who spoke for them. Now ad-makers from both parties shrug them off, as the prevalence of the practice increases their confidence that “fair use” broadcasting regulations makes legal threats toothless.

Now and then you get something really rich, like the intensive if highly selective use of newspaper fact-checking articles by the Romney campaign during his initial pushback on attacks involving Mitt’s Bain Capital record. “Fact-checker” sounds so objective and authoritative, doncha know, and quoting one of them can be especially helpful if you are willing, as Team Mitt has done, to cherry-pick the ones calling your opponent lying liars instead of the ones calling your own campaign chronic lying liars.

When all else fails, of course, Republican ad-makers can always turn to “facts” from Fox News, or better yet, invent some sort of impressive-sounding organization like Americans for Truthiness that can vouch for any damn thing you want to say, or find “real people” who purport to express their heart-felt thoughts while reading the party-line script.

Ultimately, the co-optation of the MSM in attack ads undermines the very credibility (relative thought it may be) that gives the practice value. But why should conservatives care about that? it may just drive viewers to Fox.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.