Wednesday, May 19, 2004

The Secret Art of Media Manipulation

from National Journal's Hotline, 5/19/04

"Here are the latest presidential ad spending estimates from TNS Media Intelligence/Campaign Media Analysis Group (TNSMI/CMAG), CNN's consultant on ad spending. TNSMI/CMAG estimates ad spending in the nation's top 100 media markets. The actual spending amounts nationwide are likely higher."

"Estimated ad spending, 5/10-5/16"
"Kerry: at least $6.7 million"
"Bush: at least $4.0 million"
"Kerry + Dem Groups: at least $8.3 million"
"Bush + GOP Groups: at least $4.1 million"
"Democratic Groups running ads: AFL-CIO,, New Democratic Network"
"GOP groups running ads: Citizens United, Club for Growth"

"Estimated ad spending, 3/3 - 5/16 (general election-to-date)"
Kerry: at least $33.2 million"
"Bush: at least $60.6 million"
"Kerry + Dem Groups: at least $71.6 million"
"Bush + GOP Groups: at least $60.7 million"
("Morning Grind," CNN, 5/19).

Why did Kerry outspend Bush by at least $2.7 million in one particular week? Isn't the negative PR from the Abu Ghraib scandal doing enough damage on its own? Or is it not doing *enough* damage, and Kerry's camp feels it needs to deliver some kind of extra right hook to get the job done?

Problem is, I think a lot of Americans believe that the abuse is either 1) the result of a few perverted soldiers who have been driven insane while serving their country, or 2) not abuse at all, but effective means of eliciting information from prisoners. The media has not been quick to explore the possibility of the abuse as an order from somewhere either within the Pentagon or very very close to it, which leads a lot of people to look at such a possibility merely as conspiratorial conjecture cranked out of the liberal propaganda machine.

When will the media reinstate the principle of Objectivity?

According to every wind-blowing pundit, on both sides of political center, in the American media, this is to be the dirtiest race in the history of American politics. While that could be hyperbole, it could also be an on-target assessment of the way the campaign strategy has evolved. While during the 70s it was detrimental to one's campaign to stage a fiercely negative attack on one's opponent, today the spinsters have figured out a way to bypass public negativity by going through the backdoor: leaks to the media.

It goes beyond a roomful of interns digging up strange votes and legislative faux pas. These are teams of research experts, adept at tearing through public records to find any piece of information that could be spun as purely negative and leaked to the AP.

This underhanded but brilliant strategy has had two main effects on the media's role in politics. First, and most obviously, it is a way to run a negative campaign without having to endure backlash from the public. Second, and most dangerously, it is haphazard manipulation of the media, and the scariest part is that the media accepts these leaks without checking the facts to ensure that they aren't accepting something angled to mislead. These nuggets of information planted by the campaigns should be researched and could be developed into real news stories. For instance, is Kerry a waffler or is that the image the media has accepted? A careful objective examination of his voting and speech records could clear this up in a short series of articles. But only the left is willing to set the record straight, and because they are biased, their opinion is invalidated by the mainstream. It's a cycle of disbelief and distrust enabled by the easy "yeah we'll take your word for it!" attitude of the mainstream media. Instead of acting as the watchdog of the government, the media is acting as its lapdog.

For more on this opposition research strategy, check out Playing Dirty by Joshua Green from the May issue of The Atlantic

Interestingly, Green's article mentions opposition research employed by the Clark campaign against Howard Dean. The Progressive's editor, Matthew Rothschild, sat down with the defeated frontrunner to talk about what went wrong. Dean doesn't mention the secretive negative strategy at play, but he does discuss with Rothschild the press and its general corporate leash and the effect of public negativity (in the form of TV ads slamming candidates, as in the Dean-Gephardt exchange).

Q: Is going negative a response that doesn't work anymore?
Dean: It always works, but never in a multicandidate race. The ones who aren't going negative get the benefit.

Q: There is some speculation, perhaps idle in the press, that you were self-sabotaging, that you really didn't want to win, and the closer you came to getting the nomination, the more gaffes you committed.
Dean: That was pretty silly. That's one of the problems with the media. There's a lot of opinion pieces under the guise of news, and once one person comes up with it, it gets repeated. Most of that started out in gossip columns in The Washington Post. The idea that someone is going to spend two years and $50 million and doesn't really care is pretty silly.

Q: What do you make of the way the press treated you?
Dean: I think the press in general is a failed institution in this country. For two reasons. This has nothing to do with the race. I'm not sure it would have made any difference. But the biggest problem with the media is first that 90 percent of Americans get their news from eleven corporations so that the loyalty in the editorial staff and higher up is principally to the shareholders rather than to the public. And the second problem is that entertainment has supplanted news value.

Q: A lot of your supporters feel the press had it in for you, or did you in. Do you agree?
Dean: You know, I don't know. I think the older supporters may feel that way. The younger supporters tend to ignore the press. The pitfall of what's happening in the media is if you're under thirty, you get your news from the Internet and The Daily Show, and there's not much discrimination between what they find on the front page of The New York Times and what they find on the Internet. That's not a bad thing, in the sense that people don't get spoon-fed anymore.

Q: The Daily Show may be savvier than some of that other stuff.
Dean: Oh, I don't know, I don't get to watch The Daily Show.

Q: You should. It's funny. Some of us thought the media didn't like you not because you were bristly but because you were too far left. Many in the mainstream media believe the conventional wisdom that the Democrats need a centrist candidate, so the closer you came to getting the nomination, the more panicked they became. Do you think there's any legitimacy in that?
Dean: I don't think there's much legitimacy to that. I'm sure there were personal factors involved, but I'm not one who buys the notion of a media conspiracy. I think there are different views in the media, from Fox News to The New York Times, from The Weekly Standard to The Nation. But I don't think there's an ideological conspiracy in the media to keep certain candidates out. I really don't.

Yes, a large part of me is still brooding over Dean's defeat, although it makes perfect sense. It's just sad that it had to happen. In my fantasy world, Howard Dean would be the ideal people's candidate, not just a hothead who can't hold his temper, and whose opponents go underground into the AP to destroy.


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