Free For All: The Media’s Gift To Political Advertisers

In the days leading up to the March 4 primaries in Texas, Ohio, Vermont and Rhode Island, millions of residents of those states (and of America) saw a now infamous advertisement from Hillary Clinton’s campaign.

However, the “Red Phone/3 am” ad was mostly seen by viewers of news programs that broadcast the commercial for free. In effect, the media is providing millions of dollars worth of in-kind contributions to candidates in the name of reporting on the content of their ads.

It didn’t begin with Clinton.

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The Internet’s Chronicle Of Media Decay.

The most famous example of a “free media” bonanza is the Daisy Girl ad for Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 presidential campaign. Today it is one of the most notorious political advertisements in history despite the fact that it actually aired only once in paid media.
During the 2004 Democratic primary, a group called Americans for Jobs, Healthcare and Progressive Values produced an ad showing Osama bin Laden and accusing Howard Dean of not having the experience needed to fight terrorism. They spent only $14,000 to run the ad just 16 times in two small markets. However, it generated four days of attention from national news outlets.
Also in 2004, the Swiftboat Veterans for Truth, a front group with funding from Republican partisans, spent less than a half-million dollars to run an ad for one week, in only three states, slandering Democrat John Kerry’s war record. The uproar resulted in more than three weeks of nationally televised rebroadcast and debate.
More recently, Gov. Mike Huckabee orchestrated a press conference where he showed an ad attacking Mitt Romney. He then announced that he had no intention of paying to air the ad. The event was merely a brazen attempt to garner some publicity for a spot without having to actually spend anything on airtime.

These tactics are now a routine part of campaign strategy. Politicians and interest groups know that they can manipulate news providers to do their work for them. Television, in particular, is susceptible due to its ravenous appetite for pre-produced video programming.

So what should be done about it? It would be unwise to implement some sort of legal mandate to regulate how news media cover campaign advertising. It is entirely legitimate to report on the content of political ads, their veracity, and their strategic goals. However, it wouldn’t hurt to apply some journalistic ethics to the editorial judgment. That means assessing the newsworthiness of any piece that includes such ads. Also, there is no need to broadcast them repeatedly to make a point. They know that the campaigns are manipulating them. Why do they let them get away with it?

Here are a couple of other measures editors ought to consider when confronted with this.

  • Don’t bother to report on any ad that has not exceeded a defined threshold of paid impressions. In other words, if the campaign doesn’t make a significant purchase of air time for their own ad, it isn’t news.
  • If the ad is shown it should be confined to a small percentage of the screen with a video watermark over the whole piece labeling it is a campaign ad. This would serve to blunt the promotional value of the airing and focus on the news value.

Implemented voluntarily, this would not infringe on journalistic freedom or civil liberties. Journalists should not allow themselves to be exploited by campaigns or interest groups. They have no obligation to assist in promotional activities. They need only to report what is actually newsworthy. By maintaining a professional detachment they will produce a better product and provide a better service to the public.


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  1. Every time I write something like this I forget that I’m writing about American Corporate-dominated media. Does it make any sense to ask them to behave professionally?

    And if anyone wants to go rate this up at dKos, feel free.

  2. Also haven’t used this for there advantage. I’m not saying that we should run fear-mongering ads. But remember Paul Wellstone’s ads? Or Feingolds? Or now Steve Novicks? Those get tons of free media for underdog progressive canidates. They are also a lot more effective.

  3. are there any organizations that exist specifically to pester the media about stuff like this? if a local news producer got hassled every time he ran a story about an attack ad, I bet after awhile s/he’d stop.. ..kinda like training a dog.

  4. media than the candidates at this point.  It is just like the Osama for Obama tshirt interview.  Lots of folks got mad about the tshirt.  But what about the media.  The media basically awards bad behavior whether by a candidate in an ugly, negative ad or an idividual like the tshirt guy.  

    The media drives the talking points.  The talking points are all about the bullshit and it goes round and round as we all obsess over it.

    Obama has been talking policy details for weeks in his stump speeches.  But the media still shows the same rhetoric, then turns around and asks why no one knows more about his platforms. Duh.  It makes me even crazier than I already am!

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