BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York, this is NPR's On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. This week, the campaign got just a little bit grimier. On Friday, the Obama campaign posted an ad that seemed to make an issue not just of McCain’s policies but also his age. But the big political story this week involved much ado about absolutely nothing.
So now, a quick trip down Bad Memory Lane, starting Tuesday, with a bit of Obama rhetoric about McCain’s economic policies at a Virginia campaign stop - BARACK OBAMA: Yeah, you, you can put lipstick on a pig. [LAUGHTER AND CHEERS] It’s still a pig. [LAUGHTER AND CHEERS] BROOKE GLADSTONE: - which the McCain campaign spun into a Web-only ad suggesting that one lipstick reference plus another lipstick reference equals sexism. [CLIP]: SARAH PALIN: You know, they say - the difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull? Lipstick. [LAUGHTER/APPLAUSE/CHEERS] BARACK OBAMA: But, you know, you can't – you know, you, you can put lipstick on a pig. [LAUGHTER/APPLAUSE/CHEERS] [END CLIP] BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, this was a Web ad costing very little to produce but earning very, very much in free media exposure from apparently outrage-starved news channels. MALE CORRESPONDENT: Well Larry, the fight, that you’re talking about, between the McCain ticket and the Obama ticket gets hotter and tighter, the latest battle over a phrase Senator Obama used today, like “putting lipstick on a pig.” BROOKE GLADSTONE: If only it had stopped there. [CROWD HUBBUB] MALE CORRESPONDENT: Obama says he was criticizing his rival’s policies, but John McCain’s campaign accused the Illinois senator of calling VP nominee Sarah Palin the pig. FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: So the McCain campaign is calling that remark offensive and disgraceful. They say Barack Obama owes Sarah Palin an apology - MALE CORRESPONDENT: More recently, Senator McCain himself has uttered the phrase “lipstick on a pig” at least four times. BROOKE GLADSTONE: And finally, a slap at the media from the side of the political spectrum that has lately left us alone. [LAUGHTER]
BARACK OBAMA: And suddenly they say [LAUGHS], oh, you must be talking about the governor of Alaska. [LAUGHTER] See, it would be funny, except, of course, the news media all decided that that was the lead story yesterday. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Yech - why do we do this? And what should we, the media, do when a campaign uses what political analyst Mark Halperin calls “crocodile tears” to catch the media’s attention?
Andrea Bernstein is the political director at our producing station, WNYC. She makes those decisions for the reporters and producers here. Andrea, welcome to the show. ANDREA BERNSTEIN: Thank you. BROOKE GLADSTONE: So, WNYC is a local station but it’s poured a lot of resources into covering the national election this year. How did you guys cover “lipstick on a pig”? ANDREA BERNSTEIN: We didn't cover “lipstick on a pig” BROOKE GLADSTONE: At all? ANDREA BERNSTEIN: I'm happy to say no. It is - a non-story. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well, how would you make the argument that this is, in any way, a news story? ANDREA BERNSTEIN: Well, I think what happened is that the McCain people got really upset about it. BROOKE GLADSTONE: They got really upset about it or they really, really got upset about it? ANDREA BERNSTEIN: [LAUGHS] They professed upsetness. And when candidates get very high volume and their campaigns get very high volume and you are a political reporter, it’s hard to simply ignore that.
So the phrase "lipstick on a pig,” which is an expression that was used, in this case, to talk about the policies of the McCain/Palin ticket, because Sarah Palin mentioned lipstick at the convention last week, the McCain campaign sort of rolled it into this big story about unfair attacks on Sarah Palin.
So what happens is that context falls apart, and collectively [LAUGHS] we in the media fell into a trap, which is somebody complains, therefore you have to report it. BROOKE GLADSTONE: So let's talk about the value of press coverage. You can produce an ad that hardly ever runs, except for free, in news stories about the ad. We have recent examples of that - the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth ad back in 2004. ANDREA BERNSTEIN: Right, that ad got maybe just a little over 100,000 dollars’ worth of actual money behind it. It got hundreds of millions of dollars in the equivalent in newscasts. Campaign consultants are not shy about acknowledging that they do this. They put up an ad and they don't really spend any money on it, and yet the news media report it.
There was an example this summer of a McCain ad where his campaign attacked Barack Obama for not visiting wounded troops in Germany on his European trip, and that ad ran something like a total of ten times. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Explain the context of that ad. ANDREA BERNSTEIN: The context of this ad was that there had been talk of Barack Obama scheduling a trip to see wounded troops in Germany. The Barack Obama campaign said the decision was made that it would have been seen as politicizing the troops and their plight, so they didn't want to do it.
But the McCain campaign asserted that he had cancelled it because he wasn't allowed to bring television cameras, even though the press that was traveling [LAUGHS] with Obama said it was clear that we were never going to be allowed to go from the get-go. And yet, this ad was placed on a very limited number of TV stations, and it was reported, and this assertion got out everywhere.
You know, the McCain campaign has been the less well-funded of the campaigns, and this is a sort of, you know, an open secret in political circles that this is what you do. You create an ad which is going to grab people’s attention and then you get all kinds of play on the cable networks over and over again, and it gets repeated enough so that people start believing it. BROOKE GLADSTONE: So have we entered what, I think, Farhad Manjoo calls the “post-fact society?” ANDREA BERNSTEIN: You know, I hope not, but we know it has worked in the past. I mean, I think one of the big tests of this campaign will be whether this is an effective campaign by John McCain. He, in 2000, said, you know, one of his big complaints with George W. Bush and the Rove team was that they were making him a victim of false advertising.
Now all the people that did that are working for John McCain and, some have argued, are doing the same thing to Barack Obama, or are trying to. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Andrea, thank you very much.
ANDREA BERNSTEIN: Thank you. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Andrea Bernstein is the political director at our producing station, WNYC.