McCain’s mastery of the “free media”

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In campaign speak, there are two kinds of media – the free media and the paid media.

The paid media are simply all of those 30-second spots that flood your television and radio on an hourly basis in the days and weeks before an election.  Depending on the market, candidates can pay anywhere from a couple hundred bucks to tens of thousands of dollars for those spots.  This, of course, makes fund raising critical for any candidates chances at victory.

That is… unless he or she can wrack up the “free media” and use that free media to create for him or herself an image of likeability, honesty, integrity, skill, intelligence, toughness and all of those other qualities that cause us to favor candidates who are combinations of John Wayne, Bruce Willis, Will Smith, Barbara Walters, Jerry Seinfeld and Superman.

The free media, also known as the “earned” media (mostly by the media),  is all of the press coverage that a candidate gets in the course of a campaign.  Often the amount of paid media a candidate can afford dictates the amount of free media they get (Dennis Kucinich) but once you get to this point in the campaign, it’s pretty much guaranteed that you’ll get some kind of coverage every day.

The challenge becomes not so much the quantity of free media one gets, but the quality.  When name recognition is high, as it is by now, candidates try to hone their portrayal in the media so that they can move the very important poll number of “favorable-unfavorable” into the favorable direction.

To that end, many have started to note the positive portrayal that John McCain receives in the media.  For purposes of this point, the media refers to the so-called main stream media – major networks, newspapers, cable news, etc.  The progressive/liberal blogosphere has gone so far as to dub him “Saint John” for the favorable coverage he tends to get.

This discussion has come to a head now with several of the top liberal bloggers and media critics (not always the same) calling for a concerted effort to take the media to task for its treatment of McCain and willful ignorance of things such as his foreign policy gaffes, comfort level with lobbyists, closeness to the GOP line and several other examples that they consider to be inconsistent with the picture of McCain – foreign policy expert, party maverick, corruption fighter –  that has been painted by the candidate and… “the media.”

Jay Rosen did a great job of tracing the argument throughout the blogosphere with a post from his own blog and on The Huffington Post.  As a media critic, Rosen also makes several good suggestions for the blogosphere to help keep reporters’ feet in the fire and let them know that they’re being watched:

*Keeping pounding on the press for what it refuses to ask McCain, or hasn’t tried to report upon. This is the most legitimate kind of criticism there is, and–as Atrios once noted–part of what the blogosphere was originally for. If the “war” means that, I am all for it.

*Check it out: If the press has the opportunity to ask lots and lots of questions, the demand for good questions goes up. Someone may ask yours, especially if bloggers develop the background narrative that shows why the unasked questions matter to the nation.

*”The journalists who covered McCain in 2000 feel very self-conscious about the criticism that the press came under for apparently being so taken with John McCain” says Ana Marie Cox in Kurtz’s January 20 report. She’s been covering McCain for Time.com, so she’s been on the bus with the gang. “There’s a sense that the first time was so fun and exciting, but this time we’re really going to be sober and critical and the dispassionate observers we’re supposed to be.” Doesn’t mean “sober and critical” will happen. It does mean they feel uneasy about it. They feel watched, and the blogosphere is definitely part of that. So… watch!

If you’re reading this blog, you’re part of the blogosphere too so start asking questions (in writing).  Who knows which reporter will see it and put to McCain while he or she is riding on the Straight Talk Express.

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