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Quantifying this Year's "Lame" Presidential Campaign

BY Nick Judd | Thursday, August 16 2012

Illustration: David Colarusso

According to one analysis of political media coverage provided exclusively to techPresident, mainstream media outlets cite unnamed sources from either campaign more than nearly any other campaign source.

The 4th Estate Project, an outfit that uses language processing algorithms to do media analysis, provided details on the sourcing and focus of campaign coverage this summer. The results, which cover the campaign from around Newt Gingrich's exit from the primary race on April 15 to Aug. 11, are striking.

For this month to date, according to a 4th Estate analysis, almost 35 percent of stories about the campaigns have been focused on strategy or horse-race, who's-up-who's-down prognostications. Fifteen percent of stories covered candidate character. Only about 13 percent covered the economy. That "lame" campaign that's "hit rock bottom" everyone's been talking about? Yeah. No joke.

Columnists and political writers have been calling shenanigans for weeks now on the nigh-obsessive level of control campaigns have pursued over the course of the campaign conversation, limiting access to candidates, responding selectively to inquiries from the press and, as Jonathan Martin reported recently, even attempting to influence the pool reports that reporters share with one another.

Simultaneously, the election is drawing jeers from observers for its lack of substance. Even campaigners are surprised at the lack of truthiness and the wanton stretching of the facts.

"My job is to be an advocate as a media consultant," said Chris Mottola, a Republican ad man who says he's been involved in every presidential campaign since 1996. "But now everybody's writing editorials about everybody else's editorials. And while it gives me more power, I'm not sure how good it is for the process, because there is a lack of restraint, there is a lack of institutional accountability."

This is far from a new problem, says Victor Navasky, chairman of the Columbia Journalism Review, although it's fair to say it might be worse in the 21st-century media environment.

"in my view if you look at the history of these campaigns there's nothing unusual about this one," Navasky said. "There have been much uglier campaigns and probably cleaner campaigns. The real question is, are they focused on issues or are they focused on trivia?

"And it's the media's job to keep them focused on issues," he added.

But who, exactly, is the media going to hold accountable? Beyond the tightly controlled world of either candidate is a constellation of press staffers and policy advisers who could conceivably be talking on the record. Where, as my colleague Nancy Scola asked earlier this week, are the policy advisers who can best represent the candidate's vision?

Perhaps Paul Ryan will be Mitt Romney's economic totem after all, and replace a list of media-maligned professional communicators like Rick Gorka and Eric Fehrnstrom. The Obama camp has a list of White House advisers, like economic policy wonk Brian Deese or Ben Rhodes, who frequently come out from behind the curtain for interactions with everyday people.

But they don't appear as regular characters in the stories coming out of this campaign trail, according to 4th Estate data. This data excludes statements from the candidates themselves:

Romney senior adviser Ed Gillespie, former top Obama senior adviser David Axelrod, and Vice President Joe Biden are the only three people in this campaign who are individually quoted by name with any regularity. A full ten percent of statements coming from the Obama campaign are attributed as campaign statements in the 4th Estate analysis, without a name attached; nearly 12 percent of statements from the Romney campaign come with similar attribution. Unnamed Obama staffers and White House sources account for an additional seven percent of sourcing in aggregate from Team Obama, and unnamed Romney staff account for nearly nine percent of statements attributed to the Romney campaign in coverage 4th Estate tracks.

Put another way, seventeen percent of statements attributed to the Obama campaign or the White House in a campaign story come without a person's name attached. Twenty-one percent of Romney campaign statements are likewise unattributed.

In short, reporters are pillorying this campaign as anodyne and anonymous, devoid of personality, even as they publish reams of words while often holding no one accountable for their utterance. But not everyone is going along.

In Charlotte, N.C., where local journalists are playing host to a dose of D.C. communications culture, reporters are rejecting as out of hand the extent to which officials prepping for the Democratic National Convention would like to speak off the record.

Access, says North Carolina-based Andria Krewson, a journalist covering swing states in a project of the Columbia Journalism Review, is harder to use as barter with reporters who have no access to lose.

"At least here in North Carolina, in Charlotte, we don't really follow the rules of off the record stuff and controlled messages stuff," Krewson told me this week.

"It seems like the D.C. company-town kind of mentality is something that a lot of people have," she said later on in our conversation, "and when they come to a different part of the country they try to push those same rules on local journalists and local journalists aren't buying it."

The reasons for wanting this level of control are obvious. In a rejection earlier this week of the way campaigns are limiting access to their candidates, Jonathan Martin broke down the likely reasons why campaign staff were attempting to keep a handle on Joe Biden, the famously unconventional orator:

In an era of Twitter and saturation news coverage — when one stray remark can upend a day’s news cycle and campaigns struggle to shape their preferred message — politicians and their aides are increasingly intent on restricting the media’s interaction with candidates. Barack Obama or Mitt Romney both shun the sort of freewheeling news conferences that used to be a staple of campaigns. And when reporters do seek to engage the candidates, the staff minders attempt to shut it down with ham-handed aggressiveness.

All candidates live with the contradiction — a media culture that implores politicians to seem authentic but is ready to punish them when they really are — but the challenge is especially exquisite in Biden’s case.

Navasky, chairman of CJR, agrees. But he says it's the responsibility of journalists to get more on the record, Internet or no Internet.

"The strong presumption should be against using things that you can't attribute," said Navasky. "Background is better than off the record, because you can say that someone from the campaign said it, but in the end, the more accountability, the better."

This post has been updated. It briefly listed imprecise titles for Ed Gillespie and David Axelrod.