Campaigns Use Local Media As A Form Of 'Free Press'

In battleground states like Ohio, distant national figures running for the White House show up in person to capture the local news cycle again and again and again. The campaigns' desire to get "free media" simply by appearing is a source of excitement and exhaustion for local news organizations, which know they're being used but can't help themselves.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Throughout the presidential election, it seems we've talked endlessly about Ohio. Today, both President Obama and Mitt Romney held rallies there again. NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik wondered how local journalists are managing all the attention, so he traveled to Ohio and put together this story.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Let's set the scene.

JAY WARREN: I'm Jay Warren. I'm a general assignment reporter here at WCPO-TV in Cincinnati, Ohio.

FOLKENFLIK: So where are we, and what are you doing today?

WARREN: So we're at Jet Machine. This is a defense contractor here, located in Cincinnati. Governor Mitt Romney is going to be addressing this group here for a campaign rally. He has two stops here in Ohio today. After this, he's going to be going up to Defiance, Ohio, to another rally up there.

FOLKENFLIK: The event is beautifully produced. As Romney speaks, he stands before dozens of workers, the word job embossed in giant metal letters. The campaign signature double R for Romney and his running mate, Paul Ryan, carved into the center of the O in jobs. Cincinnati is home of Hamilton County. It's a swing county in a swing state. And the enthusiasm is palpable.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: We want (unintelligible). We want (unintelligible).

FOLKENFLIK: But this event is less for the hundreds filling the warehouse than the hundreds of thousands watching at home. Anthony Shoemaker is the political editor coordinating coverage for Cox Media's newspaper, TV station and radio stations in Dayton. He says the campaigns are looking to control the news cycle by creating events.

ANTHONY SHOEMAKER: They kind of want you to give them some coverage every single day. Our staff isn't getting any bigger. We're to the point now if it's not one of the four candidates or probably their spouses, we're probably not going to cover your event.

FOLKENFLIK: Every day, the campaigns shoot off emails with positive headlines and video clips from local coverage to national reporters, pundits and supporters - stuff that gets swapped around by partisans on social media too. Even in the digital age, Democratic consultant Paul Begala says political fortunes in swing states are often driven by such so-called free press. That is news stories rather than paid ads. Begala is now working for a political action committee running ads on President Obama's behalf.

PAUL BEGALA: A free press is driven by the local press, and these politicians understand that. So they're going to go there. They're going to try to dominate the local news.

FOLKENFLIK: Mr. Obama has appeared at two dozen events in Ohio, Governor Romney even more. And usually, the reports on these appearances reinforce the candidate's themes. This from Cincinnati's Fox station.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOX NEWS BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: For the undecided voters who didn't come to Romney, he rallied the crowd to go to them.

MITT ROMNEY: I need you to find someone else who might be thinking about voting for the other side.

FOLKENFLIK: Consultant Paul Begala is also a paid analyst for CNN, but he notes that surveys show viewers trust local TV news more than the national networks.

BEGALA: That's Biff Johnson, who's got my kid's high school football score, you know? And that's Skip Davis with the weather. Those are people we know and trust, and they're in our living room every night.

FOLKENFLIK: But lest you patronize Biff and Skip, they can have some bite too when things matter locally. Romney recently claimed on the stump and in TV and radio ads that Chrysler and GM are considering relocating jobs from Ohio to China. Both carmakers denied and rejected those claims. Chrysler is actually adding 1,100 jobs in Toledo. Local coverage of the flap has been relentless.

(SOUNDBITE OF WTVG NEWS BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Chrysler continuing to make it clear that jeep production is not moving from North America to China, but the story still...

FOLKENFLIK: That from Toledo's WTVG. Local newspapers' coverage has been largely critical, even on the front page. While the Akron Beacon Journal just published an editorial headlined False Facts, calling Romney's argument lame. As political consultant Paul Begala said, well before the flap over auto jobs began, the campaign's attitude toward the local press should always be to feed the beast, lest the beast should turn to feast on you. David Folkenflik, NPR News.

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