Using the Free Media: Bush Could Learn From Kerry
I usually agree with Hugh Hewitt. I almost always agree with Hewitt's views on Kerry and his campaign. I don't, however, see "fraud" in Kerry making advertising spots that he releases to the news media, but then subsequently doesn't buy time for.
I confess ignorance of most of the campaign finance law. Therefore, this is not an analysis of whether the practice is legal. Assuming the practice is legal, I see no ethical problem with it. In fact, it's a politically shrewd move that the Bush campaign would be wise to follow. The Bush campaign claims that, to date, they haven't done this. They really should.
Here's how it works: Kerry or his campaign see an issue. It could be an issue brought up by the Bush campaign, or it could be an issue that Kerry wants to bring up. Either way, Kerry commissions an advertisement, announces it to the media, and the various news outlets run the ad on their news shows with a little placard at the bottom of the screen announcing that it’s a Kerry advertisement. News commentary should follow.
Kerry might be done with the ad after that. Or, if the Kerry campaign thinks running the ad might be helpful, then they run focus groups on the ad. Kerry wants to know before he spends campaign money whether the ad will move the numbers in his favor in particular swing states.
This is just smart. Creating an ad, even a polished, ready-for-primetime spot, is relatively inexpensive compared to buying airtime. When Bush announces a new spot, Kerry quickly prepares and releases a response ad. This means that no new Bush ad is run on the news without the follow-up: "But the Kerry campaign responded with their own ad, [roll tape]."
This means that Kerry's position will always be part of the conversation during the discussion. Conversely, Kerry might initiate a volley with an ad he never intends to run. Since Bush is not creating non-running ads, he either is not ready with a response, or the response is an old ad, or its a verbal response from the Bush campaign (which is usually less polished than the Kerry ad), or it's an ad the campaign feels compelled to air somewhere.
I'm sure Hewitt's position is that this practice is misleading to the media and the public - that part of the reason the news organization runs the ad is to let the public know that the campaign is purchasing airtime for the ad you are about to view.
The news media shouldn't assume this. The only assumption that seems warranted is that the ad accurately reflects the position of the campaign that made it.
Political ads are unethical if they are not labeled as ads (like the typical CBS news broadcast), or if they are patently untrue (like the typical CBS new broadcast and many of Kerry's ads). It is not unethical to make ads for the free media that are not later run at the campaign's expense. It's smart, shows flexibility, and should be done by the Bush campaign.
If Kerry is resorting to non-run ads in lieu of news conferences and interviews, then that should be criticized.