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Inside Politics

Media manipulation is the message for campaigns

But news outlets try to look beyond stump speeches

From Sital Patel
CNN Washington Bureau

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- In an age of endless news cycles and an explosion of news outlets, the major presidential campaigns engage in daily battles of media manipulation and one upmanship to get their messages out.

Campaigns stage multiple live media events throughout the day -- with backgrounds and props selected carefully -- prepare videos, distribute detailed position papers, zap out Web ads and e-mail commentary, feed quotes to reporters by beeper and create online communities. Campaign officials also keep close tabs on their opponents in a bid to keep them from hogging the media spotlight.

"Because of 24-hour cable news and online news, the campaigns are played out in real time," said Doug Hattaway, a political consultant and the former national campaign spokesman for Al Gore.

Campaigns like to use a variety of tactics to get maximum exposure for their cause.

Around midday is ideal to hold events, according to Hattaway, when the local news can cover it and air for the evening newscasts.

"Timing your own stuff is pretty straightforward," Hattaway said. "You find the best time of day to get maximum media exposure without getting stepped on."

And keeping track of the opposition is key.

"The idea is to time an attack press conference to spoil another press conference," Hattaway said.

For example, on March 11, Sen. John Kerry, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, was on Capitol Hill with Democrats and was scheduled to speak after a party policy luncheon.

But just before the event, Republicans held a press conference, blasting Kerry for some remarks he made earlier about his "crooked" opposition.

The GOP event overshadowed any talks about Democratic policies and agendas.

Hattaway said the strategy is to know what the other news of the day is so your news doesn't get "stepped on."

Listening, comparing sources

News organizations know campaigns are trying to generate the best coverage for their respective candidates.

"Campaigns are constantly trying to influence the coverage, off and on the record," said Sam Feist, CNN's senior executive producer of political programming.

"And we listen and that's OK. I have no problem with CNN reporters listening to the campaigns; we're gathering information."

But Feist stressed reporters have an obligation to check the information campaigns disseminate, comparing and combining it with facts from other sources.

The evolution of the media has inspired campaigns to become creative in getting the message out.

"One of the things we try to do [is] to make our point, but to make it with humor and use unconventional ways ... via Web ads," said Christine Iverson, spokeswoman at the Republican National Committee. "It's not a traditional way, but we are using humor to send a message about a serious issue."

People, Iverson added, tend to forward funny Web ads to friends and family, giving them extra exposure. The ads also tend to get covered by TV news broadcasts.

Campaigns are looking for ways to bypass the filter of editorial control as they get their message out, said Roy Peter Clark, vice president and senior scholar at the Poynter Institute, a school for journalists in St. Petersburg. Florida.

"There is a greater emphasis on advertising and a greater interest in media events over which the candidates have the most control of the message," Clark said.

But with the proliferation of 24-hour news, cable television can take events live, allowing the viewer a firsthand and immediate view.

"We want viewers to see the campaigns unfiltered rather than see just sound bites," Feist said. "We have the luxury of running stump speeches and through a reporter's story to tell the story -- rather than using sound bites."

Campaigns like to give advance word of their plans to news outlets in a bid to get coverage. Releasing an advance copy or excerpts of a candidate's speech is also common. And candidates will record sound bites for local radio morning stations.

"The average person listens to the radio on their way to work," Hattaway said. "It's a good way to get it [the message] out."

Another favorite trick is dumping bad news on Fridays.

"You want it to be confined to one news cycle, not a prolonged episode," said Hattaway, "so you get it all together and put it out all at once."

The weekend political shows are favorites of the campaigns.

"Every Friday, you get on the phone to the weekend producers to influence them," Hattaway said. "You attempt to feed quotes and information to convince them that they'll make news on their show."

During the 2000 election campaign, Hattaway recalls calling reporters to push the reaction or message of the opponent.

The goal, according to Kiki McClean, a former spokeswoman for the Gore-Lieberman 2000 campaign, is to never let a charge from the other camp go unanswered.

"Both are sophisticated media savvy teams," McClean said of the Bush and Kerry campaigns. "There'll be lots of up and downs for both for the next six months."

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