In a recent article The New York Times offered a peek inside the news coverage of a presidential election in the year 2012, a revealing examination that showed the lengths to which the campaigns now go to control the message and sell the candidate's "brand" ("Latest Word On the Trail? I Take it Back" July 16).
It was yet more evidence that the nation no longer has presidential elections, but rather has a quadrennial exercise in mass marketing. The products, of course, are the would-be presidents and the target "consumers" are the voters.
Challenger Republican Mitt Romney is cast as the experienced businessman who knows what it takes to create jobs. Incumbent President Barack Obama is the Democrat who reversed an economic disaster and deserves four more years to finish the job.
Of course, in this high-stakes game it is not enough to promote the product, but also tear down the competition. In that marketing assault Mr. Romney becomes the greedy venture capitalist and outsourcer of American jobs. President Obama is branded as the guy who spent his first term seeking to bankrupt the country, suffocating business under a blanket of regulation and foisting Obamacare upon the citizenry.
Campaign aides dare not stray from the message. The Times reported that the Obama campaign requires that in return for access to its top strategists, news organizations have to agree to a form of censorship. After the interview, reporters review their notes, pick the quotes or sound bites they plan to use and forward them to Obama headquarters in Chicago. The press office has veto power over what statements can be quoted or attributed by name, and often reporters learn the comments they hoped to use are off limits.
The Romney campaign control is not quite that centralized, yet. But the Times reports that top Romney advisors almost always require that reporters get their OK before using any information from an interview.
In both cases, the sources often tweak and adjust their quotes to get them just right, sanitizing away any comment that might prove controversial or off message.
Major media outlets covering presidential campaigns share some of the blame for acquiescing to the manipulation, largely out of fear that a competitor will get all the access and quotes if they don't play nice.
The new media, with its 24-hour news cycle, created the environment in which campaigns feel compelled to so closely control information. Campaigns have come to learn that one poor choice of words can come to dominate the news for days. News organizations, particularly the all-news networks, fixate on these gaffes rather than the real and more complicated policy issues. Such was the case when Eric Fehrnstrom, a top Romney aide, suggested his candidate could change positions in the general election as if shaking up an Etch-A-Sketch, or when President Obama said "the private sector is doing fine," when pointing to job losses in the public sector.
Some genuine policy debate does take place among all this spin control, and the choices in this presidential election are stark. President Obama would push forward with implementation of the Affordable Care Act, while Mr. Romney would kill it. Mr. Romney pledges to cut domestic spending, with states given greater control over Medicare and other social programs through block grants, while the president backs the existing federally dominant approach. The president sees environmental regulation as vital to protect health and natural resources, Mr. Romeny sees it as overly burdensome and bad for business. Mr. Romney's policies would continue to shrink the role of labor unions in the private sector, also considering them bad for business, while an Obama presidency would continue to be labor friendly. The president sees regulation as necessary to avoid a repeat of the Wall Street abuses that contributed to the financial collapse, while his challenger warns over-regulation is killing entrepreneurial innovation.
These are the issues many Americans want discussed and debated in-depth. But they are tough to explain in a 30-second commercial, a sound bite or a manufactured quote.
Just stick to the script.