Of press bias and polls

The last 2 weeks have been an education for those of us who did not believe in press bias. The speed and ferocity with which the national media have pounced on every misstep and inconsistency by the McCain/Palin campaign has been shocking. A man with a lifelong reputation for honesty and integrity has been portrayed a liar based on press indignation with two minor web ads. McCain has been rebranded by the media with stunning ease.

Now we are seeing the results of that rebranding, with a sudden swing back towards Obama in the national polls. The abrupt nature of the polling shift from Sept 16-18 indicates that it is not an inevitable deflation of the RNC convention bounce, but a direct reflection of negative McCain coverage over the last 10 days, culminating in the collective pronouncement of the punditry last weekend that McCain was campaigning dishonestly.

To win, the McCain campaign will have to adapt swiftly to this suddenly even-more-hostile media environment. So what are the after-action lessons from this latest swing?A. The national press collectively favors Obama. Worse, they appear to be unable to recognize it in themselves, and immune to challenge or protest. Persistent denunciations of media bias appear to have made it worse, not better.

B. The campaigns are judged by a double standard. The media aggressively pursue and report every inconsistency by McCain/Palin, while ignoring or downplaying similar missteps by Obama/Biden.

C. McCain made it easy for them. The campaign played right into the waiting arms of press bias by overreaching on several campaign ads, most notably the lipstick and sex-ed ads. The fact that Obama has also overreached is irrelevant; see point above.

So how can the MCain deal with such a tilted playing field?

  1. Recognize the double standard and adapt. Fair or not, it is very unlikely that the media will suddenly regain their professional objectivity. The McCain campaign needs to recognize that the imbalance in scrutiny will likey persist until Nov 2, and that continued protestations are unlikely to change this dynamic.

  2. Stop digging. The McCain campaign must realize they are being held to a higher standard of truth, and meet that standard. No, it’s not fair, but that’s the way it is. No more overnight web ads of questionable veracity. Grabbing the daily press cycle is not worth continued erosion of the McCain brand.

  3. Change the game – again. McCain is at his best as an insurgent. The bold Palin pick was a brilliant example. Now is the time to go back to the type of campaigning that won him the primary nomination. He needs to change the format of his rallies to all town halls, every day. He and Palin need to stand side by side, answering unfiltered questions from real voters. He also needs to restart the daily “straight talk express” sessions with reporters, and he needs to bring Palin along for these sessions.

Obviously there is risk to this approach. The media could continue to pounce on every misstatement, of which there will aways be many when talking in an unscripted environment. They could tear into Palin like piranha, turning every interview into a 100 question pop quiz on world leaders and political geography.

But there is also significant possible upside. First, the new approach would be a major news story that would dominate the news cycle for 2 or 3 days. After all, it deals with the media’s favorite topic: themselves. Second, it would remind people of the things about McCain they like, and would reinforce the campaign message of outsiders intent on reform. Third, and most important, it would be a visible break with the tit-for-tat web ads that have eaten into McCain’s brand over the last week.

Lately the OODA loop seems to have gained currency as a model for viewing the dueling campaigns. From an OODA perspective, McCain got into Obama’s OODA loop for a few weeks, but Obama has caught up now. It’s time to shake things up and get inside Obama’s head once again. Let McCain be McCain!

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