How TV News Should Handle Campaign Ad Releases

09/26/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

To: Friends in the TV news media
From: Phil Trounstine
Re: Getting snookered by phantom ads

John McCain has released TV ads accusing Barack Obama of:
-- Failing to visit wounded troops in Germany because he couldn't bring the media with him.
-- Being personally responsible for the high price of gasoline because he opposes offshore oil drilling
-- Having no more substance than Paris Hilton and Britney Spears.
-- Being in the pocket of Tony Resko
-- Failing to win Joe Biden's or Hillary Clinton's endorsement
-- Etc., etc. etc.

But did the McCain campaign purchase a significant block of broadcast time for any of these ads? Or were they made and released only for the purpose of sparking TV news stories that would, in the course of their reporting, show the ads over and over, giving McCain millions of dollars worth of air time for his attack ads?

We've seen this movie before. The most famous example was the daisy ad for Lyndon Johnson and against Barry Goldwater. It aired once. Those famous swift boat ads against John Kerry hardly ever aired on TV. But the news coverage of them drove one of the most damaging - and false -- charges against Kerry's character.

McCain's campaign is playing the TV news shows for hapless fools - getting millions of dollars in exposure for attack ads for which the campaign never intended to buy major air time.

How should TV news shows cover these phantom ad buys? When they receive an ad, they should demand that the campaign demonstrate a schedule showing that they have bought at least $100,000 to $200,000 worth of time in a state (depending on the size of the media market) or $1 million nationally. The size and region of the ad buy should be reported.

If the campaign can't demonstrate that they have made a serious buy, then the ad should be treated like a press release. It should be quoted (if it's newsworthy) but not aired for broadcast. Otherwise, the TV news show is essentially making a non-monetary contribution to the campaign and at the same time getting used like a cheap whore.

These rules should apply to both sides. Obama shouldn't be allowed to get away with this sneaky tactic either. The point here is to hold the campaigns to a measure of reality: If it's an ad intended to be seen by a large number of people, then prove that's what it is. Otherwise, it's just a video press release.