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Campaign directors debate role of media in election season

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With highly contested national, state and local elections coming to a head in a mere two weeks, some of the masterminds behind these races took a night off the campaign trail to discuss the role of media in deciding elections, and how they as communications directors and campaign consultants use the media to their advantage.

Every city’s media scene is unique, and all four panelists at the San Diego Society of Professional Journalists’ meeting Thursday agreed that in San Diego, Twitter has taken over as the predominant means of attracting media attention.

K.B. Forbes, communications director of the Carl DeMaio campaign, went so far as to say that Twitter actually drives the news in San Diego, dubbing it “Twitterlandia.”

“There’s not much media here,” Forbes said. “You have your TV outlets, the Voice, you’ve got The Daily Transcript, you’ve got the U-T, and that’s pretty much it. You’ve got a couple weeklies out there but they’re not making much noise, so I think it’s interesting how Twitter has really dominated.”

While the panelists said that having a Twitter presence was vital for the success of any campaign, there were no allusions about the audience being reached.

“You’re not really talking to undecided voters on Twitter,” said Mary Anne Pintar, the communications director behind Scott Peters’ campaign for Congress and president of Pintar Communications. “You’re talking to reporters, and you’re talking to people who’ve really already made up their mind.”

There was some debate about how much of a spin local news sources that do reach undecided voters put on the campaigns, especially in light of recent changes to the U-T San Diego. The two panelists representing Democratic clients found the open agenda of U-T owner Doug Manchester very disconcerting, and questioned whether sending their clients to debates hosted by the publication, or for interviews seeking its endorsement, would be a smart move.

“How can you not worry about it when Doug Manchester has made his agenda so clear, and I’m sending my Democratic candidate into the lion’s den?” said Jennifer Tierney, communications director for City Council and judicial candidates in San Diego and founder of Gemini Group, on whether it was worth seeking the paper's endorsement for her candidates.

Pintar said she faced similar misgivings about a recent U-T-hosted debate, but was ultimately pleased with its fairness and the wall between the news and editorial sides of the paper. Neither she nor Tierney were confident that this separation would exist for much longer.

Jason Roe, a consultant with Revolvis who is currently running the DeMaio and Brian Bilbray campaigns, said the U-T’s online television platform has opened doors for him in terms of advertisement. He said he used to view buying an ad in a daily newspaper as just lighting money on fire, but the U-T’s expansion to multiple platforms is changing his mind.

“I actually think that what’s going on with the U-T is a very interesting experiment for how to make dailies relevant,” Roe said. “What they’ve done in terms of using online advertising, U-T TV and all these different platforms to make it now worth it to me to buy a print ad, where before I would have never thought about it. For the first time in my life I’ve looked at this in a favorable way and spent money on it.”

Perhaps the most cause for concern to the panelists is the negative impact the Citizens United decision has had on their ability to direct campaigns. Because they are unable to coordinate with the special interest groups spending millions on tangential campaigns, these consultants believe that the candidates are no longer the ones deciding the election or even making the big decisions.

“The actual real negative of it is we can’t control anything that happens out there,” Roe said. “The candidates and the parties I think have less and less say in what’s going on in the election, and what the voters hear. All these groups, any individual from George Soros to the Koch brothers, can run these things and have more impact on the election than the actual candidate.”

Tierney said the frustration of seeing funds put to poor use was also a downside to Citizens United.

“I know we — and I’m sure everybody else here — we live in fear of what some of these outside interests will do, what they will say and how well they will do it,” Tierney said. “And it’s hard not to sit there and look and say, ‘There’s $500,000 that is going to do who knows what; I could have spent that money so much better.’”

What the panelists do still have control over is the information they publish on behalf of their clients, which is being scrutinized under an ever-stronger magnifying glass as fact-checking becomes the norm. Pintar said this just amounts to more vigilant vetting of what her campaign writes in mailings and press releases. Tierney said the bigger issue to her is candidates speaking off-the-cuff, which is harder to correct than a mailing.

Forbes took a different stance, positing that fact-checking is not the role of journalism, and is taking focus away from the actual story.

"There’s arrogance when these journalists who are just supposed to be reporting the news are saying, ‘Well you’re wrong and I get to decide when you’re wrong,’” Forbes said. “I just don’t see the role of journalism to be telling you that it’s right or wrong. You can have facts showing this and facts showing that.”

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