Not necessarily the news

The National Republican Congressional Committee has a new online campaign tactic, which Democrats don’t think very much of: websites critical of Democrat candidates which are made to resemble online newsletters, optimized for high search-engine priority and promoted with Google ads in the relevant electoral districts.  One detects a certain degree of unhappy lip-biting from media outlets reporting on the story, although they’re having a little trouble expressing exactly what’s wrong with the tactic.  That’s probably because they don’t want to address the follow-up question of how the NRCC “faux news” sites are fundamentally different from what many mainstream-media sites do to help out their favorite Democrats.

Look at the proliferation of so-called “fact checking” sites during the 2012 campaign.  Many of them belched out thinly-veiled Obama propaganda.  Others bent themselves into logical pretzels trying to give the incumbent President the benefit of the doubt.  “Half-true” became a euphemism for “outright Obama lie, but he said something vaguely accurate in the general vicinity of the lie.”  Going back through those campaign 2012 “fact checks” today is grimly amusing, especially when you hit one that tried to shore up some attack from the clueless Barack Obama against Mitt Romney’s entirely accurate foreign policy prescriptions.

National Journal reviewed what they described as the “faux news site” strategy, and seemed a bit flummoxed by the cheerful neener-neener attitude of Republican comms people as they piled into the back of their fact-checking pickup truck and took a joyride across the media landscape:

The NRCC’s single-page sites are designed to appear to be a local news portal, with logos like “North County Update” or “Central Valley Update.” The articles begin in the impartial voice of a political fact-checking site, hoping to lure in readers. “We’ll take a look at her record and let you decide,” starts one. Then they gradually morph into more biting language. At the very bottom, in a box, is the disclaimer that the NRCC paid for the site.

“This is a new and effective way to disseminate information to voters who are interested in learning the truth about these Democratic candidates,” said Andrea Bozek, communications director for the NRCC.

Political strategists on both sides of the aisle say voters have generally grown weary and dubious of political attacks that are accompanied by dark clouds and ominous music. Wrapping an attack in the innocuous language of fact-checking, then, makes it more likely to sink in.

“We believe this is the most effective way to present information to leave a lasting impact on voters,” said Bozek, who declined to say how much the NRCC was spending to promote the sites. The online ad spending, being done by the NRCC’s independent expenditure arm, must eventually be disclosed but likely only in the aggregate.

Democrats say it’s telling that Republicans are repeatedly resorting to deceptive tactics to push their political agenda. “These sites say more about the NRCC’s own toxicity and desperation than anything else,” said Ryan Rudominer, a Democratic strategist who previously worked for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Bozek’s response to the Democrats’ criticism: “They’re just jealous that they didn’t think of this strategy first.”  To extend my pickup-truck joyride metaphor, that’s like doing doughnuts in the DCCC’s front lawn and speeding off in a shower of empty beer bottles.  Not to spoil her fun, but given the 2012 fact-checker meltdown I mentioned above, the Dems arguably did think of it first; the Republicans organized and streamlined the process.

As the NRCC quickly points out, nothing on these websites is untrue.  There is no sacred ritual of purity one must undergo to become a member of the priestly Unbiased Journalist caste and gain the right to set up a news website.  (If there was, half the Internet would be wiped out with divine thunderbolts, and there would be a brimstone-laced crater where MSNBC headquarters used to be.)  The sites clearly declare themselves to be the work of the National Republican Congressional Committee, although admittedly one has to scroll down a bit to see that disclaimer.  Disclaimers come at the end of video and radio ads too, don’t they?

Although a previous effort to create false candidate websites that attacked the candidate they purported to represent got the NRCC in a little hot water, everyone seems to agree there is nothing illegal or unethical about their “news sites.”  I’d say something about how the editorial slant is laid on so thick that nobody could get more than halfway down the page before suspecting they were reading a partisan campaign publication, but then again, lots of people still think the New York Times is something other than a partisan campaign publication.

It should also be noted that the NRCC websites aren’t hijacking the mastheads of major media publications.  They have fairly drab layouts that make them look like the sort of thing a local resident might quickly assemble with common do-it-yourself blogging tools.  The form of the small local newsletter is imitated, but no one’s intellectual property is being stolen or cloned.

Those false-flag candidate websites weren’t exactly a new idea, either.  Quite a few of the radio ads I heard during the presidential campaign season were made to sound like news bulletins or testimonials from disinterested third parties, until the disclaimer at the end.  Candidates from both parties have used deceptive phone calls and push polling for many years, and Obama hatchet man David Axelrod pioneered the Internet “astroturfing” technique of sending Democrat operatives into chat forums pretending to be “concerned Republicans.”  I don’t suppose it would be an impossible task to search the archives of the pre-Internet era and find dead-tree newsletters that did essentially what the NRCC websites are doing.  The Internet has a way of making old ideas new again, with an Information Age twist – in this case, making it very easy to create a news website with a, shall we say, pronounced editorial slant and getting it to the top of search engine results.

Cards on the table: as a writer who covers politics, I value transparency in reporting and a clear separation between news and opinion.  I don’t get that from the mainstream media as often as I’d like, particularly when partisan politics are the topic of discussion.  It would probably be naive to express disapproval at efforts to deceive or mislead voters in any way.  In this case, given that everything printed on the NRCC sites is factually correct and they aren’t concealing their ownership of the pages, the only deception comes from mimicking the format of a news website and borrowing the superficial trappings of “impartial journalism”… which many of those mainstream news websites have no right to wear.

I tend to agree with Bozek: the Democrats would have done this first, if they had thought if it first, and maybe the only reason they didn’t is that they have so many friendly “real journalists” on speed dial.  Speaking of which, it’s interesting how many major media outlets simultaneously ran stories critical of the new NRCC campaign, isn’t it?