Blitzer ignored facts undermining "tough" McCain attack ad, Castellanos' reported link to McCain campaign
Research ››› ››› MATT GERTZ
On The Situation Room, Wolf Blitzer aired portions of an advertisement by Sen. John McCain's campaign without noting key facts undermining several of the ad's attacks on Sen. Barack Obama. Blitzer also solicited analysis of the ad from CNN political contributor Alex Castellanos without disclosing that Castellanos reportedly advises McCain on his campaign ads.
On the July 28 edition of CNN's The Situation Room, host Wolf Blitzer aired portions of an advertisement by Sen. John McCain's campaign without noting key facts undermining several of the ad's attacks on Sen. Barack Obama. Blitzer also solicited analysis of the ad from CNN political contributor Alex Castellanos without disclosing that Castellanos reportedly advises McCain on his campaign ads. Instead, Blitzer identified Castellanos only as a "Republican strategist." Blitzer also did not mention that another portion of the McCain campaign ad, which he did not air, falsely suggests that Obama's reason for not visiting troops at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center was that "the Pentagon wouldn't allow him to bring cameras."
During the segment, Blitzer aired the following portion of the McCain campaign ad: "Barack Obama never held a single Senate hearing on Afghanistan. He hadn't been to Iraq in years. He voted against funding our troops. And now, he made time to go to the gym, but canceled a visit with wounded troops." Blitzer did not challenge any of these assertions. In response to the ad's contention that Obama "never held a single Senate hearing on Afghanistan," he did not note that McCain has reportedly not attended a single hearing of the Armed Services Committee, of which he is a member, related to Afghanistan in 2007-08. In response to the ad's claim that Obama "voted against funding our troops," Blitzer did not note that McCain himself voted against legislation funding the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq or that, as CNN and Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz wrote, "Obama has frequently voted to finance the war but was one of 14 Senate Democrats to oppose a war-funding bill last year -- after Republicans removed troop withdrawal deadlines -- saying he did not want to be 'validating the same failed policy in Iraq.' "
After airing the ad, Blitzer asked CNN political analyst Donna Brazile, "Is this a smart strategy for Senator McCain to be leveling against Senator Barack Obama?" Brazile asserted that the ad was "another misleading attack" and noted that "Senator Obama did visit the troops when he was in Iraq, when he was in Kuwait, when he was in Afghanistan. But he made a decision not to politicize his visit to troops while he was in Germany. He's visited troops in -- as recently as June at Walter Reed." Blitzer responded by asking Brazile, "So, you're saying it's not a good strategy?" Brazile replied, "It's terrible when it's misleading and not factual."
Blitzer then asked Castellanos, "Is it a smart strategy for Senator McCain to be going after, you know, Senator Obama in this direct way?" After Castellanos replied in part by attacking Obama for "sometimes forget[ting] that service in the military is important," Blitzer asked Castellanos: "How would you -- if you were advising Senator Obama, how would you tell him to respond to this charge -- not only this charge, but the other charge from Senator McCain, that Senator Obama is more interested in -- is more interested in winning an election than losing the war?" Yet even when asking Castellanos a hypothetical question about what he would say "if [he] were advising Senator Obama," Blitzer did not mention that Castellanos is reportedly advising McCain. In a March 25 post on the washingtonpost.com blog The Fix, staff writer Chris Cillizza reported that Castellanos is a member of the "McCain Ad Council," a "group of advisers ... [that] will serve as outside thinkers and strategists to the [McCain] media effort." The New York Times similarly reported in a May 12 article that Castellanos is "an outside adviser to Mr. McCain's advertising team."
Blitzer also made the baseless assertion that in paying to run the ad in Washington, D.C., "I assume that the McCain campaign is ... eyeing Virginia, the Northern Virginia suburbs right now." Blitzer did not mention another possible motivation for the McCain campaign to run the ad in Washington: to target the national media. Politico senior writer Ben Smith did explore this possibility, writing that the ad "appear[s] to be directed almost entirely at the media and insiders." In a July 28 blog post, Smith further reported:
The new ad has been aired in the Washington, D.C. and Denver, Evan Tracey, who tracks media buys TNS Media Intelligence's Gampaign Media Analysis Group, told Politico.
"They're probably one part ads and one part press release," he said of the two spots. "I don't think these are in any part cornerstones to his message these days -- I think they're really designed to get in the press. They're airing them just enough so they can put their hands on the Bible and say they're airing them."
A McCain spokesman didn't respond immediately to an inquiry on the size of the buy, and Jonathan Martin reported that they wouldn't release details of the buy Saturday.
In contrast, a domestic-policy focused attack on Obama -- which went so far as to to blame the Democrat for rising gas prices -- is "a heavy hitter in McCain's rotation," on air in a core of battleground states, Tracey said.
Nonetheless, another shot, via press release, at Obama's Landstuhl trip today suggests that -- even if these attacks aren't central to McCain's televised message in the battleground states, they are at the core of the message the candidate and his aides are seeking to debate in the media.
From the July 28 edition of CNN's The Situation Room:
BLITZER: Barack Obama's back in the United States, but there's no "welcome home" sign from John McCain for Senator Obama. Senator McCain welcomes his rival with a hard-hitting new ad about what he did and didn't do on his trip. Let's discuss in our "Strategy Session." Joining us are CNN political contributor, the Democratic strategist Donna Brazile and Republican strategist Alex Castellanos.
If you watch local television here in Washington, you've seen this ad running. I assume that the McCain campaign is ear -- eyeing Virginia, the Northern Virginia suburbs right now. We'll run a little clip of this hard-hitting attack against Senator Obama.
NARRATOR [video clip]: Barack Obama never held a single Senate hearing on Afghanistan. He hadn't been to Iraq in years. He voted against funding our troops. And now, he made time to go to the gym, but canceled a visit with wounded troops.
BLITZER: All right, so you get the point. It's a tough ad. What do you think? Is this a smart strategy for Senator McCain to be leveling against Senator Barack Obama?
BRAZILE: Well, if the ad was factually correct, it might be a smart, hard-hitting attack, but it's just another misleading attack by the McCain campaign that finds itself desperate for attention and frustrated that it cannot get any traction.
Senator Obama did visit the troops when he was in Iraq, when he was in Kuwait, when he was in Afghanistan. But he made a decision not to politicize his visit to troops while he was in Germany. He's visited troops in -- as recently as June at Walter Reed. He support the idea --
BLITZER: So, you're saying it's not a good strategy?
BRAZILE: It's terrible when it's misleading and not factual.
BLITZER: Is it a smart strategy for Senator McCain to be going after, you know, Senator Obama in this direct way?
CASTELLANOS: You know, Wolf, this is actually the second time Barack Obama's done something like this.
He gave a commencement speech when he was filling in for Ted Kennedy, and he was inspiring young people to -- calling them to service. And of course, he mentioned all kinds of service, except one: serving in your armed forces in America.
So the -- Barack Obama's demonstrated a tendency to kind of, I think, sometimes forget that service in the military is important.
BLITZER: How would you -- if you were advising Senator Obama, how would you tell him to respond to this charge -- not only this charge, but the other charge from Senator McCain, that Senator Obama is more interested in -- is more interested in winning an election than losing the war?
CASTELLANOS: Well, I think that's a -- the best thing for him to do is to come out and explain that he's committed to winning the war, not to coming home until the war is won and until it's -- our interests are protected over there. And of course, Barack Obama is actually moving in that direction and changing his position.
BLITZER: What do you think?
BRAZILE: I think Senator Obama should explain what we should do now that our troops has -- have been very successful in Iraq, Afghanistan.
Look, I recognize that this, you know, "attack one's patriotism" is part of the old recycled Republican playbook, but Senator Obama has demonstrated with his votes on Capitol Hill, his votes when he was a state senator, he cares for our troops, he cares for their families. And that's the best way to show that we honor our troops for their service and sacrifice to our country.
BLITZER: Let's take a look at the latest polls right now, because the polls show, in our CNN average poll of polls, 45 percent for Obama right now, 39 percent for McCain, 16 percent -- that's a pretty large number -- still unsure.
That -- that's a pretty -- let's focus in on that unsure number. There's a lot of play now for those independents that are out there.
CASTELLANOS: You know, Barack Obama should be winning this thing going away. No one's ever had a worse hand of cards than poor John McCain. You know, frankly, it's an unpopular Republican administration, a war that a lot of Americans are concerned about, the economy, $5 gas, and yet, Barack Obama really is still in a tight race here. And I think one reason is because we don't know who Barack Obama is.
You know, he says, "Iowa, this is your moment." He goes to Europe, and says, "Berlin, this is your moment. I'm a citizen of America. I'm a citizen of the world." We're still trying to get a handle on who he is. We don't know.
BLITZER: People are still trying to -- a lot of people are still trying to make up their minds, according to this poll, 16 percent.
BRAZILE: Well, that's -- look, that's a good sign for Barack Obama, because look, John McCain has been on the scene now for over 30 years, and the fact -- and he's run before. The fact that Senator Obama is in the hunt and clearly right now leading in many of the major polls, that's a good sign. But he's also leading in the battleground states, and that's even more important.
BLITZER: But it's tightening up in several of those battleground states.
BRAZILE: It's tightening up, but Wolf, you know, until we see the vice-presidential selection process, the convention, and three presidential debate, this -- right now, we're just talking about polls.
BLITZER: Right. I think Donna is right on that. The polls, right now, I don't think they necessarily mean a whole lot.
CASTELLANOS: But there's one little thing that is happening. And that's Senator McCain has been running an ad in these battleground states, a bio ad about his service in Vietnam and sacrifice and putting his country first.
And of course, we're not seeing it here in Washington, so the news media doesn't think anything's happening. But it's tightening up where John McCain is running those ads. The campaign is working.
BLITZER: Those ads, I think, are pretty effective, where they put the positive. When he goes on the negative and starts attacking Senator Obama, I'm not necessarily sure that speaks for John McCain personally.
CASTELLANOS: Well, that's what's --
BRAZILE: Because it doesn't speak to John McCain. It doesn't speak to the man he is. I mean, look, everyone respects John McCain's service to his country, but there's no question the American people want to hear about the issues facing this country and the challenges.
BLITZER: See, a lot of those independents, they don't like to hear the mudslinging.
CASTELLANOS: Well, it's not mudslinging, though, about defining Barack Obama and who he is and what he's due. It's a fair fight to define Barack Obama. What is he going to do for the country? As a matter of fact, I think there's an obligation to define Barack Obama. And Republicans have it just the way Democrats do, just the way do you it in a courtroom.
BRAZILE: But it should be factually accurate.
BLITZER: All right.
CASTELLANOS: And of course it should be, and it will.
BRAZILE: It should be factually accurate and not a --
CASTELLANOS: And I'm sure it will.
BRAZILE: -- you know, a criticism of one's patriotism.
BLITZER: Guys, thank you.
BRAZILE: Thank you, Wolf.