MSNBC host Martin Bashir led his program the other day with a lengthy discussion of a scandal the left-leaning cable network ominously called "Cookie-gate."
It stemmed from a campaign photo-op discussion that GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney had with suburban Pittsburgh voters in which he mocked the cookies they were served as looking like "they came from 7-Eleven." They had been donated by a popular local bakery, and over the next several minutes the cable TV channel spun the story as an example of how Romney has trouble connecting with voters.
"Cookie-gate" was the latest in a series of near-daily items that have dominated the presidential campaign recently. Somehow, rocker and outdoors enthusiast Ted Nugent, Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen, Romney's dog Seamus and President Barack Obama's long-ago description of eating dog as a child have taken turns dominating the national conversation.
But even though news outlets use these sexy-sounding reports -- as well as the latest poll or Twitter feud -- as chum to lure readers and viewers, surveys say there is no more interest in this year's presidential campaign than in comparable years like 1996, the last time a first-term Democratic president faced a GOP challenger.
Nevertheless, get ready for six more months of nonstory stories as the traditional political calendar and the journalistic news cycle have been overtaken by a 24-hour onslaught of information.
Relevance doesn't seem to matter. Nugent's last gold record was 1981's "Great Gonzos: The Best of Ted Nugent." But because he has endorsed Romney, liberal campaign operatives and news outlets seized on the avid hunter's statement to a National Rifle Association audience this month that the Obama administration is using the Constitution as toilet tissue. The Secret Service later investigated other Nugent comments about the president, but took no action.
It's a sign of how the all-but-official race between Romney, the presumptive Republican nominee, and Obama is so close that neither side feels it can afford to pull any punches, no matter how small or distasteful the cookie or the comments. Neither side is waiting until after Labor Day, traditionally believed to be when most voters start paying attention to the campaign, to launch their offensives.
"Both feel that nothing can go unchallenged and anything can be capitalized upon in the hope that they can get some traction," said Mitchell McKinney, a professor of political communication at the University of Missouri and an expert on the primary-election system. "It's an indication of a close race."
Fortunately for the campaigns, there has been an explosion in the number of news outlets and bloggers with a bottomless maw that needs to be filled with any kind of political-news tidbit.
There are more cable news programs than there were four years ago, with airtime to fill. More Americans regularly get their campaign news from cable news programs than any other source, according to a February survey by the Pew Research Center.
"So much of it is like garlic in a pan that sizzles -- and then it's gone," said Mark Jurkowitz, associate director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism. "But just because the media's metabolism has sped up doesn't necessarily mean that the public's interest in the campaigns has."
In fact, the increased amount of political coverage has not increased the amount of interest, said Michael Dimock, associate director of research for the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.
Compared to this point in 1996, when President Bill Clinton faced re-election, Pew found an almost identical amount of interest among Democratic and Republican voters, and a slight increase among independents.
Before Twitter, "campaigns would talk about winning the message of the day. Now they're talking about winning the hour," said Nick Judd, managing editor of TechPresident.com, which examines the intersection of politics and technology. "It may have made politics faster, but has it made it better or smarter?"
Campaigns aren't slowing down to find out. Neither have fundraisers, which need content, too. Operatives on both sides have used these non-stories to coax Americans to open their pocketbooks.
Democratic operatives and liberal commentators love the story about Romney transporting his family dog Seamus in a crate on the roof of their car during a 1983 road trip to Canada. One left-leaning super PAC called Animal Lovers Against Romney is planning to spend $1 million to retell the story in several battleground states.
Obama for America, the president's re-election arm, recently tried to capitalize on the squeaky-clean image of Bo, Obama's family dog, in a recent pitch titled, "Throw Bo a Bone on His Anniversary."
The "bone" would be a campaign contribution.
(Reach Joe Garofoli at email@example.com. For more stories, visit scrippsnews.com.)