The Washington Post’s 60-second Super Bowl commercial, narrated by Tom Hanks, was one of the big subjects of pre-game advertising speculation.
By the time it aired in the fourth quarter, the joke was on them: Even with the game theoretically in either team’s grasp, it was a contest so boring that only fans of either team could actually care.
It was an expensive paean by journalists to themselves. The WaPo described it in an article (fittingly, again, about itself) as “a message underscoring the importance of newsgathering and the dangers journalists can face” and said that “Hanks’s narration describes the role of journalists as eyewitnesses and gatherers of fact as well as the profession’s larger importance to society.”
“The Super Bowl is a remarkable moment to recognize the courage and commitment of journalists around the world that is so essential to our democracy,” Fred Ryan, publisher and CEO of The Washington Post, told — well, The Washington Post.
“We decided to seize the opportunity to make this a milestone moment in our ongoing campaign.”
After still photos of historic events, the ad then featured pictures of slain and missing journalists, including Post columnist and Saudi Arabian dissident Jamal Khashoggi.
“Knowing empowers us,” Hanks said as the ad closed. “Knowing helps us decide. Knowing keeps us free.”
And then, the four most trite words in the whole news business: “Democracy Dies in Darkness,” The Post’s Trump-era slogan.
Not included in the advertisement, oddly, was the time where a WaPo journalist mistook a satirical article on one of The Onion’s websites as an actual quote from Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong.
Or the time where the newspaper ran an article critically examining the particulars of the fast-food banquet President Donald Trump threw for the Clemson University football team, this year’s NCAA football champions, and fact-checking the claims about the burgers and McNuggets came up short. Knowing exactly how many Whoppers there really were that day empowers us. Buy a subscription.
Beyond those disappointments, the tone of the entire advertisement was about as transparent as you could get, which is why conservative actor James Woods decided to take a shot at it.
We warn you that Woods’ language is a bit, well, colorful, and some might find it offensive. Reader discretion is advised.
— James Woods (@RealJamesWoods) February 4, 2019
Well, more or less.
The advertisement fails at what it tries to do. What it sets out to accomplish is provide more legitimacy for the media in a time when they’re seeking to counter that whole “fake news” moniker. And it does so by kind-of-sort-of associating itself with major touchstones in American history that they did nothing to catalyze.
When we think of the monumental events that take up the first part of the advertisement, we don’t think of the media except that they covered the events, which were self-evidently newsworthy at the time they happened. That’s literally the least they could do.
When I think of D-Day, the moon landing or civil rights marches, I don’t think of the bravery of the media. What I think of is the bravery of the soldiers who died on the beaches of Normandy, the astronauts who risked their lives to touch the surface of the moon, and the countless courageous men, women and children who took to the streets to end the iniquitous specter of Jim Crow. We all do.
Trying to conflate these American moments with the “valor” of reporters who were getting paid to be there is a non-starter.
As part of the historical-event montage, however, I can’t help but noticing one particularly interesting decision. When Tom Hanks narrates about a moment when “our nation is threatened,” you might be imagining 9/11, Pearl Harbor or the Cuban missile crisis. What we see instead is a still shot of the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing.
I can understand the expediency of this decision, given that Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh was part of a small cell of white, ultra-right-wing anti-government extremists.
It is that expediency and the implicit message that negates the entire point, though: It was a self-serving choice involving a tragedy where our nation was never in danger, albeit one which saw an unprecedented loss of life wrought by a deluded, twisted man and several confederates.
The Oklahoma City bombing had nothing to do with American conservatives or the Trump presidency, but the media — and The Washington Post — would love to convince the country otherwise.
So, about that implicit message. Even though he appears not once during the advertisement, the presence of President Trump can be felt throughout the commercial.
Oklahoma City seems to be the obvious moment, but you can probably glean plenty of other moments where the spot seems to whisper in your ear: “We’re on your side, #Resistance. We’re on your side, America. Come to our side.” As Woods noted, The Washington Post is basically carrying water for the Democratic National Committee here. That’s not the role of the objective journalists they pretend to be.
Of course, with Super Bowl advertising time going for at $5.2 million for a 30-second slot, according to CNBC, many noticed the problem in selling this one-minute advertisement as a great PR move for journalism.
$5.25 million could pay for 10 journalists making $50,000 a year for 10 years. https://t.co/QtT0CLYJzX
— David Rutz (@DavidRutz) February 3, 2019
Even several Post reporters noted the problems with justifying the cost, particularly given issues between WaPo employees and The Post’s owner, Amazon mega-billionaire Jeff Bezos.
I’m really proud to work at a newspaper that does this vital work.
But maybe next $10 million could go toward better health benefits, parental leave, equal pay, and more jobs for reporters? https://t.co/uM06SWUdHh
— Sarah Kaplan (@sarahkaplan48) February 4, 2019
Now unfreeze our pensions, pay an equal wage, and strengthen maternity benefits. https://t.co/l5yUBlsS2G
— Dan Zak (@MrDanZak) February 4, 2019
“Post staffers’ gripes with Bezos are not new. This past June, more than 400 employees signed an open letter demanding pay raises, equal pay, better retirement benefits, a higher 401(k) match and improved severance pay,” Fox News reported.
“A Post spokeswoman had no comment on the employee backlash and would not confirm how much it cost to reserve the ad time.”
On the other hand, if a report from the New York Post is true, this Super Bowl spot wasn’t intended to be a commercial for The Washington Post in the first place.
“Jeff Bezos pulled the plug on a $20 million Super Bowl ad for his spaceflight company, Blue Origin, after it was revealed his mistress had helped shoot footage for the commercial,” the Post’s gossip-oriented Page Six reported on Monday.
“Instead, the Amazon owner had a last-minute commercial created for his Washington Post, with some all-star narration by Tom Hanks.”
If that’s really the case, the only reason America ended up with this piffle in a nationally televised event was because a liberal billionaire didn’t want to draw attention to his messy personal life. The best we can say about the ad is that it was at least as boring and self-defeating as anything the Los Angeles Rams did on the field.
Oh, and it gave us an exceptionally funny tweet from James Woods. That’s always something.
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