Thursday, August 2, 2012

Message Disciplining: How Should GOP Candidates Approach The Media

With the media having heckled Mitt Romney across Europe and the Middle East, the question of how the GOP should deal with its adversaries in the MSM is a salient one. Conservative shoe-leather reporter RS McCain offers some sharp criticism of GOP-style "message discipline" whereby Republican candidates enter into a protective bubble to avoid baying reporters:

This Ziegler-style hostility toward reporters was something I experienced during the 2008 campaign. No publication on the planet had been more hostile to the Clintons than The American Spectator, yet when I showed up on the campaign trail to cover Hillary’s primary campaign, the reception I got was surprisingly cordial. 
Twice I covered impromptu post-event ”availabilities” (i.e., press conferences) with the candidate, including one in Shepherdstown, W.Va., where I sat in the front row less than 10 feet from Hillary while she took questions from a press corps that kept asking variations on the question, “When are you going to quit?” 
When I subsequently went out on the trail to cover John McCain, by contrast, there were no press conferences, and when Sarah Palin was added to the ticket, she was kept within a protective “bubble.” In fact, McCain campaign staffers at times tried to cordon off reporters in a pen, so as to prevent them even from interviewing people attending campaign rallies. 
This is what GOP operatives like to call “message discipline,” and it has the predictable effect of entirely alienating the press corps. 
Suppose that you are a correspondent who is following around a candidate at considerable expense to your news organization. Your bosses expect that you’re going to provide them with actual news, and hopefully something exclusive. Instead, you go to three events a day at which the candidate gives the same basic stump speech over and over. There’s never a press conference, never a minute of unscripted access to the candidate, and the campaign staffers are under orders never to tell you anything useful in terms of actual news that might distract from the pre-approved Message of the Day. 
Wouldn’t that piss you off? And especially if your editors had sent you all the way to Warsaw, Poland, for such a dog-and-pony show?

On the other hand, Bill Quick says, why bother, the media hates us and is only interested in our candidates long enough to destroy them:

Republicans didn’t alienate the press corps. The (mostly) left-wing press corps hatesRepublicans, and ever since the Kennedy era, has done everything in its power to destroy Republican candidacies when and wherever it covers them. This sort of thinking is akin to a similar malady that far too many Republicans do believe in – that if they can just get the left to like them a little, they can get the left to compromise on principle with them. Then they are shocked when the left says, “You know, you’re kinda likeable, but this is business, sorry,” and then hands them their heads. Again. 
The fellating tools, hack propagandists, and lying leftist liars of the press corps are not going to be any friendlier to the GOP, not at least where the journalistic rubber meets the reporting road, no matter how the GOP attempts to “manage” (read: ingratiate themselves with) them.

I don't think you can argue against Quick's point. The press is unabashed in claiming an aggressive "independent" role in "vetting" Republican candidates and then dogging any Republican office holder with all manner of absurd charges whether of "shredding" the Constitution or engaging in nepotism by arranging a minimum wage job at a souvenir store for your 14-year old daughter. Really, it's not even the bias that grates; it's that the media is congenitally incapable of treating conservative or GOP politicians with the sort of bottom-line level of respect that they offer to the Prime Minister of Canada. And, don't think Democrats don't know this and revel in it. 

Still, if media bias were as all-powerful as Republicans believe, they would never win elections at any level. But, many Republicans do win elections, including 5 of the last 10 presidential contests. That's because our successful politicians are able to do what the losers think is impossible: talk over the heads of the media. (I can remember an old Doonesbury cartoon set at a Reagan press conference where Ron was explaining supply-side economics to a skeptical White House Press Corps. Reagan starts saying,"Say you have a watermelon and a cherry..." and a reporter yells out, "Oh, no! He's going over our heads and speaking directly to the American people!") Harsh reality is that our guys have to be twice as smart and capable as the typical Democrat. A GOP-er with the wit and wisdom of John Kerry or Harry Reid would have been drummed out of office years ago, but as Democrats they are respected elder statesmen. 

McCain, though, has the better argument because not every reporter is a leftist a**hole still seething over high school. I don't think Mitt Romney needed to respond to a gaggle of hecklers at a Polish war memorial, but there's something to the idea that he should be facing some questioning from the press. McCain relates a story from his days covering the Hillary! campaign where she - the former First Lady, and Senator from New York - went out every day to face hostile questions about why she hadn't yet dropped out of the Democrat primary race. You can't help but admire that sort of grit, and more importantly, she was able to get a message out without looking like she was fleeing a hit & run. 

There are plenty of fair, if not sympathetic, reporters out there. McCain, for one, is a great one with an unerring nose for politics. (He covered Hermain Cain from that candidate's earliest days and, in typical "message discipline" style, found himself shut out once Cain began to rise, and the "vetting" began). But, he's out there in an undisclosed location living hand-to-mouth instead of pissing away millions on a DNC-talking points operation like Tina Brown's Newsweek. Republican candidates, and more importantly their media guys, still look to CNN, MSNBC, the Times, and the Post for coverage. Are you kidding me? No Republican should ever go on MSNBC unless they lose a bet, but Romney's guys go on there all the time, emerging with manufactured gaffes trailing in their wakes. 

There is a media that Republicans can engage with. It's called talk radio, Fox News, W$J, and the blogo-sphere. Talk to those folks. They have bigger audiences, anyway. 

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