Candidate-press relations are, well, about as ‘sour’ as usual
Having secured the nominations of their parties, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney have set their campaign throttles to late-spring idle with a speech here, a speech there, a commencement address over there, and fundraisers and soft TV appearances everywhere. Eventually, the two candidates will stop coasting, but until they do, reporters will continue to lard their work with exercises in meta-journalism, such as today’s 1,800-word Politico piece, “Obama and Romney’s common foe.”
The common foe, don’t you know, is the press! According to Politico’s Maggie Haberman and Glenn Thrush, Barack and Mitt both “disdain” the “political news media” because they believe reporters are “eager to vaporize them for the sheer sport of it.”
Is there anything new about presidents and presidential candidates having bad feelings for the press? Does nobody recall John McCain’s low regard for the New York Times coverage of his 2008 campaign? Or of George W. Bush’s attitude toward the press? Bill Clinton’s scorn? George H.W. Bush’s hatred? Carter’s? Nixon’s? Johnson’s? Sometimes candidates do charm the press, as McCain did in 2000, and the anti-war candidates of 1968 and 1972, but it’s the exception, never the rule.
No, there is nothing new about presidents and presidential candidates having bad feelings about the press, something the Politico piece readily admits. As Haberman and Thrush write: “Media-hating has been an occupational hazard among presidential candidates for decades, and it’s deeply self-serving.”
Then, Haberman and Thrush abandon the idea of media-hating being a campaign constant in their next paragraph, writing: “But 2012 is shaping up to be an especially sour cycle for the campaigns and the media, amplifying the natural tension between candidates and the press in the absence of an uplifting storyline.”
Attacking Politico for contradicting itself or for confusing a lightning bug with lightning (hat tip to Mr. Twain) may seem to be a fool’s errand. The people who edit and write for the site know good journalism from bad, but that self-knowledge doesn’t prevent them from serving half-baked, rancid dishes like this. Politico, which has become influential and ubiquitous in our political culture, depends on patrons like me to send entrees like this back to the kitchen and to summon the health inspector to do his thing. Only then can America be safe.
The evidence presented by Politico that this campaign is “shaping up to be especially sour” is so thin it almost vanishes. Obama has said vague things about being disappointed by the press, such as in his commencement address at Barnard College, and he delivered a cheap shot about Huffington Post’s aggressive aggregation in his White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner speech. But that hardly constitutes press hatred. Straining to come up with material, the Politico piece quotes David Plouffe’s The Audacity to Win, the Obama adviser’s 2009 memoir about the 2008 campaign, on press-candidate relations. Exactly how Plouffe’s views on his candidate’s relations with the press in the last campaign help show candidate-press relations approaching some new “sourness” plateau in this campaign is not explained.
Indeed, it shows that Politico doesn’t really have the goods to prove its thesis, as the piece zigs back to note that there is at least one outlet the president admires: An anonymous “onetime Obama press adviser” tells Haberman and Thrush that Obama “likes the New York Times,” which he thinks is “serious” as opposed to “the rest of you guys.” Also, Obama told Rolling Stone that he read all the Times columnists.
Perhaps Politico has conflated Obama’s dislike of Politico into a hatred of the entire press corps? I hope Haberman and Thrush pursue this angle with the anonymous onetime Obama press adviser.
Establishing that Romney hates the press should be a cinch, but Politico doesn’t even try. It reports that Ann Romney didn’t like a 1994 profile done on her by the Boston Globe during Mitt’s failed run for the Senate. That would be admissible evidence if Politico were attempting to show that 1994 was the nastiest year in press-candidate relations, but that’s not what the site is up to here, is it? It also tells us that Romney “walled” himself off from beat reporters during the primary campaign, that he has kept reporters off his “rope line” to prevent them from asking questions, that his camp thinks the Washington Post story about his Cranbrook days was a hit job, that he dislikes the extreme scrutiny (such as what brand of jeans he’s wearing) and that he has a “handful of favorites” in the press, including Washington Post blogger Jennifer Rubin. This sounds less like conflict to me than baseline candidate-press relations.
As presented by Politico, Romney’s most urgent media problem isn’t the conventional press, it’s the world of conservative bloggers, “who view him as a moderate,” as well as other conservative writers. Only Politico would dare conflate a Republican candidate’s inability to please conservative bloggers and conservative writers into confirmation of a candidate’s poor relations with the press.
Veteran White House reporter James Deakin posited the inevitability of confrontations between the president and the press in his 1984 book Straight Stuff: The Reporters, the White House, and the Truth and documented them in their many flavors. Likewise, presidential candidates and the press are equally apt to mix it up, and do, as readers of Teddy White and his successors have learned.
When Politico asserts that “Romneyland, like Obamaland, is inherently mistrustful of the press corps,” it’s hardly breaking news. Of course Romneyland and Obamaland are inherently mistrustful of the press corps, as were Santorumland, Gingrichland and Perryland, and for good reason. It’s the job of the press to expose things about candidates that they would rather not have you hear.
As a practical matter, voters and readers need never worry about the state of candidate-press relations. Until, of course, the unfortunate day comes when Politico reports everybody is getting along swell.
It’s not the job of the press to be liked by anybody. Or did I make that point already. Send your hate-the-press notes to Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com. There’s plenty in my Twitter feed to dislike. Sign up for email notifications of new Shafer columns (and other occasional announcements). Subscribe to this RSS feed for new Shafer columns, and subscribe to this hand-built RSS feed for corrections to my column.
PHOTO: President Barack Obama’s teleprompter, with the White House press corps in the foreground, shown in the East Room of the White House in Washington, September 10, 2010. REUTERS/Jason Reed