Do Politicians Need the Media Anymore?

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Steve Benen writes that the “traditional” press model, in which reporters interview candidates for office and then write stories about them, is withering away:

The traditional model is quickly being replaced, and for the first time, we’re finding multiple statewide candidates — Kentucky’s Rand Paul and Nevada’s Sharron Angle, for the example — who simply ignore reporters’ questions and blow off interview opportunities. The fear, of course, is that reporters might ask them to explain their extreme policy positions.

Eric Boehlert adds Sarah Palin to this mix. Are they right? Can politicians get away with not talking to the press these days? A few miscellaneous comments both pro and con:

  • At the presidential level, anyway, this trend has been ongoing for decades. It started with Nixon, took off under Reagan, and by the 1990s was in full swing. Presidents learned that they could get away with talking to the press less (or blowing them off with media-training-honed nonresponses) and talking directly to the public more, and they’ve been increasingly taking advantage of this ever since.
  • Rand Paul and Sharron Angle may be avoiding the press right now, but keep in mind that it’s early days for both of them and it’s not all that uncommon for candidates to lie low for a month or so after they’ve won a primary anyway. And Palin is a special case: at the moment she’s not running for office. She isn’t obligated to talk to anyone she doesn’t want to.
  • A better example than either Paul or Angle (or Palin) is California’s Meg Whitman. She’s not an extremist and she’s not just taking a break to regroup after a tough primary. In her case, she actually spent an entire primary largely declining to talk to the press. It was a pretty amazing performance. How did she get away with it? Easy. She just did it. And then spent $80 million of her Silicon Valley wealth to blanket the airwaves with attack ads.
  • Another aspect of this is that avoiding reporters is just a lot easier than it used to be. As Walter Shapiro pointed out a week ago, local news coverage of statewide candidates for office has shriveled almost to nothing in a lot of places thanks to newsroom cutbacks. During the final weeks of Senate campaigns in Kentucky, South Carolina, and earlier, Massachusetts, local reporters were almost invisible at campaign events.

If I had to guess, I’d say that Paul and Angle are unusual cases and probably don’t signify any kind of sharp turn. (And Palin is sui generis.) Still, as local reporting continues to decline and candidates realize they can get away with talking to potentially hostile reporters less, they probably will. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a slow but steady rise in bubble candidates like Meg Whitman, especially if they have reliable funding sources that don’t rely on broad media exposure.


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