Jack Shafer: Politicians' Media Dodge May Be A Good Thing

Over at Slate, Jack Shafer takes note of the many politicians this campaign season who have beat a retreat from engaging with the press and suggests that it may not be such a bad thing. Or at least not that noteworthy: "What's so special about this year's election? Even President Obama has shunned press conferences, and he's not running for office." He goes on to mount the argument -- an optimistic one, in my view -- that perhaps the reluctance to engage is "a sign of a robust, questioning, and skeptical press."

Go read the whole thing. As for myself, I found this part rather interesting:

If physically evasive politicians indicate a vital press, what's the best marker of a sick press? I get the dry heaves every time I think of the "press-friendly" 2000 presidential primaries of John McCain, whose basic phoniness Jacob Weisberg decoded at the time. Politicians who appear too helpful and too open to reporters are always manipulating them. This doesn't make them bad people. It's just what politicians do. They seduce and abandon. Some of them are so good at it that they re-seduce and re-abandon every campaign cycle. Personally, I'd be more disturbed if the press and politicians were getting along better.

I think it's worth noting that in the case of John McCain's presidential ambitions, the "seduce and abandon" construct works both ways. The popularity of McCain and his "Straight Talk Express" tropes were at their peak during those periods of time that no one in the press had to actively contemplate McCain actually being the GOP nominee. As long as he was the lovable also-ran, the press was happy to flatter him. And memories of that cozy relationship were probably a factor in McCain's decision to attempt a second run. But as soon as he secured the nomination, the press had to engage him as a serious contender, and the love affair ended.

As to Shafer's larger point, I don't know if a widespread unwillingness among candidates for office to engage the press makes for a healthy democracy, or indicates that the press has gotten more tenacious. Shafer's case has some legs, though. Not all national media attention is created equal, and sometimes, it really is "good news when candidates won't speak to the press." For example, this Sunday, "Meet the Press" got Michael Bennet and Ken Buck to sit down for a debate and it was the most useless thing in the world! Candidates from Colorado performing for people who can't vote in Colorado on Sunday morning television, two weeks before an election? An utterly useless endeavor. Additionally, when Christine O'Donnell vowed to disengage from the national media in order to have more time appealing to Delaware voters and making her case to local outlets -- I have to admit I thought that was pretty smart.

But that's beside the point, because a unilateral media withdrawal is not exactly what's happening. O'Donnell didn't actually disengage from the national media, she just upped her engagement with Sean Hannity, who lives in her "back pocket." Similarly, candidates like Sharron Angle are talking to "the media," as long as "the media" is willing to stage an Angle campaign infomercial on her behalf. Yes, as Shafer points out, Palin's unfiltered tweets get picked apart by the press, seemingly to her detriment, but the press probably shouldn't be treating her social media excursions as anything other than hearsay.

Let's recall that Sarah Palin adopted this whole "don't reload, retreat!" policy with the media because she routinely failed, in interviews, to clear the sorts of bars over which plenty of her GOP colleagues proved themselves able to soar. So, I'd say it's premature to start suggesting that there's been a healthy uptick in press tenacity (unless we're using Jon Ralston as a model, of course!). You really can't measure something unless you're able to test it.

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