by Paul Waldman
Mitt Romney and the reporters who cover him are caught in a vicious cycle. Romney is the most calculating and careful of candidates, yet he has also been prone to saying things that sound off-key or even outrageous. Stung by these “gaffes” and convinced that the press makes far too much of them, Romney grows ever more careful around reporters and less willing to take their questions. Starved for attention (and quotes), they in turn grow resentful, even desperate, and more prone to leap on the intemperate remark when it comes. In response, Romney gets even less willing to talk to them. This cycle, Politico’s Jonathan Martin pointed out, “has created an almost toxic relationship between Romney and his traveling press corps.”
The problem came to a head on Romney’s recent trip to Poland, when some members of the press corps, frustrated that he had taken only a few questions on his foreign trip, took to yelling in Romney’s general direction as he walked past them during a photo-op held at a cemetery where Poland’s war-dead lay buried. “What about your gaffes?” one asked. A Romney press flak lashed out, telling the reporters to “kiss my ass,” and adding, incongruously, “this is a holy site.” The relationship between the campaign and the press couldn’t seem to get much worse.
In some ways, it’s a surprise to find ourselves here. A few years ago, some people thought the traditional media would no longer be the key player they always were in campaigns, as candidates used social media to communicate directly with voters. Just look at how much attention Sarah Palin can get for an inane Facebook post! But that turned out to be overblown. Most voters aren’t reading the Obama campaign’s endless emails or tuning in to the Romney campaign’s Twitter feed, and the ones who are aren’t the ones they need to convince. So the old-fashioned media like newspapers and television are still essential, and if the reporters representing those outlets are exasperated with a candidate, he has a problem.
You might argue that reporters have a duty to give every candidate fair treatment, no matter what media strategy he adopts. But reporters are human beings doing a challenging, and crucial, job. When a campaign doesn’t make its candidate available and gives them nothing but the shallowest of talking points to work with, it makes reporters’ lives extremely difficult, and it’s inevitable that their resentment will show up in their stories. The Romney camp may brush this off as the “liberal media” not liking a Republican, but ideology has nothing to do with it.
You can see the evidence in the career of the one candidate who turned the vicious cycle of the press’ relationship with modern candidacies on its head: John McCain. There has never been a candidate who got more glowing coverage from American media than McCain did in his first run for president in 2000, and the reason was intensely personal. McCain gave reporters what they craved: unlimited access, interesting stories, and a seemingly genuine, unvarnished persona that amounted to talking to them as a human being, not an endlessly careful robot. And in response, reporters forgave many of his mistakes and painted precisely the picture of him he wanted. It’s hard to think of another candidate who was defined so much by his best qualities and best moments, in contrast to the way most candidates are defined by their worst. So many stories referred to McCain as a “maverick,” and prominently noted his record as a prisoner of war in Vietnam that it was hard to keep track.
But for reasons that are still unclear, when he ran for president again in 2008, McCain stopped being so friendly with reporters, and got into much the same cycle in which Romney now finds himself: Stung by coverage he didn’t like, McCain withdrew, becoming less the freewheeling buddy the 2000 press had known and more like every other candidate. He ended up getting nothing like the worshipful coverage he had enjoyed eight years before.
Of course, a few embittered reporters aren’t going to lose Mitt Romney the election, and some fence-mending on his part won’t win it. And Barack Obama, it’s worth noting, hasn’t exactly been a model of availability either.
But more important than the impact of the bad blood on Romney’s chances is its impact on voters’ ability to get the information they need to make an informed decision this fall. The more Romney withdraws from the press and communicates to voters only through simplistic television ads and vapid sound bites, the less they’ll understand about him. And the more reporters view him as a programmed, manipulative candidate, the less their coverage will contain the kind of substance and nuance that might contribute to a truly considered choice.
In the end, everybody loses.
Paul Waldman is a Contributing Editor with The American Prospect magazine and the author or co-author of a number of books about media and politics, including The Press Effect: Politicians, Journalists, and the Stories That Shape the Political World. His writing has appeared in The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe, and many other newspapers and magazines.