News

Mitt’s rift with the media

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Over the course of a week­long for­eign trip to Israel, Poland and the United Kingdom, pre­sump­tive Repub­lican pres­i­den­tial nom­inee Mitt Romney gave a series of inter­views to major tele­vi­sion net­works, but only answered three ques­tions posed by mem­bers the U.S. trav­eling press corps. Romney’s rift with the media prompted one jour­nalist to pro­claim that there is a “growing frus­tra­tion among reporters, a growing sense that the cam­paign doesn’t get it.” We asked Dan Kennedy, an assis­tant pro­fessor of jour­nalism whose weblog, Media Nation, is a nation­ally rec­og­nized source of news and com­men­tary, to explain how Romney’s han­dling of the U.S. press will affect future cov­erage of his elec­tion campaign.

Why do you think Romney stonewalled the U.S. press corps, and how do you think this decision will affect future coverage of his election campaign?

Sur­veys show that Amer­i­cans don’t like and don’t trust the media, which makes it tempting for pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates to run against them and to freeze them out as much as pos­sible. The problem is that the media remain the prism through which we see, hear and read about the can­di­dates. Except for his con­ven­tion speech and the debates, Romney won’t have many oppor­tu­ni­ties to speak directly to the public.

Even though reporters try to pro­duce sto­ries that are fair and neu­tral, some of their frus­tra­tion is bound to be reflected in their cov­erage if they believe they are being treated with con­tempt. More­over, when a can­di­date refuses to answer ques­tions, it cre­ates a per­cep­tion that he’s got some­thing to hide.

As much as it may gall Romney’s polit­ical oper­a­tives, they need to under­stand that the care and feeding of the press is part of their job. If they don’t figure that out, they may be dealing with neg­a­tive cov­erage for the rest of the campaign.

President Barack Obama leads Romney in three key battleground states—Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania—according to new polls from Quinnipiac University, CBS News and The New York Times. Will Romney’s perceived slight of the U.S. press corps further diminish his favorability rating and sway swing voters to cast their ballots for Obama or will his stance on hot-button issues such healthcare and the economy remain at the fore of voters’ decision-making?

I wouldn’t put too much stock in the polls at this point. With the economy still on shaky ground, prob­ably the only thing we can be sure of is that the elec­tion will be close.

Romney has nothing to lose from the per­cep­tion that the press corps doesn’t like him, espe­cially when reporters behave rudely or obnox­iously. Even Jon Stewart, no Romney fan, mocked reporters who shouted at the can­di­date in Poland about his “gaffes,” saying they were “testing the line between ques­tions and heckles.”

It’s pos­sible that Romney might ben­efit from the per­cep­tion that he’s standing up to the media. In the long run, though, he needs to estab­lish a pos­i­tive image for him­self. Voters are more inter­ested in what you are for than what you are against. And as I said, as much as the public may not like the media, it is through the media that it will learn about Romney.

In response to Romney’s refusal to answer questions posed by the U.S. traveling press corps, Fox News anchor Greta Van Susteren noted that “The story is now becoming access. The smarter move is to have the story be about the message.” If you were Romney’s press aide, how would you handle U.S. media inquires between now and November?

Van Sus­teren is right. Romney needs to make sure that his mes­sage is the story, not whether he’s pro­viding suf­fi­cient access. He should start appearing reg­u­larly on the Sunday polit­ical shows—not just in friendly venues such as Fox News, but on CNN and the three major net­works as well. He has occa­sion­ally granted inter­views to influ­en­tial news­pa­pers such as The New York Times and The Wash­ington Post, and he should do more of that. I’d also be impressed if I turned on NPR and heard him giving an interview.

There’s a role for the media to play as well. As a speaker, Romney is clearly more mal­adroit than some politi­cians, and he often con­tra­dicts pre­vious state­ments he’s made. It is the media’s job to point those things out. But at the same time, jour­nal­ists should ease up on the gaffe watch, and not try to play “gotcha” every time Romney opens his mouth. This is serious busi­ness, and too often the media behave as though it were a game of Trivial Pursuit.