Media Bashing

PUBLISHED: March 12, 2012

An unsavory element in the current Republican presidential campaign is the overt contempt candidates are showing for the news media. Yes, media are easy, sometimes deserving targets, and huffy outbursts against journalists during debates usually bring cheers from the crowd and may help fund-raising. But as a strategy it’s misguided.

While the season of GOP presidential debates has ended, the candidates continue to fire away. When Rick Santorum was asked by Charlie Rose on CBS about the controversial statement of his top super PAC supporter regarding contraception, the candidate turned on the host: “This is the same gotcha politics that you get from the media, and I’m just not going to play that game,” he snapped.

The shoot-the-messenger tactic doesn’t often faze reporters, most of whom tend to have pretty thick skins. If anything it undermines the integrity, such as it is, of the campaign, while diminishing the candidates.

As a longtime observer of the human condition and our culture, I’ve found the most persuasive and trusted speakers are those who respond candidly, and positively, to all questions.

Sure, by showing contempt for reporters, the GOP contenders are throwing red meat to the most conservative voters, as reflected in a Pew Research Center poll showing 74% of Tea Party Republicans believe there is “a great deal of bias” in campaign news coverage. Sarah Palin popularized the label “lamestream media” to energize her conservative base.

But the wider campaign strategy does not represent the views of the public at large. That Tea Party poll figure is double the percentage within the general population, and more than double the concern among independent voters. With few exceptions, GOP candidates have been treated fairly by reporters and moderators from the major cable networks.

Moreover, the news media have a job to help vet presidential candidates for American viewers. Was CNN’s John King right to ask Newt Gingrich in a debate about that day’s headline-dominating comments from the candidate’s former wife about their failed marriage? Of course.

Was it fair game for Rose to ask Santorum about his adviser’s comment on contraception? Naturally.

And did Mitt Romney gain anything by dodging a question in the last CNN debate by saying: “You get to ask the questions you want and I get to give the answers I want’? Certainly not.

Voters can decide for themselves whether the issue is one that influences their vote. It’s one thing for a candidate to appear to field a question while really sidestepping it. But it’s another to pointedly declare that you don’t respect the process enough even to pretend to answer.

Gingrich has gone a step further by making the outlandish pledge that, if nominated as the GOP presidential nominee, he would refuse to participate in any debates against President Obama if the moderators were reporters. Perhaps in lashing out at media some politicians seek to show toughness and fighting spirit. But sniping at reporters plays into the networks’ hands, since such outbursts only help ratings.

As for winning votes, another Pew study last fall underscored the problem with blasting media. While 59% of Americans trust the information they get from national media, only 29% trust what they hear from the source that complains about media the most — candidates running for office.

(c) Peter Funt. This column first appeared in USA Today.

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