Candidates Ignore Media, But It's Voters Who Stand to Lose

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McClatchy Newspapers

Candidates Ignore Media, But It's Voters Who Stand to Lose

by
David Lightman

The press corps at work during a campaign. Shutting out reporters could compromise voters' ability to get fair accounts of who candidates and their financial backers are and where they stand, leaving them dependent instead on propaganda packaged by the candidates and their supporters. (Gary O'Brien/Charlotte Observer/MCT)

WASHINGTON
— Many major candidates are treating the news media as enemies this
year, refusing to release schedules, admit the press to campaign events,
give interviews or answer routine questions.

While Republicans appear to be shunning
journalists more than Democrats, some Democrats are doing it, too, and
journalists are finding it unusually hard to get routine information.

While
about a quarter of Americans in a July Gallup poll said they had
confidence in newspapers or television news, only 11 percent expressed
confidence in Congress.

Shutting out reporters could compromise voters' ability to get
fair accounts of who candidates and their financial backers are and
where they stand, leaving them dependent instead on propaganda packaged
by the candidates and their supporters.

"It's only going to
spread, and it's not a good thing for our democracy, if we're going to
hold candidates accountable," said Steven Greene, an associate professor
of political science at North Carolina State University.

The stiff-the-media trend is spreading:

  • Nevada. Republican Senate candidate Sharron Angle's
    supporters at a Las Vegas rally last Thursday passed word to attendees
    not to talk to the press. When some tried, a woman who wouldn't identify
    herself intervened and asked reporters to leave. The next night, people
    who came to an Angle rally at the city's Orleans Hotel Ballroom B — an
    event not on any press schedule _were greeted with a big sign saying,
    "Private Party, No Press Allowed."
  • Delaware. Senate candidate Chris Coons, a Democrat, has
    left his website's "events calendar" blank all this week. Republican
    rival Christine O'Donnell posts no schedule on her website.
  • Alaska. Alaska Dispatch Editor Tony Hopfinger was handcuffed Sunday by
    private security guards for GOP Senate nominee Joe Miller after
    Hopfinger attempted to interview the candidate. Anchorage Municipal
    Prosecutor Albert Patterson said Tuesday that no charges will be filed.
  • North Carolina. U.S. Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, a
    conservative Republican who's leading his re-election race by an average
    of 14 points in polls, refused this month to be interviewed by the
    Charlotte Observer or The (Raleigh) News & Observer, both McClatchy
    newspapers, for their political profiles of him. Burr cited unhappiness
    with the papers' coverage of his work in Washington.
  • Florida. Republican gubernatorial candidate Rick Scott has been
    "effectively boycotting" newspaper editorial boards, according to John
    Kennedy of the News Service of Florida. "We're just trying to get our
    message out to as many people in the best way we can," said Scott
    spokesman Trey Stapleton.
  • New York. Republican
    gubernatorial candidate Carl Paladino recently told the New York Post's
    Fred Dicker, "I'll take you out, buddy," after Dicker asked Paladino to
    substantiate charges he'd made against his opponent, Democrat Andrew
    Cuomo. Paladino's aides intervened as the candidate moved aggressively
    toward the journalist.
  • West Virginia. Press aides to Republican Senate
    candidate John Raese made it difficult for McClatchy to get his campaign
    schedule for the past week, but provided a few details Wednesday.
  • Massachusetts. Earlier this year, Michael Meehan, a volunteer for
    Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Martha Coakley, pushed John McCormack, a
    reporter for a conservative magazine, after the reporter sought a
    comment from the candidate. McCormack fell to the ground; Meehan later
    said he was "a little too aggressive."

Republicans appear to be the most aggressive
press-shunners. There's no grand strategy against the media, say
consultants, and tactics vary depending on the race and state.

"In
some states, the only way to drive the vote is by paid ads. But in
states like Massachusetts, earned media (mainstream press) plays a
significant role," said Neil Newhouse, a Virginia-based GOP strategist
and pollster.

More conservative Republicans, though, "see
mainstream media as collective cheerleaders for President (Barack)
Obama," said Keith Appell, a Virginia-based Republican strategist.

They also feel that the mainstream press has portrayed them as extremists.

"They
feel the media has tried to define the tea party movement over and
over, first as a bunch of Obama-haters, then an angry mobs, or
irrelevant. They don't feel they've had a fair shake," Appell said.

Both political parties have at least two other reasons for ducking reporters.

Some
fear the kind of "macaca" moment that in August 2006 doomed Virginia
Sen. George Allen, a Republican who'd never lost a statewide election
and was mentioned as a serious potential 2008 White House contender.

At
a public rally, Allen called a Democratic volunteer of Indian descent,
who'd been following him around with a camera, "macaca or whatever his
name is," adding, "Welcome to America and the real world of Virginia."
The comment, widely perceived as a racial slur, changed the tone of the
Senate race, and Allen lost to Democrat Jim Webb.

Another factor
affects the 2010 equation: At least $3.7 billion is likely to be spent,
mostly on ads by campaigns and outside groups this year, according to
the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.

That means most major campaigns have the resources to blanket the airwaves and phone lines with their one-sided sales pitches.

"Republicans
have been going after Sen. (Harry) Reid for a year and a half, and it
takes financial resources to combat the attack. We do this (spend big on
ads) because it works," said Jon Summers, a Reid senior adviser.

Still, how does the voter know what's true and what's not? Some experts are concerned.

"Let's
be realistic," said Greene. "Your typical voter is not going online to
search more sources of information. They're most likely relying on local
media."

That can be a problem, because many mainstream news organizations are cutting back on coverage as their revenue declines.

However,
Tobe Berkovitz, a professor of communication at Boston University, is
less alarmed. He said the trend "has an influence on the voters," but he
thinks that many voters will adapt and find new ways to get accurate
data.

"The state of traditional media has sunk," he said, but
thanks to the Internet, a concerned voter can go to several balanced
sources for information.

"There are more ideas in the marketplace
now in the media and the press marketplace than there were 30 years
ago," he said. "There are more options and some are of quite good
quality."

(McClatchy Washington Bureau reporters Steven
Thomma, William Douglas, Barbara Barrett and Lesley Clark, and Richard
Mauer of the Anchorage Daily News contributed to this article.)

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