Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Is John McCain in danger of destroying his special relationship with the media?

I've been watching the McCain campaign here for the past couple of days, and how the campaign has been responding to the media frenzy over John McCain's pick of Sarah Palin. From the moment McCain chose Palin as his running mate, the media asked the question, "Sarah who?" I will give John McCain credit in both picking someone that the media never expected, and in announcing Palin's candidacy the day after the Democratic National Convention ended. By announcing Palin as his running mate, McCain ensured that the the media spotlight would focus directly back to John McCain, deflating any press commentary regarding the Democratic convention over the Labor Day weekend.

However, this is where John McCain really screwed up. John McCain had selected a politician that was not on anyone's political radar. And as the media focused their attention on Sarah Palin's past, the media dug up a number of questions and scandals regarding Palin. The real damage to John McCain was the campaign's failure to properly vet Palin, and discover the scandals sitting within her closet. Instead of setting up a proper convention roll-out to introduce Palin to the American people, the McCain campaign has been scrambling to extinguish brush fires ignited by the media performing the vetting process of Sarah Palin for McCain. The McCain campaign doesn't like this negative press coverage, so they have been attacking the media:

ST. PAUL, Minn., Sept. 2 -- Sen. John McCain's top campaign strategist accused the news media Tuesday of being "on a mission to destroy" Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin by displaying "a level of viciousness and scurrilousness" in pursuing questions about her personal life.

In an extraordinary and emotional interview, Steve Schmidt said his campaign feels "under siege" by wave after wave of news inquiries that have questioned whether Palin is really the mother of a 4-month-old baby, whether her amniotic fluid had been tested and whether she would submit to a DNA test to establish the child's parentage.

Arguing that the media queries are being fueled by "every rumor and smear" posted on left-wing Web sites, Schmidt said mainstream journalists are giving "closer scrutiny" to McCain's little-known running mate than to Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama.

The McCain camp has been unusually aggressive in pushing back against the media, and it seems to hope to persuade journalists to back off in their scrutiny of Palin. Obama campaign officials have complained to news organizations that their man has been subjected to considerably more investigative reporting than McCain has, but they have done so in more low-key fashion.


McCain also canceled a scheduled appearance on CNN's "Larry King Live" on Tuesday in retaliation for an interview a day earlier in which prime-time host Campbell Brown repeatedly pressed campaign spokesman Tucker Bounds to provide one example of a decision that Palin had made as commander of the Alaska National Guard.

Now John McCain has had a pretty cozy relationship with the press, even to the point where the press would give McCain favorable treatment. But the Sarah Palin scandals have ignited a feeding frenzy among the mainstream media and the political blogosphere to a point where the McCain campaign cannot control the news content that would be favorable to the campaign. And as a result of the McCain campaign's inability to control the flow of political news, the campaign has restricted media access to Palin. According to the Wall Street Journal:

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- The McCain campaign scrambled to take control of the public debate over vice-presidential pick Sarah Palin, canceling her public appearances and teaming her with high-powered Republican operatives as she prepared for a speech Wednesday night that will be her first, and perhaps most important, chance to define herself to the American public.

In Minnesota she has stayed out of the public eye, a contrast with Democratic vice-presidential pick Sen. Joe Biden, who milled about the convention in Denver last week. Gov. Palin refused media interviews and canceled plans to appear at the Republican National Coalition for Life Tuesday.

In fact, one campaign appearance that Palin made was a carefully controlled photo-op of John McCain meeting Sarah Palin's family, with Palin. From YouTube:

And what is especially interesting to note of this photo-op is that McCain met both Palin's pregnant daughter Bristol, and the father Levi. And the media gobbled up this controlled photo-op for John McCain.

I think we are going to see more of this type of long range media coverage of the McCain campaign. And I believe the reason for this is that Karl Rove and his acolytes are now restricting McCain's access to the press, and on the campaign trail. According to this July 9, 2008 Washington Post story:

PITTSBURGH -- Welcome to the new John McCain press strategy.

Avoid them.

McCain today held a 10-minute press conference, complete with podium, microphones for the questioners, network-quality audio and a camera for a local television station, which allowed CNN to carry it live.

And where was the national press corps?

Sitting on the runway 27 miles away, having been ferried to McCain's charter plane, totally unaware that a press availability was about to take place until one of the handful of "pool reporters" sent an e-mail alert.

The reporters frantically fired up their cellular modems and logged on to to catch the end of the press conference, unable to ask any questions. The handful of reporters there asked about the FISA terrorism bill, Iran and about McCain's pledge to balance the budget.

McCain's schedule for Wednesday included a note about a "gaggle" with the pool reporters, but nothing indicated a live press conference. The tactic was a first for the McCain campaign, which basically shrugged when asked about it.

"He took a couple of questions at the end of the tour from the pool. This will happen occasionally," responded Jill Hazelbaker, the communications director for the campaign.

The Republican presidential nominee has built a reputation for his access to the press, famously inviting the national press corps to gab sessions on the back of his "Straight Talk" bus during the 2000 and 2008 primary campaigns.

National reporters still get some access; in fact, the campaign promises some time with the candidate later today as the campaign bus rambles from West Virginia to Portsmouth, Ohio.

McCain gathered several reporters at the front of the plane while traveling in South America last week.

But that access has been whittled away as McCain became the nominee. The Straight Talk is reserved now as a carrot for local reporters, leaving the national press corps on a charter bus trailing behind.

The new approach may reflect the growing influence of the newly-powerful Steve Schmidt, a top adviser and protege of Bush political guru Karl Rove, who was famous for his desire to control the press's access to his candidate.

Schmidt now has operational control of the day-to-day activities of the campaign and is no doubt responding to criticism about a lack of message discipline by the McCain campaign.

The Rovian team decided to limit access of national reporters to John McCain by playing this old game of "If you don't report what we tell you to, then you will no longer have access to the president." Only this time, Rove has replaced President George Bush with candidate John McCain. The major reason for limiting McCain's access to the press may have been to control the gaffes McCain had been making throughout the campaign. This is message control by Karl Rove. Rove is certainly allowing access to McCain by local reporters, who may not fully understand the political complexities of the campaign, and thus would ask softball questions to McCain. However Rove has continued to limit access of McCain to national reporters in this next August 9, 2008 story by Michael Calderone:

There’s no question that John McCain has made a major change in his media strategy. The candidate who once spent hours cracking jokes with reporters now significantly limits access for the national press corps.

The presumptive Republican nominee spent a total of 38 minutes talking to print, television, magazine and radio reporters from national publications over the past week, according to the count on my recorder.

National reporters were given one opportunity to ask questions at a Friday afternoon press conference in Rogers, Ark. Otherwise, McCain delivered two statements to the full press corps totaling 9 minutes and 46 seconds and offering no chance for questions, and two statements to a select press pool.

It’s worth noting that the only national reporters I observed called on by the campaign during the press conference were either relatively new to the campaign (myself included) or television news embeds.

Those totals don’t include numerous interviews with local media delivered in Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and South Dakota.

I suspect that we are going to see more of john McCain delivering stump speeches and photo-ops, and less of John McCain holding press conferences and answering questions from the national press corps. And this change may have soured the relationship between McCain and the media. Consider this September 3, 2008 story:

Sept. 2 (Bloomberg) -- The longtime love affair between John McCain and what he once called his ``base'' -- the national news media -- is on the rocks.

McCain's campaign manager, Steve Schmidt, yesterday lashed out at what he deemed ``offensive'' and ``demeaning'' coverage and questions from reporters after McCain's running mate, Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, confirmed her 17-year-old daughter is pregnant.

``It used to be that a lot of those smears and the crap on the Internet stayed out of the newsrooms of serious journalists,'' Schmidt said at the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Schmidt's criticism is the latest example in the unraveling of what was once a fond relationship between the presumptive Republican presidential nominee and the media. Starting in the 2000 Republican primaries, the Arizona senator became a media sensation by chatting up the press in the back of his ``Straight Talk Express'' campaign bus. The national press corps freely mingled with McCain for hours on the bus, with no topic off limits.

More recently, though, McCain, 72, has accused news organizations such as the New York Times, Time magazine and the NBC network of being unfair to him. The campaign even considered pulling out of one of the three presidential debates because it would be moderated by Tom Brokaw, a former NBC News anchorman.


As the relationship has deteriorated, McCain has stopped hosting his once-famous ``straight talk'' get-togethers on his campaign plane. He also has abandoned regular press conferences.

Instead, he stops occasionally to read short written statements in front of cameras, like he did Aug. 31 in Jackson, Mississippi; then walks away from questions shouted by reporters.

His campaign plane is custom configured with a lounge area designed for hosting question-and-answer sessions with the press. McCain inaugurated the lounge on one of the plane's first flights and hasn't used it since.

Invitations for the press to visit the Straight Talk Express also have grown scarce. Local reporters are allowed the occasional visit, though journalists traveling with McCain no longer are invited to drop in. He hasn't held a news conference since Aug. 13.

Finally, to show just how prickly the relationship between McCain and the media has deteriorated, consider this August 28, 2008 McCain interview by Time Magazine:

What do you want voters to know coming out of the Republican Convention — about you, about your candidacy?
I'm prepared to be President of the United States, and I'll put my country first.

There's a theme that recurs in your books and your speeches, both about putting country first but also about honor. I wonder if you could define honor for us?
Read it in my books.

I've read your books.
No, I'm not going to define it.

But honor in politics?
I defined it in five books. Read my books.

[Your] campaign today is more disciplined, more traditional, more aggressive. From your point of view, why the change?
I will do as much as we possibly can do to provide as much access to the press as possible.

But beyond the press, sir, just in terms of ...
I think we're running a fine campaign, and this is where we are.

Do you miss the old way of doing it?
I don't know what you're talking about.

Really? Come on, Senator.
I'll provide as much access as possible ...

In 2000, after the primaries, you went back to South Carolina to talk about what you felt was a mistake you had made on the Confederate flag. Is there anything so far about this campaign that you wish you could take back or you might revisit when it's over?
[Does not answer.]

Do I know you? [Says with a laugh.]
[Long pause.] I'm very happy with the way our campaign has been conducted, and I am very pleased and humbled to have the nomination of the Republican Party.

You do acknowledge there was a change in the campaign, in the way you had run the campaign?
[Shakes his head.]

You don't acknowledge that? O.K., when your aides came to you and you decided, having been attacked by Barack Obama, to run some of those ads, was there a debate?
The campaign responded as planned.

With this type of Rovian-controlled, McCain campaign's hostile approach to the national press that was use to having unfettered access to McCain, is it no wonder that the press is latching on to the Sarah Palin scandals hard? So I believe that Karl Rove, in his desire to control the McCain campaign message to national reporters, may have destroyed the cozy relationship that John McCain had built up with the press over the years. And as the Republican National Convention ends, and we head into the final two months of the presidential campaign, we may end up seeing even more negative stories coming out on the McCain campaign.

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