AMES, IOWA -- Politicians don't like the press. Republican politicians like the press even less. Richard Nixon put reporters on his Enemies List, perhaps with good reason. George W. Bush kept the press at arm's length, allowing only a few reporters glancing access.
It was ever thus.
But something new is going on this year. The leading GOP candidates are conducting their campaign with almost NO direct, uncontrolled access to the press (or, in many cases, the public). What's more -- and more noteworthy -- the candidates increasingly are taking pride in and bragging about their contempt for reporters and even for the very idea of open campaigning.
Mitt Romney's handlers seem almost to glory in their candidate's aloof invisibility. Sarah Palin floats like a butterfly and stings the media like a bee. Even Michele Bachmann, a long shot in the larger context, surrounds herself with a cordon of security wherever she goes.
And when Newt Gingrich makes headlines by attacking Fox News -- the conservative outlet he used to work for -- you know a trend is in full swing. If Newt is attacking Fox, what does that mean about the GOP field's attitude toward the rest of the non-Fox press corps? It means that however nasty and dismissive the candidate-media relationship is now, it is only going to get worse -- much worse.
At Thursday night's Fox debate, Gingrich not only attacked designated bad cop Chris Wallace, the former speaker attacked designated nice guy Bret Baier. The genial Fox anchor had asked Gingrich to explain his seeming flip-flops on Libya policy.
Gingrich responded with acid contempt.
"This is an example of a gotcha question,” Gingrich replied. “The fact that I was commenting on Fox about a president who changes his opinion every other day ought to be covered by a Fox News commentator using all the things I said and not picking and choosing the ones that fit your premise."
Now comes Rick Perry, whose supporters positively glory in his record of stiffing the press -- as though that alone is a qualification for holding the highest office in the land.
Melanie Schwartz, political director of the Texas College Republicans, is an example of that kind of Perry acolyte.
"I like the way he has outsmarted the media," she told The Huffington Post at the straw poll site, where she was asking passersby to write in Perry's name on their straw poll ballots. "He knows how to control the message and not let the media get in the way. In his reelection for governor, he just said, 'No, I'm not going to debate,' and he didn't -- and he won easily. I loved that."
For his latest trick, Perry skipped the Fox debate here on Thursday, then announced his candidacy at a conservative bloggers event in Charleston, S.C.
"He's just blowing past the media, and that is the way to do it," said Schwartz, a history major at the University of Texas. According to Schwartz, the press corps had lost its role because of the rise of new media such as Facebook and Twitter, and by dwelling on issues that most Americans don't care about. If voters in Texas had cared or been concerned, she said, they wouldn't have reelected Perry.
"The regular media has kind of lost its role," she said. "Rick Perry doesn't need an intermediary anymore to communicate with the people. And if people want to ask elected officials questions, they can do it by sending them a Twitter or asking them a question on Facebook. And sometimes the voters will actually get an answer!"