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New Tea Party Media Strategy: No Media

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Christine O'Donnell was going to appear on two nationally-broadcast Sunday political chat shows this weekend; Face The Nation on CBS, and Fox News Sunday. She appeared on neither, citing scheduling conflicts with a picnic in Delaware. Even Fox News didn't really buy this explanation, which is truly saying something. But it really should come as no surprise to anyone who has been paying attention this election cycle, because this appears to be the new Tea Party media strategy: "Don't talk to the media. Ever." What remains to be seen is whether it will work or not. If it proves successful, look for many future candidates across the political spectrum to copy this strategy in future races.

The original "stonewall the media" campaign happened before the Tea Parties existed, it bears remembering. Sarah Palin was announced as the Republican nominee for Vice President, and then went into hiding immediately after the balloons dropped at their convention. She was obviously in intense media-coaching sessions, which (to put it politely) didn't exactly take hold. She gave two interviews to test the waters, one on ABC and then a particularly memorable one with Katie Couric on CBS. As a result, she didn't give a whole lot of other national media interviews from that point on.

But, being in the middle of a presidential campaign, she did continue to make appearances before adoring crowds (bigger and more adoring than John McCain's crowds), and did participate in a single debate with "Can I call you Joe?" Biden. Her debate performance was a lot better than many had predicted, I should at least mention.

Earlier this year, Tea Party candidate Rand Paul -- immediately after he clinched the Republican nomination for Senate in Kentucky over an "establishment" GOP candidate -- had a few disastrous media interviews of his own. He then became the first Tea Party candidate this year to pull out of a scheduled Sunday morning appearance on national television. Other Tea Party candidates have followed this "run away from the media" strategy (in Sharron Angle's case in Nevada, quite literally running away from the media at times), to varying degrees.

The media, it should be mentioned, is mightily annoyed at this new development. They've acted as kingmakers and gatekeepers for so long, and they've been blind to the rise of the "New Media" outside their elite ranks, that they now have a vastly overinflated perception of their own importance.

But what if the Tea Partiers are right in shunning the (as Sarah Palin so charmingly puts it) "lamestream media," and instead relying on other ways of reaching voters? What if, to be blunt, it works?

The Tea Partiers, as a whole, are not big fans of the mainstream media. But then again, few people are these days. In fact, one thing (possibly the last thing) people on the Left and people on the Right do actually agree strongly on is their disdain for the media in general. The Right sees most of it as the "Liberal Media," and the Left sees virtually all of it as the "Corporate Media," but the contemptuous attitude -- and the depth of this feeling -- is similar on both sides.

Up until now, political campaigns (especially those running as "underdogs") have courted the media. Candidates, as a rule, love getting interviews. The bigger the better. In normal times, a Senate candidate from a state so small it only sends one representative to the House would love to be interviewed on national television, even for a single soundbite on the evening news. A full-scale interview on one of the prestigious Sunday shows is normally the gold prize for a campaign. There's a reason for this -- it is free. Campaigns have a limited amount of money (unless your last name happens to be "Whitman"...) with which to communicate to the voters. They spend lots of this money on advertising. But getting the candidate on the news costs not one thin dime, and may indeed reach more people than a single ad buy.

That was then, though, and this is now.

Again, following on the path pioneered by Sarah Palin, now candidates are refusing to do interviews because of the "Gotcha!" nature of answering serious questions from professional journalists. At least, that's the perception. All media types are suspect, and therefore only media outlets or personalities which qualify as part of the echo chamber of "safe and accepted thought" surrounding your particular political position are even worth talking to. Everyone else in the media can be ignored, because the chances of them putting you in a negative light are so high. Again, this is the perception, from the Tea Party candidate's point of view.

Of course, this effect becomes more pronounced the "fringier" the candidate happens to be. Joe Miller, newly-nominated Republican Senate candidate from Alaska, did appear this week on a Sunday show. He's a bit more solidly-grounded than Christine O'Donnell, with a fairly impressive résumé, even though he is also identified as a Tea Party candidate. He faced questions about his extreme positions (unemployment insurance being unconstitutional, for instance) and gave the standard sort of dodge-and-weave answers which are par for the course from any politician.

But it is easy to see that Christine O'Donnell might have risen to the bait in a bit more entertaining fashion, were she to have appeared on either show this Sunday. All week long, amusing tidbits from her past life as a right-wing activist had surfaced -- some so amusing they instantly became favorite jokes on the late night shows. Then, on Friday night, Bill Maher did his bit for the cause. O'Donnell had achieved a certain degree of fame more than a decade ago, through being a frequent guest on Maher's Politically Incorrect show. And Bill's got access to all that tape that wound up on the cutting room floor back then. Which he dipped into, and then aired one of these juicy clips on his new show Real Time with Bill Maher -- a clip of O'Donnell talking about witchcraft and Satanic altars. Maher says he'll continue to release such clips until O'Donnell appears on his show, so this could become a weekly highlight until election day dawns.

The next day, O'Donnell cancelled her scheduled Sunday appearances. She was, apparently, all ready to answer the expected questions about her views on masturbation, but witchcraft questions were just a bridge too far for her. And it's a pretty safe bet that we won't see O'Donnell on any of the Sunday shows, at least not until she's elected senator (which could easily mean "never"). She is taking the Rand Paul route now.

While O'Donnell's antics certainly provide lighthearted moments for Lefties, journalists, and late-night talk show hosts, one has to wonder whether this is the future of political campaigning. Even if O'Donnell loses (as is widely expected), Rand Paul certainly looks like he's going to win his race. And even Sharron Angle is still neck-and-neck with Harry Reid. So snubbing the media may start to look like a reasonable thing to do for prospective candidates.

We've already seen a slow migration towards the polarization of media appearances. Sarah Palin counsels "appear only on Fox News" to Tea Party candidates, to get their message out most effectively. Some Democrats have championed the idea of Democrats refusing to appear on Fox News, because of its inherent right-wing bias. Republicans feel the same way about MSNBC (if not most of the media universe as well). I'd be willing to bet a hefty amount that Rand Paul is the last Republican candidate to appear on Rachel Maddow's show for a long, long while, for instance (at least during an election season).

Depending on how things work out, and depending on future candidates, this trend could become much more prominent in 2012. At the presidential race's level, candidates will likely still make appearances everywhere they can manage, due to the "nationwide" nature of the audience a candidate can reach -- for free. If Obama is the Democratic nominee (as seems more than likely), he will likely appear on Fox for at least one interview. But say, just for the sake of argument, that Sarah Palin is the Republican nominee. She's already on the Fox payroll, so she'll definitely appear there as often as they'll have her (even if she has to quit for the campaign). But I doubt she'd bother with a whole lot of other media interviews.

Below the presidential level, this strategy may become more and more common. "I refuse to talk to the mainstream media because they will distort my message beyond recognition!" could be an easy sell to a lot of people. Not to end this inconclusively, but if this trend does continue, and if media interviews become polarized to friendly news outlets only, I'm not sure exactly what it's going to mean for American democracy. Some may decry the outcome as shoveling the last spadeful of dirt on the grave of objective and unbiased political reporting, but in reality it will just return American to an earlier time in our history. Mainstream media likes to think of itself as being some sort of shining beacon of objectivity throughout our entire history, but this is just flat-out false. For most of our history, media has been quite biased -- much more nakedly and unashamedly biased than anything you see today on television or in the newspapers (but not, of course, on talk radio or blogs). Newspapers used to put "Democrat" or "Republican" in right up there in the masthead titles. To say nothing of the era of "yellow journalism." Would it be all that big a change today if you only ever saw Republican candidates for office on Fox News, and Democratic candidates for office on MSNBC? It's worth thinking about, because that may just be where we're headed.

 

Chris Weigant blogs at:
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