Domestic, Election, Media — March 17, 2012 at 11:10 am

Grand Ol’ Pageant

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Illustration by Stephanie Mannheim

As you are reading this, Mitt Romney may be the nominee. Strike that. If you are reading this after Super Tuesday, Mitt Romney has been crowned the Republican nominee the race is dragging on as the pundits obsess over delegate math.

Overall, the roundabout guessing game of who will win does not really matter amid the candidate-media interplay. In this seemingly symbiotic relationship between journalism and politics, how do the two really interact?

The nature of the news, and the media that dictates it, is cyclical. Following Walter Lippmann’s “searchlight analogy” – where a topic oscillates between periods of quiescence and alarm – and owing to limited room on the news cycle, the attention the media pays to a specific issue or candidate fluctuates depending on which events are deemed newsworthy. Consequently, if someone has been a front-runner for far too long, the media emphasizes trivial matters in order to shake up the race. With this in mind, the media could be considered the Republican candidates’ biggest enemy. Outside of the Fed-bashing Ron Paul (whose political career over the past decade is a Homeric epithet) and the Pokémon-quoting Herman Cain (whose 9-9-9 plan confirmed that simplicity, truly, is marketing gold), defeat in the Republican primary has been a matter of allowing the media to package your campaigns into a central flaw. Success, all the same, has been a matter of defying the media’s labels.

“Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes” was a task Ms. “Crazy-Eyes” made extremely easy for the media – each misstep, each gaffe, each wildly bizarre accusation that Michele Bachmann made added fire to the flame of the general narrative that Bachmann was, well, a loon. By the time she bailed out of the race, Bachmann and the press were in agreement that her sole mission in the race, even her reason for breathing air, was to wipe Obamacare off the face of the planet – an endeavor she mentioned 10 times in her concession speech. This was not Bachmann’s original packaging when she first announced her bid for the presidency. Under what one would have to assume was the careful, but brief, guidance of campaign manager Ed Rollins, Bachmann initially set forth a reasonable, conservative agenda. Portraying herself as an understanding “outsider,” Bachmann’s announcement speech addressed the national debt, unemployment, and foreign policy, among many other substantive issues.

Nonetheless, this newfound levelheaded lover of liberty was fighting against a reputation that she established on her first Hardball appearance four years ago with her call to investigate who in Congress was “anti-America.” As magazine-profile hunting season bombarded Bachmann with Newsweek’s “The Queen of Rage” cover controversy, along with Ryan Lizza’s piece in The New Yorker, Bachmann still managed to keep her verbal boo-boos to a minimum so that Iowans would make her their Ames Straw Poll queen. Bachmann’s only task to continue this trend and to fight off newcomer Rick Perry was to not appear crazy – to defy the media’s caricature. But when Ed Rollins jumped ship from the USS Bachmann, so did Bachmann’s “all politics is local” – or, in other words, “all politics is Iowa” – strategy. And with no active strategy to maintain message discipline, Bachmann decided to follow her heart – her socialist-fearing gaffe-prone heart.

Like Bachmann in Iowa, Perry exited the race in the same place where he entered it – South Carolina. Yet, unlike Bachmann, Perry also tumbled out of the race as the same character that entered it: the Texas cowboy. In his concession speech, Perry stated, “As someone who has always admired a great Texas forefather – Sam Houston – I know when it is time for a strategic retreat.” While Perry was right in saying that his time to exit the race had come, he failed countless times throughout the race to “strategically retreat” from a flawed campaign narrative.

Ever since the Texas governor entered the race, the media and the public at large treated Rick Perry’s bumbling cowboy persona as a blemish on his candidacy. The media immediately attacked Perry for saying that Bernanke would be treated “pretty ugly” down in Texas. Nonetheless the Perry campaign did succeed at first at spinning Perry’s image and mistakes into attributes. Apparently, according to spokesman Ray Sullivan, it demonstrated Perry’s “passion.” Despite its initial criticism of the “treasonous” comment, many in the media – initially wary of a quick Romney coronation during the primaries – accepted the Perry campaign spin because it created a clear contrast to the flip-flopping Mitt Romney.

Yet no one could foresee Perry’s debate performance, which taught us so much more about him. Unlike in the case of the Bernanke comment, Perry’s attempt to spin “OOPS”-Gate only entrenched him into the quagmire of stereotype. While Perry did exercise Tip O’Neill’s age-old maxim “hang a lantern on your problem” in saying, “I’m glad I had my boots on because I really stepped in it tonight, man,” the manner in which he did so was not productive. While this and a subsequent appearance on Letterman did trivialize the gaffe, it also served as a double-edged sword, trivializing Perry as a candidate. Since the media constantly reinterprets all things, an important element in politics is that of reinvention. The Perry campaign did nothing to alter or even temper Perry’s identity as a candidate.

The campaign may have realized that it would be impossible to re-package Perry at the last moment. As media scholars note, while products can be easily reformulated and repackaged in the business world, this may not always be the case in the political arena. Case-in-point: Michele Bachmann. Once Bachmann declared that the HPV vaccine causes mental retardation in a September debate, she lost all credibility in the media.

When Bachmann went on Fox News the next day for an interview, she tried to use invaluable free media time to repackage herself by a) walking back from the HPV comment and b) attacking Rick Perry. However, even host Chis Wallace would not buy what Bachmann was selling, telling Bachmann, “Medical professionals believe the vaccine is very safe.” The media refused to buy the premise of her “spin” because her slip-ups substantiated their initial narrative that she’s unelectable. As the battle is lost and won, the two may be wishing they had followed Chris Matthews’ advice and only talked when it would improve the silence.

In the continual 24/7-news cycle, how should candidates respond to their flaws and mistakes? Up to now, the most effective strategy had been to keep on lowballing, sandbagging, and spinning until those negative pieces of coal became shiny diamonds. But as Perry demonstrated, a highly polarized media can choose to simply ignore the premise of a campaign’s spin and instead advance its own interpretation of events. And as John Kerry taught us all in 2004, not responding to the media’s criticism is also not an option. The solution? Change the message. At. Every. Possible. Opportunity.

As other candidates fell one-by-one, Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney remained top contenders – not by acknowledging their problems, but by using their strengths to hide them. Newt and Mitt both avoided being boxed in by the media, but the methods in which they did so greatly differed: “Head-On Confrontation” versus “Unabashed Avoidance.” Newt foolishly believed that the media could be tricked, but Mitt understood the media’s capacity to always have the last laugh.

In spite of the media’s initial discrediting of his campaign, Newt decided to fight back by making himself more accessible to them. Before the Iowa Caucus, Gingrich’s courtship won him some surprise newspaper endorsements and media praise. All the same, it was a brief honeymoon period. The former speaker’s attempts to flatter the media were no match for a windfall of Super PAC attack ads that informed the public of the hiccups in his tenure as speaker. Gingrich quickly adopted another strategy after New Hampshire. Rejecting the mantra of “hang a lantern on your problem,” Gingrich opted to lead with his strengths in order to downplay his flaws, adopting the guerilla tactics of concealment and surprise as tools for reinvention.

This approach did generate short-term gains in South Carolina, but it did not hide Gingrich from media scrutiny. Journalists cannot tell us how to think, but they do tell the public what to think about. And since Christmas, the media zeroed in on Newt’s temper tantrums as speaker. From a culmination of long-form articles and newspaper opinion pieces, Gingrich emerged as a bomb-throwing “angry little attack muffin,” a managerial style that pundits and voters agreed would not fare well in a general election or in the White House.

Though Romney floated through the primaries mostly above the fray, it was ultimately a lackluster performance. In his interactions with the media, Romney’s persona was so meticulously guarded and scripted by his campaign staff that his counterfeit personality became an open secret of sorts with the media. Every pair of jeans that Romney wore to every mention of particular supermarket chains were hand-selected by Romney’s staff. In order to protect this fragile charade, Romney’s campaign severely limited Romney’s media exposure by only granting access to columnists and not to reporters. When nominees try to avoid the attention of the media, there is a tendency for the media to cover the behavior itself, and the traveling press corps duly noted how Romney’s aides corralled them into glass-windowed, partitioned rooms at every campaign stop. This irritation manifested itself in the media’s tone on Romney. From July up to October, the tone of Romney’s media coverage was split: 26 percent positive and 27 percent negative, according to a Pew Research Center study published this past October. Romney’s attempt at media blocking may have sired the “anything but Mitt” media movement, which led to a series of brief front-runners.

Once debate season started, though, Romney could no longer hide from the media. In debates, Romney, like Gingrich, used his strengths to overshadow his weaknesses. If Romney’s camouflage was banality, his methods of distraction – his other opponents – were a kind gift from fate. Until it became a two-man race, Romney practiced the art of proxy warfare, allowing the other candidates to attack one another in the debates. This tactic let him further ignore the media while also keeping his hands clean. All the candidates hankered for media attention, and the media wanted interesting storylines. It worked even better than Romney had hoped; until New Hampshire, none of the other candidates ever tried to bruise Romney in a debate. It is true that the bane of Mitt’s existence briefly was Bain, but these attacks eventually fell off the news cycle when other things, such as Gingrich’s debate failures, became more newsworthy. Perhaps Romney’s “shyness” arose from his realization in 2008 that candidates could always trip during an event over which they seemingly had control, such as when McCain said, “The fundamentals of our economy are strong.” And Perry demonstrated that sometimes a candidate cannot even control the delivery of a pre-meditated, scripted stock debate answer.

While Romney only answered debate questions when necessary, Gingrich continued his “lover’s quarrel” with the media. And in the January 27 debate, Gingrich’s will and fate did so contrary run. In attacking Wolf Blitzer, Gingrich conceded to the media’s premise that the former speaker could not control his self-destructive tendencies. Gingrich’s slight slip not only hurt him in the framework of the debate setting – it also served as the basis for subsequent media interview and analyses of his campaign. In his interview with Jake Tapper on ABC’s This Week, Gingrich tried to use the interview as a means to make the media forget his earlier poor debate performance. The appearance, however, actually made Gingrich a target for the roundtable’s criticism in the latter half of the show.

Consequently, Gingrich’s narrative for the week of the Florida primary was summed up in George Will’s comment thirty minutes after Gingrich’s interview: “There was a little girl, who had a little curl, right in the middle of her forehead. When she was good, she was very good indeed, but when she was bad she was horrid. And we’re at the horrid stage with Newt Gingrich.” As Gingrich has made himself available to the media, many in the media, especially conservative pundits, have grown wary – from Peggy Noonan, to Bob Dole, to George Will, and yes, even Ann Coulter – of the prospect of a Gingrich nominee. Yet if anyone punctured a hole in the Gingrich hot air balloon, it was Gingrich who drove it in first.

Scholars believe that the mid-term elections of 2010 were the start of a new mass media era: the “Independent Polarized Media.” Differing from the “New Partisan Media” of the 2000s, marked by figureheads of highly ideological cable talk-show news, such as Keith Olbermann and Bill O’Reilly, that defined George W. Bush’s presidency, MSNBC and Fox News no longer define the media today. It is instead a cyclone of the old (print), the adolescent (television), and the infant (Internet). Romney’s realization that he can never engage with all aspects of the media is the foundation of his success. Candidates can try to win positive coverage by being more accessible, but must ultimately understand that a candidate cannot grant time to everyone. At the end of the day, candidates find themselves unable to stage a multi-front war against the inundation of digital media, especially in an era when aggregate outlets, such as Buzzfeed and the Huffington Post, run “The 10 Craziest Michele Bachmann Quotes” articles as slow news day fodder.

In the echo chamber of the incessant news cycle, candidates should remind themselves that their worst enemy is the slow news day, when the latest and goofiest sound byte is not only guaranteed to be played at the top of the hour on cable news for the day, but also featured on the twitterati’s top trends for the whole week. Romney’s answer to this new frontier was to ignore it, and this worked purely because the media refused to ignore Romney – unlike their treatment of Rick Santorum (who got less Fox airtime than each of his major rivals before Iowa). Perhaps with another set of competitors, Romney’s temperate and aloof strategy would have been his undoing. Just the same, even the media did not foresee how this cast of presidential contenders would help them co-author the farce of 2012.

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