7/27/2008

McCain and the Media

When conservatives and Republicans hear Blacks and other ethnic minorities complain about racism, they commonly tell them to work hard, do their best, and remember that in America all things are possible for people who refuse to stay down after they get knocked down.

When conservatives and Republicans hear poor and financially struggling people complain about the bad economy, housing foreclosures, and not having any money in their bank accounts, they commonly tell them to suck it up, live responsibly, and do whatever it takes to get back on their feet. They also remind them that it's important to build a safety net (a rainy day fund) in case they stumble upon hard times.

This is not to say that legitimate gripes do not exist. However, complaining about racism is not going to give you the education you need to find a good job. And complaining about the big bad government or dishonest corporations is not going to give you your job back after your company goes bankrupt.

When you are down, either in politics or in life in general, you have to work harder to catch up and take advantage of any and all opportunities afforded to you. This makes John McCain's complaining about media coverage seem all the more odd because it not consistent with traditional conservative rhetoric concerning overcoming adversity.

Before this year's nominees were decided, there were about 20 candidates running for president. More than half of these candidates were considered longshots. Some of them didn't help their cause by complaining about not getting enough talk time in the debates. And when they actually did get a chance to participate in the debates, they did not say anything to distinguish themselves from the rest of the pack and warrant more attention from the media.

Republican Duncan Hunter was a perfect example of a fine candidate whose struggles were partially of his own making. He was probably the best fit for Republicans this year in that he was aligned with the conservative base on abortion, Iraq, national security, social policy, immigration, and taxes. He also hailed from California and had the chance to make it competitive as the Republican nominee in the general election. But when it was his chance to participate in the debates, he didn't say anything that would make people take notice. He came across as just another conservative Republican and got lost in the shuffle.

Ron Paul and Mike Huckabee, however, were able to escape irrelevance by maximizing their limited opportunities. Ron Paul was not afraid to challenge his rivals on spending and Iraq, thus drawing new attention to his candidacy. Soon thereafter, he was shattering fundraising records. And Mike Huckabee spent more time talking about pocketbook issues and issues of faith than complaining about his lack of media coverage. As a result, restless evangelicals found a home in Huckabee and he became a top-tier candidate. Both Paul and Huckabee earned their media coverage by giving them something to actually cover.

One memorable moment from the Hillary Clinton campaign concerned her outburst at the beginning of one of the one-on-one debates with Barack Obama in which she complained about the favorable media coverage Obama was receiving. She spent precious time criticizing the media for not asking if Obama "wanted another pillow." This was a disastrous move because 1) time she spent complaining about the media was time she wasn't spending presenting her case to the American people, 2) complaining about the media conveyed the message that the campaign was about her and not about the voters, 3) she was driving up her own negatives while not laying a glove on Obama, and 4) she was making news for all the wrong reasons because the headlines coming out of the debate were about this outburst rather than any debating points she actually scored.

Voters are concerned about losing their homes. They are worried about high gas prices. They are looking for an endgame in Iraq. They are concerned about their pensions, access to healthcare, and losing the money in their bank accounts. The last thing they want to hear is a presidential candidate complaining about not being treated fairly by the media, especially if the media are covering a trip that this candidate criticized the other candidate for not taking earlier.

The media are indeed covering Barack Obama more often and probably more favorably than John McCain (though a recent study may suggest otherwise). This could be the result of liberal bias on behalf of journalists, or it could be a matter of simple economics. Barack Obama is simply better for ratings and circulation than John McCain because he has a story nobody has ever heard before. This, of course, does not excuse imbalanced coverage. However, like the current state of race relations and difficult economic times, that's the state of the media in this campaign and John McCain is going to have to figure out how to use it to his advantage.

Consider this picture of John McCain (courtesy of Political Realm). He was riding in a golf cart with former President George H.W. Bush at Kennebunkport, Maine, before giving a press conference while Barack Obama was off on his world tour to the Middle East and Europe. McCain's public relations staff should be taken to the woodshed for allowing this opportunity to slip through their fingers. While Obama was abroad, McCain had the domestic stage all to himself. So instead of scheduling town halls or chatting with the locals about pocketbook issues and getting good photo ops there, the enduring image from the week was of McCain sitting in a golf cart with Bush 41 at an upscale hideaway in Maine. Who wants to cover that? And does John McCain honestly expect a press conference with George H.W. Bush to receive the same attention as Obama's speeches before tens of thousands of screaming Europeans?

But media management is not just about conveying the right imagery. It's also about taking advantage of all opportunities to make news.

Both Barack Obama and John McCain were invited to speak at this weekend's Unity Conference, a gathering of journalists of color and their respective professional organizations. Barack Obama accepted the invitation and took questions from the audience of media professionals there. John McCain, however, declined the invitation citing scheduling conflicts. But how much sense does it make for John McCain to complain about not getting any media attention and then decline a perfect opportunity to get the attention he seeks?

The audience at the Unity Conference was likely a hostile one seeing that people of color are reliably Democratic. However, the conference participants were there as media professionals, rather than partisans. And given Republicans' problems with voters of color, McCain could have made news by courageously showing up. Instead he gave Blacks, Latinos, and Asians yet another reason to think that McCain (and Republicans by extension) simply don't care about them or the issues that are important to their communities. Oh, and he gave Barack Obama yet another night of positive headlines because he showed up and took questions.

Again, the media are arguably covering Barack Obama more often and more favorably than John McCain, but McCain has certainly had his opportunities to make news. However, on more than one occasion, he simply chose not to participate or did not take full advantage of the golden opportunities that have come his way. And he has no one to blame for that but himself.

11 comment(s):

sam joseph said...

i love your first 3 to 4 paragraphs soooo muchhh!!! i think that you absolutely right and people should move pass that race problem if the want to be sucessful..people need to be a little determin in life and stop blaming oters for their problem...
i also like that u mention about the republican candidate Hunater, he was the ideal candidat for republicans ...mccain don't talk about things to interest the media. obama on the other hand even looks interesting to the media and the media only plays what people wants to see...
now is the time we are most in need of a republican, a time when inflation frettens to kill the economy. i see little hope...don't even have the "odacity to hope"

Torrance Stephens - All-Mi-T said...

they pulling out all the tricks now folk, middle of the 7th inning

Thomas said...

I am consistently amazed by how all these tough-talkin' manly conservatives are almost reduced to tears by those big media meanies. I mean, where has Ronald Reagan gone? He would have just laughed at the media and said something like, "There you go again."

Now Republicans are stuck with people like Mitt Romney who finds fault with everyone except himself. These guys get covered! A recent example of this is The New York Times Magazine doing a respectful cover story on Rush Limbaugh.

I would have liked The New York Times to have covered the recent opening of my small law office but I am sure they could care less.

S.W. Anderson said...

You've heard the one about give a man a new hammer and suddenly everything he sees is a nail? Well, give Duncan Hunter the c-in-c job and suddenly everything's a military confrontation,intervention, war, quagmire, etc. I think the man channels the late Gen. Curtis LeMay.

Meanwhile, look for Medicare to go on life support, more bridges to fall down and the economy to descend into a near-death experience, as oversized, ill-advised tax cuts are piled on as the Republican snake-oil remedy for all economic ills (We'll just grow the economy out of all problems). And, of course, to pay for all the sturm and drang, more borrow-and-spend.

But hey, with all that going for Hunter, I'm surprised McCain hasn't tapped him to be his running mate.

Brett said...

Keep in mind, Anthony, that McCain's complaining may not be aimed at the media itself (although part of it probably is), or even the general public. A lot of it may be aimed at the Republican base, who over the past two decades have been pumped via talk radio and the like that the "Mainstream Media" is out to get them and other conservatives. They may hear his comments and sympathize, seeing as it's a familiar storyline - "that liberal media, at it again!"

Or it could just be the griping of a man who used to be a Media Darling when he first ran, and even while he was still competing in the Republican Primary.

S.W. Anderson said...

"the media are arguably covering Barack Obama more often and more favorably than John McCain . . ."


Rachel Maddow (Air America) had plenty to say today about a study showing that while Obama does get more coverage than McCain, that coverage is consistently more negative than the coverage McCain gets.

"But how much sense does it make for John McCain to complain about not getting any media attention and then decline a perfect opportunity to get the attention he seeks?"

Making sense seems to be a stumbling block for McCain these days. Maddow also played a soundbite from Friday of McCain telling Wolf Blitzer the 16-month withdrawal scenario "Sounds like a pretty good timetable."

Immediately following that, Maddow played a sound bite of McCain telling George Stephanopoulos on Sunday morning, "Timetable? I never said that!"

Maddow played the two sound bites several times, for added effect.

Whether McCain is in denial, having a senior moment or just thinks we're all incredibly gullible, this latest of a series of incidents where he denies having said things that are on tape and/or in reporters' notes begs a question:

What good is "straight talk" that's so predictably perishable?

For that matter, what good is a prospective leader who can't keep track of the truth or so easily, blatantly and repeatedly refutes the truth?

After secretive, devious, dishonest George W. Bush (and his No. 2), our next president needs to come in with good credibility and be scrupulous about maintaining credibility. That leaves McCain out.

Anthony Palmer said...

Sam,

I agree that focusing on things you can't change instead of the things you can change holds a lot of people back, be it in regards to race, class, gender, the good ol' boy network, or whatever. So in McCain's case, the media are going to do what the media are going to do, so he should learn how to adjust so that he can maximize the opportunities the media provide.

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Torrance,

Things are really going to get nasty during the second half of October, especially if Obama outperforms McCain in the debates. This is beanbag right now, I'm afraid.

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Thomas,

I think conservatives commony rail against the media because it's a useful foil. You have the "elite" NYT, WaPo, and LAT who are totally out of touch with the people in rural Missouri who get their news from local stations. So it reinforces the cultural divide that exists between the blue staters and the red staters. I think a lot of the charges, however, are bogus and someone should call them out on it.

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Brett,

Yes, blasting the media is always a good way to fill Republican coffers with campaign contributions. Interestingly, in 2000 John McCain couldn't have asked for a better friend than the media. And even during the primaries this year, McCain was receiving better treatment than the other candidates. They called Fred Thompson tired, Mitt Romney a flip flopper, Rudy Giuliani angry, etc. But now McCain perceives himself to be on the short end of the media stick and he doesn't like it. But his gaffes don't seem to be covered as strongly as Obama's. It seems like McCain is trying to tie Obama and the media into one nasty entity that needs both halves in order to survive.

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SWA,

Duncan Hunter was probably the best Republican candidate as far as the conservative base was concerned. I think he would have been a disaster as President, however, for the reasons you stated. But he was a lousy candidate and he did not know how to use the media to his advantage.

As for the media study about bias, I linked to it in the original post. Very interesting indeed. Increased coverage doesn't necessarily mean better coverage indeed. After all, the media spent weeks talking about Jeremiah Wright, Bittergate, flag pins, and "his problems" with downscale Whites and "his lack" of experience. Even right-leaning partisans would have to agree that this is not favorable coverage.

BTW, I didn't care much for Rachel Maddow at first, but I'm slowly warming up to her. I'm finding her to be an articulate advocate for liberalism who doesn't go over the top like Keith Olbermann does. I don't agree with her sometimes, but I do like her tenacity and the thoughtfulness that is evident in the construction of her arguments.

Brett said...

Maybe it's the power of a "candidate storyline". I don't think particularly highly of Mark Halperin as a reporter, but he did make one good comment in his book about this kind of thing. He pointed out (in regards to the 2004 race) that people knew (or thought they knew) a lot about Bush, so any new errors just didn't sink in, because they were more or less just a drop in the bucket compared to the bucketful of information already there. Kerry, on the other hand, was less well known, so each bit of information carried more weight.

That may be the case with McCain. The errors just aren't sticking, simply because so much has already been said and spoken on McCain over the past decade that recent criticisms just don't stick as well.

S.W. Anderson said...

Brett, that's an interesting theory. Regarding McCain, I think it has some veracity among the politically interested and aware. But, among the many who aren't all that interested and tuned in, I don't think it applies.

People's hazy recollections of the straight talker of 2000 are one thing. The guy who rolls along repeating misstatements of fact he's been told about by his own people time and again is a whole 'nother thing. Same goes for repeatedly denying he ever said things he should know he's on tape saying.

If these gaffes and examples of peeing down the public's leg, so to speak, and telling everyone to never mind, it's just raining, don't make an impression that "sticks," our experiment in democracy is all over but the shouting. Or maybe the revolution.

S.W. Anderson said...

AP, I can understand how you would feel Olbermann goes over the top. The key to understanding him and appreciating what he's doing lies in the fact he really is sincere.

Eight years of over-the-top secretiveness, deviousness, blatant lies, corruption and the worst incompetence the White House has ever seen, and where's the accountability? Where are the just desserts?

This is America. Bad guys aren't supposed to ride off into the sunset leaving the landscape littered with white-hat types who died of frustration and bystanders in shock, wondering what hit them.

Millions of us have asked so many times over the last eight years: "How can this be happening? Where is the outrage?"

Olbermann is a potent answer to both questions.

DB said...

Another interesting aspect I find is that the complaints about media coverage don't result in fair coverage, rather the complaints turn into the media covering...the coverage! Look at Germany, the story wasn't so much that Obama is in Germany, rather the coverage was about the coverage of Obama. The media is covering itself now! My first clue was the week(s) long coverage of Tim Russert's death. Great guy who deserves a tribute, but it seems the media is now fawning over itself more than going after the news. The question is, are they covering Obama or are they fascinated about the coverage of their coverage? The media has become the news story. So weird. (I hope that all made sense as it sounded way better in my head)

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