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Is ignoring the press an emerging political strategy? Texas' Rick Perry, others may pave the way.

Wednesday, Nov 03, 2010, 07:20AM CST
By Mark Lisheron
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Now that Rick Perry has won an unprecedented third term as Texas governor, there is a temptation to answer 'no' to the question of whether it is worth it for a candidate to try to win newspaper endorsements.

Not only did Perry decline to meet with every editorial board in the state, but he repeatedly refused the invitation of the major newspapers to a televised debate. But Peter Brown, who has two decades of reporting experience covering Washington and originally posed the question in a column for the Wall Street Journal, says the answer is better found in the results of a dead heat in Florida featuring another Rick, this one a challenger rather than an incumbent.

Rick Scott, a multi-millionaire Republican, made a point at the outset of his Florida gubernatorial campaign to tell editorial boards he would not be taking the time to sit down with them. Alex Sink, Florida's chief financial officer and a Democrat, has included the endorsement of at least 17 newspapers on every piece of campaign literature and in most of her television and radio commercials.

Both Texas Rick and Florida Rick are playing on the natural conservative antipathy toward a mainstream media they see as sympathetic to liberals and Democrats, Brown, the assistant director of the much respected polling institute at little, private Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Conn., told Texas Watchdog. Both are part of what has for several election cycles been a more general and bi-partisan trend to sidestep or ignore altogether traditional news outlets that may ask inconvenient questions at critical times in campaigns, he said. Politico has called this the year of the missing candidate.

But if Scott wins, Brown says, this year could be much more. "In Perry's case you have an easier call not to do editorial boards. He's an incumbent, he has plenty of money. The people who voted for him before are going to vote for him again. Scott is a challenger who has implied that the media is part of the crowd in Tallahassee. If he wins he shows the influence of the media has clearly diminished. Just as clearly he sends a message to other Republicans that avoiding the media can be a campaign strategy in Florida."

As of Wednesday morning Scott was ahead by 75,000 votes in a neck-and-neck race. We will update later today.

John Kennedy, who is in Fort Lauderdale today covering Scott for the News Service of Florida website, said that although Scott has never said it, the Florida governor's race is, among other things a referendum on the media's role in politics in the state.

Kennedy, who spent 25 years in newspapers, much of it at the Tallahassee statehouse for the Orlando Sentinel, said he and other longtime news people have been shocked at the success of a candidate who did not win an endorsement from a single major newspaper. In contrast, his opponent, Sink, had to be cut off during a televised debate on Oct. 27 in Tampa when she departed on a tangent about her newspaper endorsements.

"Newspapers, in part, have played a role in building her story. She has built whole ad campaigns around these endorsements. Scott was asked again this week by USA Today about the editorial boards, and he said what he has from the beginning: 'I'm taking my message directly to the voters,'" Kennedy says. "It's an anti-media message. The question is, does it resonate with independents? We'll see tonight."

How the candidates have sided on the media in Florida is a tidy illustration that suggests it can be effective for political outsiders -- Tea Party candidates preeminent in this election -- to fight government and the press as the same entrenched, sclerotic enemy.

Gov. Perry's signature moment in this campaign may have been his decision, months before other major elected figures in this country, to speak with empathy at Tea Party rallies. Perry told the Associated Press he had decided, even before the March primaries, to forego interview sessions with editorial boards. "It was a calculated decision," Perry told AP, "but you know the world is really changing, I mean, the way people get their information, who they listen to, etc."

It was this insight and the Perry campaign's successful use of social media to build its organization and deliver its messages that is the subtle but significant development in this election, according to David Guenthner, director of media and government relations for the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation.

Whether or not Perry's decision was a self-fulfilling prophesy, he received not a single endorsement from a major newspaper in Texas. Among those papers who endorsed White after endorsing Perry in 2006 were the Dallas Morning News and the San Antonio Express-News. Standing out among the vitriolic, indignant editorials was a rare editorial run across the front page of the Sunday, Oct. 8, Tyler Courier Times-Telegraph scolding Perry for his "unacceptable and undeserved silence."

"I think in Rick Perry's case, you're going to say he made the right choice," Brown says. "I think that over time you're seeing candidates making the choice of limiting their exposure in the media, which has fewer organizations and fewer resources."

But while it might be small consolation to Texas editorial writers, avoidance might be preferable to confrontation. Security guards working for Joe Miller, a Tea Party Republican running for the U.S. Senate in Alaska, handcuffed a reporter they said was trespassing at one of Miller's town hall meetings in mid-October. Miller was leading in the last poll taken before election day.

Carl Paladino, Republican gubernatorial candidate in New York, Sharron Angle, Republican for U.S. Senate in Nevada, and Christine O'Donnell, U.S. Senate candidate in Delaware - all outsider upstarts - have within the last weeks of the election had angry run-ins with the press. Rather than the year of the missing candidate, this election might better be described as the year of the passive-aggressive candidate.

Whether or not candidates accelerate their treatment of the press as nuisance or outright threat depends largely on whether the strategy is seen as successful on election day, Brown says. These candidates, he says, will be paying close attention in Florida to Rick Scott.

Contact Mark Lisheron at 512-299-2318 or mark@texaswatchdog.org.

Photo of Waiting for the Next Ferry in Niteroi Port by flickr user Hendo101, used via a Creative Commons license.

Comments
Evelyn
Thursday, 11/04/2010 - 12:43PM

Not only newspapers - Republican candidates have also increasingly declined to be interviewed by TV news outlets this election season. This is an excellent article, but you left out the most obvious reason: the surge in ad income following the Supreme Court's Citizen United decision gives candidates, especially business-friendly ones, unprecedented access to media with messages under their own control. They can afford to be seen often by the public, even to respond quickly to any negative publicity, without involvement by troublesome journalists. Add Fox News to this and you have a powerful new situation. In fact, discrediting real journalism is not just possible in this new environment, it is strategically smart.

Robert Jackson
Sunday, 11/07/2010 - 01:11AM

Not all candidates who avoided the press won on Tuesday night. Sharron Angle and Christine O'Donnell both made a point of not talking to the media and they both lost. In California both the Republican candidates for governor and U.S. Senate made a point of hand picking reporters they would talk to and they lost as well. In Oakland, CA the frontrunning candidate in the mayor's race embraced the political mantra of "front runners don't give challengers the opportunity to debate" to the hilt, coming up with various reasons not to debate other candidates or to discuss details of his campaign with the media. That candidate, as of November 6, was losing. Media outlets should be more proactive in harshly criticizing candidates who won't sit for editorial board or talk to reporters.

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