Las Vegas Sun

November 22, 2017

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Attacks on media may fail

Staple GOP tactic fires up base now, may not sway others


Sam Morris

Journalists crowd Kendal Unruh of Colorado to get photographs of her hat, decorated with homemade buttons, reflecting her excitement at Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin’s nomination for vice president. In Palin’s speech on Wednesday night at the Republican National Convention, Palin castigated the media for the intense scrutiny on her since being named last week by Sen. John McCain as his running mate.

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McCain's acceptance speech

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The image was arresting: Delegates to the Republican National Convention, fingers jabbing toward the crowd of assembled journalists as Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin hurled invective at the press corps:

“I’ve learned quickly, these past few days, that if you’re not a member in good standing of the Washington elite, then some in the media consider a candidate unqualified for that reason alone.”

Palin had been the subject of thorough media scrutiny the past week since her improbable selection as running mate of the Republican nominee, Sen. John McCain. Then, in her speech Wednesday night, she revved up the crowd by borrowing from the Republican playbook of the past four decades. Attack the media.

“There hasn’t been a lot of culture wars (yet this year), but yelling at the press is a way to resonate,” said Stephen Bates, a journalism professor at UNLV and a former associate independent counsel to Kenneth Starr, the special prosecutor who dogged Democratic President Bill Clinton for years.

The strategy was first seen in vivid images in 1964, at the nominating convention of another Arizona senator, Barry Goldwater.

There, former President Dwight Eisenhower thundered, “Let us particularly scorn the divisive efforts of those outside our family, including sensation-seeking columnists and commentators, because I assure you that these are people who couldn’t care less about the good of our party.”

The crowd at the Cow Palace in San Francisco went wild.

Spiro T. Agnew, George H.W. Bush and every Republican in between and since has used the strategy to great effect.

It’s worth noting, however, that Republicans do not have the market to themselves this year. Democrats are attacking the media, too. Media Matters for America and other liberal Internet outlets harangue the mainstream press, banging away on perceived conservative bias.

For McCain, there is a rich irony. He has long enjoyed a close relationship with the press. He has jokingly referred to the media as his “base.” His 2000 campaign was propelled on the quick-burning rocket fuel of the “Straight Talk Express,” which was compared to a rolling salon. He gave reporters great access and booze. He was jocular and showed intellectual range. They wrote glowing profiles.

But however implausible as attacks from McCain might be, Palin has a slightly more reasonable case, given the bevy of tough stories, including allegations and an investigation into whether she fired the Alaska public safety commissioner because he wouldn’t fire Palin’s former brother-in-law; and despite her saying otherwise, reports showing she initially supported the “bridge to nowhere,” a federal project in remote Alaska that became synonymous with pork barrel spending.

But why attack the people most responsible for delivering — for free — your message at the convention?

There are three principal reasons.

The first is to create an atmosphere of aggrieved outrage among the Republican faithful. Republican strategists have often successfully painted the media as part and parcel of a faraway “cultural elite” that is in league with a Democratic Party that wants to raise taxes, take away guns and so on.

For a quarter-century, Republicans suggested the media and the Democrats didn’t take the Communist threat seriously. Today, it is the threat of Islamic terrorists.

As the reaction among delegates shows, this is red meat for rock-ribbed Republicans — a group that, until this week, McCain had largely failed to inspire.

Robert Uithoven, former campaign manager to the 2006 campaign of Nevada Gov. Jim Gibbons, said he didn’t publicly attack the media in that campaign, but used a related tactic. This was during the final days of the race, when Gibbons was swamped in scandals.

Uithoven knew what the evening news and morning papers would bring, and he would tell Republican county chairs what was coming and how the reports were distorted or unfair. The campaign and county chairs would use e-mail lists and other ways to get the word out, which would insulate Gibbons and catalyze his supporters to see the media as being part of a conspiracy to destroy his candidacy.

Attacking the media can also intimidate the press corps into letting up. Contrary to some reports, editors, producers and reporters are human, and they respond to cajolery and flattery, but also to intimidation.

There’s anecdotal evidence of cowed reporters, especially during the administration of President George W. Bush.

This tactic is known as “working the refs,” derived from the sports term for barking at the referees in hopes of a friendly call. McCain opponent Sen. Barack Obama used the phrase himself this week when discussing the coverage of Palin.

Attacking the press serves a third purpose: It changes the subject. Every paragraph the media devote to Palin’s record as a small-town mayor, or whether McCain properly vetted her, or her unwed daughter’s pregnancy, is a paragraph not used to examine differences in the Democratic and Republican proposals.

McCain forces have reacted with coordinated outrage to the press inquiries. The press then reported the outrage and the cycle continued.

The campaign hopes for a public backlash against the press, which is quite possible, if not now emerging.

Uithoven said he was reminded of 2006, when intense focus on whether Gibbons had acted inappropriately with a cocktail waitress after a night of drinking drew the press off the more important scent.

Gibbons’ aggrieved defense and attacks on the character and veracity of the waitress — as well as the never-ending process stories about videotapes and lawsuits filed — meant less attention on whether Gibbons had hired an illegal immigrant as a housekeeper or whether he had an inappropriate dealings with a defense contractor.

Can it work?

Analysts and political scientists who study voter behavior aren’t sure. There are no statistics on the subject, but Michael McDonald of George Mason University and the Brookings Institution said the strategy can consolidate McCain’s Republican base.

But Republicans are at a big disadvantage at this point, nine weeks from the election. More voters are identifying themselves as Democrats than Republicans, by a margin of 15 percentage points. Those numbers indicate McCain must do more than consolidate his base. He must reach independents and even some Democrats.

Jennifer Duffy of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report said attacking the press can work on some issues, such as driving sympathy for Palin, but is not an overall winning strategy for the fall.

And there are signs that the press corps, weary of years of attacks by the Bush administration, are themselves beginning to stomp and shout a little.

In a column that received wide airing Thursday, the usually evenhanded Politico columnist Roger Simon wrote a piece soaked in sarcasm:

“On behalf of the elite media, I would like to say we are very sorry.

“We have asked questions this week that we should never have asked.

We have asked pathetic questions like: Who is Sarah Palin? What is her record? Where does she stand on the issues? And is she is qualified to be a heartbeat away from the presidency?”

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