2010 Midterm Election: Can Avoiding the Press Help Candidates Win?

Sharron Angle walks past reporters after a GOP lunch in Washington, D.C., on June 15, 2010. Susan Walsh / AP

Joe Miller, the Alaska Republican running for Senate, is seriously short on time. So much so, in fact, that when cable-news host Rachel Maddow asked for an interview last month, she was told, she says, that he wasn’t going to be able to squeeze it into his busy schedule, ever. When she and her producers persisted with dozens of e-mails and calls—no doubt trying to make a point that they could talk about on the air—Miller’s campaign relented, sort of. Maddow was granted a strange walk-and-talk-style interview through a hallway, down several escalators, and into a waiting vehicle. The pair was surrounded by Miller handlers and supporters. All told, it lasted three minutes.

Obviously, Miller’s incentive to talk to someone like Maddow isn’t terribly large. Most of the Tea Party voters who helped give him the Republican nomination probably aren’t watching the left-leaning MSNBC anyway. And in a race with only about 500,000 registered voters, speaking to a national audience isn’t likely to move the needle. But during the interview Miller’s contempt for Maddow was palpable. As the two were hurried along to the waiting car, Miller appeared increasingly frustrated with Maddow’s line of questions about a federal ban on gay marriage (he said it was a state issue but that he would vote for a federal ban on the practice). Then, in the middle of the conversation, cutting off Maddow, Miller got into the car, waved to the crowd, and drove away.

At least Miller actually talked. Other candidates this election are completely squeezing out reporters deemed unfriendly—whether they wear their bias on their sleeve, like Maddow, or are just representatives of a traditional news organization with a perceived unfriendliness. With Americans’ opinion of the media at a low, candidates get a twofer: avoid difficult questions and get points for a taking a stand against supposedly biased reporters. (Not that we, at NEWSWEEK, have a horse in this race or anything.) Some candidates rail against the media and its this-side-or-that slant that will convey their message through an ideological prism. Strategists for other campaigns say that not granting interviews means not only having to answer fewer questions about unfriendly topics, but also lowering the potential for embarrassing, candidacy-ending moments like Sarah Palin’s seismic meltdown during her interview with Katie Couric. Of course, strategically choosing media outlets has been in practice for decades. It is, in some ways, the very core of any campaign’s efforts to target specific demographics and constituencies with limited time and money. But a general combativeness with the mainstream press is something new, perhaps not this year, but it has certainly hit fever pitch this election season.

Palin, who granted far fewer interviews than most vice presidential candidates, didn’t invent the strategy, note several political consultants on both ends of the spectrum, but she certainly made it hip. After the 2008 campaign, her use of the term “lamestream media” caught on with conservative voters, many of whom say they were already skeptical of reporting from mainstream outlets. Most of the examples of politicians shutting the door on the media seem to be on the right, yet distrust of the press is widespread among people across ideologies. A Pew Research Center poll last month found that just 29 percent of the country thinks mainstream outlets “generally get the facts straight.”

One of the more enthusiastic media foils is Sharron Angle, the Nevada Republican running for Senate. Not long after Angle won her party’s nomination, she adopted what several Nevada reporters called a “closed door” strategy, speaking only—and infrequently—to friendly, conservative interviewers. She publicly lamented at one point that reporters don’t ask the questions she wants them to ask, and flatly stated that she wouldn’t be speaking to them at all. It’s a promise she has kept. When NEWSWEEK traveled to Nevada last month to report on the race between Angle and Sen. Harry Reid, her campaign did not respond to more than a dozen requests for comment, even from a spokesperson. When a reporter visited the campaign headquarters in person to ask for a general statement, he was firmly told to leave. The New York Times, The Washington Post, and several Nevada outlets have all reported similar inaccessibility of the candidate. “It’s the new thing in Nevada,” Heidi Smith, chair of the Washoe County GOP, said last month. “No one will talk to the press anymore.”

Some Democrats see the reticence toward mainstream outlets as a form of arrogance among conservatives—although they acknowledge it can pay dividends. “Particularly on the conservative Republican side, there’s a mantra that the mainstream media is full of liberals that ridicule their agenda,” says Democratic strategist Hillary Rosen. “So they exploit that. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.” Joy Behar, a co-host on ABC’s The View, gave the right more ammunition last week when she called Sharron Angle a “bitch.” The same day, Angle’s campaign raised $150,000 online. Meanwhile, Palin, who isn’t running for any office at the moment, at least not formally, has granted virtually zero interviews most of this year, except to Fox News, where she has an exclusive contract. Yet the strategy of demonizing reporters has helped her build her brand. Last quarter, her political-action committee raised $1.2 million. In California, gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman, who has self-funded much of her campaign, has also done an unusually small number of interviews, and usually only with conservative outlets. Several news organizations criticized her earlier this year for labeling a portion of her campaign Web site the “Meg News Channel,” complaining it was an effort to present her own press releases as reported news.

Republicans admit that while refusing to answer mainstream questions can appear suspicious, it can also be helpful—and especially this year, when trust in mainstream outlets and national newspaper circulation are declining. But Steve Frank, a Republican strategist in Southern California, sees it as a widely used crutch. “It’s a natural fear of the media by all people running for office,” says Frank. “They’ve seen what has happened to other people.” One recent example, he points out, might be New York gubernatorial candidate Carl Paladino. When he spoke off the cuff—using notes, Paladino said, that a consultant had written for him —about how children shouldn’t be “brainwashed into thinking homosexuality is an equally valid and successful option,” he was widely panned in the mainstream press and ended up apologizing. At this point in the electoral cycle, some Democrats are just as eager to stay mum. Reid, despite being interviewed by hundreds of reporters during his tenure in Washington, has agreed to speak only with several left-leaning and local Nevada outlets prior to next week’s election.

Thirty years ago, the most respected and credible interviewers were network news anchors. (Imagine a newscaster today being called “the most trusted man in America,” as Walter Cronkite was.) Not granting an interview intimated you had something to hide, or weren’t up for the challenge of fielding tough questions. But many of today’s interviewers freely advertise their tinge of bias. Miller can reasonably tell his supporters that he’d rather not talk to Maddow because she works for a progressive political network. Liberal candidates can do the same by declining interviews with Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly or Sean Hannity, alleging they wouldn’t get a fair shake anyway, so why bother. Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland admitted this month to refusing four interviews with Fox because the network was "committed to getting Republicans elected." In some cases, even if the bias is perceived only by the person being interviewed, it’s easy to argue that it’s there. North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr declined interviews this month with reporters from The Charlotte Observer and Raleigh’s News & Observer after both papers ran somewhat unfavorable editorials.

Still, there may be an end in sight, perhaps soon. During an interview this week with The Heidi Harris Show, one of the few strictly conservative outlets Angle has talked to over the past few months, the interviewer confronted Angle about her unwillingness to answer questions from mainstream reporters. When might that relationship change, the interviewer asked? Angle’s response: just as soon as she’s elected.