Do political candidates still need the press? Based on what’s going on in Kentucky, where I began my career, I’m no longer sure. After saying a few weeks ago that a part of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was an overreach, Rand Paul is sticking to safe, controlled venues. A public meeting of Republicans in Louisville was not one of them—two top reporters showed up. Joe Gerth of The Courier-Journal wanted to follow a story he’d broken about the doctor’s unusual move to self-certify his ophthalmology practice; Ryan Alessi of CN2, an innovative news channel on the state’s largest cable system, wanted to ask about federal funding for the state’s beleaguered Medicaid program. Though Paul is the GOP candidate for U.S. Senate, he opposes most federal aid as a libertarian. What, Alessi wanted to know, about that kind?
You can see the stakeout on YouTube. Paul exits the ballroom, walks past the reporters, and makes for the street. Alessi aims a mike. “We’re not answering any hypotheticals,” Paul says. “Submit your questions to us, and we will look at them.” Then he’s gone. Campaign manager Jesse Benton tells me there’s no blanket questions-in-writing policy; it only applies to certain reporters and situations. Paul will make the rounds, Benton says. But if the going gets tough again—that is, if anyone other than a friendly talk-show host tosses anything other than a softball—you can expect the good doctor to perform another disappearing act.
Time was, no candidate in Kentucky, not even a libertarian Republican, would stiff the man from The C-J. But these are different times, especially for unorthodox candidates like Paul. In California, eBay’s Meg Whitman is spending perhaps $200 million of her own money to get her message out in the governor’s race with minimal dealings with nosy, unpredictable reporters. She invited them to an “open press” event—and then banished them when they were rude enough to ask questions. (A campaign spokesman says Whitman was running late, and that her hosts didn’t want her to engage in a Q&A.) Sharron Angle, the Tea Partier who is the GOP Senate candidate in Nevada, has become so mediaphobic that a posse of reporters literally chased her through the corridors of the U.S. Capitol last week, to no avail.
What’s going on? The Republicans have some especially weird, prickly, and novice candidates this year. Their Washington handlers—their proxies to the press—admit that they have to silence the candidates, then train them before turning them loose. But there are deeper, more disturbing explanations. Changes to the media landscape—ideological fragmentation, the decline of newspapers, the rise of a feisty-but-still-atomized Web-based, digital press—have long since allowed candidates to pick whom they respond to, if anyone. And more and more, candidates construct their own faux-media entities, complete with video-streamed “reports” and Facebook outreach. (Ironically, they’re just adapting techniques that the president mastered during his 2008 campaign; no one has replicated them to greater effect, perhaps, than Sarah Palin. Witness her recent missives about her new neighbor, investigative reporter Joe McGinniss.)
Meanwhile, the economics of the business have forced reporters off the trail. Pack journalism has its problems, but packs can sometimes usefully force candidates into a corner. And regardless of the profession’s financial free fall, we haven’t been skeptical or inquisitive enough. TV pundits—I’ll let you decide the extent to which I’m a co-conspirator in this—often come off as sleek, self-satisfied insiders, an appendage of the establishment. That, in turn, makes it all too tempting, and easy, for the Rand Pauls to ignore us and portray their own cynicism as an act of principle.
So can Paul, Whitman, and Angle get away with it? My gut reaction was: no way. All candidates have views they’re obscuring, or personal stories they’re not disclosing, that will seep out one way or another, and they’ll need a neutral forum to explain themselves. At some point, running from the press can look weak. Staying mum also makes a debate dangerously make or break. “Jerry Brown will eat Meg Whitman alive if the campaign is all about one debate,” says a veteran GOP media strategist who can’t speak on the record because he works in state government. But looking at early polls, I see that Paul, Angle, and Whitman are leading or close. If the economy is weak enough, and Obama unpopular enough, they could continue to run, and to hide—and they could win.
Howard Fineman is also the author of The Thirteen American Arguments: Enduring Debates That Define and Inspire Our Country.