In President Lincoln’s time, some newspapers published cartoons of him looking like an ape. During Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency, William Randolph Hearst wrote that FDR had “done his best to deserve the support” of socialists, radicals, communists, anarchists, Bolsheviks and “revolutionists.”
And let’s not forget Presidential candidate Gary Hart, who was undone when reporters hiding out in the bushes outside his house discovered him spending the night with a woman who was not his wife. Hart’s campaign denounced the story as “character assassination” by an unethical media that is “reduced to hiding in bushes, peeking in windows and personal harassment.” The story, of course, was true and Hart’s political career was finished.
Fast forward to 2015 and candidates for President are complaining about the media. It’s a story as old as politics. The debate moderators asked obnoxious questions, they say. The media don’t focus on the important issues, they say. And according to the Republicans, as we’ve heard many times in the past, the media has a liberal bias.
As someone who has been dealing with the media for more than 30 years, I’d like to offer some unsolicited advice to these candidates. Get over it.
You’ve put yourself in the arena. You’re running for the highest office in the land. You’re one of more than a dozen candidates scrambling for air time and fighting for attention – often by making statements that are calculated to be dramatic and, at times, provocative. News flash: the media is going to go after you. That’s what it’s supposed to do.
If you talk about the federal government’s finances, the media’s going to ask you about your own finances. If you talk about your successes in business, the media’s going to find every failure and ask you about those. If you’re tough on illegal immigrants, you’d better not have employed any. If you rail against the rich and privileged, be prepared to answer questions about your own lifestyle.
When you run for President, you are asking for a giant spotlight to be shined on yourself. Every flaw will show and, if it doesn’t show immediately, the media will search until they find it. That’s their job: as the saying goes, to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.
The media is comprised of countless individuals at thousands of newspapers, television and radio stations, magazines and online outlets. They all have biases, just like the rest of us. They all exercise judgments every day that are colored by those biases, even if they try to avoid it. There are great reporters and sloppy ones, those who are extremely knowledgeable and those who are stunningly superficial. The best of them try to avoid their personal views influencing their work, but they are human beings after all. The idea that there is some large, media behemoth pulling for one side or the other is ludicrous.
The truth is that political candidates who have long known the value of “going negative” are now not only going negative against their opponents, but against the media. In the time honored tactic, if you were criticized by an opponent, rather than respond to that criticism, you’d go on the attack. In today’s version, when the media asks critical questions or runs negative stories, rather than responding to them, candidates attack the media and discredit the criticism as nothing more than media bias.
When a moderator during the debate asked Marco Rubio about his personal finances and debts he’d incurred, Rubio brushed it aside as media bias. When Carly Fiorina was questioned afterwards about a comment she’d made that misrepresented unemployment statistics among women during President Obama’s first term, she said that focusing on her misstatement was simply another example of media bias.
Just to make my own biases clear, I happen to like both of these candidates. But they were asked legitimate questions. The candidates didn’t want to dwell on those uncomfortable subjects, so they went on offense. Maybe that tactic will work; we’ll see how it plays out over the course of the campaign. Most likely, it will be effective for a while, until the media adapts, at which point the complaints will start to sound defensive and whiny.
Clearly, when members of the media actually are unfair or biased, which is sometimes the case, they should be called on it. Media organizations need to hold themselves as accountable as they hold others. But when candidates fall back on “liberal media” and “media bias” as the reflexive response to every challenge – treating every question they don’t like as offensive – they will eventually lose credibility and the public will be poorly served.
Professionals in this field – which every candidate employs – should recognize that the media need not be their adversary. The candidates as a group would gain more respect if they focused on how best to communicate with voters through the media as it is, even if they consider it flawed, and how to do it more effectively. Those annoying questions are part of the deal when you run for high office – and they always have been.