McCain and the Media: Part 3

I have been critical of John McCain because of his failure to use the media to his advantage, either by avoiding good media opportunities that were presented to him or by not sufficiently preparing his staff to deal with interviews and losing control of the ensuing narratives that result from it.

However, the media have done John McCain a tremendous favor that has allowed him to turn the media into a perfect foil that further enthuses his supporters. The media's arguable overreach in regards to probing into Sarah Palin's family affairs turned the Republican vice presidential nominee into a victim with whom many voters could empathize because Palin's troubles were similar to their own. Millions of voters know what it's like to have their teenage daughter break the news of an unplanned pregnancy and are offended by total strangers with microphones asking them about it. Millions of voters would recoil in disgust at being asked about taking flights after their water broke. Of course, Sarah Palin is a public figure, but the gut reaction to this media coverage is one of anger and disgust, not a logical determination of who is and is not fair game.

So after turning Palin into a victim, she was able to display her tenacity by striking back with zinger after zinger against the media in her acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention last week. Palin was allowed to play the role of victim, fighter, and anti-media crusader all at the same time.

Of course, the media were not the engine driving most of this invasive coverage. The responsibility for this overreach primarily lies with anonymous bloggers, such as those at the Daily Kos, as the rumors about the Palin family originated on such sites. But this distinction doesn't matter to average people. The storyline they're going to hear is "Media unfairly attacks Palin" or "Media coverage is unfavorable to Republicans." Oh, and it pushes Barack Obama and Joe Biden out of the headlines.

This buys the McCain campaign some time. They can keep Palin off the campaign trail and let her study foreign policy privately while publicly telling voters that the media don't deserve interviews. Attacking the media is a common tactic Republicans employ to lower expectations about their own candidates ("You guys in the media won't give our [Republican] candidate a fair shake."), drive up enthusiasm among their base ("Let's stand up to the New York Times!"), and attack Democrats without attacking them directly (by referring to the media as "the liberal media elite" or "the Manhattan and Georgetown cocktail circuit, as Fred Thompson said in his speech at the convention).

But there is a risk that the "blame the media" tack will backfire. To start, some people in the media are defending themselves, rather than taking these criticisms lying down. After all, a journalist's job is to ask questions and gather information that the public finds important. Other people in the media are aware of their missteps and are cleaning up their act. While some of their coverage may have been unfairly invasive, the public still does have a right to know about its candidates running for the two highest offices in the land. And the longer Sarah Palin is kept away from the cameras, the more doubts may creep in about her preparedness for the job. The McCain campaign does not want the dialogue about Palin to switch from "She's one of us" or "She was unfairly attacked" to "Why can't she answer any real questions?" or "What is she hiding?" Once the halo disappeared from Barack Obama, he had to answer tough questions about his past and his record. That will happen to Sarah Palin too.

Of course, the McCain campaign may try to use last week's media coverage as a way of inoculating her from having to answer tough questions later on. If the media pile onto Palin for not being able to articulate her policy on Afghanistan and Pakistan, the McCain campaign may say "See? The liberal media is being unfair to Palin again." But that may backfire, as even some Republicans are imploring other Republicans to be a bit more discerning in regards to Palin because despite her appealing narrative, nobody knows anything about her and shouldn't get too excited about her until she at least gives them some sense of direction in regards to where she wants to take this country. And the McCain campaign cannot use the "biased liberal media" as a shield to prevent her from having to answer legitimate questions.

This media strategy introduces some new problems. First of all, Palin cannot attack Obama on the campaign trail and then not make herself available for interviews to elaborate on the attacks or clarify what they mean. This makes her look like she's hiding from Obama or the media and conveys the message that all she does is talk tough without being able to defend herself.

Secondly, this presents an opening for Barack Obama in that he can compare Vice President Dick Cheney's secrecy to that of Palin's and link her to the Bush administration in that regard. He can also remind voters that he, McCain, and Biden are all making the rounds and answering tough questions. Obama even appeared on Bill O'Reilly's show, which is hardly friendly to liberal Democrats. This would plant seeds of doubt in voters' minds about Palin's political credibility.

Third, because she's not making herself available for interviews, she is inadvertently raising her own expectations and setting herself up to be savaged by the media in the event that she makes a misstep. If she can't explain McCain's economic policy, the media won't have anything else but that mistake to report on because she simply hasn't given the press much material to work with. And there will be more pressure for her to go before the cameras and clear up such a mistake.

And finally, Obama's surrogates can chide Palin for being "tough enough to take on Vladimir Putin and Al Qaeda, but not tough enough to take on the Washington Post and Tom Brokaw." This would make a mockery of Palin's candidacy much like the mockery she made of Obama during her speech. Some Republicans are further muddying the waters by boycotting Oprah Winfrey's show. That feeds into the perception that Palin only wants soft interviews while also contradicting the idea that the McCain campaign is keeping her away from the media in general.

In short, media overreach has given John McCain a tremendous advantage that may be reflected in polls showing him leading Obama. Sarah Palin has clearly reset this race and has closed the enthusiasm gap between Republicans and Democrats. The challenge for Obama is to stay relevant and find a strong and consistent way to attack her because treating her gingerly is not working. And the risk for McCain is overplaying his hand by running too much against the media and not enough against Obama or by running against the media at the expense of not running on his own record.

6 comment(s):

Black Political Analysis said...

I'm not sure the media overreached. Given insufficient advance time that Palin was the veep nominee and knowing so little about her beforehand, it is only natural the media would investigate every nook and cranny of her life.

But, because Palin is a social conservative who stresses the value of abstinence only education, it is not wrong to then question the effectiveness of such teachings when her own 17 year old daughter is 5 months pregnant. Will Palin push for abstinence only education for the rest of us?

Brett said...

Palin can't hide forever. She's going to have to come out on October 2 for the Vice Presidential Debate, and then we'll see how much she knows, and how well she can defend it on a national stage.

Until then, I don't think the media over-reached. It is (or should be) the media's job to be aggressively in-your-face when a political candidate is concerned (hence why the libel and slander laws are so difficult to enforce for public figures). This is especially true with all the new stuff coming to light about Palin - that she was a serious Earmark Gatherer, that she's more or less lied (or dishonestly spun) about her role in the Bridge to Nowhere and even the jet that she sold, plus her (lack) of a role in the Alaskan National Guard.

I just hope the Democrats are competent enough to do that. I'm worried because I think that they've finally learned that a key criteria of getting a narrative established is repetition, hence why they keep repeating over and over that McCain is essentially Bush III (it has the advantage that some of it is true, too). Hammering Palin as secretive would actually complement that, because Palin could combine not only the Cheneyesque aspect that you mentioned, Anthony, but also the "repeat of Bush 2000", where we elected a supposedly nice, folksy reformer-with-results governor with solid conservative credentials with low expectations by the media. However, that would require Obama to start focusing resources on another narrative to develop, and that can be hard (especially since Biden has been singularly unhelpful; he's been using Mr. Rogers rules since he was picked, even though part of the reason he was picked was because he was supposed to do bare-knuckle politics).

Silence Dogood said...

"Once the halo disappeared from Barack Obama, he had to answer tough questions about his past and his record. That will happen to Sarah Palin too."

I am really afraid you and Brett maybe wrong (I sincerely hope not), but Palin is doing an interview sometime later this week and that will be her first in two weeks. No doubt as she is a TREMENDOUSLY unknown quantity, it will garner enormous press potential and discussion. None the less, McCain has managed to keep her on a very shot leash thus far and had her campaigning with him - note very unusual to do for long periods of time as candidates on a ticket normally get together for certain events but go cover as much ground as possible with two teams instead of moving around.

Effectively, Palin maybe be able to get away with doing say 1 interveiw every ten days for the next 50 days, and most of the press will just eat up what they can of this newest political superstar.

If no one has cared yet, I think McCain may succesffully be able to keep her wrapted up in the "Oh the press is just beating up on her because she is a woman/mother/small town person et cetera"

Bravo in a way, Gov. Palin could actually become President having done less than 5-10 actual unscripted interviews if McCain were to pass early on in his administration and his media plan for Palin were to work.

Brett said...

I think Anthony has a point, though, Silence, in that after a while, that "the press is only attacking her because it's vindictive and she's a woman/moose hunter/has small children" will change to "what is she hiding?" if they let it sit too long. It's already starting to happen; witness all the stories about every little aspect of Palin's life, in particular that mixed true-false distortion of an e-mail by an acquaintance that's floating around on the web.

Silence Dogood said...


Given, I am probably being a little alarmist about the possiblity of her becoming VP or President and no body really knowing too much about her. And you are probably right to point out that obviously there is a void there now with the nation's knowledge pool about her and the media or whomever else is going to fill that void some how.

My big fear would be that the McCain campaign is effectively able to fill in that gap with campaign literature and that people accept it.

Obviously, everybody tries to fill in what the public thinks about them with campaign literature, but as you probably realize here the difference is that there is no public perception of Palin yet to be had and molded by the press or her campaign. It is literally like starting from scratch and the McCain campaign if free to formulate whomever they want. I am just interested if the media will allow this and the public will accept that scenario? I believe they have thus far.

Note: I am a pretty staunch Democrat who will in all likelihood be voting for Obama, but I am talking about this from the stand point of real considerations on the next administration and not as an Anti-Palin rant. If McCain has chosen Liddy Dole (while I disagree with her on many issues) I wouldn't be talking about "fear" or how "I'm scared I don't know who she is" With Palin I think this is a legitimate concern.

Brett said...


I agree with pretty much all you say. My only quibble is that in spite of all the calls to "avoid touching Palin while focusing on McCain", I think the Obama campaign is going to hit her hard. Remember, that kind of malleability in reputation goes both ways; while the McCain campaign is much more free to try to define her their way, the Obama campaign can also have a strong influence on perception of her.

In fact, hitting Palin might be as good, if not better, than hitting McCain, since McCain looks bad as well if Palin comes off as toxic. We don't know a lot about Palin, so every little piece of knowledge (whether true or false) has more of an impact on how we perceive her. By contrast, McCain has a much more established reputation, so efforts by the Obama campaign to define him as Bush III doesn't work quite as well.

Copyright 2007-2008 by Anthony Palmer. This material may not be republished or redistributed in any manner without the expressed written permission of the author, nor may this material be cited elsewhere without proper attribution. All rights reserved. The 7-10 is syndicated by Newstex.