More Unsettling Insights from Perry’s Eggheads

Politicians are learning more about how to work the media. Can the press push back?

A Campaign Desk post the other day noted an interesting claim by Sasha Issenberg, the author of a new ebook about the research-informed campaign strategies of Rick Perry. Four political scientists were invited to use Perry’s 2006 gubernatorial campaign to conduct field experiments, and among other findings they learned that he received far more favorable coverage in local media outlets when he actually visited those markets. The difference was so great, they concluded, that it was worth Perry’s time to travel around Texas rather than conducting interviews from Austin.

There are a number of potential explanations for this disparity. But today’s New York Times has a story on the campaign style of Michele Bachmann, one of Perry’s rivals for the Republican presidential nomination, that suggests it has something to do with the nature of the local press, which tends to be less skeptical than the boys and girls on the bus. The article notes that when Bachmann fields questions from reporters after public appearances, she calls names from a list compiled by her press secretary, Alice Stewart. And is Stewart prescreening questions, the Times asks?

Ms. Stewart insisted that she did not. The list, she said, is to exclude “Obama trackers” looking to provoke a gaffe, and to ensure that local reporters are not crowded out by the national news media. Local reporters’ questions often are less pointed.

Brandon Herring, a reporter for WMBF television in Myrtle Beach, said Ms. Stewart had approached him while Mrs. Bachmann spoke and asked if he wanted to ask a question. He said he did. “She said, ‘You want to ask about Myrtle Beach, I imagine,’ ” Mr. Herring said. “I was like, yeah, I guess I do.”

The obvious point: there’s no need to screen specific inquiries if you can reliably expect softballs from the people you allow to ask questions.

Of course, the Times is in a way flattering itself and its national competitors by pointing out how Bachmann prefers the local press. But while Issenberg’s ebook doesn’t systematically evaluate different explanations for the disparity, it too suggests that the favorable coverage flows from the way a visit by a high-profile candidate plays to the parochial vanity of smaller communities.

After Perry kicked off his campaign in Lubbock, Texas, Issenberg writes, for the student paper at Texas Tech, “the news the next morning was not about anything specific Perry said but that he had chosen Lubbock as the first stop on his ‘I’m proud of Texas’ tour.” The paper faithfully reported the words of the local district attorney: “It speaks volumes that he chose Lubbock to come and kick off his campaign.” But in fact, the “choice” had been made by randomization software operated by one of Perry’s poli-sci academics. The local paper, channeling local elites, created a favorable storyline that flattered both the candidate and the community, and that that hadn’t even been designed by the campaign. Handed that sort of coverage, a campaign would be derelict not to try to take advantage.

Issenberg’s ebook, meanwhile, discusses not only what the researchers found to be effective campaign strategies, but also what was deemed a waste of the campaign’s limited resources. And what was one of traditional steps banished from Perry’s campaign, mentioned in passing along with “direct mail, robocalls, [and] newspaper ads”? Visits to editorial boards.

It’s important to note that, even assuming Perry’s eggheads are correct, we don’t know how much we can generalize from their findings. Running for president, after all, exposes a candidate to a far more daunting media gantlet than even statewide candidates in a state as populous as Texas. Bachmann’s attempts at media manipulation are already coming under scrutiny, which seems likely to continue as long as she’s a viable contender. And I’d like to think that a presidential candidate who tried to blow off major editorial boards or avoid challenging interviews would be held accountable in at least some quarters of the press and the public.

Still, it seems likely that other candidates will follow Perry in thinking ever harder—and with a new sense of creativity and analytical rigor—about how to gain the upper hand in their ongoing struggle with the press. If they want to remain relevant, it’s important that journalists at both the local and national levels pay attention to that effort—and start thinking about how to push back.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.