Politicians may not have a constitutional or even an ethical obligation to speak with journalists, but they have a civic responsibility to do so. That’s how our representative government works: The press serves as a check on government on the public’s behalf. It’s an idea that goes back to the country’s founding. Despite scurrilous attacks on him from what were then highly partisan newspapers, Thomas Jefferson was a lifelong defender of a free press as a “fourth estate” that he considered at least as essential as the three main branches he helped design. “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter,” he famously wrote to a friend in 1787 during the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia.
Look who’s not talking Clyburn, left, and Wilson’s decisions to shut the author out are part of a larger effort to bypass the press. (Left: Joshua Roberts / Getty Images; right: Mark Wilson / Getty Images)
There is no single or simple explanation for this change in the press’s relationship with elected officials. Bruce Cain, a Stanford University political scientist, points to, among other things, “the professionalization of politics” and the increased use of outside consultants who urge candidates to stay on message at all costs, a practice that has helped turn governing into a permanent campaign.
And Washington reporters aren’t without blame for their increasingly adversarial relationship with politicians, given the cynical and superficial nature of so much political coverage. For instance, journalists praised both Obama and President George W. Bush during their initial White House runs for their disciplined campaigns and ability to hammer home their carefully honed messages over and over. At the same time, each was crucified for the occasional speaking gaffe, the kind of misstep that is all too human. If we’re talking about message politics, the clear message politicians get from journalists is: Play it safe, avoid impromptu comments, and minimize the need to answer tough questions.
But the evolution of ever-more-sophisticated ways for politicians to communicate directly with constituents and supporters is clearly a big part of what’s happening, too. From partisan outlets such as Fox News and MSNBC to the explosion of social media, politicians have all sorts of ways to avoid inconvenient questions from reporters. Why bother with us when they’ve got their own networks, magazines, websites, Facebook pages, Twitter accounts, and blast emails?
Kevin Diaz, a Washington correspondent for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, is getting the silent treatment from Representative Michele Bachmann because of his coverage of alleged campaign-finance violations tied to her 2012 run for the Republican presidential nomination. Thanks to that run, Bachmann has a huge nationwide email list and a Twitter following of tens of thousands of conservative activists. She doesn’t need reporters like Diaz to get her message out or raise money. “If there’s an information superhighway, we’re increasingly on the off-ramps,” Diaz says. “We don’t matter as much as we used to.”
It was telling that Bachmann didn’t hold a news conference in late May when she announced that she won’t seek re-election to Congress, opting instead to release a slick online video. “We must be able to poke and meddle,” objected New York Times columnist Frank Bruni, in the wake of Bachmann’s sidestep. “It may not be a pretty sight, and we journalists may not be doing it in a pretty way, but eliminate that and you wind up with something even less pretty: Bachmann, robotically composed, telling you that she’s quitting for purely high-minded reasons, with the vigor of the republic foremost in her heart. That’s a whole lot further from the truth than anything we wretched scribes put out.”
Bachmann’s reach is dwarfed by Obama’s online orbit of more than 32 million Twitter followers and a massive email list fed by White House aides and Organizing for Action, the powerful political apparatus now run by the president’s 2012 campaign manager, Jim Messina.