The profane confrontation between one of Mitt Romney’s press aides and reporters at the end of the presumptive GOP nominee’s difficult overseas trip has brought new attention to the way the 2012 race is being covered in the press—in particular, the media’s embarrassing gaffe obsession and the incentives it provides for campaigns to place ever-greater limitations on access to their candidates in unscripted settings.
This dynamic has been especially pathological for Romney. Politico’s Jonathan Martin best captured how the presumptive GOP nominee’s relationship with the media has devolved into a self-perpetuating cycle of gaffes and access restrictions:
Without anything of substance to say [in Europe] beyond what he’s repeatedly said in the U.S., he created something of a vacuum that he then filled with his own gaffes.
And he made the situation worse by effectively hiding from his traveling press corps for much of his trip, taking three questions at the beginning but then not holding a single other press conference. He conducted a series of TV interviews but offered significantly less access than Obama did on his overseas campaign trip four years ago.
Romney is in the midst of a harmful, self-reinforcing cycle in which he commits a gaffe, grows angry at the press for covering it and punishes them by refusing to take questions because he doesn’t want to be asked about the gaffe.
This has created an almost toxic relationship between Romney and his traveling press corps.
While the gaffe patrol isn’t the only reason that the presidential campaigns are placing such tight limitations on the press, any discussion of those issues should acknowledge the role that the media’s seeming hostility toward Romney is playing in the coverage and in the access restrictions that have been imposed by his campaign. By early 2011, it was apparent that many reporters viewed Romney as inauthentic and were selecting anecdotes to report that were consistent with this narrative. Coverage during the GOP primaries and the ensuing months was often similarly hostile. Fearful of the media focusing on the mistakes of its error-prone candidate, the campaign has locked down Romney so tightly that the traveling press were only granted a total of three questions during the seven-day foreign trip (though Romney did conduct substantive interviews with broadcast and cable networks).
As I’ve noted before, the best comparison for the Romney/media dynamic is the way the press covered Al Gore in the 1999-2000 period. Like Romney, Gore was portrayed as inauthentic by a hostile press corps (which even jeered him at a debate) and burned by “gotcha” coverage during his primary campaign with Bill Bradley. As a result, the Vice President became very cautious and restricted media access later in the primary season. The cycle of hostility and access restrictions continued during the general election, helping to produce some of the worst political journalism in recent memory.
The media’s focus on authenticity and gaffes is helping to fuel a similar dynamic with Romney today. Of course, reporters have every right to be frustrated with the lack of access they are being given to the candidate. But journalists and news organizations are responsible for how they respond to this situation—which has no obvious solution—and should be careful to avoid letting their grievances fuel pathological coverage. The most dramatic example from Romney’s trip overseas was The Washington Post’s Phil Rucker desperately shouting “What about your gaffes?” at Romney, a question that Salon’s Alex Pareene called “maybe the dumbest question I’ve heard” and “a perfect beautiful little 2012 campaign zen koan.”
Beyond the frustration and resentment, an underlying problem is that the demand for gaffe news far exceeds the public’s interest in substantive reporting, especially during a general election in which only 5% of adults are truly undecided. The average news consumer follows presidential politics more like a sports fan than some sort of ideal citizen. Though there’s little evidence that gaffes prompt voters to rethink their loyalties, Romney’s missteps seem like news in this context.
At this point, the media’s relationship with Romney may be irreparable. Still, it’s within reporters’ power to break this destructive cycle. How might they do so? First, while the vast majority of voters have already selected their preferred presidential candidate, there’s still value in substantive coverage that explores the consequences of the candidates’ agendas (for instance, a new analysis of Romney’s tax plan that was widely covered yesterday).
Second, journalists should seek to provide smarter coverage of campaign dynamics. We’ve seen innovations in political coverage from non-traditional outlets like HuffPost Pollster (where I often cross-post) and Sasha Issenberg’s fascinating Victory Lab series for Slate. Rather than churning out an endless series of gaffe reports and commentary, why not incorporate the best aspects of these approaches and develop a new model for horse race journalism? With more types of stories in the mix, the pressure on reporters to manufacture gaffes might lessen.
In the end, the cycle of gaffe coverage and access restrictions produces little but bad journalism and poisoned press/campaign relationships. No one wins—least of all readers.