Call it the Curse of Clint. Ever since Clint “Empty Chair” Eastwood stepped onto the Republican convention stage, Mitt Romney has been saddled with the kind of scathing media coverage that normally requires a mug shot or a goofy appearance in a tank. It does not matter that the Republican nominee remains just a boffo debate performance away from righting his standing in the polls. What counts is the press-box assumption that Romney could not be in worse shape even if he had announced that—like the 47 percent—he felt “entitled” to be president.
At the same time, we have seen the widespread embrace in Republican circles that Romney is the victim of (warning: what comes next is not for the faint of heart) liberal media bias. As Chris Christie put it in his trademark blunt fashion, “Some people in the media should just turn in their media credential and get an ‘Obama for President’ credential, the way they focus on things that people said back last May.”
Here we go again, with the media wars that have been raging since anchormen like Walter Cronkite were jeered at the 1964 Goldwater convention and Spiro Agnew excoriated the “nattering nabobs of negativism.” These days, practically every political reporter and columnist who writes for a mainstream publication has a vituperative right-wing fan base. In the decade since I began writing for publications that encouraged online comments, I have often been accused of pocketing checks from the Democratic National Committee, and I have frequently heard it suggested that I act out my affection for Barack Obama in a particularly graphic fashion.
These accusations, by the way, are entirely untrue. (I almost joked that I am not on the DNC payroll because that would conflict with the terms of my pension from the KGB, but I stopped myself because in these humorless days anything can be ripped out of context.)
Wait! I have made clear that I am not now nor have I ever been a KGB agent, haven’t I? Haven’t I?
But even as I reject the tired complaints about the liberal media, I do wonder whether the scales are indeed tilted a bit against Romney. In raising the question, I
am talking about trace amounts of subconscious cultural and professional bias, rather than (sorry, right-wingers) an overt conspiracy. Let me stress that I have not traveled with Romney since the primaries, so I am not relaying press bus gossip or late-night journalistic confessions. But after nine presidential campaigns, I can claim some knowledge about the circadian rhythms of political coverage.
Some of the reasons, I think, why the press corps feels distance and disdain for Romney are built into the fabric of modern campaigning. Access to the GOP nominee is limited unless you are a Fox News anchor, and a Romney speech has all the intellectual nourishment of an abandoned pack of pretzels found in an airline seat pocket. The same is, of course, true of Obama’s campaign appearances, but, in general, challengers are held to a higher standard than incumbent presidents (see Kerry, John).
Also, political reporters—for all their cynical façade and world-weary tweets—are romantics at heart. In many cases, it was some childhood or teen-aged memory about a transcendent political campaign or candidate that helped propel them towards this cockamamie life choice. For me, it was reading Teddy White about the 1960 Kennedy campaign. Others may have been inspired by Bobby Kennedy in 1968 or Ronald Reagan as the insurgent in 1976 or Bill Clinton bouncing off the ropes in 1992. Barack Obama in 2008, of course, is the embodiment of this pattern. But the relentless drive of Mitt Romney towards the White House boasts all the poetry of a PowerPoint presentation detailing the latest IRS regulations on the tax treatment of offshore accounts in the Cayman Islands.
These factors would not be crucial in shaping coverage of Romney—if he were perceived as a winner. But campaign reporters are sycophantic about candidates on the way up and sarcastic about those on the way down. For better or for worse, any reporter who has covered a state auditor’s race and been to a national convention believes that he or she is a great armchair political strategist. So when Romney puts Eastwood on stage without a script, releases an intemperate statement before the American ambassador is murdered in Libya, and is accused by Politico of running a dysfunctional campaign, the press invariably will pile on.
(For my own critique of Romney’s management style, see my column this week for Yahoo News.)
The biggest gap, though, between Romney and those who chronicle his political fortunes is cultural. Michelle Obama, during her speech to the Democratic convention, spoke about how her husband had “started his career by turning down high-paying jobs.” Everyone wearing a press credential in Charlotte could relate to Obama’s economic choice, since no one brighter than a dead flashlight battery goes into journalism for the money.
Romney, in contrast, predicated his life before politics on profit maximization. So did George W. Bush (the only other presidential nominee with a Harvard MBA), but back in 2000 most reporters could understand his years as a scapegrace son and envy him for owning a baseball team. Even the fabulously wealthy presidential contenders of yesteryear (JFK, Nelson Rockefeller) had an insouciance about money that came from having inherited it. But for Mitt Romney, the road to riches was, by all accounts, paved with humorless dedication.
This is all about values, not conservative political ideology. Campaign reporters can relate to a career politician like Paul Ryan who has been drawing an upper-middle-class salary on the congressional payroll since he was 28 years old. What matters here are not Ryan’s views on the optimum level of taxation and government, but rather his life choices. By running for Congress in 1998 after a youthful career in Washington think tanks, Ryan radiated his belief that an influential career in public service was far more important than amassing a nine-digit investment portfolio.
“Bias” is an explosive word to use in describing the media’s attitudes toward Romney, so I want to be precise about what I mean. I am not describing any deliberate effort by the media to “get” Romney, or to reelect Obama. It’s just my sense that—like watching a smug banker slip on a banana peel in an old-time silent movie—campaign reporters appear to derive a special glee out of every Romney pratfall. The best remedy is some simple self-awareness, and a moment of hesitation and reflection before trotting out the parallels to the 1988 Dukakis campaign.