On Saturday morning, Rep. Paul Ryan joined presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney in front of the USS Wisconsin to cement the ticket that’ll challenge President Obama in November. The next day, a blitz of media accounts detailed just how Ryan had arrived at the spot. They all had pretty much the same details, the same quotes.
A touch of Twitter-based mockery ensued. Jonathan Martin of Politico: :
There's a great media piece to be done about how veep tick-tocks as 1 of those rare times when journos celebrate being lied to and deceived— jmartpolitico (@jmartpolitico) August 12, 2012
Michael Calderone, media reporter for the Huffington Post, jumped in:
— Michael Calderone (@mlcalderone) August 12, 2012
@jmartpolitico And agree to publish same details, straight from the campaign, in narrative fashion, at same time.
Calderone elaborates via e-mail: “I just think that as political campaigns increasingly try to stage-manage events, have a strict quote approval process — or as we learned today, want to edit pool reports! — that reporters and their news organizations might want to pause before simultaneously hyping on Twitter how they each have the ‘inside’ or ’behind-the-scenes’ story of the Romney campaign outwitting the media. It just appeared like they had been outwitted again.”
Criticism mounted on the Daily Banter, as Oliver Willis documented all the overlap among 17 outlets whose treatments of the Ryan selection echoed one another. AP, Politico, Washington Post, Reuters, Boston Globe, New York Times and others: They all produced their own versions of Romney-Ryan commodity news. The best way to describe the sameness is just to note that the cliché “cloak and dagger” saw some quality minutes among the stories. The wooded area behind Ryan’s home, too, got more media hits than its flack could ever have dreamed.
Summing up the picture, Willis wrote, “Clown media, bro.”
The media rejects such characterization. Four reporters who participated in the Saturday evening briefing by Romney aide Beth Myers at Dulles International Airport tell, well, pretty much the same story. The entire campaign press contingent, they claim, was bothering the Romney folks on Saturday to detail the selection process, start to finish. Editors wanted their tick-tocks!
Kevin Madden, a senior adviser to the Romney campaign, confirms the demand for a briefing. “People did want to hear more about the selection,” says Madden, but the campaign wanted to “let the news be the news that day.” Though the campaign was planing on giving the briefing on Sunday, it moved the session up a day. “The campaign was realizing that if they didn’t put it out, a tick tock” would come out in any case, according to a participating reporter.
In front of 30 to 40 media reps, Myers spoke about Ryan, the woods, the airport schemes and so on. The information issuing from Myers was subject to a Saturday midnight embargo. And as the clips bear out, news organizations were impressed with the material: “Everyone was, like, totally rapt,” says a reporter. “The press saw it as a moment of rare and effective transparency.”
Another reporter who took down Myers’ narrative mustered this defense:
For months, the veepstakes story was the biggest thing going in political journalism and every one of those reporters chased it, hard. When we heard the details in an on-the-record briefing we all recognized a good story, and combined reporting our organizations had already done with the new information and wrote the hell out of it.
In other words, what could possibly be wrong here? Media types are always freaking out about campaign aides going off record; Myers put her name behind the briefing. Media types are always freaking out about how the campaign doesn’t engage in a meaningful way with the traveling press corps; Myers spoke for around 30 minutes and, according to one participant, took 15 questions.
That said, the coverage did have a Soviet feel. There was a single authoritative source spouting the truth and some reporters duly passing it along. Since the Romney people did such a good job of keeping the process under wraps, the media didn’t have much in the way of secondary and tertiary sources either confirming, denying or shading in the official account. And some eeriness stems from the irony: Myers went on the record to document how well the campaign could keep a secret. “The Romney people loved getting this story out,” says a reporter at the scene. “They were very proud of themselves. Beth Myers was practically giddy in describing how this all went down.”
Perhaps not a glimmering model of democracy in action, then. But certainly a step up from Romney’s overseas trip last month, when he answered just three questions from the traveling press contingent in a three-country tour (he did take questions from TV personalities). By the end of the trip, reporters were so frustrated that they verily heckled the candidate, prompting some rudeness from a press aide. Madden says that the experience on the foreign trip “didn’t have any bearing on our decision” on the vice-presidential briefing.
Last month, Madden took on a bigger role with the campaign and has started to win converts among traveling reporters. ”A reporter’s job is to never be happy with the level of access,” says Madden. “We’re giving them the information that they need to cover the campaign while at the same time recognizing that the media is a great opportunity for us to reach voters. . . . We had a number of availabilities when we were out on the road this week that go above and beyond anything that the president has done with the media.”