The media complain that Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney avoids them. His staff is too stand-offish and too secretive, they say. Conservative pundits complain (to the New York Times!) that they are ignored. (Note to file: If you are a conservative, never go to the Gray Lady to whine.) But you could understand if Romney took the attitude: What’s the point of talking to these people?
His economic speech Friday was a perfect example. For weeks the media (parroting Rick Santorum’s complaints) have chided Romney for being too negative and failing to articulate a positive message. So he delivers a major economic address in Detroit. He includes lots of details. And virtually every outlet from the New York Times to the right-wing blogs ignores the content of speech and becomes obsessed with the seating arrangement.
The crowd of 1,200 was on the floor of a large stadium, leaving thousands of empty seats. So what? I mean, maybe you give it a line or two. But to dwell on it endlessly seems to be an intentional effort to ignore what the candidate is saying and simply throw stones at the candidate whom they like the least.
On this, TPM, the lefty Web site, had it exactly right: “On Twitter, reporters from across the spectrum seemed far more interested in the optics of the event than the substance of Romney’s speech, in which he called for lower tax rates and entitlement spending as part of a broad reform package he released this week. Conservative columnist Byron York of the Washington Examiner posted a brutal long distance shot of the 98% empty stadium. Neil King of the Wall Street Journal put up a photo of empty seats by Romney’s stage as well.” It was in fact a feeding frenzy of snark. (It wasn’t even indicative of poor planning by the Romney camp, since the event and the venue were controlled by the Detroit Economic Club.)
When they weren’t dwelling on the “optics” (when did that word come to replace “looks”?) reporters feigned horror that Romney said his wife drives two Cadillacs. Mary, a Michigan native, e-mailed me on Friday: “I have lived in Michigan and just saw all of the negative comments about the number of Mitt Romney’s cars. In Michigan I do not believe this is a bad thing. He hit each car manufacturer, showing support for all.” The press is so anxious to find “gaffes” that they seem oblivious to the fact that Michigan natives want lots of people to own Cadillacs. Romney slips up enough on his own, yet the press feels compelled to make up supposed gaffes.
So, especially for a campaign that is hyper-organized and extremely careful, you can understand its reasoning: If the press is going to be intentionally obtuse, why give it much attention? And if Romney wins on Tuesday and on March 6, you wouldn’t blame his campaign if it concluded that the rabid Romney-hating outlets and snide reporters simply don’t matter all that much.
That may be tempting, but I think it is actually the wrong conclusion if Romney wants to improve his coverage and expand his support. The irony is that Romney, when talking substance in an interview, can be very impressive because he knows a lot of material and has specific policy proposals on dozens of items. The longer the interview with the most time to answer, the better he usually does. He’s one of the few politicians who, for example, can successfully appear on CNBC, where the interviewers know economic policy and eschew horse-race political questioning. He sounds smart in these settings.
You can imagine Romney doing himself a lot of good in a Q & A at a think tank (I’ll volunteer, without their approval, Jim Pethokoukis or Arthur Brooks from the American Enterprise Institute). Given his successful editorial board interviews in primary states, there is no reason he can’t sit down with the ed boards of some national papers. And frankly, he often gets more balanced coverage from some mainstream TV outlets than conservative ones. (Compare CNN and Fox on election nights.)
Even within segments of the media that can often be farcical, Romney certainly can get exposure. Not all blogs, radio talk-show hosts and conservative print outlets are cut from the same cloth.
In short, the answer to idiotic and biased coverage is for a candidate to be selective but persistent in his media outreach. He’s not going to spend time fencing with a right-wing niche blog that despises him or doing the Ed Schultz show. But if he does win on Tuesday and comes out of Super Tuesday in good shape, perhaps his campaign advisers can breathe easier, loosen the reins and let him sell himself. There really are journalists out there who want to talk about more than stadium seats and Cadillacs. And Romney is a better spokesman for himself than you would assume given the stingy access granted by his campaign so far.