Colbert I. King: Targeting the media won’t help Vincent Gray’s reelection hopes

January 17

Vice President Spiro Agnew referred to the Nixon administration’s press critics as “nattering nabobs of negativism” and “a tiny and closed fraternity of privileged men, elected by no one.” Sarah Palin popularized the expression “lamestream media.”

Those zingers were a lot punchier than the media knock voiced by D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) at his campaign kickoff event last Saturday. “I know that some reporters prefer a circus to a thoughtful discussion of issues,” he said. “I know that they care about ratings and selling newspapers.”

Agnew, Palin and Gray ran different plays but from the same playbook: media bashing.

Does it work? Well, it does allow a politician to appear to have the courage to stand up to biased reporting. And the tactic certainly can fire up the political base.

Press bashing can temporarily shift the focus away from the politician and the issues he or she wants to avoid. But using the press as a foil doesn’t hold up over the long haul. Most media folks are pretty thick-skinned. And most voters recognize a dodge when they hear one.

On Jan. 10, the day before Gray’s campaign kickoff, his campaign manager, Chuck Thies, tweeted, “Journalist cautioned me that criticizing the media was a losing campaign strategy. I think not.”

After Gray announced, the City Paper’s Will Sommer tweeted, and Thies retweeted: “Gray campaign manager @ChuckThies says the media aren’t the enemy. ‘Are you kidding? You guys are the strategy.’

Asked about the tweets, Thies responded by e-mail: “The tweets are my own, except for the one where Will Sommer is quoting me, that is his tweet.” Acknowledging that he is responsible for the Gray campaign’s media strategy, Thies wrote: “note that my Twitter profile indicates that the tweets are MY OWN and do not reflect the opinion of the campaign.”

Taunting the media is not likely to be a winning strategy.

As this week’s Post poll showed, Gray has a steep hill to climb to reach a second term. And his stumbling block is not the media.

Last month, I suggested in a column [“For Gray, it’s win at all costs,” op-ed, Dec. 7] that if Gray were to win the April 1 Democratic primary with a 30 percent to 35 percent plurality of the vote, it would spell trouble for the general election.

The Post poll showed that Gray attracts support from only 24 percent of registered Democratic voters and those who plan to register as Democrats. That should be disturbing news for an incumbent Democratic mayor.

It matters not that the poll showed Gray outdistancing his Democratic challengers. His closest competitors, D.C. Council members Muriel Bowser (Ward 4), Jack Evans (Ward 2) and Tommy Wells (Ward 6), each draws 11 percent or 12 percent of registered Democratic voters. Council member Vincent Orange (At Large) does worse, at 9 percent. Andy Shallal, Reta Jo Lewis and Christian Carter draw a combined 7 percent of Democratic voters.

My takeaway? Seventy-six percent of Democratic voters prefer someone other than Gray to be their mayor.

I also noted last month that a weak showing by the Democratic primary winner could invite a strong general-election challenge from a proven vote-getter such as D.C. Council member David Catania (I-At Large).

That idea was met with catcalls from Democratic veterans, including a council member who told me that, in the District of Columbia, Mickey Mouse could be elected mayor if he ran as a Democrat.

This week’s Post poll indicates otherwise.

Matched head to head with Catania, registered voters chose Gray by a margin of 43 percent to 40 percent, a statistically insignificant margin.

The mayor’s campaign needs to face an unpleasant truth: Gray has a problem that media-bashing can’t solve.

When:

●Most Democratic voters approve of what the mayor is doing and agree that the city is on the right course but want to give the job to someone else, that’s a problem.

●Nearly 25 percent of registered Democrats who approve of Gray’s performance say they won’t support his reelection bid, that’s a problem.

●The overwhelming majority of Democrats polled say the U.S. attorney’s investigation into Gray’s 2010 mayoral campaign will bear on how they vote in the April primary, that’s a problem.

●Only a third of District residents thinks the mayor is honest and trustworthy, that’s a big problem.

Even if some members of the press may have it coming (practitioners of ambush journalism come to mind), denigrating reporters won’t end Gray’s troubles. Unanswered questions about the corrupt 2010 mayoral campaign hang over Gray’s head like dark clouds.

He can pretend they aren’t there. But voters see them. So do prosecutors — with whom Gray won’t speak — and the press, with which Gray won’t make nice.

Do Gray’s handlers really believe trashing the press will blow those clouds away before Election Day?

Every good wish.

Read more from Colbert King’s archive.

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