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For the Candidates, Not Just Any Brand Of Soapbox Will Do

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 13, 2007

Rudy Giuliani has appeared on only one Sunday talk show this year: "Fox News Sunday."

Fred Thompson has made eight television appearances in 2007, all on Fox News, six of them sit-downs with Sean Hannity, who sometimes campaigns for GOP candidates.

Mitt Romney has chatted on Fox 13 times this year, including yesterday's appearance in Iowa on "Fox News Sunday," while granting one other Sunday interview, to ABC's "This Week."

The leading Democratic presidential candidates present a mirror image, with Hillary Clinton and John Edwards granting no interviews to Fox since January, and Edwards now bashing Rupert Murdoch's network as unfair to his party.

To a striking degree, the candidates are picking their spots, carefully choosing which media operations they will court and which they will ignore. That leaves some of them preaching to the political choir, but also shields them from especially aggressive questioning.

The new media order has been spawned by a 500-channel universe and a polarized climate in which news organizations are increasingly viewed, fairly or unfairly, as leaning to one side or the other. And with a cornucopia of choices, politicians tend to gravitate toward what they see as friendly arenas.

"We've tried to get every one of them," says Bob Schieffer, host of CBS's "Face the Nation." "We've tried Giuliani over and over again. We've tried Romney." After Romney's camp initiated an off-the-record phone conversation with the candidate, Schieffer says, an aide invited him to an off-the-record picnic in New Hampshire.

"We're sort of in the on-the-record business here," Schieffer wrote back. The Romney camp did float the possibility of an interview for yesterday, but insisted that Schieffer travel to Iowa in the wake of Saturday's straw poll, which would have better spotlighted Romney's victory. Schieffer declined.

The Democratic candidates, meanwhile, have refused to debate on Fox News, even for an event co-sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus. In the last nine days, however, they were happy to face off before liberal bloggers at a convention staged by the Web site Daily Kos; at an event co-sponsored by Logo, a gay-themed network operated by MTV; and at an MSNBC debate moderated by Keith Olbermann, one of President Bush's fiercest critics.

"Republicans like Fox because it plays to their primary voting constituency, and Democrats like to boycott Fox because it brings cheap applause from their primary voting constituency," says Mike Murphy, a GOP strategist and occasional panelist on NBC's "Meet the Press." "The Democrats make a mistake by boycotting Fox, because they're going to need red states to win. And Fred Thompson makes a mistake by communicating only through the medium of Sean Hannity."

Chris Lehane, a Democratic strategist, says the rise of the Internet means that "there is much less of a premium on traditional outlets. In the past, Sunday shows were a great way to connect with the activist crowd and show that you're a credible candidate. Now you can do it through a blog, a Web chat, putting up your own YouTube ad."

With the accelerated primary schedule, he says, "people are being a little more cautious because they recognize that a small mistake on a Tim Russert show or a George Stephanopoulos show can become a two-week story."

The Republican candidates have been reluctant to join with CNN for a YouTube debate, with Romney complaining that White House aspirants shouldn't have to field questions from the likes of a snowman, as the Democrats did on CNN last month.

Beyond his Fox appearances, Thompson has largely limited his unofficial campaign to postings on conservative Web sites and an interview with National Review.

Hillary Clinton, who grants few interviews, is even more elusive; she has not appeared on a Sunday morning program this year. Barack Obama, by contrast, has done interviews on "Face the Nation," "This Week" and CNN's "Late Edition." Edwards has done "Face the Nation," "This Week" and "Meet the Press."

While Obama has done three interviews on the road with Fox's Carl Cameron, he, like Clinton and Edwards, has not been interviewed by any of the network's hosts this year. To Democratic activists, says Lehane, "if you go on Fox you're consorting with the enemy." Second-tier candidates, though, are less selective: Dennis Kucinich has made 10 appearances on Fox this year.

John McCain has been the most available of the Republicans, appearing five times this year on the NBC, CBS and ABC Sunday shows, along with 11 appearances on Fox. Joe Biden has been the most talkative Democrat, with 11 visits to the five Sunday shows.

The top candidates have been more receptive to the network morning shows, where the questioning is often limited to six minutes rather than a sustained cross-examination about their records. Clinton has appeared three times on "Today," twice on "Good Morning America" and once on CBS's "Early Show"; Giuliani has stopped by a bit less often.

Occasionally candidates break out of their comfort zone. The Republican contenders, who have held one debate on Fox and one on CNN, have also faced off in sessions moderated by two onetime Democratic operatives, Chris Matthews on MSNBC and George Stephanopoulos on ABC.

A similar pattern of playing favorites extends to talk radio and the blogosphere. Romney and McCain, among others, have held conference calls with conservative bloggers, while Vice President Cheney is a periodic caller to Rush Limbaugh. In the same vein, President Bush has repeatedly invited conservative commentators, such as Bill Kristol, Fred Barnes and Rich Lowry, over for White House chats.

Clinton hired a Salon blogger to act as her ambassador to liberal Web sites, and Elizabeth Edwards, a key player in her husband's campaign, often posts comments on such sites.

The Democrats will debate yet again next month in an online-only forum sponsored by two liberal Web sites, Slate and the Huffington Post, along with Yahoo. The Republicans have yet to agree.

The new approach is reminiscent of the 1992 campaign, when it was considered radical for presidential candidates to go on MTV, Larry King and Arsenio Hall, and there was much teeth-gnashing about the bypassing of the traditional media. But eventually the candidates had to deal with the major news programs, and that will undoubtedly happen this season as well.

In the meantime, staying on safe ground not only prevents the candidates from reaching a broader audience, it deprives them of the chance to develop their reflexes by swinging at fastballs.

Fox Facts

Plenty of folks are down on the media these days, but Fox News viewers are in a category all their own.

While 44 percent of all Republicans in a Pew Research Center survey have an unfavorable view of network news, the figure rises to 56 percent among Republicans who say Fox is their main source of news. Fifty-eight percent of Republicans view national newspapers such as the New York Times and Washington Post unfavorably, compared with 71 percent of Fox viewers.

As for news organizations generally, 71 percent of Fox viewers say they're too critical of America, and 81 percent say they cover up their mistakes.

Another notable tidbit: 55 percent of Fox viewers have a favorable view of CNN, but 79 percent of CNN viewers give thumbs up to Fox.

The numbers are less than surprising because Fox commentators -- particularly Bill O'Reilly, Sean Hannity and John Gibson -- regularly rip the rest of the mainstream media as left wing, unfair and inaccurate.

Among people whose primary source of news is the Internet -- where bloggers often bash media coverage -- 38 percent have an unfavorable view of the cable news networks, compared with 25 percent of the general public. Pew says these wired consumers are, on average, younger and better educated.

A partisan split is particularly pronounced on Iraq. Thirty-four percent of Republicans have a great deal or fair amount of confidence that the media are providing an accurate picture of the war, while more than twice as many trust the military's accounts. Among Democrats, 56 percent have confidence in the press and 36 percent in the military.

No Pictures, Please

When Linda Greenhouse, the veteran Supreme Court watcher for the New York Times, showed up at a journalists' conference last week, she balked at the presence of a C-SPAN camera crew.

"There's a big difference between talking to people in a room and having a nationally televised event," Greenhouse recalls telling the organizer for the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication. "I won't be able to speak with the same kind of candor that would make a good program if I have to watch every word." The group asked the crew to leave.

That stance prompted a scolding letter to the organization from C-SPAN Vice President Terence Murphy -- saying it should "stand up for open media access to public policy discussions"-- and the spanking of Greenhouse across the Web.

Greenhouse says she did not threaten to walk out but did complain that she felt "blindsided" by the lack of notification, having failed to receive an e-mail from the group the previous night about C-SPAN's plans.

Calling the flap "ridiculous," Greenhouse says: "I expressed my surprise and displeasure at having agreed to do one thing and being presented with something else." For the record, she has appeared on C-SPAN 51 times.

Howard Kurtz hosts CNN's weekly media program, "Reliable Sources."

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