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GOP candidates stiff mainstream press

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 19, 2010; 9:27 AM

Some of the most conservative and combative Republicans running for Congress are convinced that the media have it in for them.

But these candidates seem to regard it as an affront when reporters challenge them on their past statements and inconsistencies, which is a basic function of journalism. They are avoiding or limiting interviews with all but the friendliest faces as a way of circumventing the press. And some of them delight in skewering the mainstream media, a tactic that plays well with their base.

Since her primary victory in Nevada, Senate candidate Sharron Angle has spoken mainly with Fox News, sympathetic radio hosts, columnist George Will, the Wall Street Journal editorial page and, in an online video, Christian activist Ralph Reed. Angle told the Christian Broadcasting Network's David Brody last week that she's not "running from the media," but that "the whole point of an interview is to use it, like they say 'earned media,' to earn something with it, and I'm not going to earn anything from people who are there to badger me and use my words to batter me with. . . . Will they let me say I need $25 from a million people, go to SharronAngle.com, send money?"

Another Republican, Kentucky Senate candidate Rand Paul, told tea party activists they have to "control the message" -- through advertising -- to combat efforts "to paint us as something we're not," because "we're not going to get a lot of help from the newspapers." Both seem to think the media's primary role should be to help them -- raise money, carry a message -- rather than hold them accountable.

Nicolle Wallace, the former Bush White House communications director, says candidates such as Angle and Paul have no need "to have a relationship with the national media. . . . They're probably right in feeling the media haven't figured out how to cover the tea party movement with objectivity and fairness." But she said candidates must be "confident enough in the substance of their platform" to speak to local reporters.

Phil Singer, a spokesman for Hillary Clinton's 2008 campaign, says that "demonizing the mainstream press limits the candidate's ability to take the next step" and appeal to moderate voters. "In some cases they're making a bet they'll be able to speak exclusively to their base and ride the anger in the broader electorate to victory. That's a gamble."

The candidates, some of them political neophytes, may be facing some "gotcha" questions, but that is part of the obstacle course of national politics. More experienced politicians anticipate such queries and find ways to brush them off.

In Angle's one television interview with a local journalist, Jon Ralston of the Las Vegas Sun, she began backtracking on some of her positions.

Rather than talking about the need to "phase . . . out" Social Security in favor of privatization, she said funds for current obligations should be placed in a "lockbox" while some form of personal account is established for future recipients. Angle, who opposes an extension of unemployment benefits, also denied calling the jobless "spoiled," saying instead that the program "has spoiled our citizenry."

"I am not sure who that was I interviewed on 'Face to Face' Tuesday evening, but it was not Sharron Angle," Ralston wrote. "At least not the Sharron Angle who existed before she was catapulted from relatively unknown former assemblywoman to perhaps the most famous Republican Senate nominee in the country."

Paul canceled an appearance on "Meet the Press" after he sparked a furor by telling MSNBC's Rachel Maddow he had concerns about the part of the 1964 Civil Rights Act dealing with private business. National Review's Kevin Williamson wrote after an interview last week that "Rand Paul knows he blew that Rachel Maddow interview, big time. He totally owns up to it. . . . He is understandably a little media-shy now." That sounds like an understatement.

The press has become a big fat target for many Republicans in the midterm elections. Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann complained to conservative radio host Bill Bennett about the "treason media." But no one has the reach of Sarah Palin, whose Facebook swipes at the "lamestream media" are widely broadcast by a journalistic establishment that has no access to her.

In one posting, she told her 1.8 million followers: "A corrupt, deceptive and manipulative media can ruin the lives of good people, disrupt families, destroy reputations, and ultimately hurt our country." In another -- about NBC not running her statement after an interview with author Joe McGinniss, who had moved in next door to her -- the Fox News commentator said: "Journalism today is all about ratings and not about truth."

Palin isn't running for anything at the moment, although her $865,000 fundraising haul in the second quarter has reignited media speculation about whether she's plotting a White House run. But the former governor, who zings the Fourth Estate almost as much as she does President Obama, is providing air cover for GOP candidates who say they're being pilloried by the press.

"Sarah Palin gets more national media than any other politician on the stage other than Obama," says Wallace, who famously clashed with Palin as a top official in John McCain's 2008 campaign. "She's in a category of her own because the media cover everything she does. She's almost like a Tom Cruise."

Brought to you by

Each weekday morning, Politico sends out an e-mail digest of energy news. And it has been sponsored, since its launch in May, by America's Natural Gas Alliance.

"One solution for more abundant domestic energy is staring us in the face. . . . Today, the U.S. has more natural gas than Saudi Arabia has oil," the blurb reads in part.

Is there a problem with one sponsor so heavily underwriting a journalistic product involving its industry?

"We don't see any conflict at all," says Kim Kingsley, a spokeswoman for Politico, which also offers tip sheets on such topics as technology (sponsored last week by Google), finances (GE Capital) and defense (EADS North America's KC-45 tanker). "The newsroom produces the content for all of our morning products, and the sales side sells it." She adds that "advertisers know they don't buy any influence with Politico or any other media company when they buy an ad." Some clients buy weeks at a time, but "no one can own a morning product indefinitely."

There is no evidence that the gas industry's support has affected the energy digest. But just as when The Washington Post was considering the awful idea of having sole sponsors underwrite off-the-record policy dinners last year, a single advertiser can create an appearance problem.

Disappearing act

Time magazine has quietly stripped most of its print content -- including cover stories -- off its Web site. With a few exceptions, such as Joe Klein's column, Time.com is going with online-only features -- and won't make the dead-tree material available until two weeks after the magazine comes out. While charging for iPad access, says spokeswoman Ali Zelenko, "it didn't make sense to make all our content available for free." Newspapers will be watching whether Time, which will eventually charge for some Web content, gets a bump in print circulation.

Hemmer responds

After my column last week on the preponderance of Republican and conservative guests on Bill Hemmer's Fox News program, he explained in a Fox radio interview: "I think viewers need to understand, our bookers, how many phone calls they make every day trying to get Democratic lawmakers to come on our program and defend their policies and tell us what's going on, and they would say no. . . . Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, here's the red carpet, man."

Perhaps the invitations are working; last week "America's Newsroom" hosted three Democratic members of Congress.

Shift in Nevada

With a Mason-Dixon poll showing Democrat Harry M. Reid (whom some pundits had written off) leading Sharron Angle 44-37, Hot Air's Ed Morrissey weighs in on the Nevada Senate race:

"Reid has had a pretty good month in defining Angle as extreme, and Angle hasn't helped her own cause much during that period. She has had to back away from statements about unemployment and to explain statements on Social Security. When you're explaining, you're playing defense, and Reid put her in that position by flooding the airwaves."

The Clinton comeback

Jonah Goldberg is struck by the Democrats' new surrogate-in-chief:

"Barack Obama recently recruited Bill Clinton to stump for the Democrats as a surrogate because the former president is more popular than the current one. It's ironic because candidate Obama had once disparaged the Clinton presidency as not ambitious enough. Obama wanted to be a liberal Reagan who would reverse the rising conservative tide in American politics (just as he would reverse the rise of the oceans), not be the sort of president who accepted the tide and merely navigated its currents.

"But is it really so outlandish to imagine that Bill Clinton, a creature spawned from politics like a golem from clay, had a better sense of political reality than the ivory-tower intellectual currently occupying the White House? Clinton proclaimed the era of Big Government was over, and left office quite popular. Barack Obama said, in effect, 'Oh no, it's not!' and his presidency and his party are in freefall, despite an economic climate that, according to the rules, says he should not only be running the table but be popular for it."

Popular for struggling to create jobs when unemployment is at 9.5 percent? Even Reagan was unpopular when the jobless rate topped 10 percent in 1982.

2012 shadowboxing

The fascinating thing about this exchange is that nobody is on the record -- meaning, it wouldn't have happened (at least in public) if journalists refused to publish anonymous potshots:

Politico reports that "an aide of Sarah Palin is hitting back at Mitt Romney's camp for saying the former Alaska governor is 'not a serious human being.'

"A 'Romney intimate' was quoted by Time's Mark Halperin in a Thursday column as saying that Palin could not withstand the rigors of a presidential campaign. 'If she's standing up there in a debate and the answers are more than 15 seconds long, she's in trouble,' the Romney intimate said.

"An additional Romney 'adviser' was quoted as saying the former Massachusetts governor's team is not intimidated by a possible Palin run. 'She's not a serious human being,' the adviser said.

"Asked about the comments by POLITICO, a longtime Palin aide unloaded on Romney's staff. 'It shocks me that anyone would try to do that,' the aide said. 'You'd think we'd all be working together toward a common goal. . . . 'For Washington consultants to sit around and personally disparage the governor anonymously to reporters is unfortunate and counterproductive and frankly immature,' the aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity, continued."

And the reason this sniping deserves anonymity is?

Pushback against Politico

That John Harris-Jim VandeHei piece on why Obama's legislative victories aren't helping his popularity also took swipes at liberal bloggers. And some liberal bloggers weren't pleased. Kevin Drum fires back in Mother Jones:

"And now for the passage everyone is upset about:

"Polls show most self-described liberals still strongly support Obama. But an elite group of commentators on the left -- many of whom are unhappy with him and are rewarded with more attention by being critical of a fellow Democrat -- has a disproportionate influence on perceptions.

"The liberal blogosphere grew in response to Bush. But it is still a movement marked by immaturity and impetuousness -- unaccustomed to its own side holding power and the responsibilities and choices that come with that.

"So many liberals seem shocked and dismayed that Obama is governing as a self-protective politician first and a liberal second, even though that is also how he campaigned. . . .

"This would make a lot more sense if H&V named a few names. Still, I assume that they're talking about folks like Keith Olbermann, Jane Hamsher, Glenn Greenwald, Paul Krugman, and James Carville, all of whom, in their own way, have been pretty critical of Obama. They're not talking about milquetoast sellouts like Kevin Drum, Ezra Klein, Jon Chait, or E.J. Dionne. The question is, is the former group 'rewarded with more attention by being critical of a fellow Democrat,' and do they therefore have a disproportionate influence on perceptions?

"Eh. I guess. Maybe. Thanks largely to conflict junkies like Politico. But haven't liberals always specialized in purity police and circular firing squads?"

WP's Greg Sargent takes exception to this passage:

"They treat the firing of a blogger from The Washington Post as an event of historic significance, while largely averting their gaze from the fact that major losses for Democrats in the fall elections would virtually kill hopes for progressive legislation over the next couple years. . . .

"To make the argument that liberal bloggers have their heads in the sand about Dem losses this fall is just flat out false. All VandeHarris are revealing is that they don't regularly read liberal blogs -- and that they know they can count on the fact that the Beltway insiders who will snicker knowingly about this article don't read liberal blogs either. And that's fine: Don't read them! But please don't make stuff up about them and call it journalism."

I see it as opinion -- and I'm sure the authors aren't surprised about stirring up a cyber-storm.

Today's Mel

While everyone on the planet was feeling sorry for Oksana Grigorieva as the target of those obscene Mel Gibson diatribes, ABC raises this question:

"Is it possible his rants aren't quite what they seem?

"Grigorieva denied she released the tapes. Now some question their integrity. Forensic audio and video experts examined the recordings for HollywoodLife.com and believe someone tampered with them, editing the audio, removing parts of conversation and piecing together phrases to make the recordings sound real.

" 'One of the things that you have to know is that nobody at this point can authenticate it's Mel's voice -- not 100 percent,' Bonnie Fuller, editor of HollywoodLife.com, said on 'Good Morning America.' 'There are words that are edited out, there are spaces, there are gaps.' "

Meanwhile, the Web site that broke the last Gibson scandal (the drunken, anti-Semitic rant) raises other questions about Oksana's injuries:

"Law enforcement sources who have analyzed the pictures and video -- yes, we've learned she had video shot as well -- tell TMZ there is 'no evidence of external or internal damage,' making it inconsistent with being punched in the face.

"As we have already reported, Oksana's teeth were not damaged -- they were intact. The dentist has submitted a sworn declaration saying one veneer was out and one was cut in half, but the teeth were not damaged."

In another posting, "sources connected with Mel Gibson tell TMZ they have 'hard proof' Oksana Grigorieva tried to extort Gibson, demanding more than $10 million from the actor in return for keeping the secret tapes just that -- secret."

I haven't seen the hard proof, but there are clearly other shoes to drop.

Doubts on Gore accuser

In a lengthy self-examination, the Portland Tribune explains why it didn't go with masseuse Molly Hagerty's sexual misconduct allegations against the former vice president long before the National Enquirer published them:

"It turns out the Tribune was not the first publication Hagerty talked to, to see if it might be interested in the story -- at least according to Hagerty. She said she talked to Michael Isikoff at Newsweek magazine, but he was only willing to print the accusations if they were on the record, with her name being published. When she said she was not willing, he wasn't interested in the story. . . .

"At this point, the Tribune was contemplating an article about highly serious allegations by an unnamed woman who had flunked a polygraph and whose best ally able to vouch for her talking about the assault shortly after it happened was a local homeless man. We weren't sure how credible the story would seem to readers.

"Meanwhile, Budnick continued to make calls trying to track down information that could be used to check Hagerty's credibility. Many of those interviewed insisted that their comments be 'off the record.' The calls, however, raised questions about the accuracy of her perceptions, and then we started to have those questions ourselves."

Those seem like fair questions to me -- and ones that will have to be answered if the police investigation goes anywhere.

Howard Kurtz also works for CNN and hosts its weekly media program, "Reliable Sources."

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