There’s an old saw in the White House pressroom: You have to feed the beast–meaning the news media. Because if you don’t feed it, the beast will eat your arm.
Officials in the Clinton administration learned this lesson the hard way after they arrived in Washington. A poorly concealed disdain for reporters, combined with a failure to satisfy their voracious appetites, resulted in a heavy focus on screw-ups and scandal during the early months of the new regime. The president made an effort to improve his press relations by bringing on spinmeister David Gergen, but the administration never fully recovered from its initial stumbles.
Al Gore witnessed this firsthand at the time. Yet for some reason, Gore’s presidential campaign has been repeating the experiment by putting the media beast on another starvation diet. While presenting himself for one-on-one interviews with TV anchors and local editorial boards, the Democratic nominee-to-be has assiduously avoided contact with the national reporters who cover him full time. As I can personally attest, journalists who travel with Gore come away with very little beyond what viewers of C-SPAN’s Road to the White House get to see. They get off Air Force Two, take a bus to an event, and watch Gore give a speech. Then they get back on the bus, return to the plane, and repeat the process at the next stop. Seldom do journalists have an opportunity to ask Gore a question. Only rarely do they see him in any unscripted setting.
The effect on Gore’s coverage has been fairly predictable. A barely suppressed hostility is evident in the work of many if not most of the national reporters covering his campaign. The press has focused to a great degree on management problems in the campaign, on its strategic miscalculations, on gaffes and on scandal. Gore can’t seem to catch a break, even when he does something right. The candidate and the campaign have less ability than they otherwise might to control the daily message sent to the public via the news media.
In recent weeks, Gore’s relations with press have become so strained that they have themselves become a news story. The Washington Post’s media reporter, Howard Kurtz, wrote a long, Page One piece last week comparing the quality of life of reporters covering the two major-party candidates. The press covering Bush has a high time. The candidate gives journalists goofy nicknames, gabs with them about sports on the plane, and answers questions at daily “press availabilities,” which are abbreviated press conferences. Reporters traveling with the vice president, on the other hand, fly on a nicer airplane and eat better food, but their jobs are miserable because the candidate treats them like baggage. Journalists covering Gore full time can go for weeks without a chance to ask him a question directly. His occasional airborne badinage is as forced and cautious as his public pronouncements. Traveling spokesman Chris Lehane does his best to cover for Gore’s absence with jokes and jibes, but it’s a losing battle with a starving beast. Kurtz writes that the difference in accessibility between the two candidates helps explain “why Bush is consistently portrayed as relaxed and confident and Gore as someone who often fails to connect with people.”
If you talk to members of Gore’s campaign staff on background, you hear a variety of explanations for Gore’s aloofness from the press. One adviser claims that Gore is simply shy. Another asserts that he’s trying to dictate his own story of the day rather than letting reporters choose it for him. Gore aides often attribute the complaint to journalistic vanity: The press wants a candidate who schmoozes them the way Bush does, but Gore has better things to do with his time. A more self-critical version of this defense holds that Gore lacks Bush’s good-time-Charlie personality and is wise to avoid a game he’s bad at. But while developing a rapport with reporters on the campaign plane might be helpful, it wouldn’t address the essence of the problem. Gore is in trouble with the press because he hasn’t been providing even the minimum level of openness that reporters expect. He doesn’t need to mollycoddle the hacks; he just needs to take their questions.
As a former reporter himself, Gore must understand the value of good relations with the news media. When he was in the Senate, Gore had a decent reputation with the journalists who covered him. He was always cautious but fairly available to reporters through his first term as vice president. Something seems to have snapped, however, during the campaign-finance scandal that followed the 1996 campaign. When it was revealed that Gore made fund-raising calls from the White House, he attempted to disarm the feeding frenzy with a spontaneous press conference at which he recited the phrase “no controlling legal authority.” The result was a public-relations disaster. Since then, Gore seems to feel the way the Clintons do, that the press will never treat him fairly. His staff’s general cautiousness has abetted the candidate’s learned aversion.
But as a result, Gore is discovering what Clinton also found out the hard way: that shunning the beast only makes it hungrier and angrier. Witness the first week of Gore’s “Progress and Prosperity” tour. This was meant to be a fresh start for the beleaguered Gore campaign (and I still think it will mark the beginning of an inevitable turnaround). But sending out a sensible economic message has been tougher than it should be for Gore because of the continuing journalistic focus on all the minor things he gets wrong. According to a “political memo” story in the New York Times, the tour “is off to a rocky start,” thanks mainly to Gore’s difficulties with the boys on the bus.
George W. Bush was having similar problems with the press early in the primary season, when his staff kept his contact with reporters to a minimum–even as John McCain invented a new kind of campaign based on unfettered media access. Journalists thought Bush was hiding because of his inadequacies. But it didn’t take Bush long to figure out that dodging the media was hurting him. By February, he had copied much of McCain’s method. He started holding more frequent press conferences and making nice with reporters on the campaign plane he dubbed “Accessibility One.” Bush’s coverage has since grown more sympathetic in real if subtle ways.
The Gore campaign is much slower to correct its mistakes but generally does address major problems some time after they become blindingly obvious. It’s a safe bet that Gore will soon recognize that he has no choice but to make himself more available to the press the way that Bush did. Indeed, it may be happening already. The recent addition of Mark Fabiani to the campaign bodes well for Gore’s press relations. Fabiani, who was known as an advocate of openness when he served as scandal spokesman in the Clinton administration, is undoubtedly encouraging the campaign to make the candidate more accessible. Yesterday, in fact, Gore held no less than three “press avails,” which is probably as many as he had in the entire previous month. Nicknames for reporters may not be far off.