Earlier this month, Politico compiled a list of candidates who had gone AWOL, taken vows of semi-silence, or were otherwise dodging unwanted exposure to the press and the public.
Many of them are Republicans of the Tea Party strain and include Colorado’s Ken Buck, Delaware’s Christine O’Donnell, Kentucky’s Rand Paul, Wisconsin’s Ron Johnson, and Nevada’s Sharron Angle. Politico also named two exceedingly press-shy and public-avoiding Democratic office-seekers—Paul Kanjorski of Pennsylvania and Harry Reid of Nevada.
Any complete list of campaign hermits would have to include California Republican candidate for governor Meg Whitman, who has been sidestepping the press for months, and South Carolina gubernatorial candidates Nikki Haley and Vincent Sheheen, who stopped giving out their daily schedules, making it difficult for reporters to cover their campaigns. Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who is running for re-election, deserves special mention for playing peek-a-boo with the press last month: He gave a speech to the National Conference of Editorial Writers, but then refused to take questions, as is the custom.
In Alaska, U.S. Senate Republican candidate Joe Miller’s team has abandoned the passive-aggressive approach to press avoidance practiced by many and is playing offense. Yesterday, his bodyguards handcuffed reporter Tony Hopfinger after Hopfinger ignored their warnings that he’d be arrested for trespassing if he kept trailing and asking the candidate questions after a town hall meeting. The bro is lucky he wasn’t tased and fed live to the orcas.
What are these candidates hiding from? The Politico story subscribes to the sports metaphor, explaining that the candidates are “running out the clock.” If they say nothing, they won’t get caught saying anything stupid, the theory goes.
But every election observes a ticking clock. What’s so special about this year’s election? Even President Obama has shunned press conferences, and he’s not running for office. Perhaps the reluctance of Tea Party Republicans and even Democratic incumbents to sidestep the journalistic scrutiny is a sign of a robust, questioning, and skeptical press. Not a perfect press, mind you, as anybody who has eavesdropped on a recent political press conference can attest. But when politicians beat this sort of a retreat, they’re not signaling that they fear the questions but that they fear the answers.
Some politicians have justified their press-avoidance strategy by saying that they’ve found new, filter-free ways to directly connect to supporters that reduce the need to take journalists’ questions. Television appearances on The Oprah Winfrey Show, The Tonight Show, The View, and others are one example. E-mail lists, Facebook, and the comfortable confines of Fox News Channel are three more.
But filter-free media are self-limiting. To begin with, anything that Sarah Palin tweets goes out unfiltered. That’s all well and good, but within seconds, the uber-media will suck it up, interpret it, fact-check it, and spit it out, making a mockery of her unfilteredness. Second, because the nonpress media speak primarily to supporters, they simply preach to the converted. To win, candidates must speak to more than the congregation, which requires conventional media exposure. Third, appearing on a friendly soundstage comes at a cost. A Tea Partier speaking on Fox News is just as prone to committing a campaign-debilitating gaffe as one taking a pummeling from aggressive reporters. (For an example of a politician self-destructing in a nonhostile setting, see Angle’s gaffe while speaking to high-school students.) And four, in the absence of real-time material to masticate, reporters will dig deeper into the pasts of candidates. We know how that’s worked out for Christine O’Donnell. She’s not good with personal finances, she confessed to having “dabbled” in witchcraft, and she once equated masturbation with adultery on MTV.
If physically evasive politicians indicate a vital press, what’s the best marker of a sick press? I get the dry heaves every time I think of the “press-friendly” 2000 presidential primaries of John McCain, whose basic phoniness Jacob Weisberg decoded at the time. Politicians who appear too helpful and too open to reporters are always manipulating them. This doesn’t make them bad people. It’s just what politicians do. They seduce and abandon. Some of them are so good at it that they re-seduce and re-abandon every campaign cycle. Personally, I’d be more disturbed if the press and politicians were getting along better.
Politicians and office-holders have no “duty” to speak to reporters, a truth that more reporters should understand. The press is not a Fourth Estate, a co-equal of the three branches of government, and it is due no lordly entitlements. Whenever candidates brush journalists off, the press should merely note the pols’ taciturnity and maybe give thanks. In my experience, it’s better to be snubbed than to be lied to.
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