The Media Isn’t the Enemy

Or, if it is, you better figure out how to win it over. The ‘media’ is a big problem, one that we at the Clark Sphere have pointed out repeatedly as a systematic distortion machine. That said, there are several trends that make the print and television media vulnerable to a well-run media campaign. A savvy candidate will exploit them.

But first, a caveat. Does it really matter tactically if the media is the enemy? You’re not going to change the lack of press coverage or any sort of slant by screaming at them. Regardless of how hostile reporters may or may not be, they are a fact of life, and how you treat them has a lot to do with how they will treat you. Here are some rules for dealing with the media:

1) Bumper sticker size messages WILL be taken out of context. If you’re simple, your message doesn’t fill a story, so the reporter will have to look for the ‘other side’ of the story, and your enemies will be the first people the reporter will call if you don’t provide something more than a rah rah press release. A good example is the release of Clark’s military records; the campaign provided nothing except a report card full of A+ marks, so of course, the press went to Hugh Shelton and William Cohen for comment. The right way of handling this would be to generate your own ‘mini-controversy’ that has several sides, so the reporter can cover what you think is interesting. Dean has used his campaign’s innovative style as such a meta-narrative; Clark hasn’t yet come up with a competing meta-narrative to serve as a media framework.

2) Carry a spirit of optimism in everything you do. Dean has successfully wrapped his attacks in optimistic wrapping paper; ‘Take your country back’ is hopeful yet aggressive, and motivates everything in the Dean campaign. ‘A New American Patriotism’ is similarly hopeful, but hasn’t been the sole centerpiece of the Clark campaign.

3) The campaign is the message. The media is no longer just interested in what you say, they are also interested in how you say it. Spin is so pervasive in American media culture that telling carries much less power than showing. If your message works, your campaign should exude it working. The press department should be blogging, for instance.

4) The press does NOT set the rules of politics, and will devour those who think it does. Do not talk only to the press or pander to them. Your audience is your audience; the press is an intermediary. Democratic campaigns cannot effectively bully the media anymore directly; they can only influence media coverage by ‘lobbying downward’. A press secretary bitching about the media in private is meaningless, in public is desperate. Thousands of supporters bitching publicly, however, demands a change in reporting.

5) Do not be defensive. There’s nothing that will set negative media coverage like defensiveness, because that symbolizes a lack of confidence. It should never be an issue of the media being mean or unfair; it’s just an issue of the media being wrong or politicized. Or even better, if you screw up, admit it and move on.

Anyway, those are some rules for dealing with the media that may work. No campaign will always get great coverage, but the trick is to work the media so your coverage and the narrative constantly improves. If you leave the media nowhere to go, they will focus on mistakes, attacks, the conventional wisdom, or negative imagery.

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