Washington – Many major candidates are treating the news media as enemies this year, refusing to release schedules, admit the press to campaign events, give interviews or answer routine questions.
While Republicans appear to be shunning journalists more than Democrats, some Democrats are doing it, too, and journalists are finding it unusually hard to get routine information.
While about a quarter of Americans in a July Gallup poll said they had confidence in newspapers or television news, only 11 percent expressed confidence in Congress.
Shutting out reporters could compromise voters’ ability to get fair accounts of who candidates and their financial backers are and where they stand, leaving them dependent instead on propaganda packaged by the candidates and their supporters.
“It’s only going to spread, and it’s not a good thing for our democracy, if we’re going to hold candidates accountable,” said Steven Greene, an associate professor of political science at North Carolina State University.
The stiff-the-media trend is spreading:
- Nevada. Republican Senate candidate Sharron Angle’s supporters at a Las Vegas rally last Thursday passed word to attendees not to talk to the press. When some tried, a woman who wouldn’t identify herself intervened and asked reporters to leave. The next night, people who came to an Angle rally at the city’s Orleans Hotel Ballroom B – an event not on any press schedule – were greeted with a big sign saying, “Private Party, No Press Allowed.”
- Delaware. Senate candidate Chris Coons, a Democrat, has left his website’s “events calendar” blank all this week. Republican rival Christine O’Donnell posts no schedule on her website.
- Alaska. Alaska Dispatch Editor Tony Hopfinger was handcuffed Sunday by private security guards for GOP Senate nominee Joe Miller after Hopfinger attempted to interview the candidate. Anchorage Municipal Prosecutor Albert Patterson said Tuesday that no charges will be filed.
- North Carolina. U.S. Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, a conservative Republican who’s leading his re-election race by an average of 14 points in polls, refused this month to be interviewed by the Charlotte Observer or The (Raleigh) News & Observer, both McClatchy newspapers, for their political profiles of him. Burr cited unhappiness with the papers’ coverage of his work in Washington.
- Florida. Republican gubernatorial candidate Rick Scott has been “effectively boycotting” newspaper editorial boards, according to John Kennedy of the News Service of Florida. “We’re just trying to get our message out to as many people in the best way we can,” said Scott spokesman Trey Stapleton.
- New York. Republican gubernatorial candidate Carl Paladino recently told the New York Post’s Fred Dicker, “I’ll take you out, buddy,” after Dicker asked Paladino to substantiate charges he’d made against his opponent, Democrat Andrew Cuomo. Paladino’s aides intervened as the candidate moved aggressively toward the journalist.
- West Virginia. Press aides to Republican Senate candidate John Raese made it difficult for McClatchy to get his campaign schedule for the past week, but provided a few details Wednesday.
- Massachusetts. Earlier this year, Michael Meehan, a volunteer for Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Martha Coakley, pushed John McCormack, a reporter for a conservative magazine, after the reporter sought a comment from the candidate. McCormack fell to the ground; Meehan later said he was “a little too aggressive.”
Republicans appear to be the most aggressive press-shunners. There’s no grand strategy against the media, say consultants, and tactics vary depending on the race and state.
“In some states, the only way to drive the vote is by paid ads. But in states like Massachusetts, earned media (mainstream press) plays a significant role,” said Neil Newhouse, a Virginia-based GOP strategist and pollster.
More conservative Republicans, though, “see mainstream media as collective cheerleaders for President (Barack) Obama,” said Keith Appell, a Virginia-based Republican strategist.
They also feel that the mainstream press has portrayed them as extremists.
“They feel the media has tried to define the tea party movement over and over, first as a bunch of Obama-haters, then an angry mobs, or irrelevant. They don’t feel they’ve had a fair shake,” Appell said.
Both political parties have at least two other reasons for ducking reporters.
Some fear the kind of “macaca” moment that in August 2006 doomed Virginia Sen. George Allen, a Republican who’d never lost a statewide election and was mentioned as a serious potential 2008 White House contender.
At a public rally, Allen called a Democratic volunteer of Indian descent, who’d been following him around with a camera, “macaca or whatever his name is,” adding, “Welcome to America and the real world of Virginia.” The comment, widely perceived as a racial slur, changed the tone of the Senate race, and Allen lost to Democrat Jim Webb.
Another factor affects the 2010 equation: At least $3.7 billion is likely to be spent, mostly on ads by campaigns and outside groups this year, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.
That means most major campaigns have the resources to blanket the airwaves and phone lines with their one-sided sales pitches.
“Republicans have been going after Sen. (Harry) Reid for a year and a half, and it takes financial resources to combat the attack. We do this (spend big on ads) because it works,” said Jon Summers, a Reid senior adviser.
Still, how does the voter know what’s true and what’s not? Some experts are concerned.
“Let’s be realistic,” said Greene. “Your typical voter is not going online to search more sources of information. They’re most likely relying on local media.”
That can be a problem, because many mainstream news organizations are cutting back on coverage as their revenue declines.
However, Tobe Berkovitz, a professor of communication at Boston University, is less alarmed. He said the trend “has an influence on the voters,” but he thinks that many voters will adapt and find new ways to get accurate data.
“The state of traditional media has sunk,” he said, but thanks to the Internet, a concerned voter can go to several balanced sources for information.
“There are more ideas in the marketplace now in the media and the press marketplace than there were 30 years ago,” he said. “There are more options and some are of quite good quality.”
(McClatchy Washington Bureau reporters Steven Thomma, William Douglas, Barbara Barrett and Lesley Clark, and Richard Mauer of the Anchorage Daily News contributed to this article.)