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More major candidates are shutting out the media

Sun., Oct. 24, 2010, midnight

Trend threatens voters’ access to impartial facts

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.

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 as 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.”


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