Dylan Byers reports today on an open secret: the 2012 campaign is a relentless, joyless exercise in trench warfare, and reporters hate it. So what’s the solution?
Some reporters believe it is just a matter of waiting out 2012 in hopes that 2016 will see the return of 2008-level excitement….Others fear that with every election cycle, campaigns are further battening down the hatches, setting precedents of media control that ultimately render the media powerless to do anything but wait at the mercy of a scripted quote, like dogs waiting for scraps.
Bingo. This has been going on for years, and it’s accelerated dramatically over the past decade or two. With every campaign, candidates push the envelope a little more, testing the boundaries of how far they can restrict press access. The answer, I think, is pretty plain: they could literally allow the press no access at all and it wouldn’t hurt them. The only reason they still allow the little bit they do is inertia. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, they still find it hard to believe they could really get away with shutting out reporters completely.
But they could. The mainstream media, by its own rules, isn’t really allowed to gripe about access, and anyway, nobody listens when they do. What’s more, the days when candidates needed press coverage are now gone. During the primaries, when money is still scarce, it’s a different story: free media attention is still a valuable commodity. But once the general election campaign starts, campaigns can reach everyone they need to reach, more safely and with more pinpoint control, via partisan media, television ads, data mining, debates, short hits on local TV, and social media. In those forums, they can pretty much say anything they want, without having to field any embarrassing questions about whether they have their facts right and without fear of inadvertent gaffes. The truth is that the downside risk of talking to reporters is now greater than the upside benefit of the coverage they give you.
This dynamic has already gone pretty far. John McCain and Barack Obama both ran very buttoned-up campaigns in 2008, and this year both Romney and Obama are famous for their spectacular lack of availability to the national press corps. They do occasional formal sit-down interviews, which are pretty safe, and — maybe — take a few questions a month. That’s it. And guess what? The sky hasn’t fallen. It turns out they can get away with it just fine.
By 2020 campaigns will be like studio bands that never do live shows. They’ll be conducted entirely in a bubble, with national reporters allowed no access whatsoever. Doesn’t that sound like fun?