Media availability: How candidates deal or don’t deal with the press
Published 1:03 am, Thursday, June 24, 2010
Dannel Malloy and Ned Lamont, the two Democrats vying for governor, recently held news conferences to talk job creation, energy policy and reviving Connecticut's big cities. And it is not unusual for them to personally return reporters' phone calls.
And McMahon's notoriously media-friendly Democratic opponent, Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, has been relying more on campaign aides to do his talking as he fights allegations he misled the public about his Vietnam-era military service.
During one of the most crucial campaigns in the state's history, there are wide disparities in how this year's crop of candidates is using traditional media to deliver their messages to voters and how and when they are willing to take direct questions from reporters.
"There are two approaches," said Rich Hanley, journalism professor at Quinnipiac University. "The traditional approach is the expansive availability (of a candidate) to media. The perception is it's important to get your message out and take the risk; it may not be as the candidate designs it but ... it's free. The newer approach, the one McMahon is following, is the media is not as important as it used to be because we can reach voters through new mechanisms like YouTube and Facebook."
One tactic employed by McMahon's staff is to release edited YouTube videos interspersing McMahon's often unpublicized campaign stops with interviews with supporters.
"Politicians are beginning to capture the means of communications away from journalists," said F. Christopher Arterton, of New Haven, founding dean of the graduate school of political management at George Washington University. "They don't need the news media as much as they did 20 years ago, so they're finding ways of basically making themselves available on their terms."
John Mertens, the independent candidate for U.S. Senate, said he would love to gain more attention from traditional media. He said he believes McMahon and Blumenthal are avoiding situations where they will be personally challenged to talk about the issues.
"They have the attitude that the less they say, the fewer voters they may offend. And the campaign experts they hire try to have them say as little as possible on any issue," Mertens said.
Unlike some campaigns, including that of Republican opponent Peter Schiff, McMahon's camp did not go out of its way to notify reporters of appearances before she secured the party's endorsement in late May.
McMahon spokesman Ed Patru said much of McMahon's time was spent wooing GOP delegates. But going forward, Patru said, "the press is going to know where Linda is. We have a vested interest in getting Linda out to events where there are as many people as possible."
Lee Ann Browning-McNee, an adjunct professor of media and politics at George Washington University, said, "The reality is a lot of politicians aren't that good in a press-conference format. It may not be their strength as communicators."
As attorney general, Blumenthal has made a habit of convening news conferences and returning reporters' phone calls. But since announcing his candidacy in January, Blumenthal has held one news conference, and that was to defend himself against allegations he intentionally misled voters to believe he was a Marine serving in Vietnam.
Blumenthal spokesman Maura Downes promised that her candidate will be open with his schedule and holding news conferences to lay out policy positions. She also, when asked, provided a list of three upcoming campaign stops, unlike McMahon, whose schedule, Patru said, is still being developed.
"I think he's very eager to talk to the press about the issues that matter most to the people of Connecticut: creating jobs, reviving our economy, helping small business. He's eager to talk to the press about that," Downes said when asked whether the Vietnam issue had him ducking coverage.
Downes added that Blumenthal needs to rely more on campaign spokesmen because of his having to juggle running for U.S. Senate with his duties as attorney general.
State GOP Chairman Chris Healy said Blumenthal has, during 20 years in office, built expectations "he's ready to talk about everything all the time."
"And when he's suddenly too busy to talk, that hurts him more than, let's say, Linda McMahon, who doesn't have that expectation yet," Healy said.
Lamont, who in 2006 challenged Democratic U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman, said candidates should be willing to subject themselves to the unpredictability of news conferences and field a variety of questions from reporters.
"One of Lieberman's staffers saw me after the campaign a few years ago and said, `We loved the fact you always answered the question. We could always get you off-message,' " Lamont said. "I'm not going to lose that. I am who I am."
While Lamont and Malloy have been scheduling news conferences, their three Republican opponents have stuck to statements and interviews.
Republican-endorsed candidate for governor Tom Foley, in particular, proved a textbook example of how a news conference can go sour for an unprepared candidate. Foley announced his candidacy in Hartford in December. When he was approached afterward by reporters, Foley said, "This actually was not a news conference" and offered few answers about policy.
Asked whether Foley intended to follow Malloy's and Lamont's lead and hold news conferences on policy issues, spokesman Liz Osborn said: "He's had his jobs plan out, his plan forward for Connecticut, since January. He's always more than happy to speak to reporters about it. He has been making public appearances across the state, but at the moment, we're not having a press conference about it."
"In all honestly, I enjoy the freewheeling discussion," Griebel said. "There's always a danger you put your proverbial foot in your mouth by reacting too quickly, but it's intellectually challenging, stimulating and a great way to communicate when you're trying to demonstrate to people you're not just an ordinary politician."