Updated: March 13, 2014 6:38AM
I have rarely met a political operative who believes that journalism is on the level.
They do not believe that journalism is agenda-free or that a journalist’s only agenda is to report the truth without “fear or favor.”
Journalists claim to have standards, but the political operative is hard-pressed to see what those standards might be. The only real standard seems to be to wallow in scandal and controversy.
To the operative, reporters are trouble, and the best solution to this trouble is to keep the candidates as far away from the press as possible except for scripted moments, such as speeches, and unavoidable moments that can be prepared for (i.e., rehearsed), such as debates.
There is a problem with this, however, as we look forward — and you are looking forward, aren’t you? — to the presidential campaigns of 2016, which will begin this year.
Today anybody with access to the Internet can be a journalist. And keeping a candidate away from credentialed reporters does not solve as many problems as it used to.
What really got candidates in trouble in the most recent two presidential campaigns? Comments made by candidates who assumed no reporters were in the room.
The only big mistake Barack Obama made in his 2008 campaign was telling a crowd at what he thought was a private $1,000-per-person fundraiser in San Francisco that when small-town voters “get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”
The campaign had kept reporters away from the event, but Mayhill Fowler, an Obama supporter and donor, had gotten a ticket and captured Obama’s remarks on her digital recorder. Fowler viewed herself as a “citizen journalist” who wrote a blog for a website published by The Huffington Post. She knew that Obama might be damaged if his remarks got out, which is why she sat on her story for days. But after talking to a number of people, including her editor, she decided to publish Obama’s comments.
The results were explosive. Hilary Clinton attacked Obama, saying she had grown up in a “churchgoing family” and “the people of faith” she knows “don’t ‘cling to’ religion because they’re bitter.”
Obama, in a rare moment of understatement, responded: “I didn’t say it as well as I should have.”
The Obama campaign was furious with Fowler, saying she had attended a donor-only, closed-press event and then had betrayed the campaign by acting like a journalist.
“We had a fundamental misunderstanding of my priorities,” Fowler would later say. “Mine were as a reporter, not as a supporter. They thought I would put the role of supporter first.”
“I’m 61,” she said in another interview. “I can’t believe I would be one of the people who’s changing the world of media.”
The campaign operatives had no defense for this except to screen audiences even more carefully than they already did or advise the candidates to say nothing that had not been preapproved. Which they already did. A lot.
But even that doesn’t work in a world where everyone is a citizen journalist.
In May 2012, Mitt Romney held a $50,000-per-plate off-the-record fundraiser at a private home in Boca Raton, Fla., where he delivered what became known as his “47 percent” remarks.
He said: “There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right? There are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe that government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. . . . My job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”
A bartender at the event surreptitiously recorded Romney. The video was obtained and published by David Corn of Mother Jones.
Again, the remarks were explosive. To some, they represented the remarks of an uncaring fat cat. Romney denied that but was forced to reply: “Well, um, it’s not elegantly stated; let me put it that way.”
When, after the campaign, Dan Balz asked Romney about his remarks for Balz’s book “Collision 2012,” Romney denied making the last part of the statement, even though it had been captured on videotape.
“Actually, I didn’t say that,” Romney told Balz. “That’s how it began to be perceived, and so I had to ultimately respond to the perception, because perception is reality.”
And in a world where perception is reality and everyone, including donors and bartenders, is a shaper of perception, what’s a poor campaign operative to do?