Can We Cut The Crap About The Media Already?

I am up to my ears sick and tired of hearing about media bias.

Any time a conservative candidate for office shoots himself in the foot (and let’s not mince words here folks, that is exactly the kind of amateur mistakes that have been happening in the last week or so with certain candidates for certain offices in certain Pine Tree States), the immediate knee jerk reaction is to attack the reporter, media outlet or publication that disseminated the information they feel is inaccurate or misleading.  Quotes taken out of context, misleading coverage, an inaccurate picture of reality – all of it is on the table for a candidate who is upset at the coverage they receive.

Lost in the shuffle is that these types of things are almost always stupid mistakes by candidates.  More often than not the candidate is right that the media portrayal of them is not reflective of reality (I doubt 61 year old Paul LePage is actually implying Libby Mitchell‘s 70  years of age is a disqualifier), however the reality is that said candidates have only themselves to blame for giving the media fodder by being undisciplined and unguarded with their mouth.

In these situations, the most predictable response from candidates – but more importantly supporters – are the cries of bias in the media.  It never fails, any time an unflattering account of a conservative comes out, you invariably see the same tired modifiers thrown in front of the word “media”.  It is always the “liberal media”, or “Maine’s leftist media” or any host of adjectives used to hit the media for being closet MoveOn activists using their positions to push an agenda.

Don’t think liberal candidates are immune from this nonsense.  Any time the reverse happens, the stupid nicknames and pejoratives come out of the woodworks to argue that the conservative media conglomerate is secretly conspiring to screw the Democrats.  If I hear the term “faux news” or “fixed news” one more time, I may lose it.

But it is bunk, especially in Maine.  Do individual reporters have their own biases and sometimes even agendas?  Of course they do – to seriously believe that an entirely objective journalist exists is naïve.  That does not, however, mean that they are secretly conspiring together to advance an agenda.  Okay, well, sometimes it is true, but most of the time it isn’t, and especially at the local level here in Maine.

The media’s real problem – especially in Maine – is a combination of culture, incompetence and laziness.  There are of course exceptions (Kevin Miller, Matt Stone and a few others, that means you), but as a whole that is the situation.  The combination of eroding staff levels, a more superficial news model from the top and some truly unengaged and untalented reporters has created a situation where almost the entirety of the Maine media establishment chases down a daily news digest that is simply the “lowest hanging fruit” possible.

In other words, in depth exposés are out.  Investigative journalism is out.  Hard hitting fact based reporting is out.

In their stead, reporters on the beat in Maine are glorified note takers.  They try to capture an event or incident, relay what happened, and parcel in some choice quotes that might help make it less mind numbingly pedestrian.  With such a diminished capacity for real reporting, invariably a reporter will focus more on something out of the ordinary or striking about a situation (recently, some choice quotes from Paul LePage on his train tour).  This sensationalizes small, often times meaningless nuggets of information (LePage was making a joke – a politically stupid one, but harmless in the grand scheme of things none the less) and makes them a much bigger deal than they probably deserve to be.  In the absence of anything else, these things become the news.

The problem is systemic.  The traditional media establishment is dying a very slow and painful death, and that is causing this type of reporting.  Yet that truth won’t stop partisans from missing the reality of the situation and falling back on media conspiracy theories about bias.  But it isn’t true, and I’m sick of hearing it.

It sounds like a formulaic macro spit out by a very predictable robot, not a well thought out argument by a critical thinker.

The truth with the most recent incident of supposed media bias is simple – Paul LePage made a mistake.

You don’t make accusations about xenophobic statements by a member of the party opposite on such a vague concept as “the blogs” unless you are able to articulate who said it, what was said, where it was said, and then show proof.  If you want to accuse your opponents of dirty tricks and scummy behavior, but do not have said proof, either shut up or be a lot more vague about what you are saying (“the Democrats have been engaging in a whisper campaign about my French-Catholic heritage, and I find those Nixonian dirty tricks reprehensible”, for example).

You also don’t make fun of somebody for their age – joke or not – in one of the most demographically elderly states in the union.

You also don’t then go on a Jihad about the reporter in question being an unprofessional, biased journalist when she simply reported what you said.  That doesn’t make her biased.  Clipping you mid-sentence or constructing a story wildly inaccurate to the reality, would.

You also don’t then make the bizarre and entirely counterproductive statements about ignoring the media and only allowing yourself to be quoted in writing (as if taking a written quote out of context is any harder than spoken).

Now, obviously I’m being hard on LePage here, but this is elementary politics.  He dug a bit of a hole and kept the shovel in his hand.  Now he apparently wants to burn the ladder which could get him out of the hole.

That does not, however, mean that I share my left of center colleague Mike Tipping’s assessment that this incident “may spell the beginning of the end for LePage’s attempt at the Blaine House.” Of course not.  I find such an idea beyond silly.  This was undoubtedly an embarrassing incident for LePage, and absolutely hurt his standing a little bit, but this is hardly worrisome enough that it will turn off large swaths of Maine voters.  If he simply takes a few deep breaths, regroups and moves forward with a more disciplined approach this entire thing will be forgotten just as quickly as it came.

He can not – as he suggested he would do – simply shut down.  Candor and authenticity work when you are open and accessible, not when you are closed and misanthropic.  I really think Paul LePage would do well to follow a similar campaigning style that John McCain pursued in both 2000 and 2008 – in other words, not less available but more available.  Not less collaborative with the media, but more.

McCain always understood the power of the media, and the fact that they are much less ideologically motivated than they are access motivated.  He charmed them and got on their good side by being the most easily accessed and open candidate, and he learned that because of that the media would treat him a lot more fairly and be more forgiving of simple off the cuff mistakes.  Shutting down and isolating yourself from the media will just do the opposite.  If you thought the media had it out for you before, just wait until you stonewall them – that is the fastest ticket to get unfavorable coverage and more stories exactly like this.

There is no doubt that this year voters are craving a different kind of politician.  They are tired of being lied to, tired of slippery politicians who never tell them anything and market test every phrase that comes out of their mouth.  They are tired of substanceless, boring candidates who pretend like they are perfect.  They are tired of politics as usual and politicians as usual.

That does not mean, however, that candidates do themselves any favors by being sloppy or completely free with what they say.  And it most certainly doesn’t mean that being hostile to one of the most tame and unengaged media establishments in the country will win you any friends or any more favorable coverage.  People want honesty, genuineness, straight talk and candor – they do not, however, want somebody who frequently says bizarre or impolitic things and then closes down and blames everyone else for their own misfortune.

It is possible to be accessible, level with the voters, shoot from the hip, and still be responsible with what you say.  That is the challenge Paul LePage is currently facing, and one he needs to be very careful to navigate.

Still, at least he is isn’t engaging in the Libby Mitchell strategy of being completely invisible and saying nothing of substance at all.

Matthew Gagnon

About Matthew Gagnon

Matthew Gagnon, a Hampden native, is a Republican political operative. He serves as the Director of Digital Strategy for the Republican Governors Association, and has previously worked for Senator Susan Collins and the National Republican Senatorial Committee.