3Qs: Mitt’s rift with the media

Over the course of a weeklong foreign trip to Israel, Poland and the United Kingdom, presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney gave a series of interviews to major television networks, but only answered three questions posed by members the U.S. traveling press corps. Romney’s rift with the media prompted one journalist to proclaim that there is a “growing frustration among reporters, a growing sense that the campaign doesn’t get it.” We asked Dan Kennedy, an assistant professor of journalism whose weblog, Media Nation, is a nationally recognized source of news and commentary, to explain how Romney’s handling of the U.S. press will affect future coverage of his election campaign.

Why do you think Romney stonewalled the U.S. press corps, and how do you think this decision will affect future coverage of his election campaign?

Surveys show that Americans don’t like and don’t trust the media, which makes it tempting for presidential candidates to run against them and to freeze them out as much as possible. The problem is that the media remain the prism through which we see, hear and read about the candidates. Except for his convention speech and the debates, Romney won’t have many opportunities to speak directly to the public.

Even though reporters try to produce stories that are fair and neutral, some of their frustration is bound to be reflected in their coverage if they believe they are being treated with contempt. Moreover, when a candidate refuses to answer questions, it creates a perception that he’s got something to hide.

As much as it may gall Romney’s political operatives, they need to understand that the care and feeding of the press is part of their job. If they don’t figure that out, they may be dealing with negative coverage for the rest of the campaign.

President Barack Obama leads Romney in three key battleground states—Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania—according to new polls from Quinnipiac University, CBS News and The New York Times. Will Romney’s perceived slight of the U.S. press corps further diminish his favorability rating and sway swing voters to cast their ballots for Obama or will his stance on hot-button issues such healthcare and the economy remain at the fore of voters’ decision-making?

I wouldn’t put too much stock in the polls at this point. With the economy still on shaky ground, probably the only thing we can be sure of is that the election will be close.

Romney has nothing to lose from the perception that the press corps doesn’t like him, especially when reporters behave rudely or obnoxiously. Even Jon Stewart, no Romney fan, mocked reporters who shouted at the candidate in Poland about his “gaffes,” saying they were “testing the line between questions and heckles.”

It’s possible that Romney might benefit from the perception that he’s standing up to the media. In the long run, though, he needs to establish a positive image for himself. Voters are more interested in what you are for than what you are against. And as I said, as much as the public may not like the media, it is through the media that it will learn about Romney.

In response to Romney’s refusal to answer questions posed by the U.S. traveling press corps, Fox News anchor Greta Van Susteren noted that “The story is now becoming access. The smarter move is to have the story be about the message.” If you were Romney’s press aide, how would you handle U.S. media inquires between now and November?

Van Susteren is right. Romney needs to make sure that his message is the story, not whether he’s providing sufficient access. He should start appearing regularly on the Sunday political shows—not just in friendly venues such as Fox News, but on CNN and the three major networks as well. He has occasionally granted interviews to influential newspapers such as The New York Times and The Washington Post, and he should do more of that. I’d also be impressed if I turned on NPR and heard him giving an interview.

There’s a role for the media to play as well. As a speaker, Romney is clearly more maladroit than some politicians, and he often contradicts previous statements he’s made. It is the media’s job to point those things out. But at the same time, journalists should ease up on the gaffe watch, and not try to play “gotcha” every time Romney opens his mouth. This is serious business, and too often the media behave as though it were a game of Trivial Pursuit.