Monday, February 25, 2008

Feeding the Beast

A recent New Yorker article ostensibly focused on whether or not John McCain could reinvent Republicanism also touched on some interesting points regarding the media strategies of the different campaigns. The profile of McCain opens with him engaged in long, frank conversations with members of the press aboard his campaign bus. This is contrasted with the "overly managed" campaigns of Obama and Clinton in which the media is held at arm's length and only fed pre-chewed sound bites and talking points. Obama's campaign in particular is singled out for its similarity to the Bush White House in terms of message discipline and rooting out leaks with "frightening intensity."

If there's anything that the Bush media team has taught us, it is that hyper-fanaticism in message discipline does not work as a long-term media strategy. It can certainly be effective in the short term (and a campaign may be just the right amount of time), but over the course of a presidency the magic is bound to wear off.

To use a slightly less-than-flattering metaphor, the modern media is a thousand-headed beast with a voracious appetite that has to be fed 24 hours a day (if not more) in order to be kept happy. Faced with this reality, presidents must choose what they are going to do in order to keep the beast calm and well-fed. After all, even thousand-headed beasts will usually refrain from biting the hand that feeds it. What the Reagan White House did so well and the Bush White House tried to take even further was placing such an extreme level of discipline on those who talk to the press that no matter how hungry the beast gets, there is still only one story to cover: the story the White House wants covered. In theory this makes an awful lot of sense. Limit access to the president, everyone else is saying the exact same thing, and there's only one game in town.

Except that's where the problem arises. While there's only one White House and one president, there will never only be one game in a town like Washington. If the press beast isn't being fed at the White House it will lumber elsewhere at which point the White House loses control over the story. Suddenly, the White House isn't dictating the agenda anymore and isn't in front of the news cycle. This is what we've seen over the course of the Bush years.

At first, the press was happy to take what was offered and coverage was generally good. As time passed, the beast began to grow restless. The Bush communications team didn't recognize their changing situation (no surprise there) and continued to insist on one line a day, one story, one morsel. When the press insisted on more and they didn't get it from the White House, they turned elsewhere. Coverage has only gotten steadily worse from there.

While an Obama team (or Clinton team) might be able to improve upon the Bush structure, the system itself is fundamentally flawed because it is impossible to satiate the beast entirely with pre-selected soundbites.

So what is a president to do?

Interestingly, John McCain might already be on the right track. (He is also following in the footsteps of Franklin Roosevelt more than he would like to admit as he tries to solidify his standing among conseratives.) What Roosevelt, and now McCain, did so effectively was coopt the press by giving them a steady stream of information that they wanted, but with his spin on it. FDR engaged in long conversations with members of the press answering virtually whatever questions they asked. In doing so, he was able to give them the White House version of facts first, before they had to go out and learn about it on the street. By getting the first word in, FDR was able to shape the coverage he received. By engaging in frank discussions of the issues the press wanted covered, he was able to maintain his advantage of getting the first word in.

McCain seems like he is doing that now and it should serve him well. Hopefully the Democrats figure it out too. After all, even a thousand-headed beast with a voracious 24-hour appetite will think twice before biting the hand that feeds it.

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