Politicians and reporters have a necessary symbiotic relationship that both sides often unnecessarily make antibiotic.
Political reporters need politicians to say or do things that are newsworthy. Politicians need reporters to accurately convey their message to voters. If it only were that simple.
Reporters are not stenographers. They’re journalists. They make judgments about what a politician says and does, emphasizing some things, ignoring others. Sometimes reporters make mistakes.
Politicians often want reporters to emphasize what was ignored. Sometimes politicians make mistakes and want that to be what reporters ignore.
The result of this push-pull has been wariness and distrust. Politicians and their handlers so intensely want to manage what a reporter reports that they create circumstances in which a reporter is forced to report only what the politicians want.
Reporters so resent this hyper message management that they end up digging around a candidate’s life trying to find any source they can, too often through conditions of anonymity, to break through the wall.
None of this, though, applies to John McCain.
The Arizona senator and candidate for president is well known for his openness with the press, so much so that the press is often criticized for being “soft” on McCain because of the access he grants.
Monday, in a speech to open The Associated Press’ annual meeting, McCain explained why he talks reporters’ ears off at the back of the campaign bus.
His remarks should become a treatise on press relations for all politicians and political reporters.
McCain started off by admitting to the desire to control his message.
“Occasionally, the penalties a candidate suffers by granting widespread access can reinforce a campaign’s natural tendencies to avoid risk and closely control its message. There have been times when my enthusiasm in arguing a point and my glibness have had an effect that caused me to appreciate the qualities of tight message discipline and my staff to become distraught because I answered a question simply because I was asked,” he said, according to a transcript of his speech.
But he said he overcomes that desire for three reasons:
“First, I much prefer long back and forths, where reporters have multiple follow-ups and I have an opportunity to explain my views in greater detail – and, occasionally to correct any initial mistakes I might have made in communicating them – than is allowed in the short exchanges and bright lights of” an orchestrated press conference.
“Second, I think reporters are better able to meet their first responsibility of ensuring an informed citizenry if they are allowed to press a candidate for more than a gotcha quote or a comment on whatever the cable-driven news environment has decided is the process story of the day.
“Last, and most importantly, the responsibility of an informed citizenry is as much my responsibility as it is yours. . . . I want voters to know and understand my positions. I intend to stand by them, to defend them and even, at times, to engage in spirited debate with voters about them.
“But I want them to know what and why I believe the things I believe. And I think the press wants voters to know that as well, even though, at times, my views can suffer from your translation of them, sometimes more through my fault than yours. …
“But on the whole, you, I and, most importantly, the American people are better served by the openness and accountability that direct, lengthy and frequent exchanges with the press produces. And I will take my chances with you and trust in the American people to get it right in the end.”
That last sentence struck me hard. That’s a nominee for president saying he trusts the press. I guess McCain earns that “Maverick” label we like to pin on him.
If more politicians were to follow McCain’s tenets of good press relations, then perhaps the destructive animus between pol and reporter might evaporate and return trust to that necessary symbiotic relationship.
I’m not holding my breath, but I will keep my fingers crossed.
Read Tucson Citizen Assistant City Editor Mark B. Evans’ blog, “Why a Free Press?”
TO LEARN MORE
Transcript of McCain’s speech to the AP
WHAT CLINTON AND OBAMA TOLD, OR DIDN’T TELL, THE EDITORS
Excerpts from Sen. Hillary Clinton’s speech to the annual meeting of The Associated Press:
It is essential that we have you to inform an active citizenry who are the owners and operators of this democracy. . . .
I was recently at an event held by Vital Voices honoring Mariane Pearl whose husband Daniel’s murder is a horrific and tragic reminder of the dangers that journalists increasingly face in the complex and dangerous globe.
So thank you. Thank you for what you’re doing. Thank you also for what you do here at home. There are many stories that have really made a difference. One in particular that I paid a lot of attention to was The Washington Post’s Pulitzer Prize-winning series on the disturbing conditions at Walter Reed. . . .
And once that story broke into public consciousness, the public and the public officials began to respond.
NOTE: Sen. Barack Obama did not discuss the role of the press in society during his speech to The Associated Press.