You don’t have to charm the press to win the presidency.
But it doesn’t hurt.
And that’s why Chris Christie is such a fascinating case study in massaging the media.
Mounting a White House campaign can be overwhelming, and pols who are accustomed only to the modest scrutiny visited on governors and senators are often blinded by the searing spotlight.
Bill Clinton got gentle treatment from the Little Rock press corps, but in 1992 was hit by the national media over Whitewater, Gennifer Flowers and avoiding the draft. But he didn’t hide from the press—I remember being on a late-night campaign flight where he talked and talked to a group of reporters, some of whom just wanted to catch some shut-eye but were afraid of missing something.
John McCain spent eight or nine hours a day fielding questions from journalists on his bus in 2000, to the point where we sometimes ran out of material and wound up talking about movies and sports.
That same year, George W. Bush, in his compassionate conservative phase, enjoyed chatting with his media regulars and bestowed nicknames on many of them.
Mitt Romney, by contrast, avoided his press corps, seemed uncomfortable around reporters, and ran a campaign that often ignored journalistic questions. That was a missed opportunity for a challenger.
Look for Christie, assuming he runs in 2016, to passionately engage with the media (as you might have guessed when he did four Sunday shows after winning reelection). That engagement will sometimes be contentious, but chances are it will never be dull.
The best way to get a sense of how Christie’s approach to the media is to examine how he deals with New Jersey reporters. Matt Katz, who now covers the governor for WNYC and New Jersey Public Radio, lifts the curtain for Politico:
“The local reporters get our own unique treatment—revealing, off-the-record, end-of-summer beers at Jersey Shore bars and profanity-infused Christmas party conversations at the governor’s mansion. But we also get our own unique abuse: We know what it’s like to be put in the ‘penalty box,’ as Christie calls it, briefly shut out from the inner circle for writing something Team Christie hates. And we’ve all been dressed down in State House hallways by Christie’s chief spokesman, Michael Drewniak, an expert at channeling his boss’s fury.
“Christie likes to tell crowds at press conferences that I must have pissed someone off at the Philadelphia Inquirer to get the Christie beat, but he’s lying. He knows he fulfilled his promise from that first day we met: ‘We’re going to do our best to keep you entertained.’”
In diary form, Katz recalls what Christie said at the 2011 presser when he announced he wouldn’t be running for president:
“The only regret I have is that I’ve given such great TV exposure to some of the local reporters. I mean, who’s gonna have Katz on TV now that I’m out of this race? Nobody is gonna have Katz on TV. He won’t be able to get on News 12 for God’s sake.”
A savvy pol plays off his press corps, and Christie is no exception:
“Christie uses reporters the same way comedians use those in the front rows at stand-up shows. The back-and-forth amuses him, amuses his staff, amuses us (sometimes). We also act as his foil, tossing the alley-oops for the sound bites that land on the gubernatorial YouTube channel. The clips are emailed to every political reporter in America and likely a few county Republican chairs in Iowa…
“My biggest competition is not other reporters; it is the man himself. He is his own news outlet.”
There is a downside to this approach, of course. A man who is his own news outlet risks overexposure. The more he’s sparring with reporters, the greater the chance that he will say something dumb, creating a YouTube moment that he wouldn’t want on his channel. And there’s a chance his argumentative style may not wear well.
On the other hand, we’re guaranteed to be entertained.
The Michelle Obama “Nightmare” Debate
In the continuing fallout over Politico Magazine’s “How Michelle Obama Became a Feminist Nightmare,” Keli Goff has something to say.
“1) Most people genuinely don’t read articles online anymore. Period. They read the title. And believe that is enough on which to base an argument…
Not only did I not have anything to do with the “Feminist Nightmare” title, neither did the article’s author Michelle Cottle. She didn’t pick it, nor did she approve of it. Blame her bosses and well…yourself. Many of you clicked on the piece, talked about it, argued about it and tweeted about it because of the title. How do I know? Because I’ve previously made the same arguments in columns without that title and don’t recall any of you weighing in on those. Which brings me to number 2…
“2) It is genuinely troubling that minority publications are so devalued in the political and media world. I’ve published multiple columns on Michelle Obama on The Root reiterating the same arguments as The Politico piece and received nary a peep from anyone. But apparently because the arguments were published in Politico they became worthy of mainstream debate. Good to know if you are minority writer and want to be taken seriously by mainstream media (and apparently high level supporters of the Obama administration) you need a white writer at a white publication to make the case for you.
“3) It is also troubling that apparently most media outlets are no longer interested in legitimate debate. It was brought to my attention this weekend that a number of progressive publications framed the Politico piece as a bunch of white feminists attacking the first lady. First off, legitimate criticism is not an attack. Second, I don’t know how bad some of these people’s eyesight is, but I’m not white.”
There can be no debate about that one.
Anchorman Does Dakota
This might be the biggest thing ever to happen to KXMB in Bismarck, N.D.: Will Farrell sitting in to anchor the local news. If you like that sort of thing.
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Howard Kurtz is a Fox News analyst and the host of "MediaBuzz" (Sundays 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. ET). He is the author of five books and is based in Washington. Follow him at @HowardKurtz. Click here for more information on Howard Kurtz.