‘Dialing for dummies” is what campaign pros once called the practice, and it goes like this: As presidential candidates tour the country, their political operatives offer small newspapers and TV stations a chance to interview the would-be presidents.
The reporters -- sometimes awe-struck -- jump at the chance. They get to boast to readers and viewers that they got an “exclusive” with a national figure (even if the interview lasts just five minutes). And the candidates get to send their message into voters’ homes -- often with little or no critical analysis.
Barack Obama and John McCain have made a significant push for local media coverage in recent weeks -- often to loud protests from the big guns from Washington and New York, who got stuck on the plane or bus, demanding face time with the candidates.
It’s tempting to dump all over this seemingly cynical process. But what in presidential campaign coverage isn’t a little cynical or, at least, symbiotic?
After looking at a lot of local news reports this week, I found a fabulously mixed bag. Many small-town reporters allowed the candidates to deliver their message of the day without imposing their own priorities or horse-race histrionics. Imagine that.
Other locals got so caught up in their Moment Alongside Greatness that they embarrassed themselves, gushing all over McCain and Obama.
I’m glad the locals get their shot. They offer a less cynical view that the public might otherwise not receive and focus on issues closer to home. And I’m relieved knowing that the time will come for the national media, which are best positioned to watch the candidates evolve, to demand they explain changes in position and to help set the agenda for the day.
“It’s important to have this cynical, hard-nosed group of national reporters to put those who want to be president to the test,” said Joe Lockhart, a onetime spokesman for President Clinton and a media advisor to other Democrats. “But in Peoria and Albuquerque, reporters have an obligation to report on what the candidate said and to do it that day. That’s good too.”
Since the start of the campaign, Obama has had his share of battles with traveling reporters who felt they were granted too little time to get to know the Democrat.
McCain, on the other hand, helped build his reputation by offering himself to reporters almost without restriction, in 2000 and early in this campaign. So those same reporters seemed dismayed in recent days when the Arizona senator made himself scarce.
National Public Radio’s Scott Horsley reported that a reined-in McCain threatened to damage the presumptive GOP nominee’s image, nurtured over years, as a maverick. Vanity Fair’s Todd Purdum wrote wistfully about the few “flashes of his old wit and friskiness” that shone through McCain’s new, tightly managed persona.
Famine for media’s big names became a small feast for the likes of local newspapers such as the Black Hills Pioneer, which recently offered an uncritical account of McCain’s appearance at the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, the giant annual event in South Dakota.
In the weekly paper’s story, McCain’s bus was “famed” and his support of veterans benefits went unchallenged (though the story did mention opponents’ rally on the issue).
In Philadelphia, an account by Fox 29 News offered McCain an even friendlier platform. Its reporter recounted the candidate’s stop in the suburbs and assured viewers there was “every indication” the Republican would be a “regular visitor” to the area.
The reporter’s biggest favor, however, came when he set up a months-old clip of Obama saying that “bitter” rural Pennsylvania voters sometimes turned to guns and religion for solace. Then the reporter asked McCain to tee off.
The Republican wasted no time, surprise, assuring viewers he understood that Americans who supported churches and the 2nd Amendment were not cynical but “decent, good, honest, wonderful people who love their country and cherish the Constitution of the United States.”
Obama had a couple of reporters competing last week to give him the cushiest ride on their puff-mobiles.
A reporter at WFMJ-TV in Youngstown, Ohio, compared the Democrat’s rally appearance to “a champ standing victorious in the political ring” and signed off: “Sen. Obama’s run for president has the world witnessing history.”
Not to be outdone, a correspondent for the NBC affiliate in Cleveland seemed almost as thrilled by Obama’s stop at a fruit stand as a teenage girl there who told the reporter it was . . . “Crazy!”
A video on the WKYC website shows him using the start of his five-minute interview with Obama to tell the candidate that his last two comments at a town hall were “knock-out-of-the-park fantastic for ya.”
Obama seemed to enjoy the interview.
Not all local interviewers are so unctuous. Take Chad Livengood, who encountered McCain at a June rally in Missouri.
The Springfield News-Leader statehouse reporter heard McCain tout his plan for a gas tax holiday, then concede afterward, in another one of those short interviews, that the proposal had very little chance of making it through Congress.
“He was promising it up on the stage, but behind the scenes he was admitting it wouldn’t go anywhere,” the 25-year-old reporter said.
So Livengood let his readers know about the discrepancy. And his story described how some economists doubted the tax cut would make a significant difference.
Sometimes campaigns dial for dummies and end up reaching sharpies.