Media malleability, Part II

Some of the people who responded to my story in this week's Phoenix--which argues that John McCain's decision to run against the press is going to lead to tougher coverage of his campaign--lamented my suggestion that journalists do their jobs differently depending on how they're treated. 

Maybe we shouldn't, but we do. And while James Poniewozik's take on McCain's anti-media strategy is different than mine--he thinks it's going to make the press back off, not get more aggressive--he, too, acknowledges this fact in a new piece:

McCain campaign manager Rick Davis...vowed that Palin would not do interviews until the media "treat her with some level of respect and deference."

Soon after, Palin agreed to her first (and so far only) postnomination TV interview, with ABC's Charles Gibson, who had just blogged that controversies like Palin's husband's membership in a secessionist party and her daughter's pregnancy "are issues of family and should remain so." Deference accomplished!

Since McCain-Palin declared war on the media, some pundits have said running against the press is a loser's strategy. In fact, it would be malpractice not to. Even leaving aside the success of Nixon-Agnew vs. the "nattering nabobs of negativism" and of Bush-Cheney vs. Dan Rather, the most important audience for media-bashing is not voters but the media themselves.

Journalists may not like to admit it, but cowing the media works. Not always, not with everyone, but--with a polarized audience, commercial pressures and constant self-doubt about fairness--it can succeed. It was after Hillary Clinton and SNL accused the media of coddling Obama that coverage of him turned sharp. If you want to amplify your message, make it about the media because the press finds itself the most fascinating subject of all.

Poniewozik ends by referencing media narcissism, but I don't think that's the most important factor; instead, I'd cite the "constant self-doubt" he mentions earlier in that last paragraph. Either way, the basic point remains: for better or worse, the media respond to both carrots and sticks.

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