Forget videos, smart politicians still feed the media beast


Frank Bruni’s New York Times column about politicians increasingly using videos to avoid the media’s filter, predictably got a lot of play from the journalist set on Twitter this weekend.

Bruni used Rep. Michele Bachmann’s video announcing her decision not to seek another term as a starting point, but went on to illustrate how this bipartisan trend was recently employed by Anthony Weiner (when he announced his mayoral candidacy) and Hillary Clinton (when she shifted positions on same sex marriage.)

Videos, of course, allow politicians to frame announcements in the most flattering terms possible. They get to control the environment, the music, the lighting, the number of takes, etc. (For this reason, I have previously suggested Republicans should consider releasing a video response to the next State of the Union.)

Politicians also get to avoid having to answer any tough questions. They frame the debate. They control the means of production. And they avoid tough questions.

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But that’s not all, they also control the means of distribution. Not only do politicians no longer need media outlets to film them, they don’t need them to broadcast it, either. (Or rather, because politicians have Twitter to distribute their “announcement” videos, they can safely assume media outlets will have no other option but to broadcast it anyway — or risk being scooped if they decline.)

Bruni might have highlighted the use of video as a means of crisis management, but the trend of bypassing the media is even more pervasive. And this presents a potential problem. The public might not have much sympathy for the press, but media still serve a vital function. Do we really want a world where politicians solely survive on gimmicks and stagecraft and consultants and focus groups who ensure they always appear flawless and say just the right thing?

Rest assured, we’re not there yet. In fact, for now, this temptation is as much a trap or a crutch as it is a luxury. The truth is that pols don’t benefit from being sheltered or from growing “out of touch.” The over-reliance on videos isn’t a sign of technological sophistication, but instead, of a weakened, shy, or vulnerable pol who probably has something to hide.

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There’s another reason politicians should use this technique sparingly, and that is that every time they control their own “news,” they are also missing an opportunity to build a relationship with the press — a relationship that might come in handy later. The news business is competitive, and when a politician grants an exclusive — or even “leak” something important to a journalist — they are helping forge a relationship.

As much as the media has lost influence, it’s still true that politicians need the press. The public is rightly more skeptical of a propaganda video put out by a candidate than of the comments of a presumably unbiased third party. For this reason, newspaper and magazine ads are sometimes made to look like news stories. Smart politicians (more specifically, smart staffs) understand this, and work to dole out stories to reporters they can at least work with. (Note: I realize this old fashioned form press manipulation may be just as unseemly as the alternative, but it at least has the benefit of tradition.)

Being accessible and quotable is still a good way to garner positive press. And the candidates who are effective communicators will thrive in this environment. Sometimes their staffs may even employ a hybrid approach. For example, giving a certain reporter an exclusive to “break” a new ad…

For now, there is no sliver bullet for the politician who wants complete control of his message. He can try to minimize the media, but that’s usually a mistake. Just look at some the conservative stars who have faded over the years as cautionary tales. In the end, the media almost always wins.

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