Trend: Political staffers ‘working the refs’ on Twitter

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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As the defund ObamaCare debate has further aggravated the schism on the right, it’s hard to ignore a growing phenomenon: More and more political staffers are taking to Twitter to push back at journalists.

Take, for example, Sen. Mike Lee’s communications director Brian Phillips, who has been actively reaching out to journalists. Here’s one example of his Twitter interaction with David Drucker of the Washington Examiner.

Or take Sen. Ted Cruz’s speechwriter and senior communications advisor Amanda Carpenter, who has been actively pushing back at opinion leaders who disagree with the defund strategy. Just this morning, when MSNBC host Joe Scarborough tweeted a Wall Street Journal editorial (which compared the defund strategy to charging into “fixed bayonets”), Carpenter responded:

These are just two of the many examples I could cite. And it’s not just Senate staffers. Conservative outside groups are also actively using Twitter to push back at anyone who disagrees with their strategy.

This has been going on for a while, of course. But things seem to have been taken do a different level, and one gets the sense this is one of the many changes ushered in by a new generation of politicians who — to paraphrase what Tucker Carlson said last night on “Special Report” — understand the value of celebrity in a way that traditional politicians never will.

A few thoughts about this trend …

On one hand, this shows a keen understanding of the current media milieu. If journalists are on Twitter, then shouldn’t spinmeisters also be there? And if journalists are no longer encumbered by filing deadlines and editors, shouldn’t operatives match their speed and push back in real time? One imagines this is much more effective than faxing out a press release.

But it’s also fraught with danger. It’s hard enough for politicians to maintain message discipline, let alone worry about what their state director said (publicly) to some reporter. When staffers are also empowered to Tweet, they are also empowered to commit high-profile gaffes. (Just ask the communications chair of the Democratic Party of Sacramento County.)

It’s also possible that too much poking and prodding will create a backlash, angering journalists who would otherwise be friendly. When you email a reporter or call him up to yell at him, it is at least done in private. But, in baseball parlance, this is tantamount to “showing up” a ref in front of your home crowd. There is a fine line between “working the refs” and picking a fight with people who buy paper by the ton.

Regardless of whether or not this is a wise communications strategy, I think consumers of political information need to realize these folks are not unbiased observers. They are paid political operatives whose job is not to enlighten the public, but rather, to advance a message for their boss.

Now, there is nothing inherently dishonorable about this. Political work can be perfectly noble. But, as always, readers should consider the source. Caveat emptor.

*Notes: Matt Lewis and Amanda Carpenter were formerly colleagues at Matt Lewis’ wife formerly worked as a consultant for Ted Cruz.

Matt K. Lewis