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Vitter success signals further loss of media influence

In his quest for reelection, Sen. David Vitter took a page from the Gov. Bobby Jindal playbook, the wisdom of which was demonstrated yet again in last night’s only widely-televised, major-party only forum between just the Republican and his Democrat challenger Rep. Charlie Melancon.

When nearly 3½ years ago Vitter found it politically necessary to admit publicly to a “serious sin,” believed related to a prostitution ring, he knew it could wreck his political career unless he could persuade a majority of the voting public to view the situation as a temporary deviation from the past which he now genuinely regretted and would not repeat, relying on the people’s approval of his record and issue preferences and their willingness to empathize with the battle to overcome sin. His problem was that this interpretation was threatened to be swamped by political opponents who would fixate only on the incident, aided and abetted by media channels knowing scandal draws consumers, or who disliked Vitter, or both.

His fellow Republican Jindal to a degree at that time was following a similar strategy during his run for the governorship. Jindal’s campaign knew the state’s media as a whole did not want to see a conservative like him elected to office so the organization put a lot of effort into direct communication with voters instead of passively relying on the media to relay fairly his issue preferences and assessments about him as politician. It paid off with Jindal’s election a few months later and served as a template for Vitter’s damage control.

Thus, Vitter’s campaign concentrated on raising much money, having won the backing of enough supporters who would forgive his behavior and respond to what they saw as a sincere repentance and agreed with his issue preferences and record in office. This enabled him to buy enough communication channeling to get out his broader message. At the same time, it allowed him to ignore in large part the media news sector since with these resources he did not have to depend on it with fidelity to allow his message out, much less shill for him as it might do for some other candidates. So, Vitter got out of the business of giving interviews and became very selective in answering questions in impromptu sessions, thinking otherwise the media comparatively would mention little of his story and concentrate on its own presumably different narrative, shared by his opponents.

Next week, it looks to pay off for Vitter and we are none the worse for it. Because Vitter said little directly to the media since his revelation has done nothing to reduce the onslaught of information we have about him, his record, and his policies, from him and his detractors. His office still cranked out press releases, his remarks in the Senate and in committee were reported here and there, and he met with constituents and had “town hall” meetings over the phone (although randomness in selection of those to participate in these meetings was not a criterion), providing plenty of information dissemination. Oddly unreported by the media was that his opponent Melancon did exactly the same things for months during and after the debate over health care legislation that he facilitated, and Melancon spent millions trying to create his own narrative about Vitter full of character assassination and distortion, so it cannot be said, with all of this and what appeared as news in the media, that Vitter’s strategy deprived voters of any necessary information about the campaign.

But, as identified right from the time Vitter spoke up, it did deprive the media of the two things they want more badly than anything else, data by which to shape stories and maintaining the perception that they are relevant. You must understand that it’s not just that the media dislike this strategy, it offends them, the suggestion that they cannot get information they seek for their own purposes and that they don’t matter. This is why to many in the media it’s not that they only dislike Vitter’s issue preferences but that they also have personal grudges against him because he is denying them what they think is rightfully theirs. Vitter knows this, and knows therefore they won’t go out of their way to disseminate his campaign message at the expense of their different narrative.

Reporting of last night’s debate confirms Vitter’s assessment. For example, one report about Vitter’s criticism of the spending bill in early 2009 that Melancon supported noted “Vitter said the stimulus, which financed infrastructure projects, cut taxes for 95 percent of taxpayers and provided aid to state governments, a failure that has not lived up to its promise of creating jobs or ‘saving’ existing ones.” Two statements in that characterization were false yet were presented as fact.

First, there was only a one-time tax rebate in the bill, not any permanent tax cut as is implied. And if the reporter had anything more than surface knowledge about the issue or enough initiative to understand the issue further, she would have known that tax rebates are almost totally ineffective in providing any kind of economic stimulus. Second, the article implies that a significant portion of the $862 billion in the spending bill went to infrastructure. In fact, almost none of it did, less than one percent while almost all spending in it ended up as transfer payments. Again, a more knowledgeable and/or less lazy reporter would have known these things and not merely parroted the common refrain repeated in the newsroom.

Nor did this report accurately describe Melancon’s actions. Concerning spending restraint, it noted “Melancon cited his support for congressional "pay-go" rules that say any new tax cut or spending proposal has to be offset by a corresponding cut elsewhere,” without ever revealing that many Democrats including Melancon routinely violated PAYGO in the past four years to allow favored spending by them, including for the spending bill and that it’s a sham in any event because so much spending is not covered by it.

Not all coverage of Vitter’s campaign has been so shoddy (this article provides a more balanced approach to the same debate) but it does validate Vitter’s suspicion that his message would receive short shrift in the traditional media and vindicates his strategy. And the success he will enjoy only will encourage future politicians, aided by ever-evolving technology that makes this easier to accomplish, to concentrate further on direct outreach to the citizenry at the expense of the news media which will aggravate those in it further as they realize the influence they believe is ordained to be theirs over politics continues to erode.


Mr. Harris Plutocrat said...

Is it me or did our professor of politics just endorse politicians to avoid the press, issue press releases and basically just lob character attacks from deep within the cave of fundamentalism? Can you imagine Lincoln on such a path? Teddy Roosevelt? You neocons love your sheltered fundamentalists, avoiding journalists and sticking to Pravda-outlets.

Regardless, I love the Heritage link and completely simpleton blanket statement about tax rebates providing economic stimulus. Economists around the world agreed on the stimulus in the context, but you people opposed it ONLY because Obama supported it. That’s your whole policy, do the opposite of Obama, and draw on your think tanks to procure a few sturdy-looking graphs for effect. Taking economic advice from the likes of you is like taking abstinence advice from Snooki.

Jonathan Sadow said...

Jeff, here in Texas Rick Perry followed the same strategy as did Vitter. In fact, he did Vitter one better: he refused to participate in any debates because his Democratic opponent Bill White wouldn't release his tax returns from his days serving as an assistant Secretary of Energy in the Clinton administration. His interaction with the media came in the form of a couple of one-on-one interviews, and that was it. Most of his messaging strategy was through social networking media and Internet advertising, to the extent that his campaign didn't give out free yard signs or bumper stickers (you could buy them from the campaign if you wished) - and he still smashed the Democrats' Great White Hope by 700,000 votes.

This is a sensible strategy moving forward for conservatives. The previous commenter incorrectly thinks that the mainstream media is an impartial dispenser of information. In fact, as is the case for Vitter in Louisiana, the mainstream media in Texas by and large despise Perry and his ideology and have attempted to do everything within their power to damage his candidacy and promote his opponents. There's no reason for Vitter, Perry, or other conservatives to kowtow to the mainstream media, given the fact that the media long ago abandoned their role as honest brokers and today are little more than partisan cheerleaders.