Surviving the media primary

More than two months before the first votes are cast in Iowa and New Hampshire, an important primary is actually going on right now. Call it the Media Primary, and it is playing a major role in determining the eventual Republican nominee.

This primary takes place every election cycle. Whenever a candidate starts to emerge from the pack, he or she is subjected to heightened press scrutiny. Some survive, many don’t, and that’s healthy for the democratic process. If you cannot win the Media Primary, you probably would not make a very good president.

Take Gary Hart, the former Colorado senator who was a leading candidate for the Democratic nomination in 1988. Asked about his reputation for extramarital flings, Hart replied: “Follow me around. I don’t care. ... They’ll be very bored.” When The Miami Herald did follow him, the paper uncovered Hart’s relationship with a young woman and torpedoed his campaign. Did voters need to know about Hart’s recklessness and lack of judgment? Clearly, yes.

As Mark McKinnon, a former media adviser to George Bush the Younger, told The Washington Post: “You cannot fake it at this level. It is designed to expose your flaws. The process of running for president is brutal. It strips you naked and runs you through the streets.”

Another version of the Media Primary emerges when an unfamiliar figure is nominated for vice president. (See Palin, Sarah.) Katie Couric’s questions and Tina Fey’s impersonations did more to sink Palin in 2008 than anything else.

The media must play fair and put both Democrats and Republicans under the microscope. Barack Obama certainly enjoyed favorable coverage during his campaign three years ago, but journalists have made up for that since. A recent study by the Pew Research Center shows that Obama has received the “greatest proportion of negative coverage” of any candidate this year.

In fact, Obama has lately been criticizing the press as a way of deflecting that negative coverage, a tactic usually employed by conservative Republicans like Palin. In a recent email to campaign supporters, his finance director, Rufus Gifford, objected to a newspaper story that said small donors were “slow to return to the Obama fold.”

“Sometimes the media gets so caught up in its own echo chamber that the story line separates from the facts,” Gifford complained. He advised supporters to pay no attention to “the inside-the-beltway media circus, or what the pundits are predicting.”

That “media circus” is far from perfect, and it can pump up a trivial incident or personality simply to generate controversy and attract eyeballs (see Trump, Donald). But it’s been doing a better job lately on the Republican candidates, such as Texas Gov. Rick Perry.

Once he entered the race and rose in the polls, The Washington Post assigned a reporter to dig into Perry’s past, and published a lengthy story documenting how Perry’s family had leased a hunting camp with a vile racial slur painted on a rock at the camp’s entrance. Was that sign an important part of Perry’s background? Absolutely.

Now it is Herman Cain’s turn. Within hours after he identified a Cleveland man, Rich Lowrie, as his chief economic adviser, journalists reported that Lowrie had an undergraduate degree in accounting and was not actually an economist. The Associated Press documented Cain’s ties to a secretive organization financed by two very wealthy and conservative brothers, Charles and David Koch.

The Washington Post “Fact Checker” column analyzed Cain’s 9-9-9 tax plan and concluded, “While on paper Cain is promising a tax cut, in reality, tens of millions of lower-income Americans would face tax increases.” It called his description of the plan “highly misleading” and awarded Cain three Pinocchios (on a scale of four) for inaccurate statements. Under questioning on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Cain had to admit that “some people will pay more” under his plan. His answers to other questions were so weak that the Post described him as having a “know nothing” foreign policy.

“Saturday Night Live” also weighed in, with an actor playing Cain saying that “I never thought I would be taken seriously” as a candidate. He then offered a “5-5-5 plan” for dealing with terrorism and a “3-3-3 plan” for health care: three pills, three days off and three bowls of chicken noodle soup.

Funny, but serious. Voters need vital information before they make choices in a real primary – about the character, the judgment, the experience, the honesty of the candidates who want their support. Without the Media Primary, they would not have that information.

Steve and Cokie’s new book, “Our Haggadah,” was published this year by HarperCollins. Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by email at

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