Can you win the White House without the media?
We know you can win the White House while beating up on the media, as a certain former Republican president proved. But can you go all the way by ignoring the media?
My gut instinct is no. But for the first time in the modern era, the answer might be yes.
At this point, we don’t even know whether Ron DeSantis will challenge Trump for the nomination. But that didn’t stop the New York Times from analyzing whether he can insulate himself from the national media as tightly as he has as Florida governor.
Let’s play along, as it’s an interesting intellectual exercise.
In a primary, of course, it’s easier for a GOP candidate to favor a few right-wing outlets and cater to the base, which pretty much despises the press anyway. DeSantis once held a news conference to bash “60 Minutes” for what I thought was a flawed and unfair piece about the governor and Covid.
As I wrote at the time, DeSantis said the Publix supermarket chain was the only outlet ready to vaccinate people in Palm Beach County – and that this had nothing to do with the supermarket chain earlier donating $100,000 to his PAC. What’s more, when a CBS reporter confronted him (he had refused to do an interview), DeSantis lectured her – and the program refused to use most of his sound bite. What’s more, the county’s Democratic mayor called the story intentionally false.
At other times, DeSantis and his office simply barred the local reporters and outlets they dislike from covering his public events. Again, I can give a little speech about the importance of a free press in a democracy. But few tears will be shed in a GOP contest.
In case there was any lack of clarity, Christine Pushaw, a longtime DeSantis communications aide, said last fall of the media: “They hate you, they hate us, they hate everything that we stand for, and I believe they hate this country.” Guess we can’t put her down as a maybe.
Ah, but then we get to a general election. And our presumed nominee, who posed in a flight suit as “Top Gov,” taking on the “corporate media,” can’t get elected just by doing some hits with Fox News and his favorite podcasts.
The Times piece strongly suggests he has to reach people who don’t watch Fox, given that elections are won by persuading suburban and independent voters. And if he’s the nominee, DeSantis will be called chicken, and worse, for ducking the fourth estate.
But for the first time, there are many channels – from Instagram to Snapchat to YouTube – for a candidate to blast out his own message, his own persona, his own carefully crafted videos.
Remember when Joe Biden, in 2020, went months without an actual news conference – and his supporters didn’t seem to care? It’s easy to rationalize when you like the candidate.
Of course, you have to find ways to introduce yourself as a candidate, especially when you’ve never run for anything north of Tallahassee. But the slice of independent-minded voters who can swing elections seems thinner than ever, and spread across a tiny number of states.
This has been a long-running battle in Florida. At the start of the pandemic in 2020, a Miami Herald staffer was barred from a press conference about the coronavirus.
In 2021, Pushaw ripped an Associated Press story and told her followers to “drag them.” She said she would put the AP reporter “on blast” if he didn’t change the story, and the journalist drew online threats. Twitter suspended Pushaw’s account, though she insisted that “drag them” was just slang and not a threat.
But here’s a crucial distinction. Despite Trump’s constant war of words with the media, which he has branded the “enemy of the people,” most folks forget that he provided unprecedented access, both as a 2016 candidate and during his four-year term. Remember, he gave 18 tape-recorded interviews to Bob Woodward, who later released them as a book.
Barely a day went by when Trump wouldn’t stop and take multiple questions by the helicopter, or after Oval Office pool sprays. He would often denounce the questioners, or call their outlets fake news, but the paradox is he was incredibly accessible as president – much more so than Biden – and that continued with a spate of post-presidential book interviews with the likes of Maggie Haberman and others with whom he had sparred.
I’ve said for a long time that when a presidential candidate does well in a confrontational interview, he’s showing he can hit major-league pitching. Ignoring the media may feel good, but it deprives a politician of a chance to test his mettle on the big stage.