To see how the relationship between campaigns and the press is changing, look at recent events in Arkansas politics.
First, there’s Tommy Moll, a Hot Springs businessman who announced on Aug. 19 he was running for Congress in the 4th District as a Republican. He did this via news release, which is not unusual, but when a reporter with the statewide daily asked to speak to him, his spokesman, Peter Somerville, said he was busy talking to supporters that day.
Moll is a 31-year-old political newcomer who at the time was running against two well-known candidates with fancy titles: state House Majority Leader Bruce Westerman, R-Hot Springs, and Lt. Gov. Mark Darr, who has since dropped out of the race because of previous campaign finance violations.
There was a time when a candidate in Moll’s position would have put his grandmother on hold in order to get that precious media attention. Instead, he had other priorities that day. When I asked Somerville about this, he told me that Moll really was very busy and intends to be accessible to the press in the future.
Meanwhile, state Rep. Andy Mayberry, R-Hensley, announced he was running for lieutenant governor at 5:30 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 23. His wife, Julie, announced she was running for the state House of Representatives at the same event.
Late Friday afternoon is considered a news graveyard. The weekend is beginning, and nobody cares about politics. Typically, this is when politicians announce bad news in hopes that it will be forgotten by Monday.
The Mayberrys are as media savvy as any candidates. He was a communications director for the Arkansas Economic Development Commission. She is a former television news anchor. They own an advertising agency and a newspaper.
Asked how they could make such a rookie mistake in the timing of their announcement, he said they had picked the time for a variety of personal and political reasons. It was when they could fit it into everybody’s work schedule and gather all the family together. Meanwhile, they reasoned they would get more mileage by announcing during the graveyard shift than by competing for attention during the middle of the week. In today’s media landscape, he was able to stretch out his announcement well past the weekend, while she spent a couple of days responding to Facebook messages. “End result is that, everywhere I’ve been, people seem to know that I’m running for lieutenant governor,” he said.
What’s the big change here? Candidates once communicated their message in two ways, paid advertising and free media exposure. To get that free exposure, they were at the mercy of a handful of news directors and newspaper editors that they tried to manage through persuasion and manipulation.
News providers, for their part, have been willing to be manipulated. When a provider is under a tight deadline, it can be a relief just to transcribe what a candidate says, get a quote from the other side, paste it on the page, and be done.
The terms of this gentlemen’s agreement are changing. Thanks to the Internet, social media, and the campaign money that comes from all kinds of sources, a candidate like Moll can get his message out without having to rely so much on talking to reporters. And a candidate like Mayberry has more freedom to do things based on his timing, not the media’s.
The press, meanwhile, has more tools at its disposal, and it’s less controlled by a few powerful figures. In fact, it’s hard to define what the “press” is anymore. The campaign of Lt. Gov. Darr that I mentioned a few paragraphs ago? It ended because the violations were discovered and reported by a blog, Blue Hog Report.
That blog wouldn’t have existed not too many years ago, and Darr probably would still be in the race. Things are changing.
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Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.