Bad press: What lawmakers do when they don’t like what the media say about them

Rep. Brad Ellsworth (D-Ind.) stared down at his BlackBerry while walking toward the Capitol for a House vote. A reporter broke his concentration to ask how he reacts to news articles about him that aren’t favorable.

“I’m reading [one] right now as I walk,” he said. It was a letter to the editor about his vote on the federal budget.

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“I haven’t read the whole thing; it says something about ‘failing miserably,’ ” he said.

Members of Congress read their names in print and on the Internet every day. One day a lawmaker may enjoy a glowing story about a legislative victory or successful political tactic, and the next he could face a write-up about a slip of the tongue or inconsistent policy position. And some articles botch the facts — from the lawmaker’s point of view, at least. The positive stories are easy to swallow, but a news report a Congress member deems “bad press” can needle him in a variety of ways.

Several lawmakers recognize they all take turns in the media spotlight and doghouse, and many have learned to let critical news stories roll off their backs.

But that doesn’t mean some members don’t get upset, fight back or devise tactics to cope with media exposure they consider negative.

“Everybody has a right to their own opinion,” Ellsworth said as he continued to read the harsh letter to the editor on his BlackBerry. “I think your skin does get thicker with time.”

Rep. John Hall (D-N.Y.) remembers the days when his skin wasn’t nearly as thick as it is now. He recalls getting agitated by being called a “limousine liberal” and hippie-turned-politician in the press when he first ran for public office in 1989. He has since become more resilient, he says, and he also credits his previous career as a professional musician for his even-keeled approach to news stories written about him.

“I come from the music business,” says the former Orleans band member, “where one day you’re declared the next best thing … and the next day, you’re declared over.”

Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.) admits he doesn’t have a particularly thick skin when it comes to bad press — “Not for this business,” he says.

Kennedy says during campaign season, the staffer driving him to and from events is in charge of keeping the radio off of news talk shows criticizing the congressman so he doesn’t get flustered “and want to call into the show that’s lambasting me.”

Both Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) and Rep. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.) say they mostly ignore bad press, but they have taken action against newspapers with which they’ve had run-ins.

Burr remembers taking a $10,000 ad out against the Raleigh, N.C. News & Observer a few years ago because he says editors changed a letter to the editor he submitted.

Lummis says she “rarely gets angry about bad press,” but she canceled her subscription to the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle because “it is so relentless in its criticism that I no longer subscribe to it or read it.”

“That’s the only medium I don’t even read,” she says. “I do want to know what the press is saying about me.”

Her rule, though, is that if an article makes her upset, she doesn’t call the reporter or editor while she’s angry.

“I wait until later so I don’t say something I’ll regret,” Lummis says.

Lawmakers aren’t the only people who have to bear the brunt of bad press. Press secretaries are almost always on the case, too, and many of them have their own experiences with and philosophies on dealing with unfavorable media coverage.

“I think it depends on the member [of Congress],” says one House Democratic press secretary who has worked for several lawmakers. “Some members, you want them to read every little thing because it acts as a good learning tool. You can say, ‘When you’re not on message, this is what can happen.’ ”

The press secretary also says part of his job is helping lawmakers manage their expectations of what constitutes good press or bad press.

“Some that I’ve worked for believe that if a story is fantastic, it’s on message, but [if] the senator’s quote is higher than the member’s quote, this is bad press and we should ice the reporter,” he says.

Megan Mitchell, Rep. John Culberson’s (R-Texas) communications director, has a simple philosophy about the press her boss gets: “I show my boss the good, the bad and the ugly. I think an informed member is in a much better place than an uninformed member.”

But one Senate Democratic press secretary says an uninformed lawmaker isn’t all bad, either.

Her boss “doesn’t have a computer or know what the Internet is, so that’s helpful” in keeping the senator from reading every last blog rant or unfavorable Internet mention.

She does show her boss nearly all of the pertinent clips from the traditional press, especially because the senator “gets up at the crack of dawn and reads four or five newspapers anyway,” she says.

The Senate press secretary also worked for a member of the House, and in both bosses, she sees a “healthy distrust” of the media.

“I think that comes from a career of being bitten in one way or another,” she says.

Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) has learned to take any perceived media “bites” as part of his job.

“If it’s because I don’t like the story, I just tend to deal with it,” he says.

And Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) has found a solution that has thus far served him well.

“The best way to get two bad stories written about you,” he says, “is to complain about the first one.”