GOP field running against the media

Media coverage of conservatives is again in the spotlight, with the furor over the treatment of presidential candidate Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) on the “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon” TV show.

Fallon’s house band, The Roots, played a segment of Fishbone’s “Lyin’ Ass Bitch” to accompany Bachmann’s stage entrance Monday night. Bachmann was unaware of the musical reference at the time, but later described the incident as “an outrage” and “clearly a form of bias on the part of the Hollywood entertainment elite.”

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Fallon apologized for the incident via Twitter.

The controversy is the latest in a series of contentious media episodes that have marked the GOP presidential race, from a June Newsweek cover of a heavily photo-shopped Mitt Romney bearing the headline “The Mormon Moment” to the recent coverage of allegations of sexual harassment against Herman Cain.

A number of GOP hopefuls — Bachmann, Cain and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich prominent among them — have responded with head-on attacks on the media. The attacks may be sincere but, experts say, they also have the advantage of having an electoral appeal, at least to the Republican electorate.

“You never lost a vote in a Republican primary by attacking the media,” Robert Lichter, the director of the Center for Media and Public Affairs at George Mason University told The Hill.

This idea is backed up by polls that show significant public sympathy with the idea that the news media is biased against conservatives.

In July, The Hill Poll conducted by Pulse Opinion Research asked about bias, and the results indicated that 46 percent of likely voters felt that the news media generally favored Democrats.

This figure outstripped by more than two-to-one the share of the electorate (22 percent) that believed Republicans were the beneficiaries of media bias.

The relationship between candidates and the media is an unavoidably complex one, however. In this year’s race it seems undeniable that candidates have been more prone to lash out at the media when lagging in the polls, and less likely to do so when riding high.

Bachmann’s response to the Fallon flap, for instance, was in marked contrast to her campaign’s more subdued reaction to a controversial August Newsweek cover which featured an unflattering photo of the candidate above the headline “Queen of Rage.”

At the time, Bachmann was riding high before Iowa’s Ames straw poll, which she subsequently won. When told about the Newsweek cover by an audience member at an event, Bachmann mildly replied, “We’ll have to take a look at that, won’t we?” A campaign spokeswoman later declined to discuss the issue with reporters.

Moving along an opposite trajectory, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich spent much of his time in early debates complaining about the media, lambasting “Mickey Mouse games” and “gotcha questions.” At a recent CNBC debate in Michigan, he got into a testy exchange with moderator Maria Bartiromo about media coverage of the economy.

Yet by last week, sitting close to the top of the polls, Gingrich was strikingly agreeable toward the panel at CNN’s National Security debate in Washington.

“Newt Gingrich is dependent upon the media, and he knows it too,” Ralph Begleiter, director of the Center for Political Communication at the University of Delaware, said. “He can complain about it, but his resurgence has happened, at least in part, because the media have printed his views and covered him.”

Still, Begleiter also acknowledges that the media’s authority has been much-diminished over recent decades. Speaking of the general tendency of this year’s GOP presidential candidates to make a virtue of slamming reporters, he said, “I think a lot of the American people have lost a lot of faith in the media. There is fertile ground for those seeds to fall on.”

Yet there are limits to the media-bashing strategy. The effectiveness of Cain’s attacks upon the press in the wake of the harassment allegations remains open to question.

“If you respond to a tough question or a scandal by just blaming it on the media, you can lose the public,” Lichter said. “The notion that the media are too powerful, too intrusive resonates all across the spectrum — but not necessarily when there is a serious question over your candidacy that you need to answer.”

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Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, meanwhile, has noticeably steered clear of emphatic attacks on the media. His response to the Newsweek “Mormon Moment” flap was muted and he has largely abjured the kind of rhetoric that Gingrich and Bachmann have made stock-in-trade.

“With Romney, very much part of it is that he is thinking [of the] general election, and the target there is the moderate voter,” said Tim Groseclose, a UCLA professor and the author of “Left Turn”, a book about media bias.

There can, Groseclose noted, be a downside to mounting anti-media attacks when it comes to appealing to this broader electorate.

“You can look petty if you seem to be complaining about the media,” he said.