Now In Need, Romney Welcomes Media

Dec 11, 2011
Originally published on December 13, 2011 7:41 am

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has a newfound eagerness to talk to reporters — some of them, at least.

To hear Romney tell it, you'd think he had always welcomed the press corps.

"You're going to see me all over the country, particularly in early primary states," Romney said last week to Fox News host Neil Cavuto. "I'll be on TV — I'll be on Fox a lot because you guys matter when it comes to Republican primary voters. I want them to hear my message and have an opportunity to make their choice."

Off Mic, On Script

Last week, Romney was as good as his word, popping up on Fox several times. ABC interviewed him Saturday. Next week he'll appear on Fox's Sunday public affairs show. And, yes, there have been a lot of debates.

But until the last week or so, Romney had made himself awfully scarce.

"I understand their mindset: They look at the rest of the field, saying, 'None of these bozos can beat us,' " says John Feehery, a Republican communications consultant. "But you never know — stranger things have happened — and you can't play not to lose, but you play to win."

Romney has appeared on many conservative radio talk shows. This fall, however, he routinely shut out reporters on the trail, preferring to deliver carefully honed messages at tightly controlled forums.

In the four weeks between Oct. 11 and Nov. 7, Romney did exactly zero interviews with the national press corps, according to his aides. The New York Times Magazine and Time Magazine both did cover stories on Romney without any help from the candidate.

For much of the fall, Romney has just watched as his rivals self-destruct in public view. Take, for example, Texas Gov. Rick Perry during that now infamous debate where he could not recall all three of the government agencies he would get rid of.

There was also Herman Cain on CNN, vainly trying to keep his lead in the polls while saying that someone was going to come forward and accuse him of having a long-term affair. Ultimately, that allegation, along with others regarding sexual harassment, led Cain to suspend his campaign.

As for the thrice-married Newt Gingrich, he would hardly resonate with cultural-conservative voters, would he? Actually, he would. He's been clobbering Romney in the polls.

Giving Media A Shot

In late November, after meeting privately with Fox News executives, Romney surfaced several times on the network. Then he sat down with Fox political anchor Bret Baier.

"There's videotape of you going back years speaking about different issues: climate change, abortion, immigration, gay rights," Baier said to Romney. "How can voters trust what they hear from you today is what you will believe if you win the White House?"

The interview went downhill from there.

Melinda Henneberger, a veteran political reporter for The Washington Post, says Romney couldn't wait any longer.

"His interview with Bret Baier was a complete disaster, and he [has] to show that he's not so brittle," she says.

Henneberger says that earlier reserve has probably cost Romney.

"People who talk and think a lot of about the so-called 'liberal media bias' fail to take into adequate account that our greatest temptation is not an ideological bias," she says. "It's a personal, human bias of rewarding people and candidates who are nice to us."

Despite changes in how campaigns are waged, and despite his desire for a tightly controlled message, it turns out Romney still needs media exposure. So far, his new recipe appears heavy on Fox — with a dash of the rest.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From time to time, we check in with NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik for the News Tip. It's a look at what's happening in the media world. And this week, David has a report on Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney's newfound eagerness to talk to reporters, at least some of them.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: To hear Romney tell it, you'd think he had always welcomed the press corps. Here he spoke last week to Fox News host Neal Cavuto.

MITT ROMNEY: You're going to see me all over the country, particularly in early primary states. I'll be on TV. I'll be on Fox a lot, 'cause you guys matter when it comes to Republican primary voters. I want them to hear my message and have an opportunity to make their choice.

FOLKENFLIK: Last week, Romney was as good as his word, popping up on Fox several times. ABC interviewed him yesterday. Next week, he'll appear on Fox's Sunday "Public Affairs" show.

And yes, there have been a lot of debates. But until the last week or so, Mitt Romney had made himself awfully scarce.

JOHN FEEHERY: I understand their mindset, you know, they look at the rest of the field and they say, well, none of these bozos can beat us.

FOLKENFLIK: John Feehery is a Republican communications consultant.

FEEHERY: But you know, you never know.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FEEHERY: Stranger things have happened and can't, you know, play not to lose; you have to play to win.

FOLKENFLIK: Romney has appeared on many conservative radio talk shows. But this fall he routinely shut out reporters on the trail, preferring to deliver carefully-honed messages at tightly controlled forums. In the four weeks between October 11th and November 7th, Romney did exactly no interviews with the national press corps, according to his aides. The New York Times magazine and Time magazine both did cover stories on Romney without any help from the candidate But why wouldn't he hold back? For much of the fall, Romney has just watched as his rivals self-destructed in public view. Take Rick Perry during that now infamous debate.

GOVERNOR RICK PERRY: It's three agencies of government when I get there that are gone - commerce education and the - what's the third one there, let's see.

FOLKENFLIK: And Herman Cain on CNN, vainly trying to keep his lead in the polls.

HERMAN CAIN: This individual is going to accuse me of an affair for an extended period of time. I don't want to specify because I don't know what's in the story.

FOLKENFLIK: And the thrice-married Newt Gingrich - he would hardly resonate with cultural conservative voters. Would he? Actually, he would. He's been clobbering Romney in the polls. So, in late November, after meeting privately with Fox News executives, Romney surfaced several times on the network. Then he sat down with Fox political anchor, Bret Baier.

BRET BAIER: There's videotape of you going back years speaking about different issues - climate change, abortion, immigration, gay rights. How can voters trust what they hear from you today is what you will believe if you win the White House?

ROMNEY: Well, Bret, your list is just not accurate. So, one, we'll have to be better informed...

FOLKENFLIK: It went downhill from there.

ROMNEY: Well, I'm glad that the Democratic ads are breaking through and you guys at Fox are seeing it.

FOLKENFLIK: And downhill some more.

ROMNEY: Bret, I don't know how many hundred times I've said this too - this is a unusual interview. All right. Let's do it again.

FOLKENFLIK: Melinda Henneberger is a veteran political reporter for the Washington Post. She says Romney couldn't wait any longer.

MELINDA HENNEBERGER: His interview with Bret Baier was a complete disaster and he's got to show that he's not so brittle.

FOLKENFLIK: And Henneberger says that earlier reserve has probably cost Romney.

HENNEBERGER: People who talk and think a lot of about the so-called liberal media bias fail to take into adequate account that our greatest temptation is not an ideological bias, it's a personal human bias of rewarding of people and candidates who are nice to us.

FOLKENFLIK: One other point: don't let reporters kid you that they're the ones who care about substance. Here's the first three questions Fox's Carl Cameron asked Romney last week - all about political tactics.

CARL CAMERON: Suddenly you're trailing in just everywhere but New Hampshire. What happened? Talk to us a little bit about how you and your supporters discuss the Gingrich momentum. Some of your supporters have suggested that you haven't been aggressively enough with Newt directly.

FOLKENFLIK: Despite changes in how campaigns are waged, despite his desire for a tightly-controlled message, it turns out Romney still media exposure. So far, his new recipe appears heavy on Fox with a dash of the rest. David Folkenflik, NPR News.

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CORNISH: You can check our News Tip feature and send us your questions and comments on the media at NPR.org/TheNewsTip - all one word. You can also follow us on Twitter: @DavidFolkenflik and @NPRAudie.

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CORNISH: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.