What politicians teach us about the media: Keep talking

Scott Walker, the governor of Wisconsin and candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, made a little news by describing himself as the “most scrutinized politician in America.”

He’s not the first politician to observe that he’s getting a lot of media attention, and they never make it sound like a good thing. Every president eventually runs into a journalistic saw blade. Richard Nixon, as one example, hated the national reporters who covered him (and they hated him.) Bill Clinton blamed his impeachment, at least in part, on news coverage of his affair with a White House intern. But every president eventually runs into a journalistic saw blade.

Not that the reporting is always at its best. When Jimmy Carter confronted a rabbit swimming toward his rowboat during a fishing trip, the story earned front page headlines across the country. The New York Times ran a Page 1 headline at about two months into Bill Clinton’s first term that read something like: “A failed presidency?”

Sure, reporters point out every flaw and misstep. Theirs is a hyper-exaggerated view of the person they cover and perhaps their expectations aren’t entirely realistic. But is it fair? Well, politicians do sign up for the job. It’s not like media attention is new or unexpected. Back in the days of President John Adams, newspapers were sponsored by political parties and anonymous libels were constantly printed, prompting Adams to pass a law against his press coverage. The Alien and Sedition Acts provided for the arrest of writers and other citizens who spoke in a “false, scandalous and malicious” manner against the government.

Of course, some of the “bad” news coverage is self-inflicted. In March, for instance, Walker suggested that dealing with labor protesters in Wisconsin had given him the experience to handle threats from terrorists, should he become president.

And news coverage can also be sloppy, ill-advised or stupid with no help from the subject of the story. That happens even to those of us who didn’t sign up for political life.

Why does anyone talk to journalists? Mainly because most of the time the coverage is good, and it advances your position. Scott Walker will continue to put himself in front of microphones and cameras because it is the best way for him to become known to voters outside of Wisconsin.

If you have occasion to be the subject of a news article, take the same approach as the politicians: Keep talking. It’s OK to correct mistakes in coverage about you but rarely does it make sense to completely cut a reporter off. In this age of communication, it’s more important to continue the conversation to get your message out.

Paul Steinmetz is the director of Community Relations and Public Affairs for Western Connecticut State University and the principal of Writing Associates, providing publicity and writing services for businesses, institutions and individuals.

About Paul

I grew up in Marin County, California, and moved to Connecticut to join The News-Times, a community newspaper in Danbury where I eventually served as editor for 10 years. I joined Western Connecticut State University and ran the PR and development offices. I now serve as director of community relations and public affairs. I have four kids, all with the same wife, and now run Writing Associates, a consulting service that makes writing easier for my clients.