WASHINGTON — Earlier this month, with the fiscal-cliff fight intensifying and public pressure mounting on Republicans to cave, House Speaker John Boehner prepared to take his case to the American people.
Hoping to change the dynamic of the debate, he armed himself with fresh talking points, a heap of data, and a few well-crafted lines designed to prove to frustrated Americans that House Republicans had their best interests at heart.
Then he called Fox News.
To some Republican strategists and communications operatives, Boehner’s insular media strategy in recent weeks — a smattering of press conferences on Capitol Hill, and a sit-down with Chris Wallace at Fox News Sunday — is emblematic of what one called the GOP’s “choir-preaching problem.”
“He should have blitzed all five Sunday shows, and then done the Today show the next morning. Are you telling me he can’t handle Matt Lauer?” asked veteran conservative media strategist Keith Appell, adding, “He could have maximized his narrative and really driven home the points that resonate with the broader public.”
“This is always a problem for our party,” complained another Republican strategist, citing several candidates he’s worked with over the years. “You get hundreds of [media] invitations, and you go with the one you’re most comfortable with. … We need to be more aggressive.”
As the Grand Old Party looks to convert a new generation of conservatives, some Republican strategists are urging their leaders to start carrying their message to media outlets that aren’t named after a certain bushy-tailed woodland carnivore.
“Fox is great,” Appell said. “But those viewers already agree with us. … I think you have to take the attitude with the media that no one is going to just give you anything; you have to go out there and get it. Whether that’s sitting down with Univision, or BET, or visiting college campuses and doing an interview at each one with student-run media. How else are different demographics going to get to know you if you never reach out to them?”
“The Democrats have been much better at this than we have,” he added.
Aversion to the mainstream press has been an unofficial plank of the Republican Party’s platform for decades, with politicians dating back to Richard Nixon using claims of widespread media bias to whip up supporters, squeeze money from donors, and justify electoral setbacks. And while the narrative was sometimes rooted in legitimate complaints, it was mainly wielded as a political weapon.
This distrust has since been fused into the DNA of conservatism, with one Gallup poll in September finding that just 26% of Republicans trust the mass media “a great deal” or “a fair amount.”
And Republicans have found over the last two decades that they have an increasingly viable alternative for getting their message out. Beginning with Rush Limbaugh’s talk-radio revolution in the ’90s — and followed by the growth of a vibrant conservative blogosphere, and the rise of the Fox News behemoth — conservatives built their own media ecosystem, which includes the top-rated cable network in the country. And given the choice between a sit-down interview with a skeptical newspaper reporter or five minutes of softballs with Sean Hannity, Republican leaders have generally opted for the latter.
But the comfort comes with a catch. As operatives are increasingly realizing, many of these outlets have limited reach beyond the fervent Republican base, and the talking points politicians declaim often resonate only in the conservative echo chamber.
One Republican official recalled working earlier this year to get a potentially damaging story about a Democratic candidate into The New York Times — only to have an impatient colleague leak the scoop to a conservative website. The story shot through the online right, but failed to gain mainstream traction.
“I was like, great, we made the people who were already voting for us even angrier,” the official snarked to BuzzFeed. “Mission accomplished.”
Marco Rubio is frequently cited by strategists as a conservative star who seems to inherently understand the need to court new media outlets. During the four-day Republican National Convention, for example, the Florida senator sat for two interviews with Univision, and one with Black Entertainment Television’s news anchor Ed Gordon. He’s also done two separate interviews with The Daily Show on Comedy Central, and he was the first major political figure to make the trek to BuzzFeed’s New York headquarters earlier this year.
“Americans get their news from a wide range of sources these days, so you can’t limit your engagement to a limited number of media,” said Rubio press secretary Alex Conant. “Sen. Rubio is a conservative who happens to speak fluent Spanish, which opens up a lot of Hispanic media opportunities.”
But elsewhere in the party, the progress is slow going. David Scott, vice president of news for BET, said his network made “many efforts to cover both sides of the political aisle,” this year and that “more often than not, our overtures to the GOP were rebuffed.”
“Governor Romney declined several invitations to appear and speak directly to our audience throughout the campaign,” Scott said. “Sadly, that is one reflection of the great distance the Republican Party needs to travel to modernize. The outcome of the election gives the GOP the crisis it needs to act, and one would hope it will take that opportunity to reach out to more media outlets like ours.”
Some Republicans, like Senator John McCain, are still mainstream media regulars. A few even engage with the new online liberal media. When failed Republican presidential nominee Jon Huntsman gave an interview to The Huffington Post — a site that started as a liberal blog hub, but which has grown to be a major online news organization — the move was widely mocked by conservatives on Twitter, who saw it as yet another betrayal by an insufferable RINO.
Huffington Post political editor Sam Stein pushed back against that meme.
“The Huffington Post does have a very broad audience that can’t really be pigeonholed ideologically, or, for that matter, geographically. A large chunk of our readers, for example, come from outside the DC–NY corridor,” Stein told BuzzFeed. “More generally, I think politicians do gain from engaging beyond their political comfort zones.”
Republican operatives endorse a range of solutions to the party’s choir-preaching problem. Some argue live television hits are the answer because conservatives can drive home their message without it being filtered by biased reporters. Others are holding out hope that social media will spare them the hassle of confronting aggressive reporters by landing their friendly interviews on Facebook pages across the ideological spectrum.
But the answer may just be good old-fashioned outreach — and there are signs in some corners that the conservative grassroots could get on board.
In a radio interview last week, conservative activist Rebecca Diserio worried that Republicans treating the press as the enemy had become a “self-fulfilling prophecy.”
“And you know, people have talked about outreach,” she went on. “We need to outreach to the Hispanic community, we need to outreach to the black community. Well, how about this? We need to outreach to the MSM community.”