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Reince Priebus’ threat to ‘liberal’ media

August 7, 2013

By Jack Craver 

51f7ece8d5c46.preview-300In 2007, a number of Democratic presidential hopefuls, including Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, announced they would not participate in a previously scheduled debate hosted by Fox News, saying the conservative channel could not be trusted to provide an objective forum.

Fox News chairman Roger Ailes criticized the decision, saying Democrats were making a strategic blunder by trying to pick favorites with the media.

“Any candidate for high office from either party who believes he can blacklist any news organization is making a terrible mistake about journalists,” he said. “Pressure groups are forcing candidates to conclude that the best strategy for journalists is divide and conquer, to only appear on those networks and venues that give them favorable coverage.”

Ailes, a former GOP campaign operative, offered this warning to Democrats: “(A candidate) who cannot answer direct, simple, even tough questions from any journalist runs a real risk of losing the voters.”

Reince Priebus has apparently made a different calculation. The chairman of the Republican National Committee has publicly threatened to pull party presidential candidates out of debates sponsored by NBC and CNN in response to upcoming programs on those networks about Hillary Clinton.

The Wisconsin native, who was at the helm of the state Republican Party during its big wins in 2010, referred to a CNN documentary about Clinton and an upcoming NBC miniseries about the former secretary of state (played by Diane Lane) as “in kind donation(s)” in support of her potential future presidential campaign.

As evidence of NBC’s perceived bias, Priebus detailed the amount of money employees of NBC’s parent company, Comcast, had given to Democratic candidates last year. He conveniently neglected the fact that the company’s employees and political action committee have been almost equally generous to Republicans. While its top executives tended to favor Democrats, its political action committee gave more to the GOP last year.

Priebus’ media strategy is a familiar theme in Wisconsin politics, in which politicians often shun media outlets that do not guarantee them friendly coverage.

The most prominent example was an attempt by Assembly Republicans to evict the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism from their offices on the UW-Madison campus.

Although Gov. Scott Walker ultimately killed the measure with his veto pen, he justified his action not in terms of defending a thriving press, but out of concerns that targeting one of many nonprofits on campus appeared arbitrary.

In an interview last week, Sen. Dale Schultz, R-Richland Center, the one Republican who was outspoken in his opposition to the proposal, attributed it to a legislator who was upset about being subjected to tough press coverage from WCIJ. But he dismissed the suggestion that the amendment may have been added explicitly so Walker could veto it and appear moderate.

“I don’t think that for a second,” he said. “I think it took courage.”

That preventing such a partisan attack on the press now takes courage is evidence of how dramatically the relationship between Wisconsin politicians and local media has changed in recent years.

Bill Kraus, who served as campaign manager and later a top aide to former Gov. Lee Sherman Dreyfus from 1979 to 1983, remembers a governor’s office that would have been unrecognizable to today’s reporters.

“Journalists would walk in and out of the office,” he remembered.

Both parties, argued Mark Pitsch, head of the Madison chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, have taken aggressive measures to control press coverage now.

As the WCIJ reported last year, Walker spent more time talking to Fox News in the first year of his governorship than he did talking to any single local media outlet. The media program to which he dedicated the most time was that of conservative Milwaukee talk radio host Charlie Sykes. Read more in the Cap Times.

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