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Never Dull: How Chris Christie carefully cultivates the media

December 3, 2013

By Howard Kurtz

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie in Jan. 30, 2012.AP

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie in Jan. 30, 2012.AP

You don’t have to charm the press to win the presidency.

But it doesn’t hurt.

And that’s why Chris Christie is such a fascinating case study in massaging the media.

Mounting a White House campaign can be overwhelming, and pols who are accustomed only to the modest scrutiny visited on governors and senators are often blinded by the searing spotlight.

Bill Clinton got gentle treatment from the Little Rock press corps, but in 1992 was hit by the national media over Whitewater, Gennifer Flowers and avoiding the draft. But he didn’t hide from the press—I remember being on a late-night campaign flight where he talked and talked to a group of reporters, some of whom just wanted to catch some shut-eye but were afraid of missing something.

John McCain spent eight or nine hours a day fielding questions from journalists on his bus in 2000, to the point where we sometimes ran out of  material and wound up talking about movies and sports.

That same year, George W. Bush, in his compassionate conservative phase, enjoyed chatting with his media regulars and bestowed nicknames on many of them.

Mitt Romney, by contrast, avoided his press corps, seemed uncomfortable around reporters, and ran a campaign that often ignored journalistic questions. That was a missed opportunity for a challenger.

Look for Christie, assuming he runs in 2016, to passionately engage with the media (as you might have guessed when he did four Sunday shows after winning reelection). That engagement will sometimes be contentious, but chances are it will never be dull.

The best way to get a sense of how Christie’s approach to the media is to examine how he deals with New Jersey reporters. Matt Katz, who now covers the governor for WNYC and New Jersey Public Radio, lifts the curtain for Politico:

“The local reporters get our own unique treatment—revealing, off-the-record, end-of-summer beers at Jersey Shore bars and profanity-infused Christmas party conversations at the governor’s mansion. But we also get our own unique abuse: We know what it’s like to be put in the ‘penalty box,’ as Christie calls it, briefly shut out from the inner circle for writing something Team Christie hates. And we’ve all been dressed down in State House hallways by Christie’s chief spokesman, Michael Drewniak, an expert at channeling his boss’s fury.

“Christie likes to tell crowds at press conferences that I must have pissed someone off at the Philadelphia Inquirer to get the Christie beat, but he’s lying. He knows he fulfilled his promise from that first day we met: ‘We’re going to do our best to keep you entertained.’”

In diary form, Katz recalls what Christie said at the 2011 presser when he announced he wouldn’t be running for president:

“The only regret I have is that I’ve given such great TV exposure to some of the local reporters. I mean, who’s gonna have Katz on TV now that I’m out of this race? Nobody is gonna have Katz on TV. He won’t be able to get on News 12 for God’s sake.”

A savvy pol plays off his press corps, and Christie is no exception:

“Christie uses reporters the same way comedians use those in the front rows at stand-up shows. The back-and-forth amuses him, amuses his staff, amuses us (sometimes). We also act as his foil, tossing the alley-oops for the sound bites that land on the gubernatorial YouTube channel. The clips are emailed to every political reporter in America and likely a few county Republican chairs in Iowa…

“My biggest competition is not other reporters; it is the man himself. He is his own news outlet.”

There is a downside to this approach, of course. A man who is his own news outlet risks overexposure. The more he’s sparring with reporters, the greater the chance that he will say something dumb, creating a YouTube moment that he wouldn’t want on his channel. And there’s a chance his argumentative style may not wear well.

On the other hand, we’re guaranteed to be entertained. Read more at Fox News.

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