Mitt Romney's relations with his traveling press corps are growing more noxious, reflecting a larger trend in which politicians and the media are so cynical about one another that they are increasingly at odds.
This kind of relationship has always been at least somewhat adversarial. After all, each side has a different goal. The politicians want to look as good a possible and use the news media as a public relations tool, and the media want to peek behind the curtain, find inconsistency and hypocrisy, and hold the politicians accountable.
These different goals are at the heart of what's gone wrong between Romney, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, and the reporters who cover him. The feud intensified during his just-concluded trip to Great Britain, Israel and Poland.
Romney tried to explain the reasons for his bad press in an interview with CNN. The media on his trip were "more interested in finding something to write about"—presumably something negative—than in covering the substantive issues, he said. "They'll instead try and find anything else to divert from the fact that these last four years have been tough years for our country," Romney added.
The traveling reporters complained that Romney only took three questions at one mini-press conference during his entire foreign trip, which was widely characterized as filled with gaffes and missteps.
In Warsaw Tuesday, frustrated reporters shouted questions at Romney as he walked to his car after a wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Press aide Rick Gorka shouted, "Kiss my ass; this is a holy site for the Polish people. Show some respect." Gorka also told a reporter to "shove it."
Gorka later apologized. But the reporters remained frustrated that they had so little access to the presumptive nominee. "So it's official: Romney is leaving a 7-day foreign trip after answer only 3 Qs from the media," tweeted Ashley Parker of the New York Times. Another traveling reporter told Politico: "We didn't need to come all the way over here to handle photo ops. There is a growing frustration among reporters, a growing sense that the campaign doesn't get it--we don't want to screw you, we just want to do our job."
Romney aides, however, pointed out that he had granted lengthy interviews to ABC News, CBS News, CNN, Fox News, and NBC News during the trip.
More broadly, this question of access also applies to President Barack Obama. He holds relatively few full-fledged news conferences but has done many interviews with news outlets, including U.S. News. The pattern doesn't make the White House press corps happy, but one-on-one interviews allow Obama to explain himself in more detail than he can at a news conference with many reporters clamoring to ask a variety of questions.
One way of limiting the anger and frustration of reporters is to grant them access on a regular basis to senior advisers. This is what the White House does with the daily briefings by the press secretary, which often turn into exercises in flak-catching by chief spokesman Jay Carney, and with briefings by other senior staffers. But members of Romney's press corps complain that they don't have similar access to Romney aides.
Republicans, realizing that the "mainstream media's" credibility is low with the public, have used media bashing to stir up their conservative base for many years. I recall covering Dan Quayle, the freshly minted vice presidential running mate of George H.W. Bush, in the days following his nomination by the Republicans in August 1988. Quayle's handlers and Bush's senior advisers felt that the media were picking on Quayle by asking whether he got special treatment by the National Guard in order to escape combat in the Vietnam war. So they arranged to have Quayle hold a news conference in which reporters were surrounded by a crowd of hostile Quayle supporters in his home state of Indiana. Questions from the reporters, broadcast on loudspeakers, drew boos and angry comments. It got quite nasty, much nastier than what seems to be going on between Romney and his press corps.
More recently, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich scored points with conservatives when he accused the media of unfairness during the Republican primary debates. Overall, bashing the media has proven to be an effective tactic to animate the right.
It's unlikely that the relationship between Romney and his press corps will get any better, even though Romney aides say they will try to improve the atmosphere. And relations between the media and President Obama's team won't be any picnic either. In each case, reporters will continue to complain about lack of access and a paucity of news conferences. At the same time, both campaigns will continue to emphasize message control and will keep the media at arm's length all the way through Election Day.
Ken Walsh covers the White House and politics for U.S. News. He writes the daily blog, "Ken Walsh's Washington," and is the author of "The Presidency" column in the U.S. News Weekly. He also is the author of Feeding the Beast: The White House Versus the Press. He can be reached at email@example.com and on Facebook and Twitter.