Harvard University's Shorenstein Center just released an exhaustive report by CNN political reporter Peter Hamby dissecting the performance of the political news media during the 2012 presidential campaign through the case study of Mitt Romney's presidential campaign. It deals primarily with the rise of rapid-fire online journalism and how hyper-aggressive reporters seeking to meet demands for content and make names for themselves caused problems for Romney team as they strove to stay on message. Romney's campaign, Hamby wrote, was particularly vulnerable to this dynamic and was constantly looking for ways to get its message out without having to deal with the "frenzy" of reporters and their interminable questions.
That's where Fox News came in.
Hamby talked to Eric Fehrnstrom, political consultant and senior adviser to Romney, about how the Romney campaign approached the media. Per Fehrnstrom, the strategy was to limit access to the group of reporters traveling with Romney whenever possible, and instead make the candidate available for interviews on Fox News, because with Fox the campaign knew which questions were coming and knew that Romney wouldn't get hit with too many follow-up queries:
He said the campaign would rather sit the candidate down for an interview with Fox News than take questions from his press corps. At Fox, he said, the candidate could safely explain himself without being pressed by a crowd of news-starved reporters.
"We'd much rather go on a Fox program where we know the question is going to come up and Mitt can give his answer and it's not going to a frenzy of questioning," Fehrnstrom said. "He will be able to give his response. There may be a follow up or two, and then that's it. The frenzy is not something that you would willingly do if you had other options. It's like here you can either do this frenzied news conference, or we can do a more sedate studio appearance with Sean Hannity. I'd take the sedate over the frenzy any day."
That's a fairly amazing statement. Fox has become so integral to national Republican politics that senior campaign staffers freely talk about its unique role in campaign strategy. Presumably other cable or broadcast networks could also provide a comparatively "sedate" environment for a candidate looking to escape the "frenzy" of the traveling press, but they chose Fox for a reason. For candidates like Romney, Fox is a sanctuary from the rest of the media where the candidate's message can get out there without anyone challenging it. "There may be a follow up or two, and then that's it."
And Fox is obviously more than happy to enable this dependency, thus creating a sort of self-reinforcing cycle. By granting access to Fox and shutting everyone else out, the non-Fox reporters get only more "frenzied" in their pursuit of stories, which impels the campaign to retreat again to Fox. It's exactly the sort of closed-off feedback loop the Republican National Committee's post-election "autopsy" warned was preventing GOP candidates from appealing to non-Republicans. And as Hamby points out, in the end the strategy was self-defeating: if you give reporters nothing to write, they're still going to write something, and the less involvement you have the more likely it is you'll be unhappy with what they publish.
One can understand Fehrnstrom's lament that, for a candidate and their staffers, dealing with a Twitter-fueled and competitive press corps can seem like far more trouble than it's worth. But at the same time he talks about the "sedate" environment of a softball Sean Hannity interview as if it's a good thing. If anything, living in the Fox News cocoon hurt Romney -- when he wrote off 47 percent of the country as incorrigible parasites and tumbled down Benghazi rabbit holes, Fox News was there to cheer him on and reassure him that he was in the right.
The one certainty that can be taken away from all this is that Fox News is operating as a de facto communications shop for Republican candidates. That, at least, is what Republican campaign operatives seem to think, and there's no real reason to doubt them.