The president and his challenger both addressed a roomful of media executives with jokes and criticism rather than serious consideration.
Mitt Romney addressed a gathering of the news media industry on Wednesday, a day after Barack Obama spoke to the same audience. Both used the Washington venue as a platform for a combination of campaign and policy speech: For Obama, it was a convenient place to deliver his scathing critique of Republicans' budget proposals; for Romney, it was a rebuttal in which he insisted that Obama was distorting the GOP's ideas because he doesn't have any of his own.
Neither man made more than glib and passing reference to his audience -- executives from an industry both crucial to democracy and mired in a long-running business crisis.
Romney began his speech with a chummy but critical meditation on the reporters who cover his campaign and the changing priorities of their coverage. For the birthday of Maeve Reston of the Los Angeles Times, he noted, "I got her a cake and sang her a song. For my birthday, she was kind enough to remind me I'm old enough to qualify for Medicare."
During the last campaign four years ago, he said, "I looked to Drudge or Fox or CNN online to see what stories were developing." (Romney's mutual admiration with the Drudge Report is well documented, and Matt Drudge will surely appreciate the shout-out.) But now, he said, "it's Twitter, and instantaneous reaction. In 2008, the coverage was about what I said in a speech. These days, it's about what brand of jeans I'm wearing and what I ate for lunch."
Romney then gave a rather halfhearted tribute to the importance of the media. "Most people in my position are convinced you are biased against us," he noted, and as a result, they "thus welcome the tumult in your industry, heralding the new voices and the unfiltered or supposedly unbiased sources. Frankly, in some of the new media, I find myself missing the presence of editors to exercise quality control. I miss the days of two or more sources for a story -- when at least one source was actually named."
But when it came to the changes roiling media, Romney conspicuously punted: "How your industry will change, I cannot predict," he said. "But I do know this: You will continue to find ways to provide the American people with reliable information that is vital to our lives and to our nation. And I am confident that the press will remain free."
This sort of fatuous, feel-good optimism will be cold comfort to the thousands of reporters who have been laid off in recent years, or the bosses who have had to make the cuts -- presiding over drastic downsizings and in some cases seeing news organizations disappear entirely. But at least Romney bothered to mention the state of the industry. Obama didn't even do that. (Romney addressed a luncheon of the Newspaper Association of America cosponsored by the American Society of News Editors, while Obama addressed the Associated Press's annual meeting at the same conference site.*)
In his speech Tuesday, Obama merely riffed on the side of the news business he's familiar with -- being its victim. "You will cover every word that we say, and we will complain vociferously about the unflattering words that you write -- unless, of course, you're writing about the other guy, in which case, good job," he joked.
Later, on a more serious note, he indulged in a bit of media criticism as well, taking issue with what he termed a tendency toward false equivalence by reporters aiming to seem balanced. He called on the press to incorporate more historical context: "As all of you are doing your reporting, I think it's important to remember that the positions I'm taking now on the budget and a host of other issues, if we had been having this discussion 20 years ago, or even 15 years ago, would have been considered squarely centrist positions," he said.
For two candidates who are seeking to seriously grapple with the challenges faced by the American economy in their campaigns, the lack of attention to the business side of news seems like a missed opportunity. Both have had frosty relationships with the press, and both alluded to that with a combination of uneasy jokes and serious criticism. But the people in the audience weren't chiefly political reporters; they were managers and salesmen.
Would Romney and Obama have complained about today's cars in a speech to a room of auto executives, or joked about their relationship with their doctor to an audience of medical executives? Like those industries, the media is in a state of turmoil that's both reflective of the struggles and transitions in the overall economy and also impossible to separate from matters of politics and government. It ought to demand thoughtful consideration as a challenging piece of the American economy.
Newspapers and magazines are slowly coming to terms with a digital, entrepreneurial, post-manufacturing future. It's a fascinating case study in the creative destruction of capitalism and the innovative potential of American creativity. But to our presidential candidates, it's just another occasion to whine about the way they're treated by the press.
* This post originally stated that both candidates addressed the Newspaper Association of America. We regret the error.