After a news cycle that seemingly would not end last week, Rand Paul needed a scapegoat.
What had started as an ambiguous statement about vaccines to radio host Laura Ingraham spiraled out of his grasp on cable news. "I have heard of many tragic cases of walking, talking normal children who wound up with profound mental disorders after vaccines," Paul told CNBC's Kelly Evans a week ago. "I'm not arguing vaccines are a bad idea. I think they are a good thing, but I think the parent should have some input."
Paul's suggestion that "profound mental disorders" could be related to vaccine use—a widely debunked claim—brought him a week's worth of bad headlines. But instead of admitting his wording may not have been the most tactful, Paul kept digging.
"I did not say vaccines caused disorders, just that they were temporally related—I did not allege causation," Paul said in a statement following the CNBC brouhaha. Then he tweeted a photo of himself getting a shot, with the caption, "Ironic: Today I am getting my booster vaccine. Wonder how the liberal media will misreport this?"
It's a textbook strategy, and one that Paul has used before: shoot the bad-news messenger, or in this case, journalists who said Paul implied a connection between vaccines and mental disability. But while voicing your disdain for the press is a tried-and-true strategy for sitting presidents, it can throw politicians seeking the Oval Office off course and off message, making them appear naval-gazing and defensive.
This is not to say a liberal bias does not exist in the news media. One recent study found that, since 2004, far more employees at newspapers and in print media donated to liberal candidates than to conservative candidates. And public perception and trust in the media remains bleak. A 2013 Gallup poll found that 44 percent of people surveyed have a "great deal" or "fair amount" of trust and confidence in the mass media. A whopping 74 percent of Republicans think the news media are too liberal, compared with 46 percent of all respondents.
The damn-the-media strategy has been called "working the refs," or deliberately antagonizing the press in the hopes that they will go easier on you, and if that fails, setting up a reliable group to point your finger at. It can be an effective strategy, especially for Republicans during a primary campaign. But it's one that only works for so long. Blame the media once or twice and you're a righteous crusader. More than that, and you start looking like the Boy Who Cried Media Bias.
If you're a politician, blaming the media is also a great way to attract more scrutiny from reporters—just look at what happened to Rep. Aaron Schock's office after his now former communications chief aggressively pushed back against a Washington Post reporter. Historically, it's often a good marker for when the public stops taking candidates seriously and starts relegating them to the fringe (take Todd Akin or Richard Mourdock, for example). It's a successful tactic if you want to have a talk show on Fox News or CNN, perhaps, but not if you want to be president.
Some press criticisms are undoubtedly legitimate. Just think of Andrew Sullivan's long-running charge that Sarah Palin's son Trig was actually the son of her daughter, Bristol Palin. Or when The New York Times did not outright argue—but heavily implied during the 2008 campaign—that Sen. John McCain was having an affair with a female lobbyist.
But often, outside of the hard-core conservative base, complaining about your own media coverage can come off as a less-than-artful way of deflecting criticism. During the 2012 Republican primaries, CNN's John King asked Newt Gingrich to respond to his ex-wife's allegation that Gingrich had asked her to enter into an "open marriage."
Gingrich did respond—with righteous indignation. "I think the destructive, vicious, negative nature of much of the news media makes it harder to govern this country, harder to attract decent people to run for public office, and I am appalled that you would begin a presidential debate on a topic like that," he told King, to applause from the heavily Republican audience.
During another Republican primary debate, Rep. Michele Bachmann criticized Gov. Rick Perry for making the HPV vaccine mandatory for girls in Texas and told Matt Lauer the HPV vaccine "could potentially be a very dangerous drug." But when asked about her comments at the following debate, Bachmann told moderator Chris Wallace, "I didn't make that claim, nor did I make that statement."
When Herman Cain dropped out of the 2012 Republican primary after being deluged with numerous sexual-harassment allegations, guess who he blamed? "I couldn't continue to try and run a race when you have a liberal media and others who did not want to see me succeed and to see us succeed—constantly fighting false accusations."
One thread connecting Gingrich, Cain, Bachmann, et al: They all vociferously complained about how media covered them, and they all went on to not become the Republican Party nominee.
The idea that voters want to elect a candidate who "looks presidential"—someone of good moral fiber—is a well-worn cliché in political reporting. But it has a kernel of truth: A 2007 poll found that 41 percent of voters value honesty above all other character traits in a president. And while complaining about negative coverage is not necessarily dishonest, it can look like a deflection of the news at hand. When a candidate rails against the media, she runs the risk of looking more defensive than presidential.
Still, negative coverage is hardly a problem exclusive to Republicans. The Obama administration and Hillary Clinton have both had notoriously prickly relationships with the press. Nor are complaints about liberal media bias new at all: During the Nixon administration, White House Plumber G. Gordon Liddy once plotted to assassinate Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper columnist Jack Anderson after he published White House leaks.
Media relations can feel like a cat-and-mouse game for politicians running for office, but it's a game that some Republicans have been able to master. Just look to McCain and Sen. Lindsey Graham—who have appeared on Sunday talk shows nearly 100 times each since 2009.
At the end of the day, all reporters have the same bias—to write stories that people will want to read. In 2004, The New Yorker's Ken Auletta examined George W. Bush's relationship with the press and concluded that the media's bias "for conflict and sizzle is far more pervasive than any liberal or conservative press bias." When likely candidates like Paul push conflict with the media, the result often becomes a vicious cycle of unfavorable coverage.
Voters can come to their own conclusions about how the media covers a candidate, without that candidate interjecting to say, "Actually, it's about ethics in political journalism." Politicians would do well to heed the same advice that online journalists receive: Don't feed the trolls. If you truly feel you are being painted unfairly, don't give more ammo. Instead, let your supporters rise to defend you. That's a strategy Clinton allies have turned into its own cottage industry.
So yes, some coverage will not be fair. But—believe it or not—in campaigns, the state of play is not always fair. As the author Finley Peter Dunne wrote in 1895, politics ain't beanbag.