By Erin Ryan
Ever since Sarah Palin’s selection as John McCain’s vice presidential running mate, the McCain campaign has engaged in a cut-throat, high-stakes negotiation with a uniquely hamstrung counterpart—the news media. Or at least, that’s how it would appear to a skilled negotiator, given the unmistakable hard bargaining tactics the campaign has regularly employed. Extreme demands, psychological warfare, bluffing, stonewalling—each day yields another expert recitation of classic bargaining tactics that you might expect to encounter while shopping for a used car, though not so much in an election that should epitomize our civic ideal of consensus-building in the marketplace of ideas. But here we-the-people are, stuck on the seamy sidelines of a used car lot, watching the campaign and the press throw down.
It’s not your standard wheeling and dealing, to be sure, but it’s a negotiation nonetheless. What are they bargaining over? Like all negotiations, it’s about what the parties want from one another. The press wants a good story, of course, within the bounds of maintaining public credibility. The campaign wants favorable press coverage for its candidates, hoping to generate public credibility of its own. So it has been since campaigning began. But in this election, the McCain campaign has perfected a slowly developing twist in the game, pursuing a new bargaining strategy with ruthless message discipline at the expense of credibility for all involved. The campaign would still like favorable press coverage for its vice presidential candidate, of course, but if it can’t have that, its secondary aspiration is to undercut the legitimacy of what unfavorable coverage it receives—and with it, the legitimacy of the news media in general. Since Palin’s debut, the campaign has chased this second goal with even greater vigor than the first, leaving us to wonder whether it is not the second-best thing at all, but what the campaign really wanted to begin with. (Witness the artistically orchestrated spectacle during the convention, in which the speakers rallied tens of thousands of delegates to boo the members of the media among them covering the event for the tens of millions of viewers watching it all happen on live TV.)