Rachel Maddow seemed pleasantly surprised when Republican Rep. Donald A. Manzullo turned up on her show last week to talk about his vote against the Democrats’ stimulus plan.
“I can’t tell you how many times a day Republicans say no to invitations to be on this show,” said the liberal MSNBC host. “So we’re very grateful to him for saying yes tonight.” Maddow may have to get used to the experience.
If she had been monitoring MSNBC last week, she would have noticed that more congressional Republicans than Democrats appeared on the network to discuss the stimulus — by a tally of 15-9.
In fact, more congressional Republicans than Democrats appeared on all of the major cable news networks — CNN, Fox News, Fox Business and CNBC — during three days last week surrounding the House vote on the stimulus plan. That’s according to a report by Think Progress, a project of the left-leaning Center for American Progress, which added up congressional TV hits related to the stimulus bill.
The study found that Fox News struck the most balance, with eight Republicans to six Democrats; on CNN, there were two Democrats to seven Republicans.
Now out of power, congressional Republicans are turning to the power of the press, it seems.
“I think this is one of the models that we’re going to use going forward,” said Michael Steel, press secretary for House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio). “Our votes generally don’t matter anymore, but our voices do. Our job is to win the argument, day in and day out.”
And the Republican message offensive didn’t go unnoticed on the other side of the aisle, either.
“What happened with cable last week is that Republican House members were the only show in town,” said a House Democratic leadership aide, who similarly acknowledged that there’s a daily “battle” getting the party’s message to viewers.
Of course, it’s not as if the networks are cutting out the Democrats. But with so much network attention being paid to the Obama administration — including roughly 40 minutes a day devoted to Robert Gibbs’ press briefing — it’s understandable that bookers would seek out House Republicans to provide a counterbalance, even if it means leaving House Democrats out in the process.
CNN political director Sam Feist said simply tallying up appearances of members of Congress only — and specifically when discussing the stimulus — doesn’t offer a complete picture of a network’s coverage, he said.
“As I have looked at what CNN has done the past couple weeks over the stimulus debate, I’ve found the balance is there,” Feist said, adding that it’s never going to be a “perfect balance, minute to minute.”
Doug Thornell, communications director for Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Chris Van Hollen, said that while it’s important to make the rounds nationally via cable news, Democratic House members have been reaching out on a local level, too.
“Republicans are hoping to keep the debate in a national partisan box, disseminating their talking points and message through cable or conservative talk radio,” Thornell said.
“Van Hollen has been urging recently elected Democrats to aggressively make the case for the recovery package to their constituents who are hurting as well as to local media,” he said. “I think at the end of the day, it’s easier for Republicans to explain their opposition to an anchor on Fox News than to a worker in their district who just lost their job.”
But it’s not only Fox News, with cable’s most conservative stable of commentators, that Republicans have visited lately. While the rank and file beats the drum over media bias, some elected Republican leaders have hit up the oft-maligned networks among conservatives: MSNBC and CNN.
“You get left out of the story more because you weren’t effectively responding than [because of] any bias,” said Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana, who serves as chairman of the House Republican Conference.
Since becoming conference chairman, Pence — who has a background in television and radio — has beefed up the press shop with additional bookers and is in the process of adding a deputy press secretary to deal specifically with Hispanic media outlets.
Pence said that because the “Republican conference exists to promote Republican members,” he’s been closely watching the morning’s headlines and then having staff reach out to media outlets with those members who can speak authoritatively on specific subjects — subjects that include the stimulus, national security and trade. About 70 members are now in the rapid response groups, which Pence has dubbed “tiger teams.”
Ron Bonjean, a former top Republican spokesman for the House and Senate leadership, drew parallels to the early days of the Clinton administration, when “the Speaker’s Lobby was packed with reporters trying to get Republicans, to get the other side of story.”
Bonjean said that while in the minority, Republicans will have less responsibility in Congress, such as management meetings, thus freeing them up in greater numbers to speak with the press.
“I think that will be a standard template going forward,” Bonjean said, “as long as Obama keeps making news and dominating the media space.”