I don’t know whether Fred Thompson will ultimately prevail as the Republican Party’s nominee for President, but I find myself rooting for him, because, even if there were no other reason (and I think there are many), he drives the mainstream media crazy by paying absolutely no attention to them. These are traumatic times for the nation’s major newspapers and network television news departments. Audiences are dwindling, profits are dropping, jobs are disappearing, and, worst of all, their influence is rapidly diminishing. Challenges from the so-called alternative media, from talk radio to Internet blogs, are pushing the old-time giants toward the sidelines.
As they fretted over his late entry into the race and warned of the consequences of that strategy, Thompson met with potential supporters, went through trial and error with a campaign staff, used outlets like YouTube to communicate with voters, and, taking his own sweet time, had the nerve to formally announce his candidacy on a late-night talk show. When you choose Jay Leno over The New York Times editorial board, you’re asking for trouble. Somehow, it’s supposed to be undignified to use that kind of frivolous forum for such an important announcement. Dignity can only be found in a print or broadcast newsroom where, of course, nothing frivolous ever finds its way inside.
Ironically, Thompson, one of the oldest candidates in the race, has assessed the new media landscape much more accurately than his (mostly) younger opponents. While others are worrying about newspaper endorsements and how the networks and papers like The Washington Post cover their performances in the debates (of which there seem to have been approximately 8,000 so far), he’s finding ways to talk to voters without having to be seen through the mainstream media’s prisms.
It remains to be seen whether Fred Thompson can continue to worry more about what he wants to say, and how and when he wants to say it, than about the opinions of a dwindling handful of sclerotic media outlets. There is, experience has shown, an almost irresistible urge to try to placate these self-appointed guardians of the public good. Scores of impressive men and women have been elected because of outstanding ideas and ideals only to move into their Congressional offices and find themselves becoming more concerned with what’s written about them in the Style section of The Post.
If Thompson shows himself to be a strong candidate with a real chance to win, he’s likely to face extraordinary scrutiny from the major media. He’ll be painted as a rube, as lazy, as a hypocrite, as an actor playing a role, and more. Will he have the strength to continue to ignore the barbs and do things at his pace and in his way? Will he remain comfortable enough in his own skin to withstand the onslaught? If he does manage to stay on his own course, the attacks will be even more strong and unrelenting. In part, his politics will make that inevitable; but, more importantly, his success would continue the process of undercutting the importance and influence of the mainstream media. That’s the real danger they see.
There’s no more ignominious fate for these once-powerful titans than irrelevance.