Why Talking to the ‘Friendly’ Media Is Hurting Sharron Angle

Republican Senate candidate risks alienating moderate voters

Politicians have to watch out for those nasty “gotcha” journalists in the mainstream media. They will badger candidates and berate them until they say something they don’t mean, and then the press will take it out of context and beat them over the head with it.

Count Sharron Angle, the Republican aiming to defeat Democratic Sen. Harry Reid in November, among the partisans on both sides who hold this view. So Angle has decided not to play that game. Besieged with interview requests since her upset primary victory, she has granted them mostly to ideologically sympathetic outlets such as conservative talk radio and Fox News.

Why, then, does her mouth keep getting Angle into trouble? In those supposed softball interviews, Angle lets her guard down. She sympathizes with BP; she advises pregnant rape victims to look on the bright side. It appears that her avoidance of the mainstream media, far from protecting her, is actually backfiring.

Angle clearly believes she’s using the media to her advantage. On July 13, she told the Christian Broadcasting Network, “I’m not going to earn anything from people who are there to badger me and use my words to batter me with. What I need is to reach out into that public who will go to sharronangle.com and send that $25.” Shows such as NBC’s Meet the Press, she says, won’t let her get that message out.

Most politicians don’t admit it so bluntly, but what Angle describes is standard strategy. Candidates don’t talk to the press because it’s good for their health. They’re hoping to reach people who might decide to vote for them or give them money. There were times during the 2008 presidential race when the Obama campaign limited his interviews in Las Vegas to, for example, Spanish-language radio. Such decisions left many reporters fuming, but they were probably smart moves by a campaign that was trying to mobilize Hispanic voters.

Angle has come under criticism for supposedly dodging tough questioning. The state Democratic Party has even set up a website, sharronsundergroundbunker.com, topped with an illustration of journalists standing in front of an empty podium with Angle’s name on it. Beneath the soil, Angle is shown in a bomb shelter stocked with survival supplies. But do voters care? According to polls, the American public doesn’t like or trust the media.

The real problem with Angle’s strategy isn’t that she’ll lose votes over it. Rather, it’s that those supposedly friendly interviews do her more damage than the ones she’s refusing, by tempting her to say the kinds of things you only say among friends.

After all, Angle may be picking and choosing her spots, but she hasn’t avoided tough interviews altogether. Most notably, she went on Jon Ralston’s Face to Face on KVBC Channel 3, where she got an old-fashioned grilling. The biggest news out of that interview? Angle backed down from her exhortation to “take out” Reid, clarifying that she isn’t actually a would-be assassin, no doubt to the relief of Reid’s security detail. Confronted with statements she’s made in the past about abortion, unemployment and Social Security, she more or less said she still holds those views. Stop the presses.

Contrast that with the Christian Broadcasting Network interview where she discussed her media-as-fundraising strategy. On the same show, she suggested that God told her to run against Reid, an idea that might give even the devout pause.

Or take Angle’s July 7 appearance on Alan Stock’s Las Vegas talk-radio show, when she agreed with a caller who described BP’s $20 billion oil-spill claims account as a “slush fund.” “No, government shouldn’t be doing that to a private company, and I think you named it clearly,” Angle said. “It’s a slush fund.”

That may be the popular position among listeners to Stock and Rush Limbaugh, but it certainly isn’t the majority view. Republicans in Congress ran screaming in the other direction when one of their own voiced a similar opinion. Within hours of her comment, Angle reversed herself. Her campaign issued a statement saying she didn’t really think it was a “slush fund.” PolitiFact.com called it a “full [flip-]flop.”

It was also on Stock’s show that Angle, reaffirming her view that abortion should not be available to victims of rape or incest, said that a teenage girl raped by her father who kept the baby would have “made a lemon situation into lemonade.” On another conservative talk show, she said of such pregnancies, “God has a plan.”

As Angle, a far-right candidate, attempts to position herself before general-election voters, she’s trying to spin her ultraconservative positions so that they sound centrist. Hence, privatizing Social Security becomes “personalizing” the program. Now that she’s the nominee, she’s got expensive political handlers working to help her stay on message.

But if Angle stays cocooned in the right-wing echo chamber, she may forget what message she’s supposed to be on. Avoiding the mainstream media, far from keeping her safe, could be the way Angle alienates the moderate voters she needs in November.