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Candidate vs. coverage

Edwards lashes out at press

Is John Edwards channeling Spiro Agnew?

Edwards’ recent attacks on the press sound a bit like the heady days of the Nixon administration, when the alliterative Agnew waged war on the”liberal” media and the”nattering nabobs of negativism.”

Last week, Edwards called on all candidates to reject or return contributions from News Corp., citing Fox News Channel’s”unfair and unbalanced” reporting, a play on the org’s slogan. The move was as much aimed at Hillary Clinton, who has taken more than $20,000 in contributions from News Corp. including chairman Rupert Murdoch, as it was at the channel’s coverage of his campaign.

“The time has come for Democrats to stop pretending to be friends with the very people who demonize the Democratic party,” Edwards said in a statement.

Edwards also seemed to be aiming at mainstream press when he told an Iowa audience last week that”they want me to shut up” —”they” presumably being journos and their focus on his $400 haircuts and not his platform.

With Clinton and Barack Obama grabbing much media attention, it’s been hard for Edwards to get his message through. Instead, he’s aiming for the liberal base and its bloggers and other pundits, which have played big roles in convincing Dems to skip Fox-sponsored debates. Groups like MoveOn.org and Brave New Films are now targeting some of the news channel’s advertisers.

With Edwards positioning himself as the”most explicitly progressive, populist” candidate in the race, one of his chief advisers, Joe Trippi,”has decided that a conventional campaign doesn’t work for him,” notes veteran strategist Bob Shrum.

But there are drawbacks to taking on the people who cover you.

“One peril is that (Edwards is forced to) keep talking about haircuts,” says Shrum, who was senior adviser to the Kerry-Edwards campaign in 2004 and is author of the recent book”No Excuses: Concessions of a Serial Campaigner.””Over time, if you wage a long-term campaign against the media, you usually don’t win.”

There’s the obvious: When you are attacking the messenger, you’re not endearing yourselves to them. It’s the old adage of”Be nice to people on the way up, because you’ll need them on the way down.”

“When you are riding high and your approval rating is 66%, it is easy to discard the media as irrelevant,” says New York Times Magazine writer Matt Bai, author of the upcoming book,”The Argument: Billionaires, Bloggers and the Battle to Remake Democratic Politics.””When it falls below 50% and the members of your own party are questioning what you are doing, it helps to have that credibility with the media. Otherwise, the bottom falls out a lot faster.”

You could apply that to President Bush, whose relations with the press often have been chilly, and certainly to Nixon.

For Edwards, there may be little immediate downside when he singles out Fox News. That channel probably didn’t have any puff pieces in the works on his campaign, anyway. MoveOn has proven that anti-Fox efforts can rev up the base, Bai notes, and”when John Edwards makes that a target, he knows what he is doing.”

Edwards’ attacks also are nowhere near to matching Nixon and Agnew’s full-scale assault on the media, which included wiretapping, enemies lists and IRS audits. What’s more, Edwards”doesn’t have a history of being hostile to the press,” says veteran campaign journo Jules Witcover, author of”Very Strange Bedfellows: The Short & Unhappy Marriage of Richard Nixon & Spiro Agnew.”

“There is really no comparison,” Witcover says.”What you see now with Edwards is small potatoes. And it is much too early to say that this is going to affect the race.”

Nor have hostilities reached the same fever pitch they they were back then. Fox News was still given a credential to the weekend’s YearlyKos convention in Chicago, an annual gathering of progressive bloggers where the Democratic candidates will speak.

Publicity is publicity, after all.

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