When You Should Attack The Media

Many of our media training clients wonder whether it’s ever appropriate to respond to unfair press by attacking the media. Generally speaking, attacking the media is a risky communications strategy with (at least) as many potential downsides as upsides.

But every rule has its exception, and there are indeed times when attacking the media pays impressive dividends.

Earlier this month, The Miami Herald published a riveting story about an ongoing battle between Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Univision, the nation’s most-watched Spanish-language news outlet.

Back in July, Univision ran an investigative piece about Marco Rubio’s brother-in-law, who was arrested for being a bit player in a cocaine and marijuana ring.  I can see why that might be newsworthy, especially if the Senator exerted some influence over the case. But here’s the problem: The incident occurred in 1987 when Marco Rubio was 16-years-old, and his brother-in-law was released from prison more than a decade ago. So much for being newsworthy.

U.S. Senator Marco Rubio

Even worse, Univision reportedly agreed to spike or soften the piece – if Mr. Rubio agreed to an interview on a high-profile program. He refused to participate, and Univision ran the story. (Univision officially denies that account, but some network insiders confirm its accuracy.)

As a result, several of Sen. Rubio’s fellow Republicans are threatening to boycott a possible January presidential debate hosted by Univision unless the network’s news president apologizes and resigns.

On paper, Mr. Rubio’s aggressive stance against Univision seems treacherous. After all, the Cuban-American Senator could use the support of a highly-rated Spanish-speaking television network that reaches and influences many of his Florida constituents. But his decision is actually quite astute, and serves as a good example for when it’s appropriate to attack the media.

Here are five reasons Senator Rubio is right to pursue this approach:

1. The Attacks on Him Appear Personal: Univision appeared to use the decades-old arrest of Mr. Rubio’s brother-in-law as a pretext to attack the Senator’s politics. As an example, Mr. Rubio opposes the DREAM Act, which puts him at odds with pro-immigration orthodoxy. If the piece wasn’t intended as a personal broadside, it’s hard to understand what compelling news value influenced their decision to run the piece.

2. Univision Behaved Badly: By reportedly offering a quid pro quo, Univision set itself up as a bad actor. The public doesn’t like bad media behavior – just ask Sen. John Kerry, who successfully attacked the Drudge Report for a false report about alleged adultery shortly before the 2004 election, or Gov. George W. Bush, whose decades-old DUI arrest was reported just days before the 2000 election.

3. This Story Is Easy to Understand: Stories with greater complexity (for example, about complicated financial dealings) can be tougher for the public to understand (consider the complexity of Bill Clinton’s Whitewater scandal vs. his Lewinsky scandal). This story’s broad outlines are immediately clear to the public, making it easy for even people paying little attention to comprehend quickly.

4. He Is Leveraging Competing Media: Competing news organizations love little more than attacking the bad behavior of their competitors. The Miami Herald is far from alone in running this story – among others, The Wall Street Journal recently took the Senator’s side, allowing Mr. Rubio to get more ink from other media organizations about how his family was wronged.

5. His Counter-Attacks Will Diminish Univision’s Impact: As a political strategy, Mr. Rubio’s counter-attack will allow him to blunt the effect of any future Univision stories about his immigration policies. Even if the stories are fair and accurate, many viewers will question the network’s motives, reducing the impact of the news pieces.

What do you think? When is it appropriate to attack the media? Do you agree that Senator Rubio was justified in this case? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.