Fred Thompson plays the press.

Media criticism.
May 31 2007 6:51 PM

Fred Thompson Plays the Big Media

… which play along.

Fred Thompson. Click image to expand.
Fred Thompson 

Fred Thompson, who has been running an active but undeclared campaign for the presidency for several months, got the New York Times, the Washington Post, USA Today, and the Boston Globe to give his I-might-run campaign a major boost today (May 31) with Page One stories reporting that … Fred Thompson hasn't announced, but he might very well run.

To be fair to the dailies, there was some news here. Thompson's people claim that their man is creating a committee that will allow him to raise money "toward a full-blown national campaign," as the New York Times puts it. And, via a conference call this week, he's asked potential contributors to pass the hat. But those steps won't make him a declared candidate, either. Essentially, the news boils down to this: Thompson has finished testing the wading section of the pool and, by planning to set up a committee, is now opting for water that sloshes around his thighs.

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So, why is the press so revved up about Thompson's committee-forming? For one thing, Thompson is fun to write about. (See? I'm doing it.)

For another, Thompson's advisers perfectly crafted the event for a press corps desperate for new material. (See? John Dickerson keeps writing about it and has a piece up today.) The current crop of announced Republican candidates are generating little news and negative excitement among voters, so the "Thompson really, really might run" story gives reporters a new peg for their old stories about the stalled Republican candidacies, the fractured and bleeding party, the immigration issue, the war, an unpopular president, yada yada yada. Also, the fantasy that Thompson is a genuine Reaganite who can unify his party gives political reporters a new and much-needed story line.

But if it was news that Thompson really, really might run for president, then the Weekly Standard's Stephen F. Hayes broke it at 10:21 p.m., Tuesday (May 29), when he reported on the fund-raising conference call. The New York Sun's Ryan Sager had a May 30 piece about the formation of the committee. Politico's Mike Allen wrote at 8:23 a.m. that day that Thompson planned to announce, which the Drudge Report fronted, driving more coverage. At least the Los Angeles Times had the modesty to downplay its May 31 Thompson story by placing it inside Section A.

There's nothing shocking about calculating campaign advisers orchestrating coverage to win headlines. That's their job. What disappoints me is how wildly the big dailies fell for this pseudo event. I thought political reporters were supposed to be cynical animals.

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If not cynical, what kind of animals are they? Send suggestions to slate.pressbox@gmail.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.