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In Defense of Mark Leibovich’s Campaign Flack Targets

Hill Navigator is a little late to the game on this one, but was recently handed a copy of Mark Leibovich’s New York Times Magazine article, “All is Fair in the Fog of Fake Outrage ” (March 9). Leibovich dissects what he terms “completely inappropriate drama” behind the Kentucky Senate race between Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and his Democratic challenger, Alison Lundergan Grimes.  

Hill Navigator agrees on the drama — what are campaigns, if not concocted sporting events with histrionic teams, winners and losers, reminiscent more of an any-given-Sunday NFL matchup, rather than a Lincoln-Douglas debate? But Leibovich makes his point by honing in on the exuberance of two young candidate flacks: Charly Norton and Kelsey Cooper, who are, “25 and 23 respectively.”  

Leibovich writes:

The [campaign press secretary] job now requires no special education or experience, no roots to a state and no affiliation with a candidate. The prized skill set is merely the ability to get your noise heard above the rest of the cacophony, which, of course, just creates more noise.

Hill Navigator disagrees. As a former campaign flack (admittedly one who was older than 25), the job takes experience and affiliation with a candidate. No candidate will hire a flack they feel is off-putting to their message, and experience on a campaign is much different than that of Capitol Hill. If by “special education,” Leibovich means a college degree, then yes, it likely requires that too. Many  jobs on Capitol Hill are staffed by people without much more than that; a 2010 House Compensation Study found fewer than 20 percent of Hill flacks had an advanced degree.  

Campaign flacks are often the tip of the media empire iceberg for a campaign. There are consultants, pollsters, a media team to produce and book expensive television ads, and general ad-hoc advisers to come up with the message. The flacks are often the delivery vehicle, so getting their “noise heard” is what they’ve been hired to do.  

The creation of said “noise” is likely a collaborative process, with the consultants and candidate buying in, not the flack acting alone solely to see their name in lights. The “fake outrage” Leibovich writes of likely does exist, but it’s not originating at the flack level. Yes, there are exceptions to every rule, and foolish staffers on both sides of the aisle, but nowhere did either of these flacks seem to lack good judgement or professionalism.  

And Leibovich himself seems surprised the flacks would shy away from his story. This is the same reporter whose book, “This Town” vivaciously dissected every aspect of Washington, D.C.’s, politicking.  In the world of political reporting, Leibovich is more institution than scribe.  

When he called the flacks for comment, both responded with appropriate caution: unwilling to say much on the record, preferring to focus on their candidates, and opting out of participating in “general process stories.” They referred him to old press releases, and promised to get right back to him.  

In other words, they preferred not to make noise. They wanted the light to shine on their bosses, and they didn’t take the bait to talk about themselves.  

Wise decisions. The flacks may have garnered some “special education or experience” after all.  

Correction April 1, 1:16 p.m. An earlier version of this post misspelled Lundergan Grimes’ name.

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