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Working the Refs

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Message Rory OConnor
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There’s a clever, effective technique often employed by coaches in the National Basketball Association, used to gain a subtle but demonstrable edge in close games, known as “working the refs.” In essence, it involves endless and bitter complaints about your opponents’ supposed advantages — to your own future advantage. Aggressively contesting every foul and infraction assessed to your side, no matter how deserved it may have been, and in the end, the unmitigated barrage may result in a psychological reaction on the part of the referees, who (being only human) then begin to feel that they have been unfairly calling the game. Striving for impartiality, they soon begin to subconsciously ‘adjust’ their control of the game so as to correct any prior ‘imbalance’ that may have resulted from their previous calls.

Hillary won this week by working the refs.

By constantly complaining about coverage, and relentlessly focusing on charges that the news media has favored Barack Obama and treated him far more gently than herself, Hillary was finally able to staunch the bleeding and stage a desperately needed, last minute comeback that will keep her in the game. By mocking the media, quoting Saturday Night Live, and “practically browbeating reporters,” her campaign lived to fight another day.

And fight is the operative word. Going negative against the media, as well as her opponent, saved the day for the Clintons. For the first time, Senator Obama seemed off his game instead of on top of it, and on the defensive instead of in command, allowing his own, previously potent narrative to be eclipsed by Hillary’s. The Obama camp’s surprise was telegraphed on Tuesday by the candidate himself when he told reporters, “I am a little surprised that all the complaining about the refs has actually worked as well as it has for them. This whole spin of how the press has been so tough on them and not tough on us – I didn’t expect that you guys would bite on that.”

Obama is nothing if not a quick learner, of course, as evidenced by his closing remark, “Clearly, Tina Fey and I are going to have a conversation.” Obama’s joking reference to the SNL host whose skits had the press all but plumping pillows for him was a clear signal that, however belatedly, his team is about to begin berating the referees as well. But the damage has already been done, and the game is headed into overtime now.

For its part, the Clinton campaign – having accomplished its goal of influencing the coverage – has now stepped back and shifted to a rather laughable posture of not commenting on press coverage. “With regard to the media, I frankly don’t find it productive to comment,” said Clinton spokesman Howard Wolfson, who had spent most of the previous week doing precisely that. “I’m clearly not an unbiased source in this regard.”

Clearly. What’s also clear is that aggressive complaints against the media, coupled with negative attacks on her opponent, brought Hillary back from the grave. If history is any guide, the Clintons will continue their aggressive battle to regain the White House “until the last dog dies.” What’s also obvious is that the attacks and negativity will only continue and escalate on both sides from here on.

From the Clinton campaign, look for more innuendo, more sotto voce suggestions about inexperience and naiveté, more questions about everything and everyone from Antoin Rezko to Louis Farrakhan. From the Obama campaign, look for harsher examination of everything from the Clinton’s newfound wealth and still-concealed tax records to her votes in support of a war that continues to kill Americans and drain our treasury. Both sides are obviously preparing a fresh avalanche of accusations and attacks.

While ‘spinning’ the latest primary results for the press, for example, chief Obama strategist David Axelrod first noted the Clinton approach of “attack, attack, attack” and then promised to respond soon in kind. “What’s good for the goose is good for the gander,” Axelrod concluded.

In the process, however, Democrats can only hope that their collective goose doesn’t get cooked by the endless assaults on their two remaining candidates — one of whom apparently will still be standing unbowed but quite bloodied – to face John McCain in November’s general election. If the Democratic gaggle of geese morphs into a murder of crows, McCain will be the clear beneficiary.

But before contesting the general election, one must somehow, someway, first win the increasingly bitter race for the nomination. To inject a final sports reference, the only thing that matters in politics is if you “Just win, baby,” as the National Football League great Al Davis once eloquently phrased it.

And if that means ‘going negative’ proves to be the most effective tactic – whether used directly against your opponent, or more insidiously against the refs – then that’s what we’ll see from both the Obama and Clinton campaigns, no matter how distasteful the rest of us may find it.
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Filmmaker and journalist Rory O'Connor writes the 'Media Is A Plural' blog, accessible at
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