Kirsten Kukowski has spent her career as a communications professional in the national election arena for the GOP. She served as the communications director of the Republican National Convention this summer, and has previously worked on Scott Walker’s presidential campaign, Illinois senator Mark Kirk’s Senate campaign, and the McCain-Palin presidential campaign in Wisconsin. A Midwesterner, Kukowski has also served as a regional press secretary for the RNC Midwest and Great Lakes states and spent four years as the national press secretary for the RNC. On the last day of her Fall fellowship at the University of Chicago Institute of Politics, Kukowski sat down with the Gate’s Danielle Schmidt to discuss her views on bias in the media and how to move forward after the presidential election.
The Gate: As the national press secretary for the RNC, how did you promote unbiased reporting in the media even though you ultimately wanted Republicans, and the party in general, to come off in the best possible way?
Kirsten Kukowski: I think that we as communicators try for balanced stories. We’re all working towards getting our side of the story out, but we all understand that if the journalists are doing their jobs, then my counterpart in the Democratic Party, or on a Democratic campaign, is also going to have an equal voice. There are some people who subscribe to trying to get the stories that are one-sided, but I do not subscribe to that. That’s not to say that it hasn’t happened in the past, but I do think it’s in everyone’s best interest to have reporting that is fair and balanced. I realize that’s the Fox News slogan, which is kind of funny, but I do think it’s in everyone’s best interest.
Unfortunately, where we are right now in this campaign is that we just spent the last couple of years living in a world where these voters haven’t been educated about these candidates the way that they needed to be. Holding journalists accountable is the only way to do it. What that means is that there’s a lot of behind-the-scenes work that happens with these organizations, from developing good relationships with reporters and news editors to reading every single piece of news you possibly can so that you can hold people accountable and make persuasive and good arguments about different coverage. I also think that there’s a fair amount of work that needs to be done in terms of news consumers. The idea of getting your news from a news publication that is only in line with what you believe and what you want to hear is something that people need to start thinking twice about.
Gate: Although we can agree that balanced, unbiased reporting is important, when we consider the fact that these news outlets are essentially companies that need to make money, wouldn’t they just choose the catchiest news to report on? Take stories on Donald Trump, for example. Would you propose some sort of mandate to force balanced coverage across the networks?
Kukowski: I don’t like to use the word mandate; I don’t believe in mandates. That’s why I put more of the onus on news consumers, in that we all have to look at ourselves and start consuming news in a way that is respectable and not necessarily easy. You’re right, the media is a business, and [news outlets] are going to make business decisions, but there needs to be more of a conversation. And it needs to be brought to light more, because right now, I don’t think that it is. There is a public assumption that reporters are reporters and that it isn’t a business, but we all need to be honest about it.
Gate: Considering how we continue to associate many news organizations as having at least some sort of bias, do you think unbiased reporting will ever be feasible?
Kukowski: I would hope that it’s possible. I spoke to a journalism class at Medill the other day, and we had this conversation. I stressed to them, as growing journalists, that unbiased reporting is something they need to think about as they are pursuing their careers. Journalism has changed, and far too many journalists are using mediums like Twitter and other social media platforms to be opinionated instead of reporting facts.
I understand that this election is very emotional. But it doesn’t help anybody to be putting your toe on the scale for one person or another, because we haven’t had that honest conversation with news consumers yet about how we need to move forward.
Gate: Donald Trump has said that the media is rigged against him, and speculated that it is the fault of the Clinton campaign. Do you think that the media is rigged against him, Republicans, or anyone else?
Kukowski: I, as a Republican communicator, have felt that there is a bias in the media, but I don’t think it’s all of the media. Blanket comments like that are difficult and not true. I do think that the makeup of political journalists tends to be more liberal. There are many journalists who are liberal who do a very good job of putting on their journalist hat and remaining neutral.
Gate: So you feel like the media is telling it as it is?
Kukowski: Yes. I do not believe there is some conspiracy or completely rigged system against Donald Trump. In the primaries, there was actually a study out of Harvard that looked at positive and negative news coverage from each of the outlets during the primary. The least positive of the news outlets was The New York Times, and it was in the 60-percent range, so it’s not as if Trump’s earned media is extremely negative. Now, his fortunes have changed in the general election, but a lot of that has changed because of him and his actions.
I believe that because of his recent actions, the reporting class is afraid of what a Donald Trump presidency would be, and so I do believe that I’ve seen the media shift a little bit. We need to look at that. After the election, there will be studies and surveys about this that we should all look at. But right now, it’s a very emotional time for everybody. We will all need to take a step back and see what happens after the election.
Gate: You mentioned negative media, and I know when I’m watching the news and seeing a fairly negative report on a candidate, I always think, “No press is bad press.” Do you think that statement is true with an election?
Kukowski: I actually used that phrase in my last class. It’s hard. Up until a couple weeks ago, I thought Trump was living that, that no press was bad press. It’s quite something to watch; he’s really put himself in an interesting position just on earned media. He has put very little resources into paid media.
Gate: He has over two billion dollars in earned media coverage.
Kukowski: In the primaries, he put so little cash into media in comparison to his opponents, but he got so much attention. That got him to where he is now. The same holds true in the general election, in that he has spent very little on paid media and has basically lived off of earned media in comparison to Hillary Clinton. Up until about three weeks ago, when it really dropped out from under him, he was still neck-and-neck with her. The last few weeks have been so bad for him from a media perspective that it probably changed the dynamic. Up until then, though, I think he did live under “no news is bad news.” It’s hard to know.
Gate: For most of your career, you have focused on national media coverage. But within the field of communications, you’ve also worked on state races, regional communications offices, and then at the RNC. How is the coverage different in these different arenas, besides just in quantity?
Kukowski: There is a difference. If you’re picking up the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, you’re expecting a different kind of news coverage than if you’re picking up The New York Times. People expect it to be more localized, and I think that’s reflected in how you operate in a more local area. There are a lot of very good local reporters. In a lot of ways, that’s really helpful for those of us who do this for a living. The national press corps works very hard, but they also do this day in and day out, nothing else. They go to see the same rallies, see the same speeches, they cover this every minute of every day. Anybody doing anything every minute of every day has a different [perspective] than, say, a local reporter who is looking at it through a different lens. It’s very healthy to have the different reporters viewing it from those different lenses. But yes, there is a difference between local, state, and national reporting for sure. Not negative versus positive, though—just different.
Gate: Do you think that the coverage of the presidential race four years ago, or even eight years ago, differed vastly from the coverage this year? How do you think all the attention this race has received has affected how it’s been covered?
Kukowski: Open presidential races usually garner more attention than a re-election campaign would. You’re right, 2008 and 2016 are more alike in that you have two candidates who are more outside the box than we’ve seen in the past. Not that you could really compare Barack Obama and Donald Trump, but in some ways, they’re running very similar types of campaigns, targeting very similar types of electorate—people who haven’t voted before, activists, for example. Having outside-the-box type candidates in an open election did create a different kind of atmosphere. Having a primary with seventeen candidates on our side, and then having an unexpected primary on the Democratic side with Bernie Sanders coming out of nowhere in a lot of ways built on that. Having a reality star in that discussion made it even more so. Trump is a master marketer. This is what he does for a living, and that’s how he structured his campaign—completely dependent on media and a reality-TV type of communication to exist.
Gate: As in entertainment?
Kukowski: Yes, that’s what we got. And since it’s been all-eyes for so long—I started this in January 2015, some people even started before then—that’s a long time to be paying attention to something so intensely.
Gate: Would you say the public is frustrated?
Kukowski: The public is very frustrated! They’ve watched this whole thing unfold for so long, whereas if they hadn’t watched so much in 2015 and came on in 2016, maybe they wouldn’t be so disenfranchised. But now it’s been two years, and they want this to be over.