Rick Santorum’s Trial by Media Focused on Birth Control

The former senator’s campaign says the press is unfairly targeting him. But Howard Kurtz says the surging candidate invites controversy by pushing his religious views. Plus, Santorum’s 10 most outrageous quotes.

Tom Pennington / Getty Images

Rick Santorum’s main complaint about the press used to be that he wasn’t getting enough of it. But now that he’s surged to the top of the national polls, the former senator’s campaign is growing increasingly perturbed by a wave of coverage of his views on birth control, abortion, and religion.

“It creates a picture that is dramatically incomplete, in our minds,” says John Brabender, Santorum’s top strategist. “It’s such a small part of what he’s done…To overconcentrate on social areas is doing him a disservice.”

Perhaps, but Santorum keeps feeding the media beast. On Face the Nation Sunday, he defended his slam that President Obama has a “phony theology” not “based on the Bible,” criticized prenatal testing as leading to more abortions, and said the president “has a very bad record on the issue of abortion and on children who are disabled in the womb.” He can hardly fault Bob Schieffer for devoting most of the interview to his divisive words.

The Pennsylvania Republican can turn testy at times. Santorum hasn’t engaged in much Newt-style media bashing, but the other day he ripped Charlie Rose for pressing him about a contraception joke told by his biggest financial backer.

Foster Freiss, the man financing Santorum’s super PAC, had told MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell that in his day, women practiced birth control by putting an aspirin between their knees. To say this didn’t go over too well would be an understatement, so Santorum had to know he’d be playing defense.

But when Rose—not exactly a prosecutorial interviewer—popped the question on CBS This Morning, Santorum accused him of playing “gotcha.” The anchor denied that, saying he was trying to understand how Santorum’s views differed from Friess’s.

“So now I’m gonna have to respond to when every supporter says something,” the candidate shot back. “Look, this is what you guys do. You don’t do this with President Obama. In fact, with President Obama, you went out and defended him from someone he sat in a church for 20 years and defended him with, ‘Oh, he can’t possibly believe what he listened to for 20 years.’ This is a double standard, it’s what you’re pulling off, and I’m gonna call you on it.”

Leaving aside the fact that the media gave candidate Obama a very hard time about Jeremiah Wright after ABC broke the story, does Santorum have a legitimate beef?

“Conservatives in general are held to a different standard than Obama would be held to,” Brabender told me. He shied away from the term liberal bias, saying that journalists are instead echoing attacks against Santorum from the left. “It’s an effort by liberals to discredit him by using distortions,” Brabender says.

The Santorum camp has a point, but it’s a point that only goes so far.

Journalists do have a particular fascination with such issues as abortion and gay marriage when covering Republicans. It’s not just that media types tend to lean left on these social issues, but that these are hot-button wedge issues that divide the country. As Brabender puts it, “visceral issues just make better news.”

But while journalists are more interested in Santorum’s verbiage on these matters than, say, his plan to abolish taxes on manufacturing firms, it is also true that Santorum’s uncompromising stance on social issues helps him appeal to evangelical Christians. And he’s not shy about preaching the virtues of home schooling, another topic that came up with Schieffer, when he wants to narrowcast a conservative message. In that sense, he may be trying to have it both ways.

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Santorum said in a 2006 interview that birth control is “harmful to women” and “harmful to society”—positions that hardly place him smack in the American mainstream. Still, he says today that while he opposes contraception as a Catholic, he would do nothing to restrict its use.

Similarly, his opposition to abortion—even in cases of rape—may alienate some voters, especially in a general election. “As horrible as the way that that son or daughter and son was created, it still is her child,” Santorum told CNN’s Piers Morgan last month. The right approach, he said, is to “accept what God has given to you…I can’t think of anything more horrible, but nevertheless, we have to make the best out of a bad situation.”

What’s happening here is that Santorum is being aggressively frisked by the media for the first time in this campaign. All but ignored until he eked out a win in Iowa, all but written off when he tanked in the next four GOP contests, Santorum has surged since his hat trick of winning Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri. The press, and the Obama campaign, are now having to confront the possibility that he might win the nomination. So everything he’s ever said or written is being exhumed for inspection in a very compressed time frame.

The candidate, naturally, doesn’t like it. “This is just crap,” he told National Review, referring to the Friess incident (for which the financier apologized).

The dilemma for Santorum is that he now has to defend on a national stage the kind of red-meat rhetoric that worked for him as a conservative lawmaker. In his 2006 book It Takes a Family, Santorum wrote that “the radical feminists succeeded in undermining the traditional family and convincing women that professional accomplishments are the key to happiness,” the kind of swipe that might seem to denigrate working women. Indeed, as Politico notes, a CNN poll shows Santorum winning 37 percent of men and 29 percent of women, a striking gender gap.

The Santorum team believes some in the press are wrenching their man’s words out of context—highlighting his praise for women who stay at home, for instance, while omitting his comments that mothers have a valid choice in pursuing careers. But as Mitt Romney has learned with such remarks as “I’m not concerned with the very poor,” it’s awfully hard to explain away dumb utterances, no matter the context.

In an interesting twist, Brabender contends that journalists are going easy on the former Massachusetts governor, especially since he was supporting abortion and gay rights nearly two decades ago.

“It’s amazing how few questions Romney gets from his 1994 campaign,” he says. “Those are devastating in a Republican primary, but no one seems to want to write about those things,” while Santorum is “being held accountable for everything he’s said since kindergarten.”

Actually, Romney’s evolution from his days as a Massachusetts moderate is at the heart of the media’s skeptical narrative about him. If news outlets aren’t reporting much on his liberal sound bites from the 1990s, that’s because they did it so often over the last year, and when Romney first ran in 2008. Santorum is what investigative reporters crave, a fresh target.

It may seem unfair for the press to pile on one candidate and relentlessly vet his views about women and religion. But no one becomes president without going through this kind of media gauntlet. And if Santorum finds that painful, perhaps he should ask Foster Freiss for an aspirin.