How the Media Shape Elections
Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards and Rudolph Giuliani, John McCain, Mitt Romney and Fred Thompson in their respective parties made it to that level by emerging in early polls, even though many commentators say these polls are meaningless. In terms of visibility, however, they mean everything. In primary politics name recognition equals money, money equals coverage, coverage equals name recognition, and name recognition equalsyou guessed itmore money.
Ask political reporters or editors how they decide who to cover and why they ignore candidates like Senators Joe Biden, Sam Brownback and Chris Dodd, and they will say, occasionally sheepishly: Look, there are 18 candidates, and we only have so much money and staff, and we can hardly afford to cover the big six or eight. Sure, Biden is the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has 30 years experience and is an engaging guy, but he is going nowhere.
Lack of coverage helps to ensure that such a candidate goes nowhere.
Today candidates have an alternative: they can turn to the Internet. The outspoken Elizabeth Edwards explained her husbands increasingly strident Internet campaign by saying: We cant make John black; we cant make him a woman. Those things get you a certain amount of fundraising dollars. She neglected to mention that they also garner attention from the mainstream media. So Edwards went around the mainstream media to the Internet, where he speaks out loudly and clearly.
How the media approach a campaign also serves to shape it. In the early part of 2007, for example, the media spent a lot of time asking: Can a woman, a black person or a Mormon be elected president? The typical answer was a definite maybe. But the question itself increased the recognition of the female, black and Mormon candidates. For the first time ever, the white Catholic and mainline Protestant men had to go nuclear to compete.
Was It Always Like This?
Eric Engberg, the former CBS News correspondent, is fond of saying that journalism is the only profession that gets rewarded for making mistakes: First you miss a story and get it all wrong, then the real story unfolds; it is an upset and what happens? You get an even bigger story! The media love upsets, surprises and Cinderella victories. Of course, the Cinderellas often toiled in obscurity before being discovered.
George McGovern, a former senator from South Dakota and the 1972 Democratic presidential candidate, tells a story about his run in 1971, when no media were taking him seriously. One day as he landed at the airport in Cleveland, where he was to give a substantive speech on economics at the Cleveland City Club, an aide looked out and saw a phalanx of television cameras. McGovern quickly woke up from a nap, straightened his tie and walked off the plane, only to see the cameramen dash away and swarm around Chubby Checker.
In 1975, when the media were sure that the Democratic candidates to watch were Lloyd Bentsen, Birch Bayh and Henry Jackson (known as Scoop), Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, rode around Iowa in a rental car going from one local radio station to another. They became known one city at a time. Jack Germond, the veteran political journalist, said that while everyone in Washington was swooning over Howard Baker, Iowans were learning about an obscure peanut farmer from Plains, Ga., who said he would never lie to them.
In 1983, with the experiences of McGovern and Carter under my belt, I was working with Gary Harts presidential campaign. Once again big media decided that the race was between the two front-runners, Walter Mondale and John Glenn. Hart was frustrated but not daunted. His staff was poor (they received no paychecks for months), cold (the heat was kept off in the national headquarters) and unduplicated (the Xerox machine was removed by bill collectors). Yet using several alternative strategies, Hart saw some media successes. First, work your way into other peoples stories. When the president says something, for example, be the first person to respond (White House reporters are happy for a quick quote). Second, if political reporters are not paying attention, look for ways to get into the business section, style section, even the sports section of the newspapers. Those reporters tend to play it straight, and their stories are read by audiences who do not automatically have their I hate politics guard up. Third, say yes to all offers of publicity.
In late 1983, when a network TV correspondent was assigned to a new technology story, she tried to enlist all the front-runners. They said they were far too busy to cooperate with a soft feature. We in the Hart campaign, by contrast, said: Sure, we will play. Are you doing focus groups? she asked. We have one scheduled with young people for next week, we said. (That was a stretch, but it seemed like a good idea.) We set up a group, the crew came, and we tested a slogan we knew was a winner with young people. How do you feel about a candidate who represents a new generation of leadership? we asked them. Wow, I would vote for him in a heartbeat and He speaks to me were the answers. This focus group touting our candidate and theme made it to the evening news virtually unedited. Later, the reporter remembered who helped her get on the air.
Can Such Things Happen This Year?
Dark-horse candidates slog on, convinced or at least hoping that lightning will strike in the same place a fourth or fifth time. But given the combination of an early primary and caucus calendar, the short time between the first primaries and Tsunami Tuesday on Feb. 5, the huge financial advantage of the front-runners and the medias decision to ignore all but the top tier, it seems that Cinderella may never even get to the ball.
Voters in the early states are being bombarded with messages from national media telling them which candidates are viable. Ron Brownstein, a columnist for The Los Angeles Times, put it this way: The new system isnt bringing back the bosses smoke-filled room, but it is increasing the clout of the air-conditioned television studio and the elegant drawing room in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. And it is presenting dark-horse candidates with something like a closed circle. Even in the initial states with the power to confer national viability, voters appear increasingly inclined to reward only the candidates who have already demonstrated it, in part because those are the only candidates they hear much about in the national media.
An unprecedented amount of coverage was given this year to what used to be called the invisible primary phase of the campaign. The Pew Research Centers Project for Excellence in Journalism has counted 5,051 newspaper and television stories about the top-tier candidates in the first half of 2007. Figures prepared by the Tyndall Group on the amount of time network news devotes to campaigns show that the time given in just the first half of 2007 outpaced the total number of minutes spent in the pre-presidential election years for the last four campaign cycles (Table 1).
The fall phase of the 2008 presidential campaigns has been marked by the arrival of embeds, formerly known as kids on the bus. These are young producers who are sent out by the networks to cover the campaigns 24/7. It is hardly surprising that the television networks have embedded full-time producers with the top two candidates on both sides and have assigned their highest-profile political reporters to cover them. NBC, for example, put Andrea Mitchell with Hillary Clinton; CBS assigned Jim Axelrod, their White House correspondent. The other candidates mainly get a day with one of these big reporters and an occasional look from the producers assigned to Iowa or New Hampshire. Only the top tier receives full network coverage.
Occasionally one of the lower-tier candidates gets a moment in the spotlight. Walter Shapiro, the author of One Car Caravan, a delightful look at the early phase of the 2004 campaign, when reporters could get up close and personal with candidates, says that this year it is almost impossible to do that. The top tier had entourages with palace guards, canned speeches and television and online ads from the beginning of the campaign.
News organizations have been fighting to get small snippets of exclusive information from the big eight. But Shapiro, who is now Washington bureau chief for Salon, decided to spend some of his scarce resources on Michael Sherer, a reporter for Salon, who developed an early fascination with Mike Huckabee, a former Arkansas governor and a Republican. Huckabee seemed to have a shot at breaking out of the pack, so Sherer wrote a long early profile on him. Shapiros hunch was pretty good, since Huckabee managed to have a minor Cinderella moment by coming in second in another allegedly meaningless event: the Iowa Republican Straw Poll. For a few quiet weeks at the end of the summer, Huckabee drew some coveted attention from the mainstream media as well, which may have helped to fill his paltry campaign coffers.
August was a huge bonanza month for Mike Huckabee. According to National Journals Hotline, he not only made it onto the Sunday talk-show circuit but topped the list of candidate exposure on cable television, with 1 hour and 19 minutes. He was seen on mainstream media and also on The Colbert Report (Comedy Central) and HBOs Real Time With Bill Maher, which moved him into the top 10 candidates in terms of airtime. Second in August was the first-place winner of the Iowa straw poll, Mitt Romney. Third was Joe Biden at 1 hour and 6 minutes.
The Unpredictables of Media Coverage
Other breaking news can wreak havoc with even the best media strategy. Mitt Romney, who spent most of his airtime capital on traditional media, was scheduled to appear on the business channel shows to promote his new tax plan. That day the Senator Larry Craig story broke (Craig was arrested in a mens room in Minneapolis). As a result, Romney used his air time explaining why he fired Craig from a post in his campaign.
The publication of Joe Bidens autobiography was a hook to help him get some visibility, which worked quite well. But a trip to Iraq in September, which his campaign hoped would gain him some airtime, was overshadowed by a surprise visit from President Bush, who has bigger marquee value than the senator from Delaware; then a sandstorm kept Biden from making a much-heralded interview on CNN.
In the quarterly review of the Pew Research Centers Project for Excellence in Journalism, the authors found that articles and television stories about the front-runners were so overwhelming in number that they did not even bother counting stories about the other candidates. It seems ironic, therefore, that while the media are preoccupied with the front-runners, the front-runners tend to avoid interviews, especially the Sunday talk shows and one-on-one interviews that they cannot control. A second Hotline list documents the coverage (Table 2).
In terms of the total time they have spent on the air giving interviews and answering questions, the top threeMcCain, Biden and Gingrichare hardly the front-runners in national polls. Those front-runnersClinton and Giulianiby contrast, are interview-averse, ranking 15th and 16th on the Hotline list. And Fred Thom-pson, who had many stories written and aired about him, clocked only 2 hours and 3 minutes of face time. Perhaps it just makes sense that the candidates least sought out by the media would avail themselves of the free talk shows.
One setting in which the second- and third-tier candidates had hoped to level the playing field was the debates. But the actual number of viewers for most of these forums has been low, and the news reports on them focus almost exclusively on the skirmishes among the leading candidates. A classic New York Times article following the April South Carolina Democratic debate had this insightful reporting on Senator Chris Dodd, who was mentioned for the first time in the 23rd paragraph: Senator Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut also took part in the debate.
Voters who want to go beyond horse-race journalism and make their own reasoned decisions about who can best lead the country can do it, although it will take a bit of hard work. All the candidates have Web sites, position papers and long biographies. Spending some time with C-Span, one of the few places on television that covers all the candidates talking to voters at length, is a way to assess these politicians unfiltered by the media lens. And watching the town meetings and neighborhood coffees, we are reminded how seriously the citizens in the early voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire take their role as surrogates for the rest of us.