HOW THE MEDIA WARPED THE PRIMARIES
-by Paul Lukasiak (of the AWOL Project)
On Monday, a new report was released to little fanfare by The Project For Excellence in Journalism and The Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy. The Invisible Primary: Invisible No Longer provides a quantitative and qualitative analysis of press coverage of the Presidential campaign during the first five months of 2006. For the most part, the report treats the coverage as if there was a single campaign, rather than two distinct campaigns. But a comparison of the top line data with other sources of data tells a story that the report barely mentions: the way in which media coverage has not merely influenced, but severely warped, the primary process.
The warping was both quantitative and qualitative. Certain lesser-known candidates (the ‘media favorites’) received a disparate amount of coverage, while other candidates with more experience and/or higher name recognition were all but ignored. And these same ‘media favorites’ received much more positive coverage, and much less negative coverage, than well-known, established candidates.
PART I: THE TWO-PERSON DEMOCRATIC PRIMARY-- STACKING THE DECK
The Democratic Primary has been severely warped by the media’s insistence on turning it into a two-person race between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. There were more stories about Hillary Clinton (294), and almost as many stories about Barack Obama (240) as the other six candidates (John Edwards, Joseph Biden, Chris Dodd, Bill Richardson, Dennis Kucinich, Mike Gravel) combined (265 total). Moreover, when there was a secondary focus to a story, Hillary (148) and Obama (147) far outstripped the other candidates like Edwards (48 secondary mentions.).
Despite the enormous strides this nation has made over the last 40 years in combating racial and gender-based prejudices and negative stereotypes, the fact remains that a substantial percentage of Americans will not vote for a woman on a Black person to be President, and an even larger percentage will have their perception of female and Black candidates filtered through a veil of prejudices. This is especially true among older Americans, and in general the older a person is, the more likely they are to vote. Thus, women and Black Americans still face an uphill battle at the ballot box.
Nevertheless, a one term female Senator with extremely high negatives and a Black candidate with merely two years of national experience in the Senate received more coverage than two sitting Senators (Biden and Dodd) each with over 30 years in Congress; a sitting governor whose resume includes 7 terms in Congress, UN Ambassador, and Secretary of Energy who is also the first Hispanic to run for the Presidency (Richardson); a sitting 5 term Congressman (Kucinich); a former two-term Senator (Gravel); and a former Vice Presidential candidate and one term senator (Edwards.) combined.
The lack of coverage for Edwards is especially notable. Traditionally, when a failed Vice Presidential nominee seeks the Presidency in the next election cycle (e.g. Walter Mondale and Joe Lieberman), they are given considerable coverage, and usually billed as the ‘front runner’. And in January 2007, Edwards had high name recognition, and was leading the pack in Iowa. But Edwards not only received little coverage for the first five months of 2007, what coverage he did get was decidedly negative-- the only month he got positive coverage was March, when his wife Elizabeth announced the recurrence of her breast cancer.
Also notable is the tone of Obama’s coverage, which was far more positive (46.7% of stories) and less negative ( 15.8%) than either Clinton (26.9% positive, 37.8% negative) or Edwards (31.0% positive, 35.2% negative.)
According to the Gallup Organization Clinton had a clear national profile (in Nov. 2006, 95% “of adult Americans [knew] enough about [her] to be able to give an opinion….”) at the beginning of the campaign. Edwards was well known (80% in February) too, but made no additional inroads into the public consciousness by May (81%).
Speculation regarding an Obama candidacy was well underway by October, 2006, and by Decenber 2006 he was recognizable to 53% of Americans. Two months later, 72% knew enough about him to rate him (by May ’07 it was 75%).. The amount and tone of Obama’s coverage in January and February not only considerably increased his name recognition, but the overwhelmingly positive tone of the coverage has clearly provided him with an advantage in the national polls as well. Obama-mania peaked in March 2007, when he was given a positive rating by 58% of Americans, with only 18% viewing him negatively.
(In February 2006, a Diego/Hotline Poll showed that only 37% of Americans knew enough about Obama to rate him. Gallup did not start polling for Obama until December, 2006.)
As The Invisible Primary notes, “[t]he two sitting Senators [Clinton and Obama] were presented as locked in a two-way race.” The choice given to Democrats was between a woman about whom a substantial percentage of Americans (between 40% and 50% in various polls) have a negative impression of, and a Black candidate who has only two years national experience. It is difficult to not conclude that the media wants a Republican President-- or at minimum wants to make sure that the 2008 Presidential Election is “competitive."