The recent controversy regarding whether CBS deliberately limited Michelle Bachmann’s participation in Saturday’s Republican debate once again highlights the crucial role the media plays in winnowing the candidate field during the months prior to the actual start of voting for candidate delegates. As proof of CBS’ “liberal bias”, Bachmann’s camp pounced on the advertent release of an email sent by CBS news director John Dickerson to his colleagues suggesting they get someone else to interview after the debate since Bachmann was not a front-runner in the race for the nomination. Dickerson noted that Bachmann was “not going to get many questions” in the debate and that “she’s nearly off the charts” in polling, trailing the frontrunners.
As it turned out, in Saturday’s debate, Bachmann did not get her first question until 15 minutes into the event, and she did not get any follow-up questions, which was in marked contrast to how frontrunners Cain, Gingrich, Romney and Perry were treated. For Bachmann and her supporters – who have clashed with the media before – this is simply additional evidence of CBS’ liberal slant showing; the news organization is trying to limit coverage of the more conservative Republican candidates. Nor is Bachmann the only candidate to make this charge – the Paul camp has consistently complained that despite Paul’s fundraising prowess and early victories in straw polls, the media refuses to grant him top-tier status. And anyone who watches these debates knows that Rick Santorum almost always complains that he isn’t getting enough questions. Each of these candidates understands that, in this period of the invisible primary, media expectations can become self-fulfilling. If you get fewer questions, you get less exposure, and are deemed less viable, which affects your polling, which in turn hurts fundraising, which further depresses media coverage. And at some point you are permanently relegated to second-tier purgatory. .
So, are these candidates right? Is a liberal media trying to winnow them from the field? I’ve addressed issues of media bias many times before. There’s no doubt that the majority of journalists, print and electronic, working in the national press have political views that lean left. Occasionally their personal views spill over into the news coverage, although I think a bigger bias is what I call the structural bias exhibited by news organizations that are, in the end, profit-making enterprises that must attract a viewing audience.
But I don’t think Bachmann is correct in asserting that CBS’ liberal bias is driving their decision to focus on the frontrunners. As evidence, note that the most liberal Republican, Jon Huntsman, also received second-class treatment in Saturday’s debate. At one point in the debate Huntsman – echoing sentiments undoubtedly felt by Paul, Bachmann and Santorum – complained that “It gets a little lonely over here in Siberia from time to time.”
Rather than liberal bias, what is driving the media coverage is the difficulty in covering 8 candidates in equal depth. Faced with a nearly impossible task, journalists need to make choices, and their decisions are driven by the dictates governing the news business more generally: where’s the news? If all indications are that Bachmann is polling in single-digits, then she’s not likely to win the nomination, and thus her remarks are deemed less newsworthy. One need not resort to charges of political bias to understand why the media wants to see this field winnowed down to two-to-three candidates. And I can understand the sentiment. As one who has watched almost every Republican debate this campaign season, I can tell you that the logistics of making sure all eight candidates have their say creates problems, not least of which is that none of the candidates can say very much in any single answer.
So, how does a second-tier candidate get out of Siberia? By emulating Newt Gingrich’s strategy. It is easy to forget that not too long ago Gingrich was also languishing in loserville, all but written off by the national press. But he used the debates to resurrect his candidacy. He did so by understanding how to make his points using succinct catch phrases or referencing iconic symbols that resonated with Republican voters’ views, and by sprinkling in a steady barrage of barbs aimed at every Republicans’ favorite whipping boy: the liberal media. As an example, here’s how he responds to a question during Saturday’s debate on how to deal with Iran’s nuclear program:
“GINGRICH: First of all, abs — maximum covert operations to block and disrupt the Iranian program, including taking out their scientists, including breaking up their systems, all of it covertly, all of it deniable. Second, maximum…
GINGRICH: — maximum coordination with the Israelis in a way which allows them to maximize their impact in Iran.
GINGRICH: Third, absolute strategic program comparable to what President Reagan, Pope John Paul II and Margaret Thatcher did to the Soviet Union, of every possible aspect short of war of breaking the regime and bringing it down. And I agree entirely with Governor Romney. If in the end, despite all of those things, the dictatorship persists you have to take whatever steps are necessary to break its capacity to have a nuclear weapon.”
Note what he’s done here. The answer is short, and entertaining, and it includes references indicating he supports Israel, and implies that his policy would have the support of those Republican icons Ronald Reagan, John Paul II, and Margaret Thatcher who, by following a similar strategy, brought down the Soviet Union! (See, it works!) As icing on the cake, he obeys Reagan’s 11th commandment by praising the answer by his chief rival Mitt Romney. This is vintage Gingrich, and by dint of repeated answers like this, he has charted a slow but steady rise in the polls. (I need not take the time here to remind you that I cautioned long ago not to write Gingrich off, so don’t say you weren’t warned!)
Look, I understand Bachmann’s frustration, and that of Santorum, Huntsman and Paul. Media coverage is biased against them. The bias reflects the difficulty of covering eight candidates in the depth they deserve. So the media makes choices that inevitably favor some candidates over others. If I want to get out of Siberia, however, it is not going to help much by complaining that it’s too cold there. Instead, Bachmann needs to strap on her skis, harness the sled dogs, and start moving to warmer climes, either by charting her own trail or following Gingrich’s path. And she’d better hurry.