Tag Archives: media bias

The Post-Mortem on Gingrich: Why The Fat Man Sang

It has been a little more than a month since Newt Gingrich formally ended his improbable and wildly entertaining bid for the Republican nomination.   The Newtster, whose campaign had been on life support for several weeks, finally bowed to reality shortly after Mitt Romney crushed him in the winner-take-all Delaware primary on April 24, one of several victories for the Mittster that same night that made it clear Newt had used up all of his nine political lives, and then some.   A subdued Newt formally gave up the ghost a week later, but not before reiterating his belief that his grandchildren would likely be able to visit a moon colony in their lifetime.  The moon colony, of course, had long become the symbol of Newt’s candidacy: big on ideas, short on practicality.   But that caricature both oversimplifies and underestimates Newt’s impact on this race.  For, despite a rather inauspicious start that had the media declaring his candidacy over before it began, Newt parlayed a series a scintillating debate performances (who can forget Newt taking on John King over media coverage of his first wife’s allegations that Newt sought an open marriage?) and the support of Sugar Daddy Sheldon Adelson into what is essentially a distant third-place finish, as measured by popular votes, in the Republican nomination. In so doing, Newt outperformed a number of other candidates, including Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, Jon Huntsman and Tim Pawlenty.

Here’s Newt at his media bashing best, taking on CNN’s King regarding the Newt’s First Wife’s Club:

This was probably the high point of Newt’s campaign. In a reminder that those who live by the sword often die by it, Newt’s longshot campaign probably ended shortly after with his poor debate performance prior to the Florida primary, when Mitt’s superior opposition research gave him the material to flummox the Newtster during an exchange over investment portfolios.  Of course, Newt was already facing a huge financial deficit as Romney was pummeling him in the ad wars.  But after Florida Newt’s support in the polls dwindled as the Tea Party and conservative evangelical vote switched to Santorum.

To me, one of the distinguishing features of Newt’s candidacy was just how hated he was by both the media punditocracy and by my colleagues in political science.  I was reminded of this when I looked at the recent Pew report documenting the tone of media coverage of the various Republican candidates during the nomination fight.   As you can see in this chart put together by Peter Cahill based on the Pew Report of media coverage, except for a brief period heading into and just after Newt’s victory in the South Carolina primary, his media coverage was uniformly negative.  Indeed, it started out negative, and largely remained that way through most of his candidacy.

.Compare this to Mitt Romney’s coverage, against based on the Pew Report. Although Mitt had his share of negative coverage, it was much more evenly balanced, for the most part, between negative and positive tone through much of his campaign.

 

Now, let me make clear that I am not necessarily asserting that Newt’s predominantly negative coverage reflected reporters’ animosity toward him.  Instead it may have been driven more by media perceptions that his campaign was poorly run and that he never had much chance of winning the nomination.   Still, I can’t discount the possibility that the two are at least distantly linked. Combined with the spending gap, the disparity in media tone in campaign coverage may lead some of Newt’s supporters to cry foul; clearly the odds were stacked – unfairly – against their man in this primary fight.  I don’t blame them for thinking so.  But I don’t think Newt lost because he was outspent, or because of predominantly negative news coverage. Ultimately, what doomed Gingrich was his record in several areas that, when publicized, caused an erosion of support among the Tea Party faction.  Perhaps none was more damning than Newt’s consulting work for Fannie Mae, which many Floridians blamed in part for the collapse of the housing market. Newt’s claim that he was merely a historian who gave impartial advice to Fannie Mae never really passed the smell test.  Throw in his ill-fated dalliance with Nancy Pelosi on behalf of combatting climate change, and you can understand why conservatives ultimately defaulted to Rick Santorum as the Mitt alternative.

Why did the Fat Man sing?  Not because of negative media coverage, or an inability to raise money, or because my political science colleagues positively despised the man. (For the record, I found him thoroughly entertaining!) Those were merely symptoms of a deeper malady: Gingrich was running in a Republican nomination race with a record that a good many Republican voters viewed as insufficiently conservative.

Obama and Media Bias: Once More, Into the Tank?

A recent Politico story citing inconsistencies in news coverage about Mitt Romney and Barack Obama is once again raising questions about media bias and whether national news outlets are in the tank for the President.  The specific target of Republican’s ire was last Sunday’s front-page New York Times story that, according to Politico, suggests thatthe Romneys are silly rich, move in rarefied and exotic circles, and are perhaps a tad shady.”  In response, the Atlantic’s James Fallows, citing a recent Pew study, (hat tip to Helen Hur for bringing this to my attention) argues that, if anything, the press has been far more critical of Obama than Romney this past year. As he writes “At no time in the past year has coverage of President Obama been as positive as that of Governor Romney. Indeed, at no time in the past year has it been on-balance positive at all.” And, in fact, the ongoing Pew Study of media coverage does show that the tone of Obama’s news coverage has been predominantly negative – more so than the coverage Romney has received. As the following table based on the Pew data shows, although Romney has endured mostly negative coverage during the campaign, it has turned positive since he basically clinched the nomination in March.  In contrast, Obama’s coverage has been consistently negative since at least last July. (Obama data in blue, Romney in red; negative coverage represented by the dotted line, positive by the solid line.)

Readers will recall that this is a sharp reversal from the 2008 campaign, when Pew found Obama getting generally favorable coverage, particularly in comparison to John McCain and, to a lesser extent, Hillary Clinton. So, if we accept the Pew findings (and not everyone does) what are we to make of this seeming reversal in media tone?

I’ve written extensively about Obama and news bias in the past.  Rather than rehash those posts, let me issue a few simple reminders when discussing this topic. First, we need to distinguish the tone of coverage from the political views of national news journalists who are doing the reporting. National journalists are more liberal, in the aggregate, than the population as a whole.  But that doesn’t mean their coverage is politically biased.  Second, we need to define what we mean by media.  Critics carping about Fox’s conservative slant often lump the talk shows by Sean Hannity and Greta Susteren in with their regular news coverage hosted by Shepherd Smith.  However, the two are different types of media.  Similarly, talk radio is dominated by conservative hosts far more than is cable television. Third, discussions of bias often presume that the ideal is “nonbiased” coverage. But what does that mean? Look at the chart above – what it doesn’t show is the amount of “neutral” coverage – that is, coverage that Pew argues is neither negative nor positive in tone.  To calculate that total, add the percent of negative and positive stories together, and subtract from 100.  You will see that in many months a plurality of news stories is neutral in tone.

However, not everyone would agree that “neutral” coverage is non-biased. For example, when shown evidence that Obama received more favorable coverage than McCain in 2008, many Obama supporters argue that Obama was the stronger candidate who was leading in the polls and was likely to win the election.  Hence he should have received more favorable coverage, since he was running a better campaign. That may be true. But I suspect those individuals who believed Obama deserved favorable coverage in 2008 are not now going to accept the premise that his predominantly negative coverage is justified because he’s been a bad president.  More generally, it is not clear what the preferred alternative to “biased’ coverage is, or if there can even be “nonbiased” coverage.  Should it be “balanced”?  “Neutral”? An accurate reflection of “reality”? At the very least, critics needs to specify what that preferred alternative is.

With these cautions in mind, what explains Obama’s largely negative numbers as reflected in the Pew chart?  In part, they are a function of timing. Remember, the Pew researchers caution that their “research on the tone in news coverage is not a study of media fairness or bias.”  As they explain, Pew’s “research examines and quantifies all the assertions about a candidate in news coverage. When a candidate is widely criticized by rivals, for instance, Americans are hearing negative statements about that candidate. When a candidate begins to surge in the polls, and his or her candidacy begins to look more viable, Americans are receiving positive statements about that candidate.”

Given this coding methodology, we don’t need to search for hidden bias among reporters to explain the predominantly negative tone of Obama’s coverage during the last year. Rather than media bias, it is far more likely to be driven by campaign-related statements made by Obama’s Republican rivals, which are dutifully reported by the media. Given this dynamic, it is hardly surprising that a President who has been targeted by multiple Republican candidates during the current campaign cycle is receiving generally negative press.

But I don’t think all of the negative coverage reflects the media reporting criticisms by Republicans.  Some is attributable to the structural bias that drives media coverage.  By structural bias, I mean how the media shapes coverage in a way designed to attract an audience and make a profit. One aspect of this structural bias is a tendency to simplify and personalize issues. We saw both traits on acute display this past weekend, as the media covered the story of anemic job growth and revised GDP figures that collectively suggest that economic growth is slowing once more.  For the most part, journalists tended to discuss these dismal economic numbers as if they were a reflection of Obama’s leadership – or lack thereof.  But this is a highly dubious proposition – something I’ll address more fully in my next post.

Media Bias, the Debates, and Why Jon Huntsman Is In Siberia

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…

(LAUGHTER)

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.