The political media’s declining power

March 19, 2013

new Pew report on the state of the media exposes one of the worst-kept secrets in politics: reporters are losing their power to frame presidential contests for the average citizen.


President Obama and the media. AP photo.

"Campaign reporters were acting primarily as megaphones, rather than investigators, of the assertions put forward by the candidates and other political partisans," according to the report. "Only about a quarter of statements in the media about the character and records of the presidential candidates originated with journalists in the 2012 race, while twice that many came from political partisans."

Here's a look at how those 2012 numbers compared to past presidential elections:

That's a remarkable reversal in how people are getting their information about the presidential candidates and reflects two realities.

1. Technology has enabled candidates/campaigns to more effectively end-run the mainstream media. President Obama's campaign team has used everything from his Twitter feed to the images that official White House photographer Pete Souza sends out via Flickr to sell their preferred image of the nation's chief executive to the country. That is an image not filtered through the media in any way, shape or form.

2. There are simply fewer reporters than there were a decade or two decades ago due to the contraction of the news business -- particularly when it comes to newspapers and magazines. "Estimates for newspaper newsroom cutbacks in 2012 put the industry down 30 percent since its peak in 2000 and below 40,000 full-time professional employees for the first time since 1978," according to the Pew report. With fewer reporters and more to cover -- thanks to the endless churn of social media, cable television and so on and so forth -- the tendency to do a sort of paint-by-numbers reporting takes over.

Regardless of the reasons, what's clear from the Pew study is that the political media has less ability to play its traditional referee role than ever before. That, many people would say, is a good thing since distrust of the media is now rampant among partisans of both parties. Without the negative influence of the media, the argument goes, people can focus on the issues and where the two parties stand.

Or not. Nearly three quarters of all statements about the two candidates' characters in the 2012 race were negative, a significant rise from even 2008.

When news organizations are pushed out of the information pipeline, voters alone are left to sort through messages that are tested in focus groups and opposition attacks tailored with great specificity. And on the heels of a presidential campaign in which one candidate's pollster said he refused to let the campaign be dictated by fact-checkers, such a strategy is growing easier to execute.

The facts are these: Campaigns and candidates have more power than ever before to frame both their positive narrative and their opponents' negative one. And, if the Pew numbers are right, both sides are spending much more time on the negative side of the ledger -- at least in 2012.

Think of those numbers the next time you run down the role of the political media.

Paul to endorse pathway to citizenship: Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) has endorsed an overhaul of the nation’s immigration laws that would allow the nation’s estimated 11 million illegal immigrants to obtain legalized status. The endorsement, a notable one for the tea party favorite, would be tied to border security progress. Paul's announcement is reflective of broad movement among leading Republicans -- even among the party's conservative ranks -- toward embracing immigration reform.

It's notable that Paul's father, former congressman Ron Paul of Texas, has taken a pretty hard line on immigration, rejecting the DREAM Act and questioning whether the birthright citizenship clause in the Constitution extends to children born of illegal immigrants in the U.S.

Election Day in South Carolina! Voters head to the polls today in South Carolina's 1st District special primary election. The biggest question is who will end up in a near-certain GOP runoff against former governor Mark Sanford. There are 15 (!) possibilities, though only a handful with a real shot. Over on the Democratic side, Elizabeth Colbert Busch is the overwhelming favorite to advance. Colbert Busch would be a huge underdog in the general election, given the district's conservative tilt. But a rough runoff that forces Republicans to spend more money would boost the Democrat's outside chance of an upset.

Polls close at 7 p.m. ET. Read our preview here and stay tuned to Post Politics tonight for results.

Tencher, McNally joining DSCC: Senate Democrats' campaign arm has brought on Paul Tencher as its campaign director and Dan McNally as regional political director for the 2014 cycle. Tencher most recently managed now-Sen. Joe Donnelly's unlikely win in Indiana last cycle. He'll focus on campaigns in seven states that Mitt Romney carried in 2012. McNally, an expeirenced House race strategist, managed now Rep. Mark Pocan's 2012 campaign in Wisconsin's 2nd Distirct.

Fixbits:

Could a government shutdown cancel the White House Easter Egg Roll?

Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus defended the party's former chief of staff on questions about whether he profited from the party and Romney retaining the firm he co-founded.

The House Democratic budget proposal includes $1.2 trillion in new taxes and $200 billion worth of stimulus spending.

New York City Michael Bloomberg (I) wants retailers to keep tobacco products out of sight.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) is raising a lot of money.

Richard Carmona is not going to run for governor of Arizona next year.

Priebus vs. Steele continues.

Must-reads:

"Gun control groups turn focus to ‘riders’ backed by NRA" -- Ed O’Keefe and and Philip Rucker, Washington Post

"Meet the RNC's Curious Poster Boy for Hispanic Outreach" -- Scott Bland and Alex Roarty, Hotline On Call

"Bachmann Seeks Redemption at Home" -- Kyle Trygstad, Roll Call

Scott Clement, a polling analyst with Capital Insight, the independent polling group of Washington Post Media, contributed to this report. 

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Sean Sullivan | March 18, 2013