First the Good News, Hillary
She's Ahead in Coverage, But Most of It's Negative

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 29, 2007

If you harbor a sneaking suspicion that the 2008 campaign is all about Hillary, you're right.

Hillary Clinton has drawn nearly twice as much media coverage as any Republican presidential candidate, making her the dominant figure in the race. But that coverage is more negative than positive, a new study says, in part because the former first lady is such an object of revulsion on conservative talk radio.

In the first five months of the year, says the Project for Excellence in Journalism, 17 percent of the stories were about Clinton, followed by Barack Obama (14 percent), Rudy Giuliani (9 percent), John McCain (7 percent) and Mitt Romney (5 percent). Everyone else was a relative blip.

The two front-runners, Clinton and Giuliani, achieved a rough parity: 37 percent of the stories about them were negative and 27 percent positive, with the rest neutral.

Overall, though, the Democratic candidates drew more positive stories (35 percent) than the Republicans (26 percent). That, says the Washington-based research group -- which conducted the study with Harvard's Shorenstein Center -- was almost entirely due to the friendly coverage accorded Obama (47 percent positive) and the heavily negative treatment of McCain (12 percent positive).

The project examined coverage by newspapers (The Washington Post, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal, USA Today and several smaller ones); network morning and evening broadcasts; cable news shows; radio programs, including those of Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Ed Schultz; and such major Web sites as Yahoo and AOL.

The figures on some candidates are undoubtedly dated. In recent weeks, Obama, who trails Clinton by about 30 points, has been hammered by reporters for failing to attack his Democratic rival more aggressively. McCain, whose bid seemed to implode when his fundraising plummeted, has drawn praise for his feistier performances and uptick in opinion surveys.

And that gets to the heart of any analysis of political coverage. The positive and negative assessments have little to do with the candidates' stances on Iraq, health care or taxes, or even a rudimentary judgment on whether they would make a good president. Instead, the tone is a measure of their standing in the polls. When Obama was hot, reporters kept repeating the words "rock star" like a mantra; now that the Illinois senator is way behind, he is seen as badly out of tune.

"Once again, the media have a horse-race lens," says Tom Rosenstiel, the project's director. "The lens means that if you're doing better than expected, you get better coverage, quite apart from what you're proposing to do for the country, your record, your character."

ABC, for example, reported: "Shattering the record held by Al Gore when he ran for president, Senator Clinton raised $26 million over 10 weeks." NBC reported that "Rudy Giuliani had his stature lifted by 9/11 more than any American politician except for George W. Bush, and unlike Bush he's kept that advantage. He leads in some national polls."

On the negative side, a CBS anchor said that Clinton, in New Hampshire, "took it on the chin from some very hard-core antiwar Democrats. . . . There's almost nothing she can say to dig her out of the hole of having voted for the war." An NBC report said that "the question is whether 9/11 will be enough to overcome the social issues and Giuliani's two divorces and three marriages."

No shock here: 63 percent of the stories focused on political strategy and 17 percent on the candidates' backgrounds, compared with 15 percent on their proposals and 1 percent on their records. The remaining 4 percent dealt with miscellaneous topics.

A story was deemed positive or negative only if two-thirds of its statements -- from journalists and those interviewed -- were clearly favorable or unfavorable. More than half of a story had to be about a candidate to be counted toward his or her total.

Forty-nine percent of the stories involved Democratic candidates and 31 percent Republicans, a gap that Rosenstiel attributes in part to the major Democrats' announcing their bids earlier and in part to the novelty of serious female and African American contenders.

Bias is obviously a possibility, Rosenstiel says. But reporters, for the moment, may simply find Clinton and Obama -- who drew as much coverage as all the Republican candidates combined -- more interesting. John Edwards, by contrast, was overshadowed for weeks by his wife, Elizabeth, and her battle with cancer.

For the junkies, the outlet-by-outlet breakdowns are fascinating. Newspapers gave Clinton roughly twice the percentage of favorable stories as other media outlets, while discussions about her on talk radio were an eye-popping 86 percent negative.

Front-page newspaper coverage of Giuliani tended to be negative, "thanks in part to rough coverage from his hometown paper, the New York Times," the report said. On Fox News, Giuliani drew eight positive stories and three negative, with seven rated neutral.

Coverage for Obama was 70 percent positive in newspapers, 58 percent positive on network morning shows and 55 percent positive on evening newscasts. The overall coverage slipped to neutral in May as some of the glow faded from his candidacy.

Surprisingly, the first half-hour of the morning shows carried more campaign stories than the nightly newscasts. "Today" led with 110 stories, followed by "Good Morning America" (81), CBS's "Early Show" (74), "NBC Nightly News" (56), "CBS Evening News" (55) and ABC's "World News" (43).

PBS's "NewsHour With Jim Lehrer" covered the campaign far less than the evening newscasts, but gave the lesser-known candidates about as much attention as the front-runners.

Clean Bill of Health

ABC News has found nothing to retract.

After an internal investigation of Alexis Debat, a network consultant who put his name on a series of bogus interviews published in French magazines, the network said last week it had found only four minor errors on stories in which he was involved.

"Mr. Debat was not the sole source for anything ABC News reported," news division President David Westin told his staff in a memo. "Moreover, we confirmed with Mr. Debat's confidential sources that they had given him the information as he'd claimed in contributing to our reports."

Westin said ABC, which fired Debat after discovering a discrepancy in his r¿sum¿, would adopt new procedures for the hiring and on-air identification of consultants.

"I would not call this a victory," Debat said. "I lost absolutely everything in this affair, and it caused tremendous anguish to my former friends and colleagues . . . for whom I have nothing but affection and respect. But this is a good first step towards clearing my name."

Media Morsels

¿ "We blew it," writes George Rodrigue, managing editor of the Dallas Morning News. He apologized to readers for assigning reporter Katie Fairbank to cover a pay dispute between American Airlines and the pilots' union, even though editors knew that her husband is a pilot at American. "We put Katie in an unfair position," Rodrigue acknowledged after D magazine noted the conflict.

¿ The Staunton, Va., News Leader has fired sportswriter Blair Parker for fabricating at least four stories, including a piece about hunting and fishing that was lifted from several publications and that identified as a Virginia official someone who works at a similar agency in Illinois.

¿ John Podhoretz, tapped as the new editor of Commentary magazine, has drawn some barbs because his father, Norman, a leading neoconservative, held that job for 35 years. But Norman Podhoretz stepped down in 1995 and found out about the offer only after his son had accepted. John Podhoretz, an author and New York Post columnist, was one of the founding editors of the Weekly Standard. Still, since there was no search process, there have been cries of "neo-nepotism."

"It's silly for me to respond because I don't accept the premise," Podhoretz told the New York Times. "I have a professional career that's dated back 25 years. I've started two magazines, worked at three others."

¿ Maria Shriver, who reluctantly gave up her job as an NBC News correspondent after becoming California's first lady, says she's not going back. The reason: the media frenzy over Anna Nicole Smith's death. "It was then that I knew that the TV news business had changed and so had I," Shriver said last week.

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