Two Democrats Dominate Coverage

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 29, 2007 9:11 AM

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 resume, 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

"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."

Furthermore . . .

Speaking of Hillary, here's a headline (in the Boston Globe) that no one else gets: "Clinton Praised By Husband in Harlem." Really!

Jerry Ford thought Bill Clinton was a sex addict.

Obama tells the New York Times he's going to start getting tough on Hillary. But his rhetoric is still pretty restrained:

"I don't think people know what her agenda exactly is."

You could have written the Clinton camp's response yourself: He's abandoning the politics of hope for "the same old-style personal attacks that he once rejected." Since when is drawing policy distinctions a personal attack?

My favorite Obama comment, on why he's so far behind: "The national press for the last three months has written glowingly about her and not so much about me, so it's not surprising." Perhaps he's forgotten how glowingly the press was about him when he got into the race.

Is this an example of his tough new rhetoric? Obama on Hillary's views of Social Security:

"In the past debate, the consensus was that she avoided providing any sense of direction in terms of how we're going to go on this."

Take that!

Is it possible that Fred Thompson's negative press reviews may not matter? At Real Clear Politics, Jay Cost has a theory:

"I have argued that there are two campaigns. On the one hand, there is the perpetual campaign - which is reducible to each party's attempts to win the daily news cycle. On the other hand, there is what I have been calling the real campaign. This is the quest for votes during the few weeks before Election Day . . .

"The media is the arbiter of the perpetual campaign. This is for good reason. Candidates like to keep the cost of the perpetual campaign low. The media offers advertisement to them - through news coverage, talk shows, debates, and so forth - that costs candidates no money. But, as nothing in life is free, the candidates pay a price. Everything they say and do is analyzed and categorized by the talking heads. So, the heads set the rules of the perpetual campaign. They tell us who does well and who does poorly, and why.

"According to the heads, Thompson has done poorly because he is not doing what he is supposed to be doing. He is breaking too many of the rules . . .

"In the perpetual campaign - you are supposed to campaign non-stop. You are supposed to remember all of the minutiae of your campaign schedule. You are supposed to know the details of symbolic events that happened over a year ago. You are supposed to know the specifics of local political issues so you can pander to the residents. Those are the rules. Thompson isn't following them. And yet, he seems to have some real signs of viability. How is that possible? . . .

"I would suggest that Thompson's missteps might be intentional. His rule breaking has been purposive because he thinks it can get him the traction he seems to be getting."

Thumbing his nose at us-- and getting away with it? Bah.

Here's what happens when you get a media boost: Other folks dig up the dirt, as in this American Spectator piece about Huck's Arkansas record by Quin Hillyer:

"Fourteen times, the ethics commission -- a respected body, not a partisan witch-hunt group -- investigated claims against Huckabee. Five of those times, it officially reprimanded him. And, as only MSNBC among the big national media has reported at any real length, there were lots of other mini-scandals and embarrassments along the way. He used public money for family restaurant meals, boat expenses, and other personal uses. He tried to claim as his own some $70,000 of furniture donated to the governor's mansion. He repeatedly, and obstinately, against the pleadings even from conservative columnists and editorials, refused to divulge the names of donors to a 'charitable' organization he set up while lieutenant governor -- an outfit whose main charitable purpose seemed to be to pay Huckabee to make speeches. Then, as a kicker, he misreported the income itself from the suspicious 'charity.'

"Huckabee has been criticized, reasonably so, for misusing the state airplane for personal reasons. And he and his wife, Janet, actually set up a 'wedding gift registry' (they had already been married for years) to which people could donate as the Huckabees left the governorship, in order to furnish their new $525,000 home."

I know a lot of couples who'd like to try that.

The most withering criticism of the New Republic over the Scott Thomas Beauchamp affair is not that the magazine may have published an exaggerated account by a soldier and refused to retract the story. It may be, as Peggy Noonan argues, that the editors were too willing to believe what their Baghdad Diarist was peddling:

"I love chicks that have been intimate with IED's," he announced to his fellow soldiers sitting in the chow tent in Camp Falcon in Baghdad. "It really turns me on--melted skin, missing limbs, plastic noses." The soldiers laughed so hard they almost fell from their chairs. They enjoy running over dogs in Bradley Fighting Vehicles, luring them in and then crushing their bones as they whelp. When a soldier comes upon a mass grave, he picks up a human skull, places it merrily on his head, and marches around.

"This is from the now-famous 'Baghdad Diaries,' in The New Republic, carrying the byline of soldier-writer Scott Thomas. They are an attempt to capture the tragedy and dehumanization of war, how it coarsens men in ways that you, safe in your bed, cannot fathom. They are a lost generation, battered by war, and struggling, with the real weapons of war's survivors--mordant wit, pitiless humor, the final surrender to nihilism--to survive in a world they never made. Do I overwrite? Do I sound like an idiot? I'm just trying to fit in.

"To read the Thomas pieces was, simply, to doubt them. And to wonder if its editors had ever actually met a soldier on his way to or from Iraq, or talked to any human being involved in the modern military.

"The diaries appear to be another case of journalistic fabulism. This week came word, via the published transcript of a telephone conversation between 'Thomas,' who is actually Scott Thomas Beauchamp, and his editors. It is actually painful to read. The editors almost plead with him to stand by his work, after months of critics' picking them factually apart. He won't do it. He doesn't want to talk to 'the media.' He's said enough.

"Everyone in journalism thought first of Stephen Glass. I actually remember the day I read his New Republic piece on the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington in 1997, a profile of young Republicans as crude and ignorant pot-smoking alcoholics in search of an orgy . . .

"On the Thomas stories, which I read not when they came out but when they began to come under scrutiny, I had a similar thought, or a variation of it. I thought: That's not Iraq, that's a Vietnam War movie. That's not life as it's being lived on the ground right now, that's life as an editor absorbed it through media. That's the dark world of Kubrick and Coppola and Oliver Stone, of the great Vietnam movies of the '70s and '80s."

The New Republic defends itself with a new statement, saying its investigation "has involved maddening delays compounded by bad faith on the part of at least some officials in the Army."

Is the Beeb a left-wing institution? Here's how staffers describe themselves on Facebook: Liberals, 1,340. Moderates, 340. Conservatives, 120.

This headline must be a joke, right? "Britney Spears' Mother Plans Parenting Book."

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