Tuesday, August 16, 2011

On Press Coverage of Presidential Candidates

What's the job of the press with regard to presidential candidates?

That's a very tricky question. It comes up because there's a bit of a flap about Ron Paul's coverage post-Ames -- he's not getting very much, and Politico's Roger Simon thinks that's wrong (but see Steve Kornacki, who nails it...oh, so does Kevin Drum).

OK, let's get to this. Putting aside the school of thought that says reporters should do whatever gets them the most readers, and thinking in terms of their function within a democracy...the problem is that there's a real conflict. On the one hand, it's a Good Thing to publicize all the points of view. People who see things through that lens say things like "the press shouldn't pick winners," and that's true...looking at things in that way. So the press should tell us who Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry and Mitt Romney are and what they have to say, but also should tell us who Ron Paul and Gary Johnson and, I suppose, Roy Moore are and their views. Presumably, Republicans who are making choices would want those choices to be well-informed.

And yet, that's not all Republicans making choices want to know. They also want to know which candidates have a chance to win. And reporters presumably have an obligation to report on the horse race aspect of what's going on. Moreover, the process depends on the ability of Republican actors to signal to each other (and, eventually, to voters) as they coordinate and compete over the nomination. If important Republican actors are saying that (for example) Michele Bachmann is doing well but Ron Paul isn't, well, the press should let us know about it.

Or: we could think of it another way altogether, from a real party and not candidate point of view. After all, that would be more accurate. But it's a lot to ask of the press, since it goes up against their well-known bias for people over processes. Which just gets back to that for all that anyone might stipulate that they should ignore what sells newspapers (I know, I know, it's a dated phrase), in real life they aren't going to do so.

At any rate, I'm not going to clear up any of this in a short blog post. The point is only that even if we ask for the press to fulfill democratic functions, that still leaves plenty of conflicts.


  1. The press won't ever be perfect, but they could at least explain why (if they believe) Ron Paul isn't a serious candidate.

  2. I'm not sure the process "depends" on political actors signaling each other through horse-race news coverage. In earlier times, they signaled each other by writing letters and sending telegrams, or perhaps by giving a speech that the newspapers reprinted in full. They didn't need Dan Balz or Politico handicapping the field in order to learn what each other thought of the candidates. That's a task that journalists have appointed themselves to. It perhaps makes the signaling a bit more visible to the rest of us, but it also generates a lot of noise and deflects attention from what candidates believe and propose to do.

  3. Jeff,

    You're correct about "earlier times," but what's changed is a vast increase in the number of relevant party actors. Well, that, and to some extent rules that make coordination difficult, or at least coordination the way it use to be done pre-1972 difficult.

    And I agree that it generates a lot of noise (in more than one sense), but whether intended or not, it's the system we have.

    I'd also say that simply as a news story, it would be inaccurate to report that Ron Paul is a plausible nominee. I guess that's a third way to look at it which I should have included in the post: part of their job is to explain what's happening, which is probably compatible with the "relaying signals" job but again not with the free speech rationale for reporting on all points of view.

  4. I agree that the press ought to report all points of view, at least reasonable ones, though that begs the question as to who gets to decide what is 'reasonable.' I don't think, however, that the press has any business telling voters who and who is not a viable candidate because that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts. Even the 'important party actors' may be influenced by the analysis of a candidates chances by the media and conclude that a viable candidate is, in fact, not viable, thus eliminating that candidate as a possible choice.

  5. I just took a look at the Kornacki piece, and I think it pretty much proves that you can say interesting things about Ron Paul and the Ames straw poll, things that ignoring his existence certainly won't bring out.

    I do think it is important to let people know what candidates think, people are supposed to vote on them, after all. The horse race also plays a role. Of course it is overhyped, but precisely because of that, much of the nation's political discussion will become gibberish to your readers if you leave it out of your paper entirely, and that is hardly doing them a service. Providing a context is what really matters. In addition to explaining what candidates say and how they are doing, a worthy news service also ought to point out if a candidate's proposed policies are unlikely ever to be passed, don't make sense in the first place, or are likely to have consequences that are exactly the opposite of what is claimed(or, on those rare occasions, that the proposals just might work). Opinion and biases will come into play here, but what can you do?

  6. Well, that was the essence of Journolist... to manipulate coverage in a coordinated way.

    And the current meme seems to be that some candidates are to be covered as relevant, and some are not, because the journolistas deem them irrelevant, for whatever reason.

    I understand the journolistas have their process, and their flowchart leads to this inevitable result, just ask them. But it is noteworthy that they are manipulating their coverage based upon their own internal process, and not based upon facts on the ground.

    A home run is a home run, no matter if it comes off Cabrera's bat or Verlander's. Even if you're a journolista, you are obligated to describe both homers appropriately... you just get to add some special sauce to the story re the latter. But that doesn't mean you skip the former.

  7. Yes, the press should report that certain powerful interests in the party oppose Ron Paul, but that doesn’t mean that they should ignore the results in Iowa. Or ignore the fact that Paul received more campaign contributions from service men and women than any other candidate (including the President). Since he’s also the most prominent anti-war candidate, this seems like it should be a major story.

    The problem is, the media’s election coverage is almost entirely based on a biased horse race “analysis” at this point. For example, John Huntsman has been getting lots of free press over the last 6 months simply because some influential former McCain aids are whispering in their ear. Are these political operatives important actors in the GOP? No, of course not, they’re just influential suits pulling strings behind the scenes for the guy who now signs their paychecks. So even the horse race coverage is based on the personal preferences of the press and the personal connections of the candidates (or their staff). Now, my argument isn’t that John Huntsman shouldn’t get this press attention, but that Gary Johnson (another unknown Governor) should also get some, even though he doesn’t have any strings to pull.

    Jonathan, how can libertarians have a meaningful role in electoral politics if they will be ignored even when they “earn” press attention? How should they react to this? The folks over at Reason Magazine react by all but disavowing electoral politics. The attitude frequently expressed is: ‘Vote if it makes you feel good, but just realize that you are completely wasting your time.’ Of course, the major parties *want* voters who think for themselves to stay home, but why should the press be encouraging this?

    Stuff like this is bad for a healthy participatory democracy.

  8. I think Kornacki's piece is excellent. Ron Paul isn't getting a ton of coverage because he's unlikely to win, based on what reporters believe. Since the reporters have to base their coverage decisions off of what they think is likely to matter, their own beliefs (or biases, if you prefer) are going to enter into it. If those beliefs are incorrect, then coverage will be skewed, and Couves' point about this being somewhat self-fulfilling is right (and Scott's related point). This is of course, both inevitable and lamentable.

    However, while I think that reporters are right that Paul really stands no chance of winning the nomination, the degree of non-coverage is actually kinda striking, particularly in light of Bachmannia/Palinmania. As far as qualifications go, I'd say neither of them are as qualified, and that both of them are just plain nuttier than Paul. I disagree with most of what comes out of Paul's mouth, but it's not irrational; he just has different assumptions about facts and relationships and different preferences for an ideal world than I do. But it's tough to say that Bachmann and Palin are playing with full decks.

    The second reason why the coverage of Paul is disproportionately low was nailed by Stewart last night. This guy's intense grass roots support contributed to one wing of the Tea Party activism of 2009 (There's clearly the wing of the TP that is just plain conservative and a wing that's really more about low taxes/spending, which is closer to Paul. I haven't seen a single poll of TPers that suggests there's a large isolationist component, though). That's an important story, at least if the TP is going to be given so much other ink. Bachmann and Perry are now both getting coverage along the lines of "who gets the TP vote," but why isn't the story "why isn't Paul getting the TP vote?"

    So, Kornacki is right with respect to Paul as presidential candidate. But, I think the Paul-heads are right to be complaining, because he's played and is playing an important role in shaping the debates we have. Think of it like Perot: his electoral impact is certainly debatable, but his run had consequences for the politics of the mid to late 1990s. (Yes, the economy really did the balancing of the budget, but either the Gore or Bush approaches (spending revenues on tax cuts or SocSec) were available options that weren't taken)

  9. And regarding the biases, or "agenda," of the media, journalists aren't all that homogeneous. After a historical period in which the press made an effort to be even-handed, the field seems to be returning to the 19th-century tradition of openly picking sides. So, while the contending forces may not be evenly distributed, the media aren't necessarily going to coalesce arounda single winner either.

  10. >>>I don't think, however, that the press has any business telling voters who and who is not a viable candidate because that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts.

    Respectfully, I submit that this is wrong, though I totally sympathize with the sentiments that engendered it. Pretending that primaries and elections are one man, one vote, and disregarding the role of institutions, opinion leaders, and money is itself a kind of misrepresentation.

  11. Matt Jarvis: Your last point is especially important -- failed campaigns often have a significant influence on the future course of policy and politics in the US. Win or lose, Paul’s influence in the GOP will most likely live on with the young and passionate “liberty Republicans” who support him. This is an important way for political minorities to influence our system.

    On defense, I think the GOP has clearly become more isolationist since 2008. Even Barney Frank recently said that he views tea party Republicans as potential allies in his anti-interventionism. Rick Santorum seems to be the only voice for a genuinely neo-conservative foreign policy in the Presidential campaign. It was also telling that Bachmann proclaimed herself to be the champion of libertarians in both of her debate performances.

    kth -- Reporting on the perceived nonviability of a candidate is fine. Blackballing that person is not.

  12. Anon: The AL uses designated hitters.


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