Thursday, August 18, 2011

Ron Paul, Michele Bachmann, and Press Bias

Will Wilkinson has a mostly very good piece up arguing not exactly that Ron Paul should be getting more attention in the press, but if I follow him correctly that whatever the appropriate coverage is of Michele Bachmann, Ron Paul should be getting more or less the same amount. I've been increasingly thinking that Paul and Bachmann are actually a pretty good match, so I'm glad to see his argument.

Kevin Drum has a good response, though, centering on Paul's 2008 run, and arguing that the real difference between Paul and Bachmann is that we already know Paul's ceiling, and it's far too low to make him a plausible nominee.

How else can we explain it? I'd say there are a couple of press biases at work. One is the obvious and important bias in favor of novelty: nothing (so far at least) about the Ron Paul campaign is new, while everything about Bachmann is new. I wouldn't underrate the importance of a "fooled us once" aspect to the Paul story, also. The highly visible aspects of the 2008 Ron Paul campaign wound up spooking a lot of reporters into wondering if they were missing a huge phenomenon. Since they weren't, it's going to be hard for them to extrapolate anything from Paul this time around. Bachmann, to the extent that she is thought of as a Tea Party leader, has something of the opposite situation; Republicans accused of being too extreme to win in 2010 did, in fact, win. So it's natural (whether correct or not) that reporters tend to give Paul less credit and Bachmann more for their objective measures of success.

But the truth is that while Bachmann and Paul have some important similarities (Members of the House, moderately popular in polls, fringe beliefs even within the GOP) their is one important difference that justifies a difference in press treatment. Bachmann's issue position profile compared to the rest of the GOP is basically: the same, only more so. Paul, however, really does oppose most Republicans on several issues, most notably by opposing the bulk of the party on a broad range of foreign policy and national security issues. If Bachmann could convince Republican party actors that she was electable and that she could be counted on to work closely with them if she was in the White House, then she might win, but there are simply too many important Republican individuals and groups who oppose Paul's policy preferences for him to have any chance of winning. I don't really think that's why the press covers one and not the other, but it is one of the things that should be guiding their coverage decisions.


  1. I’ve always thought that reporter’s career motivations are a bigger factor in covering presidential campaigns than most people think. Think about it, one reason journalists flock to Bachmann and avoid Paul is that by following Bachmann they can get in on “the ground floor” covering a rising star before anyone else! Everyone and there mom wrote about Paul years ago already. Or be there to chronicle a train wreck of an end to a campaign. Bachmann represents a chance to do these things as well as the golden ticket that can be ridden all the way to Pulitzerville: break the story that causes her to implode. The Ron Paul campaign represents more of a chance to write stories only Paul backers and other journalists will read. And that’s not the ticket to getting off of that regional newspaper you are on for the Times or the Post or the high paying talking head gigs on cable.

    At the very least, a candidate like Bachmann is also easy to write about in an editor’s mind. You can count on gaff stories, or when-will-she-gaff stories, or she’s-not-gaffing-yet,-why? stories, or the everyone-misunderestimates-her-but-here’s-why-they-are-wrong-articles. In short, Bachmann churns out stories that people will read while with Paul all you get is Paul wants the gold standard back ect.

  2. I like the analogy, and think that they are worthy of similar levels of coverage.
    I made this point earlier, but I think Paul also deserves some coverage as the seed-planter for the Tea Partiers, even if a large wing of that movement is clearly more Bachmann than Paul. In fact, a really interesting thread or few paragraphs in there stories could revolve around how the Paul movement from 2008 grew and morphed. A story involving Paul, the Kochs, and how Bachmann-as-TPer fits into that would be a worthwhile story.

    Bachmann is interesting because she's motivated Ames-goers, but then there are stories of her failing miserably with activists just days later. Paul is interesting because he got almost as many Ames-goers, but is really not popular amongst party elites, so there's an interesting question of if the GOP is permeable to them entering, or if Paul can motivate interest at that level .

  3. The idea that Paul's poor 2008 performance means he has a low ceiling is getting a lot of attention. Is it justified? Are there extant examples of people running very poorly in a Presidential nomination contest and then later doing well enough to seriously contend?

    We should probably eliminate candidates who had a significant intervening event that made them obviously better candidates (like Al Gore, an '88 flop becoming the 2000 nominee because a Vice-Presidency intervened).

    I don't mean like Bob Dole either, who "ran" in 1980 but pulled out without really trying to win. Dole didn't show that he had a ceiling in '80, he showed he wasn't ready. Same, basically, as Mondale in '76.

    Basically, I am having a hard time thinking of someone who has shown a ceiling of some sort, then broken through it in a later nomination contest. The closest I can think of is George Wallace, who was arguably in with a chance in '76 after showing some problems in '72, but frankly Wallace would have done better in '72 - possibly demonstrating he didn't have a ceiling after all - if he hadn't been shot.

  4. At the risk of gross oversimplification, it seems that the press is either a thought leader, i.e. creating candidates, or it isn't. If the press were creating candidates, there should be evidence that the smoke-filled rooms in the prior thread were located at the HQ of the Gray Lady. Well, more evidence than right wing rants, that is.

    A media that a) isn't a thought-leader and b) wishes to maximize profits should disproportionately cover viable candidates. That's because it is much better for a media outlet's business to cover, today, a candidate that will have a higher Q rating tomorrow, than a candidate who will be forgotten tomorrow.

    Somewhat contra Wilkinson, I suspect we all realize that Paul is basically a non-candidate, while Bachmann yet has a road to the nomination, even if we aren't entirely sure why, as we are not privy to those smoke-filled rooms. The media, as a savvy business, is probably just responding to this fact, as reporting on Ron Paul is - to use an insensitive term these days - chasing after dead money.

  5. One thing you need to keep in mind is that probably most reporters would disagree with your contention that Bachmann is an implausible nominee. They probably never believed such a thing; they may have once thought that Sarah Palin's stardom would relegate Bachmann to minor status, but they probably didn't see anything about Bachmann's profile that would make her an unlikely candidate.

    Ron Paul, in contrast, has been consistently viewed by the media as a sideshow, akin to Dennis Kucinich, someone with devoted followers but no serious chance at the nomination. The media underestimated Paul in 2008, but not enough to make them fundamentally change their view of his viability as a candidate.

    If we were to explain the difference, it would have to do with what each candidate represents. You have referred to Bachmann as factional, but probably most Tea Partiers are quite comfortable with her. They may like other candidates or potential candidates, such as Cain or Perry or Palin, but they're still a large, arguably dominant, group within the GOP, and for a while at least, Bachmann seemed to be the Tea Party candidate, who unlike Cain had actually held public office, and who unlike Palin was actually running. Perry may change that equation, but I understand what has led the media to think she's an important candidate up to now.

    Ron Paul is beyond factional: he represents a very small, narrow, albeit devoted group within the GOP. His movement may have inspired the Tea Party, but in no way does it represent the bulk of the Tea Party today, most of whom disagree forcefully with Paul on a range of issues and who probably view him with suspicion due to his loudly antiwar, anti-Bush views. He isn't just outside the GOP mainstream but in many ways a complete outsider to movement conservatism, whose views on a number of issues fit the left better than the right. His departure from GOP orthodoxy has always received more attention than his right-wing extremist views, but that's largely because he himself has generally focused more on the former than the latter.

    I suspect he even makes movement conservatives uncomfortable because he draws attention to the inconsistency between their small-government rhetoric and much of their actual agenda. That sharply contrasts with Bachmann, who functions more like a conservative id meant to make them feel good about what they stand for rather than dwell on their ideological weaknesses.

  6. So if we "already know Paul's ceiling," would you say the same about Romney? Of course not. The media is picking winners and losers here and that's unforgivable. They obviously don't like Paul. If Huntsman had half the support Paul did, he'd be considered a front runner (just as Pawlenty was).

    Paul is outside the GOP mainstream on foreign policy, but the party is clearly moving in his direction. Don't take my word for it -- Barney Frank sees Tea Party congressmen as promising allies on foreign policy. And Bachmann has even called herself the champion of libertarians. The party is probably closer to Ron Paul than GW Bush at this point. He even gets more campaign contributions from US military personnel than any other candidate (including Obama)... that's worthy of a news story.

    Many have decided that Paul was right about the wars and the housing bubble, two of the biggest issues of our time. There are plenty of novel and interesting things that could be said about the Congressman -- but for whatever reason, the press just won't cover him.

    Paul is not the favorite with party insiders, making him a longshot for what Jonathan calls "the invisible primary." It's fine for the press to point this out, but instead they're simply ignoring him. We need to decide if this is going to be a country where the opinions of press and party insiders are more important than genuine citizen action.

  7. If a media outlet chooses to cover the blow by blow of a campaign that has no chance of winning, consumers will begin to tune out that outlet, and the outlet's reach - and profitability - will diminish, no?

    As an illustration, Buddy Roemer's quixotic bid for the WH is on the road, and his fancy website has a link to updates about said campaign...though if a major media outlet covered those campaign stops, we'd stop looking because they'd be a source of zero-value information.

    Paul isn't quite a non-candidate like Roemer, but, for interest to the average consumer, the day-to-day of Paul's campaign is unfortunately much closer to Roemer's than Bachmann's, perhaps as a result of the invisible primary.

    Google "Ron Paul". Then Google "Michele Bachmann". There are quite a few news stories about both. More Bachmann than Paul, but not an insignicant number of Paul stories. At this writing, the top Paul link is a general profile from NPR ("For supporters, Ron Paul's message strikes a chord"). For Bachmann, its a trail update from the Boston Herald ("Michele Bachmann, campaigning in South Carolina, fights perceptions").

    Given the apparent verdict of the invisible primary, those two lead stories - a background profile of Ron Paul and a blow-by-blow update of Bachmann - seem entirely appropriate to me.

    Really, if we conservatives generally didn't like a media that ignored the blow-by-blow of Paul's campaign, we would have flocked to outlets that didn't, and the rest would have followed suit. We don't really mind though, because we all sort of know that Paul is a Nader-like Presidential candidate - he sort of satisfies a Howard Beale instinct but doesn't serve much broader purpose beyond that.

    (Well...Nader elected a not exactly the same).

  8. Star power. Bachmann has it, Paul doesn't.

    Sarah Palin was media gold, because the audience on both sides couldn't get enough of her. Judging from places like TPM, Bachmann steps into that role nicely: Liberals love to be horrified by her. Paul generates no such excitement on the left. There's an occasional piece on his antiwar views, but no red meat excitement.

    There is probably some underlying gender factor here - think of how the Right always got extra pumped up over Hillary.

  9. "there are simply too many important Republican individuals and groups who oppose Paul's policy preferences for him to have any chance of winning."

    Well, maybe, but Paul is polling pretty well. Wouldn't this approach from the media entrench a pretty heavy status-quo bias, and make it hard to ever engage in the kind of genuine discussion of principles that the Paul campaign would like to see?

    That approach just seems to me to be Bad for America.

  10. Most press coverage covers the competitive aspect of campaigns, and fails to deliver any coverage on the policy aspects. Paul's devoted supporters like his policies on war, marijuana, etc. Bachmann's her policies on abortion, etc. But there's so little coverage on their policies that beyond those few things, we don't know very much about the candidates. Even their voting records don't receive much analysis.

    It's easy to cover campaigns from the perspective of polling, who's up, who's down. But that polling would be a lot more revealing if there were more coverage of content, and not just candidate stereotypes. Bachmann's voting record and policy positions on Medicare and Social Security, for instance, might not be so attractive to her Tea Party fans.

    We get too much politics as entertainment; not enough of politics as the serious business of running a country.

  11. CSH -- It's not my problem if my political views are bad for media profitability. They're the ones who hold themselves up as the "fourth estate," playing an essential role in our democracy. But perhaps you're right, they're really just selling widgets like any other business.

    I think most people generally accept what the media tells them. If they don't hear much about a candidate, they assume that it's because that person is not worth listening to. In any case, I've yet to find a mainstream national media outlet that consistently gives Paul fair coverage.

    And it's not just Paul -- Gary Johnson is now being left out of the debates for no good reason. As a libertarian, this makes me not even want to bother voting, which would be just fine with the parties and the media.

    (As to Roemer, he has zero support.)

  12. Lots of good stuff in the comments above.

    Yes, the media is symptomatic of reality TV culture. Bachmann is the latest thing. Paul is so Dancing With The Stars, or whatever the past craze was.

    Not healthy, but the media's gotta make a buck, too, I guess. Reality TV's selling to somebody, just not to me.

    What's lost here is the influence of "minor" candidates. These used to be of strong influence in presidential nomination processes, and were respected as valid contributors, even if on single issues. They drive the other candidates to positions and commitments. They still are relevant, as we can all recognize Paul as a contributor, even if the media's got a hotter reality show booked for prime time.

    But I sorta wistfully long for the days when guys who we all knew didn't have a CHANCE at the nomination were elevated a bit, and given voice. It was just intellectually fair, unmindful of the horse race and viewership and clicks or anything else like that. But now we have such as Kerry saying the media should discount and silence insurgent voices. It's wrong and despicable. Let the people silence those voices, not media.

    So give Paul his voice and due. Give him respect. Shade away from the horse race and reality TV influences, and shade towards a more historical process, I say. Maybe I'm being romantic, but I do seem to recall a time when we respected those other candidates more than we seem to do now.

  13. Anonymous,

    Regarding the influence of minor candidates, NPR was saying just this morning that Paul has pressed the other GOP candidates toward more libertarian positions.


    Are the media responsible for Gary Johnson being left out of the debates?

  14. Couves,

    When I googled Ron Paul, that little news thingy link at the top of the Google replies had 300-something hits, of which the NPR one I mentioned was at the top. I didn't click through those 300-odd links, but I suspect you'd be able to find out what Paul was up to somewhere in there.

    Indeed, assuming the high school kid responsible for updating it isn't hung over, I figure you could even discover what Roemer was up to, per his website, if that was something you wished to do.

    If I understand it, though, your concern with Paul is not that you, in particular, have access to his goings-on, but rather that the general voting public have access. If I may borrow a message from our host, the way to remedy that is through the party system, not so much the media, which is more or less just doing its level best to mirror whatever priorities emerge from the party.

  15. CSH,

    I think that's going a bit far. One of the things that the press is doing is reflecting what the party is thinking (and, similarly, party actors use the press to send signals). But it's also the case that the press has its own biases, and those affect coverage as well.

  16. Jonathan, thanks for the clarification, I actually wanted to add an addendum to my prior thought (when one posts often, and all of it is stream-of-consciousness, some of it doesn't look as good upon reflection).

    I actually share your feelings, Couves, more than I acknowledged in the prior post. The whole "work through the party system"...damn, when you're a nobody, where do you even begin? Its hopelessly passive, sure, but I can't deny that I too would love to see Ron Paul have a higher profile in the high-profile MSM - and though I know what I am supposed to do about it, that seems like a lot of work.

    So my last post reads a bit flippantly, sort of like "don't like that mountain? Move it". Full disclosure - I don't like that mountain either.

  17. One difference between Michele Bachmann and Ron Paul is that while there's plenty of evidence of evangelical Christians playing an important role in Republican primaries, there's much less that shows self-conscious libertarians mattering much at all.

  18. Scott Monje: Yes, the sponsors of each debate are solely responsible for deciding who will be in it.

    CSH: I appreciate your comments. And looking over my own comments again, I overstated my case by saying that Paul is completely ignored. Yes, my concern is that the media is making it very difficult for anyone to change the status quo in this country. If the media simply follows the lead of the party establishments, then what are people who disagree with the party establishments suppose to do? In a two party system, there are no other options. This isn't just an issue for political minorities, but also for the plurality of voters who now consider themselves "independent."

    The only reason Ron Paul is still in this is the fanaticism of his core supporters -- they'll never give up. :)

  19. One difference between Michele Bachmann and Ron Paul is that while there's plenty of evidence of evangelical Christians playing an important role in Republican primaries, there's much less that shows self-conscious libertarians mattering much at all.

    Both Bachmann and Paul are evangelicals.

  20. Ron Paul has a speech aimed at connecting Christian Republicans with his libertarian message. But that's the first I've heard that he's an evangelical -- he certainly doesn't sound like one.


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