Sunday, March 4, 2012

Actual Press Bias (Or Something, Anyway)

Compare these NYT stories. Now:
Romney Takes Washington Ahead of a Big Election Day
Mitt Romney won Saturday’s nonbinding caucuses in Washington State, handing him a symbolic victory in his quest for the Republican nomination as he heads into the critical Super Tuesday contests just three days away.
The vote was a nonbinding straw poll and has no bearing on the selection of the state’s 43 delegates. Of those, 40 are up for grabs, but they will not be picked until later.
And a few weeks ago:
Santorum Upsets G.O.P. Race With Three Victories
His candidacy all but dismissed just days ago, Rick Santorum won the Minnesota and Colorado caucuses and a nonbinding primary in Missouri on Tuesday, an unexpected trifecta that raised fresh questions about Mitt Romney’s ability to corral conservative support.
[And then in the 23th paragraph]
The outcome of the races in Missouri, Minnesota and Colorado on Tuesday highlighted the peculiarities of the Republican nominating contest as it turns into a state-by-state delegate fight. In Missouri, more than 200,000 voters cast ballots, yet no delegates were awarded. In Minnesota and Colorado, only a fraction of voters participated in the caucuses, but the contests were seen as more legitimate because delegates will be awarded this spring based on the voting.
I should note that I didn't catch it, but the overnight online headline for the Washington contest stressed the symbolic nature of the win.

What's going on here?

In case you're wondering, it's certainly not differences between the states. As Josh Putnam informs us, the straw vote/delegate relationship in Washington was basically identical to that of Colorado and Minnesota. Now, I'm slightly more willing to credit the straw vote with some relationship to delegate selection than Josh is, but there's no excuse at all for treating Washington as a symbolic vote and the other two as "real."

So why the difference? I have no idea. Perhaps the NYT started reading Josh Putnam sometime between February 7 and yesterday. All I can say is that it's certainly consistent with the theory that the press will favor interpretations that suggest a close, competitive nomination contest and reject interpretations which suggest it's all over. Whatever the reason, however, it's certainly striking, and in my view the Romney campaign has every reason to be quite upset at the Times today.


  1. One thing that changed between Feb. 7 and now is the Mitt Romney campaign and all its surrogates insisting loudly and repeatedly that caucuses which award no delegates are meaningless. Maybe all that spinning made an impact.

  2. OK, I'll bite on this one. The first and most obvious difference driving the coverage was that Santorum won three separate votes, "a trifecta," not just one, and they were in different parts of the country, which made them arguably more revealing of a national shift. The second was that these victories were unexpected, or at least not easily predictable ahead of time, and again, therefore more indicative of a possible shift or change in the character of the race. The third was that they occurred earlier in the campaign, with more primaries (including Michigan and Arizona) still ahead and capable of being influenced by them. The further we go along, the less chance there is that even a surprising outcome will change anything, because there's just less ground left to cover.

    Finally, and -- I would think -- very importantly in the Bernsteinian scheme of things, the above factors all meant that Santorum's trifecta had a shot at influencing party actors more than the Washington result. If the primaries are partly an exercise in coordination among party actors, then it's bigger news when something happens that might get those people to rethink matters or might influence those who haven't weighed in yet -- and again, there are more such people earlier in the season and fewer later.

    So the Santorum victories were indeed a bigger story, at least by very long-established conventions of news judgment. I think the worst you could say about the NYT is that it's using the word "symbolic" a bit loosely. It's not an attempt to distinguish the contests according to how directly each one is tied to the allocation of delegates; it's an attempt to give the Washington contest some meaning despite its nonbinding character and utter predictably. In other words, it's not undercutting Romney but helping him a bit. And I don't think it reveals the media rooting for a close contest (although I don't deny they do that); I think it reflects their effort to hype each event in the primary season, at least mildly, no matter how little interest the political pros are taking in it.

    1. Can't agree. I can buy the "bigger story" argument, but that would imply a bigger headline, larger placement, or a story which explains why CO/MN was important for the reasons you say. It doesn't justify the differences in how the straw poll/delegate relationship are explained.

    2. I don't understand. The Santorum results DID get larger placement (page A1, not A21), and I'm guessing also a bigger headline, although I'm seeing the web and not the print version. And as I read the story about those victories, it IS all about their political significance, i.e. the same issues I'm pointing to. That's why the further details about delegate allocation don't occur until quite a ways down -- because there was (by the standard conventions of news judgment) a lot to be said about the political implications of the CO/MN/MO results, what they might mean for the shape of the race or the decisions of party actors, etc.

      The same kind of judgment about the political implications of the event is equally at work in the story of Romney's win in Washington. That's why it's treated as less, though still somewhat, important, i.e. "symbolic"-ally. (That adjective is a little gift to Romney, a way of saying "this might nonetheless mean something," as opposed to saying "it was utterly predictable and therefore of no interest.") And this, as you well know, is how political journalism has operated for the past hundred years or so (see Schudson, Michael). You can certainly criticize the longstanding conventions of political reporting, but that's what we're seeing here, not press bias.

  3. It's not striking at all.

    Fox News calling Obama's birth certificate into question is "press bias".

    This could be nothing more then two different reporters, or the same reporter on a different day.

    This is the story that wasn't. Your really pushing to make your case.

    Mike D

  4. The truth is that both headline results were straw polls, but the caucuses did actually do the first phase of delegate selection afterward (separate from the straw poll being reported), right? In that case both stories are just flat out wrong.

    So my explanation is that there were two different reporters, neither one fully understands the delegate selection process, and they don't have the time or incentives to research it. Each one knows a different piece of the truth and so they throw it out there and draw the appropriate incorrect conclusions.

    They might try to spin it like you say if they needed to, but in this case they were lucky enough to stumble on the exciting framing by accident.


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