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Campaign Compulsion: How the Media Picks the Candidates

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Last Updated: 06/06/2013 6:43 pm

As the first primaries of this year’s US election cycle approach, one may be tempted to believe that the time has once again come for members of America’s Democratic Party to select their candidate to run against George Bush in November.

But whatever information the American public receives about the Democratic presidential contenders will be filtered through the mainstream media—a process that focuses attention on the campaigns of the media’s choosing, to the exclusion of other candidates they deem not viable long before voters reach the polling booths.

Already, mainstream media outlets in the US, the owners of which will profit handsomely from the money spent by presidential candidates and their supporters on campaign advertisements, have shown a clear bias in their coverage of the 2004 Democratic primary race. Some campaigns have been given more attention while others have been virtually ignored. And some contenders have had their views distorted to appear more popular.

A case in point is the recent admission by Howard Dean that he had supported (as did Sen. John Kerry and Rep. Dick Gephardt) the Biden-Lugar resolution allowing Bush to go to war with Iraq. Although Biden-Lugar placed restrictions on Bush, requiring him to “make available to the Speaker of the House of Representatives and the President pro tempore of the Senate his determination that the threat to the United States or allied nations posed by Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction program and prohibited ballistic missile program is so grave that the use of force is necessary, notwithstanding the failure of the Security Council to approve a resolution,” it would have allowed him to go to war with Iraq without a vote from Congress.

Dean’s pro-war admission came only after Sen. John Kerry brought it to light. It is no secret that Kerry’s vote for the “blank check” war resolution that passed in Congress fatally damaged his candidacy, while Dean’s highly touted anti-war stance as put forth in TV campaign ads—unquestioned by the media—led him from a seemingly invisible presence among Democratic hopefuls in August to the head of the pack by December.

This example also highlights the financial windfall of campaign advertising, which delivers a huge amount of money to mainstream media owners. During the last presidential election cycle, from January 1999 to September 20, 2000, alone—a period that does not include the last six weeks of the campaign—$342 million was spent on ads, according to a study by the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center. The 2004 campaign is expected to be even costlier. Apparently, if the White House is for sale, media outlets are doing the selling.

Ironically, the culprit for this perversion of democracy is exactly the thing America’s foremost democratic voices, dating back to none other than Thomas Jefferson and his contemporaries, have insisted is absolutely vital to self-rule: a free press.

Dr. Jacqueline Bacon, a San Diego-based independent scholar and writer, addressed the media’s role in attempting to select who should and shouldn’t run for president in the September/October 2003 edition of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting’s (FAIR) magazine Extra! Bacon asserts, “For all intents and purposes, the media have divided the nine candidates into three groups. The lowest tier of candidates—according to reporters and pundits such as the New York Times’ Adam Nagourney (3/29/03), the Washington Post’s Dan Balz (5/5/03) and George F. Will (5/6/03), and US News’ Michael Barone (5/6/03)—consists of Rep. Dennis Kucinich, former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun, and the Rev. Al Sharpton. When this group is given any attention at all, the media tend to dismiss them out of hand, emphasizing their presumed inability to win and their marginal status in the race.”

According to Bacon, the mainstream press in the US exhibits a clear bias in reporting about the declared candidates for the Democratic nomination. “Some, the media declare, are valid contenders, others are ineffective has-beens or laughable distractions.” She cites from political science professor Thomas Patterson’s 1994 book Out of Order that the “road to nomination” as a party’s candidate in the US presidential election “now runs through the newsrooms.” Rather than the people at large, Patterson argues, “the press now performs the party’s traditional role of screening potential nominees for the presidency—deciding which ones are worthy of serious consideration by the electorate and which ones can be dismissed as also-rans.”

In an article entitled “General Clark and Anybody But Dean” (, 9/19/03), author John Ellis says, “The iron rule of media bias was once explained to me years ago by Henry Griggs, a media and political consultant. He described it as an analog of what he called 'Fiji math.' 'In Fiji,' he said, 'they used to count as follows: one, two, and many. There was no 'three' or 'four' or 'five'. There was just one, two, and then that third number; 'many'. That’s how the media cover politics. They can only count to two.”

Ellis goes on to explain: “This bias is exaggerated by the exorbitant cost of covering campaigns. Simply put, the major television networks, newsmagazines, and newspapers can’t afford to cover a 'many' field. It’s a budget buster inside a budget that already requires huge outlays for pre-primary coverage, primary and caucus Election Night broadcasts, party convention coverage, debate coverage, general election campaign coverage, and Election Night broadcasts. As a matter of simple economics, the field must be reduced to two as quickly as possible.”

An early choice of the press was Sen. John Kerry, who, as Bacon points out, was branded as far back as last February by no less prestigious outlets than Time and the Washington Post as the horse to beat. In the February 3 issue of Time, Karen Tumulty wrote, “John Kerry is starting to look like a front runner.” Less than three weeks later, on February 23, Post reporter Paul Waldman declared of Kerry, “Chances are, he’s already won the 2004 Democratic nomination.”

In the long run, the American public did not agree with these assessments. Despite what William Rivers Pitt, in a December 10 article titled “The Trials of John Kerry,” reported as Kerry’s “liberal record in the Senate...remarkable in its depth and consistency,” his history-making “public stand against the Vietnam war, augmented by his status as a decorated veteran of that conflict; his attacks on the Reagan administration, his fight to expose the Iran-Contra/BCCI scandal,” which “are among the main reasons the public became schooled on those travesties; his time on the Foreign Relations Committee places him head and shoulders above the other Democratic candidates in terms of real-world foreign policy experience,” Kerry’s vote for President Bush’s resolution to go to war with Iraq dealt a deadly blow to his campaign—a blow from which it is unlikely he will recover in this race for the presidential nomination.

According to Pitt, Kerry explained to a roomful of all-male (save Al Franken’s wife, Francine) big media journalists rubbing elbows in the Frankens' living room last month, “This was the hardest vote I have ever had to cast in my entire career...I voted for the resolution to get the inspectors in there, period. I believed Bush needed this resolution in order to get the UN to put the inspectors back in there. The only way to get the inspectors back in was to present Bush with the ability to threaten force legitimately. That’s what I voted for...I took the president at his word...Did I think Bush was going to charge unilaterally into war? No. Did I think he would make such an incredible mess of the situation? No. Am I angry about it? You’re God damned right I am. I chose to believe the president of the United States. That was a terrible mistake.”

There are some who fault Kerry with believing what the mainstream media was saying—that those who voted against the resolution would not have a chance in the 2004 election. According to Jeff Cohen, founder and former head of FAIR, “In October 2002, mainstream pundits said that any Democrat seeking the presidency would be committing political suicide by voting ‘No’ on the Iraq war resolution. Sen. Kerry acceded to the conventional wisdom. As usual, it was wrong. If Kerry had opposed the war resolution, he would long ago have sewn up the Democratic nomination, and Howard Dean would be a footnote. That Kerry blew it with that vote is now widely understood. But back then, the punditry—completely out of touch with the Democratic base—had no idea how deep anti-war sentiment was among Democratic activists.”

Indeed, a certain percentage of American public—those who chose not to follow along with the limited views of mainstream media and instead followed alternative sources of information—did not believe the reasons stated in the resolution put forth by the president and his administration. For these folks there will be no forgiving Kerry’s “mistake”. The day that news of the results of the vote on the resolution to go to war with Iraq came over the airwaves, a low growl of disbelief could be heard in living rooms, chat rooms, and coffee shops across the country. This growl, which went unheard in a mainstream media that was too busy airing the presidential war cry and hyping the patriotic “stand by the president in times of war” line, translated into a vow never again to vote for anyone who had signed onto this resolution.

A more recent case of press bias occurred in the days before the ABC-sponsored debate in Durham, NH, last month where ABC’s “Nightline” host, journalist Ted Koppel, expressed a desire to be rid of at least one-third of the field of Democratic candidates. “How did Dennis Kucinich and Al Sharpton and Carol Moseley Braun get into this thing?” Koppel reportedly asked. “Nobody seems to know. Some candidates who are perceived as serious are gasping for air, and what little oxygen there is on the stage will be taken up by one-third of the people who do not have a snowball’s chance in hell of winning the nomination,” Koppel opined.

The three candidates Koppel expressed dismay about are the same three that Bacon placed in the media’s bottom tier, saying that when they receive any coverage at all, it is derisive of their chance of winning.

In New Hampshire, Koppel brought his reductionist bias to the stage of the debate, which he began with a lengthy discussion of former Vice President Al Gore’s endorsement of Dean’s candidacy. When it came time for Kucinich to respond, he chided Koppel by saying, “To begin this kind of a forum with a question about an endorsement, no matter by who, I think actually trivializes the issues that are before us. For example, at this moment there are 130,000 troops in Iraq. I mean, I would like to hear you ask during this event what’s the plan for getting out.”

Later in the debate, Koppel directed the following question to Braun, Sharpton, and Kucinich: “You don’t have any money, at least not much. Rev. Sharpton has almost none. You don’t have very much, Ambassador Braun. The question is, will there come a point when polls, money, and then ultimately the actual votes that will take place here—in places like New Hampshire, the caucuses in Iowa—will there come a point when we can expect one or more of the three of you to drop out? Or are you in this as sort of a vanity candidacy?”

Sharpton was the first to respond, stating, “In all seriousness the problem is that we are reducing politics to people with money. I think that Americans want people with ideas. The suggestion is that if you can’t buy your way now, that you can’t seek the highest office in the land. That is to really sell the White House.”

Kucinich answered next. Apparently unable to stand the derision of his campaign any longer, he took Koppel to task on the very issue of media bias:

“Ted, you know, we started at the beginning of this evening talking about an endorsement. Well, I want the American people to see where the media takes politics in this country. To start with endorsements, to start talking about endorsements. Now we’re talking about polls. And then we’re talking about money. Well, you know, when you do that, you don’t have to talk about what’s important to the American people.

“Ted, I’m the only one up here that actually, on the stage, that actually voted against the PATRIOT Act. And voted against the war. The only one on this stage. I’m also one of the few candidates up here who’s talking about taking our healthcare system from this for-profit system to a not-for-profit, single-payer, universal health care for all. I’m also the only one who has talked about getting out of NAFTA and the WTO and going back to bilateral trade conditioned on workers rights, human rights, and the environment. Now, I may be inconvenient for some of those in the media, but I’m, you know, sorry about that.”

Braun spoke to the issue last, emphasizing her support, along with Kucinich, for single-payer health care, and opposition to the war in Iraq and the USA PATRIOT Act. “The people want to hear ideas,” said Braun. “They want some energy. They don’t want to just embrace the status quo and expect change. I am the clearest alternative to George Bush and I will take the ‘White Men Only’ sign off the White House door.”

One day after the debate between the Democratic presidential contenders, ABC decided to pull their three journalists who were covering the campaigns of Kucinich, Braun, and Sharpton. Kucinich responded immediately by publicizing the ABC decision. FAIR jumped into the fray by sending out an Action Alert via the Internet which stated, “ABC’s decision was attributed to the fact that these candidates are perceived to have a slim chance of winning the Democratic nomination....One has to wonder whether Kucinich’s rebuke of Koppel, and his criticism of the priorities of the media, had something to do with ABC’s decision to limit coverage of these candidates. No matter what the rationale, this does raise a concern that ABC is making an early call on the election of 2004—weeks before any votes have been cast.”

Defending its action, an ABC spokesperson explained (Boston Globe, 12/11/03) that “as we prepare for Iowa and New Hampshire, we are putting more resources toward covering those events.” Appearing on CNBC with Kucinich (12/10/03), Time reporter Jay Carney suggested that the decision could be due to the fact that “all of the media organizations have limited resources. It’s actually, I think, pretty impressive that they had somebody on your campaign day by day by day.”

In response to the outpouring from the Kucinich camp, ABC gradually retreated. In its online daily political journal The Note (12/12/03) it stated:
“ABC News has a principled and demonstrated commitment to make sure many political voices are heard in our democracy, and our ongoing commitment to covering the Kucinich campaign reflects that. But like our competitors, we have very finite resources that we can spend on covering America’s great democracy. And that means we have to make choices all the time.

“We don’t want to play any role in deciding who the Democratic Party will nominate. But based on the totality of our reporting, we believe it is necessary to make certain the candidates who are more likely to win the nomination and therefore the White House get covered as well in a way that will help voters make their decisions.”

At press time, the latest word from ABC’s vice president for Media Relations, as stated on Pacifica Radio’s “Democracy Now,” was that their reporter would still cover the campaign full-time from the office and “when there’s news” would be back out on the road.

Kucinich’s campaign responded with a press release that stated, “At issue here is whether the media will usurp the role of the people in narrowing the field of candidates. The airwaves belong to the people. The people of this country are increasingly turned off by politics and disinclined to vote. Biased and superficial coverage leaves people thinking that their vote does not matter and that they have nothing to vote for.”

Further emphasizing these candidates’ outsider status in the eyes of mainstream media was a collection of four candidate-penned essays that appeared on the Web site of the magazine Foreign Policy in November. While none of the three candidates Bacon included in her bottom tier were given a chance to present their views, two of the essays were authored by candidates from what she called “the irrelevant middle”—former Gov. Howard Dean, Sen. John Edwards, and Sen. Bob Graham. Since Bacon wrote her piece, Graham has dropped out of the race, Gen. Wesley Clark has jumped in, and Dean’s candidacy has surged on the strength of his organizing via the Internet, somewhat muddling her distinctions in the top two tiers.

FAIR realized this and updated her article on their Web site in October in a piece by Jim Naureckas entitled “The Dean Surge: Fear and Loathing in Campaign Punditry.” In it, Naureckas restates Bacon’s thesis: “Prominent news outlets feel a compulsion, from the beginning of a presidential race, to select a handful of candidates as potential winners and dismiss the others as also-rans. One sign of the absurdity of this process is that between the early campaign coverage that Bacon analyzed and the time the magazine arrived in people’s mailboxes, one of those supposed also-rans—Gov. Howard Dean of Vermont—had become ‘the unofficial front-runner’ according to no less an authority than the New York Times (8/5/03).”

He goes on to cite several articles which show that the mainstream press is, by and large, quite dubious of the rising prominence of this campaign from “the irrelevant middle” of the Democratic field. On just one day, August 11, two of the three main US newsweeklies ran headlines to this effect above articles warning that Dean is too far to the left to succeed in November. Newsweek titled its piece “Howard Dean: Destiny or Disaster? Inside the Democrats’ Dilemma,” while US News & World Report went with the subhead, “Why are the Democrats afraid of Dean?”

The TCS article, “General Clark and Anybody But Dean,” cited earlier also addressed this question. In it, Ellis argued that the New York Times’ “unofficial front-runner” is poised to emerge from the early primaries at the front of the pack, at which point Clark will step forward, possibly with Sen. Hillary Clinton as a running mate, to “unite the party” and save it from the left wing the media tell us Dean represents.

Despite his record of support for the war, FAIR’s Advisory points out that by September, the mainstream media touted Clark as the “only anti-war candidate America is ever going to elect,” quoting Michael Wolff in New York magazine. The same month, Howard Fineman of Newsweek cited Clark’s alleged anti-war stance as making him a “credible alternative” to Dean, whose candidacy, “many Democrats” believe, “would lead to disaster.” Showing off its mainstream credentials, Internet news heavyweight described the former general, also last September, as a “fervent critic of the war with Iraq.”

Clark seems to have jumped into the group of candidates favored by the press as soon as he entered the race. However, before that, Bacon counted Sen. Joe Lieberman, Rep. Richard Gephardt, and Kerry as the top tier of candidates, and according to her article, the Washington Post “explicitly” agreed with her.

Professor Kathleen Kendall, from the University of Maryland and author of Communication in the Presidential Primaries: Candidates and the Media, 1912-2000, almost does as well. In a colloquium titled “Who Will Win the Democratic Primary” held last October at the University of Alabama, Kendall told the audience, “I can only narrow [the field of candidates] down to three: Sen. John Kerry, Congressman Dick Gephardt, and Sen. John Edwards.”

Kendall made this pronouncement despite the fact that she “believes that the media puts too much focus on the early primaries, the front running or best-known candidates.” And that the media “tend to use their own words and not those of the candidate to describe what the candidate says and if the public only hears what the news commentators say, then the candidates are subject to bias.”

Even those organizations that do not seem concerned about the current success of Dean’s campaign do not seem truly unbiased about the campaign as a whole. A recent Salon article about progressive organizing Web site made constant reference to Dean, including pointing out that in an online primary the site conducted earlier this year, “of the nine candidates in the race, Dean was far and away the favorite of the kind of tech-savvy progressives who make up MoveOn, and it helped propel Dean to the front of the Democratic pack.” This, of course, neglects the fact that Kucinich won almost 24 percent of the vote, placing him with Dean and Kerry (approximately 16 percent) in the top third, with no other candidate claiming even 4 percent. Yet, the Salon article mentioned neither Kerry nor Kucinich.

Also, as yet another Kucinich press release points out, “, a company that the media often cites as a source of information on the strength of Web sites’ activity, is deliberately excluding from its reporting the Kucinich Web site, despite the fact that, according to Alexa’s own numbers, the Kucinich site receives more traffic than do several of the other sites that Alexa reports on. This is not an accidental omission. The Kucinich campaign has repeatedly called the matter to the attention of and its parent company,” Apparently, it worked. Within days of the release being issued, appeared on as tied for second with behind

This is perhaps laudable, and it must be more satisfying to critics who claim bias than ABC’s actions after the Durham debate. Still, it seems strange that the mainstream press and other information organizations have to be prodded and chided into doing what is, after all, their job: disseminating data to the public and letting them decide what to do with

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