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Campaign Compulsion: How the Media Picks the Candidates

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

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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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