TOPICS > Politics

Media’s Role in Volatile ’08 Race Draws Fresh Scrutiny

March 10, 2008 at 6:20 PM EDT
Loading the player...
The media's breakneck coverage of the 2008 primaries has drawn reactions from critics and campaigns on a number of issues: from unreliable poll numbers to the debate over whether the press has been too kind to Barack Obama or too hard on Hillary Clinton. Four media analysts discuss the coverage of the primaries.

JIM LEHRER: Now, reporting and covering the campaign. Jeffrey Brown has our Media Unit report.

JEFFREY BROWN: Has the press been too kind to Barack Obama, too hard on Hillary Clinton?

ANDREA MITCHELL, MSNBC Correspondent: Hillary Clinton had only been speaking for six minute when Obama took the stage, knocking her off all the cable networks.

BRIT HUME, Fox News Anchor: The Barack Obama tide continues to roll among the Democrats. Hillary Clinton was near tears today. We’ll show you that. And wait until you hear what a New Hampshire poll that’s never been wrong is saying.

JEFFREY BROWN: Have journalists relied too much on polls, particularly in New Hampshire?

TV ANCHOR: After his win in Iowa, Barack Obama is widens his lead against Hillary Clinton. In fact, the latest Gallup poll gives him a 13-point edge.

JEFFREY BROWN: Did early candidates get short shrift?

FORMER SEN. JOHN EDWARDS (D), Presidential Candidate: What I want to say first is, are there three people in this debate, not two?

SEN. JOE BIDEN (D), Delaware: I wish I’d get to talk about something I know about, like foreign policy. You ought to count me in, in this debate, a little bit.

JEFFREY BROWN: Has the coverage, beginning with John McCain’s supposed demise last summer, been too focused on horse race and not enough on issues?

The role of the media is always debated in presidential politics, but perhaps never more so than in this very volatile campaign so far. Popular culture has taken notice and gotten into the act itself, most famously in a recent “Saturday Night Live” skit that spoofed journalists supposedly overly enamored of Barack Obama.

ACTRESS: Like nearly everyone in the news media, the three of us are totally in the tank for Senator Obama.

JEFFREY BROWN: After that skit aired, the question was whether it had an impact on press coverage in the following days.

Playing favorites or fair coverage?

Tom Edsall
Political Editor, The Huffington Post
Being in the press group when Barack Obama would be coming toward the stage, you could feel the excitement, not only in the audience, but also in the press corps. He fits the model of what the press likes.

JEFFREY BROWN: And we look at some of the coverage issues now with Callie Crossley, former producer for ABC News, now program manager for the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard and a contributor to WGBH Boston's weekly show on media issues, "Beat the Press."

Tom Edsall is the political editor for the Huffington Post and a professor at Columbia University's School of Journalism. He was a political reporter for the Washington Post for more than 20 years.

Betty Winfield is a political scientist who teaches at the University of Missouri's School of Journalism.

And Karen Tumulty is national political correspondent for Time Magazine. She's been covering national presidential campaigns since 1988.

Well, Callie Crossley, I'll start with you. "Saturday Night Live" was just one example of this question of playing favorites that's been raised. How do you see that playing out so far?

CALLIE CROSSLEY, Producer, ABC News: I actually don't think that the people covering the campaign have been playing favorites with presidential candidate Obama. I think it's a normal progression that, about the time that you realize, "Oh, my god, this guy really is the frontrunner and this guy really could be the person who is the nominee," that's when the coverage is appropriately supposed to change.

And now the scrutiny we will see will get a little bit more intense, and that's appropriate. But up to this point, the story has been the fervor, the excitement, the turnout, the difference that he brings to the campaign.

I would make one caveat, and that is with regard to what is perceived as total negative coverage towards presidential candidate Senator Clinton, and that is there has been an ongoing sexist kind of coverage that just seems not to go away.

So to the extent that that could be considered negative -- and I do believe it is -- then she is correct. But I think, other than that, it's appropriate.

JEFFREY BROWN: Tom Edsall, you joined me in one of our recent online Insider Forums when we were talking about some of these issues and you said the press is enamored of Obama. Do you see this as playing, as having an impact on the actual coverage?

TOM EDSALL, Huffington Post: I think it has been part of the campaign, maybe changing now, but clearly, going out on the campaign trail, being in the press group when Barack Obama would be coming toward the stage, you could feel the excitement, not only in the audience, but also in the press corps.

He fits the model of what the press likes: a reformer, an insurgent. He is just their kind of candidate, whereas Hillary is sort of the establishment. She was the leader. She's part of an old dynasty now. She fit the model of what the press does not like.

And I think that the coverage difference was palpable. And you could see it in the lack of coverage of a lot of the liabilities that are now surfacing about Obama's past.

JEFFREY BROWN: Karen Tumulty, you have been covering all of these candidates. It's often described as being in a bubble when you're out there with them.

Tell us, what is it like? I mean, when you're talking among other reporters and the advisers, the aides, the constant talk from the campaigns, what is that like?

KAREN TUMULTY, Time Magazine: Well, "in the bubble" is a perfect description for it. Often you are hemmed in by security considerations. In this case, both Senator Clinton and Senator Obama have Secret Service security.

They go through your luggage first thing in the morning. And for the rest of the day, you are inside that security perimeter. And that really limits your ability to talk to real voters, other than the ones who attend rallies who are probably not your typical voters.

Very often it is the worst place to know what's really going on with a campaign. For instance, a couple of weeks ago, when Senator Clinton herself did "Saturday Night Live," the reporters who were covering with her on the Clinton campaign found out about it from the reporters on the Obama campaign.

So that gives you a sense of really how difficult it can be, which is why, you know, I think most reporters, you have to go into the bubble for a day or two to hear the speech a few times, but then you've got to get out of it if you really want to know what's going on with the voters and with the campaigns.

Horse race coverage

Betty Winfield
University of Missouri
I think there needs to be a new coverage plan on covering the way the delegate count is more important than just by state.

JEFFREY BROWN: Betty Winfield, let me bring you into it. You're sitting in what is after all an important battleground state and you're watching this as a political scientist and watched other campaigns. What strikes you so far about these coverage issues we've been raising?

BETTY WINFIELD, University of Missouri School of Journalism: I think that the media need a new coverage plan because what they're doing is covering the horse race by state, like this is November 4th and this would be part of the Electoral College.

I think that's why there's so much confusion over delegates and super-delegates, because the winner of a state is emphasized. And even like here in Missouri, when we've had Obama win the state, the percentage was so small that they have an even number of committed delegates.

Or when Clinton won Texas, she only has four more delegates that are committed to her. So I think there needs to be a new coverage plan on covering the way the delegate count is more important than just by state.

JEFFREY BROWN: What do you think drives that kind of coverage, which I think you called the horse race, certainly a lot of people call it that, the horse race-kind of coverage? What drives it?

BETTY WINFIELD: Well, it's small. It's snippets of coverage. It is easier to cover it that way. It's more complicated to try to explain the delegate aspect.

JEFFREY BROWN: Callie Crossley, what do you think about that, the horse race and the kind of narrative that we've been playing out week by week in this campaign?

CALLIE CROSSLEY: I think she's absolutely right. The horse race is just -- the coverage has gotten so intense that people are wanting to turn away instead of listening to some of the coverage.

I mean, I look at the last debate. And half of that had to do with election-kind of issues, as opposed to the issues that affect people's lives. To have done that debate and not focused on the economy, the mortgage crisis, the real issues that people are worried about is ridiculous.

We didn't need to have half of the debate about who's up, who's down, what are you going to do, what did you say 24 years ago. All of that stuff, that's over. Let's move to a different way of covering this.

JEFFREY BROWN: And yet, Tom Edsall, as you know, I mean, this has been quite an interesting race. I mean, it actually is a horse race, in some sense.

TOM EDSALL: Yes, I disagree with my colleagues on this one. I think that, in fact, there is a huge amount of interest and people are not turning away.

I know that, at Huffington Post and Politico and so forth, they're getting hits on the Web way beyond -- as soon as the primary process began, it just shot up and it has stayed there, even with all this horse race coverage.

And the fact is, going into all the issues, there is very little difference between -- you can fight over whether there will be a mandate to have health care or not, but, basically, if Barack's health care plan or Hillary's went through, it would be a huge expansion of health care availability to the public. The same would be true on virtually every policy.

So to write about those policy differences would be writing about differences on the head of a pin and I think would really turn off the voters, whereas voters are really interested in who's winning, this black guy or this woman? I mean, it's a hell of a race.

Campaign-media relations

Karen Tumulty
A campaign that makes it more difficult for reporters to do their jobs is going to, I think in the end, suffer for it.

JEFFREY BROWN: Karen Tumulty, there is a forever debate -- and people ask me about this all the time, it's always one we talk about -- is, who drives whom, I guess is the way to put it?

To what extent does the media drive the campaign? To what extent do other factors outside -- the polls, other things -- drive the media?

For example, when "SNL," "Saturday Night Live," does its things there, its skit, to what degree did that impact the coverage?

KAREN TUMULTY: You know, I think that that was -- it sort of caught onto something that a lot of voters are feeling.

And I was struck, for instance, a couple of weeks ago in Ohio, I saw a voter standing at one of the rallies holding a sign saying, "Don't let a media crush pick our next president." I do think that it's certainly picking up on something that people felt out there.

But, again, I agree with Tom. I think that this is a very close race, a fascinating race. And I don't think that a lot of voters are going to be voting on whether or not your health care plan has an individual mandate. They're voting on very sort of character qualities and broad themes, like change versus experience. And that is the thing that the media has been trying to capture.

JEFFREY BROWN: Callie Crossley, what do you think about this question of who's driving whom?

CALLIE CROSSLEY: I think it's a little bit of both. I will say that I'm not sure about the "SNL" skits, but I feel certain that the red phone ad that Senator Clinton used really did have an impact, because through that, that campaign was able to actually shift the conversation a little bit. So now it's on the question of, "All right, let's talk about who's the commander-in-chief."

And then after that, then "SNL" picked that theme up, and then we go forward, and it becomes just kind of a cyclical kind of thing. So I'm not sure it's as easy to pick up who's leading what at any given point.

And as Tom said, this is an exciting race. And for that reason, I think that people are paying attention to things like that kind of ad that maybe in the past wouldn't have had as much impact.

JEFFREY BROWN: Betty Winfield, same question to you.

BETTY WINFIELD: I think they're both driving each other. Case in point: The timing of "SNL" was right before that Ohio and Texas primary, the same with going on "The Daily Show."

And so, I mean, those seem to attract and catch not only one media, but other media picking up on that. And the telephone ad was on YouTube and all sorts of blogs, and so various media repeat that message.

JEFFREY BROWN: Karen Tumulty, another issue is the relationships between the campaigns and reporters. You were talking about being in the bubble. You're getting a constant bombardment. Does it matter if they're nice to you? Does it matter if they give access to you, in terms of what comes out in the reporting?

KAREN TUMULTY: Well, it's harder if you don't get access to get a really full picture of what is happening with a candidate, what is motivating a candidate, how decisions are made, all these things that I do think reflect on what kind of president this person is going to be.

But in terms of, is somebody automatically going to get a good story because, you know, the food on their plane is better or something like that? You know, that's absurd.

But I do think that a campaign that makes it more difficult for reporters to do their jobs is going to, I think in the end, suffer for it.

JEFFREY BROWN: Tom Edsall, what do you think about the question of the relationship between the campaign and reporters and how it impacts the reporting?

TOM EDSALL: I think it's very important. I think, if you look at the George W. Bush 2000 campaign, you see a case study of someone who -- well, Karl Rove, I suspect, figured out that the press could be crucial and they had a strategy, and a very effective one, in how to deal with the press, how to basically make the press play in a very friendly place, a kind of a together community.

And the Al Gore campaign was just the opposite. It alienated people like crazy, and he got nickel-dimed on all kinds of little petty stories.

The same problem has been the case with Hillary. And she and her husband, ever since the 1992 campaign when they had good relations with the press, ever since then, their relationship has been bad. And they have done nothing really to ameliorate that, and they have paid a price for it.

More pundits, more confusion?

Callie Crossley
Contributor, "Beat the Press"/WGBH
There are so many new voices out there now. I think that's a good thing overall, in terms of having people being able to find information and read a lot of opinions all across the spectrum.

JEFFREY BROWN: Callie Crossley, one of the media issues we talk about a lot here and on all kinds of news stories is the confusion between reporting and punditry. When you're in the midst of a campaign like this where there is 24-hour coverage, do you think there is that kind of confusion? And how does it play out for the public?

CALLIE CROSSLEY: I don't know so much that it's confusing. I do think there's a little bit of that. But there are so many new voices out there now.

I think that's a good thing overall, in terms of having people being able to find information and read a lot of opinions all across the spectrum, so that's a good thing.

But at the same time, when you talk about just-the-facts kind of reporting that most of the folks who are on the trail are doing, sometimes people do get that confused with the comments that have been made.

And, again, I refer back to some of the sexist comments that I have heard in some of the writings and punditry. That gets confused with what reporters on the trail are doing. And I think, to that extent, that's a bad thing.

But to the extent that there are more voices, that people are looking for information 24/7, I think that's a good thing.

JEFFREY BROWN: Betty Winfield, do you see that kind of confusion?

BETTY WINFIELD: Oh, I certainly do, especially as someone teaching students. And it's hard to tell the difference many times.

And certainly, with 24-hour news, seven days a week, you have pundits speaking all the time. And then they have to apologize, like Chris Matthews did, about the remarks he made about Hillary Clinton back in January. And so you have a chance of filling the news hole, and it's not necessarily fresh reporting.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, just some of the issues we've been able to raise here. I want to thank you all, Betty Winfield, Karen Tumulty, Tom Edsall and Callie Crossley, thanks all very much.