February 3, 2000

In the Public Interest?

The Candidates

The study reveals some clear differences in the way candidates were covered, not so much positively or negatively, but the nature of the coverage, what got covered and who controlled the coverage. Bill Bradley

If the former Senator from New Jersey wanted to be the candidate of big ideas, he did not succeed in doing so in the press in the middle of December and January.

To begin with, he was less successful than rival Al Gore in projecting himself in the press as talking about ideas. Only 12% of the coverage of Bradley focused on the topic of his ideas.

Arguably, this may be because Bradley rolled out some of his major policy positions in November, the month before the study began. Yet the numbers here reveal how hard it can be to sustain press coverage of one's ideas for very long. Remember, too, that while the campaign started early, many voters even in Iowa and New Hampshire-let alone elsewhere-may not have been paying close attention before December.

Rather than focus on Bradley's ideas, the press had its gaze on his health or fitness for office. Fully 36% of the stories in which Bradley was the dominant figure focused on the topic of his health, compared with 6% for candidates overall. Bradley's first incident of a heart murmur occurred during the first week the study examined. Interestingly, this event was a minor story in print, accounting for just 3% of coverage. Yet it was a major event on television, the second biggest story after the then-pending Iowa caucuses themselves.

One reason, perhaps, is that the networks are now heavily invested in health reporting, with doctor-reporters on staff, ready to mull over the implications of any medical event. In this case, the networks may have focused heavily on an incident that the medical community has clearly established poses no meaningful risk whatsoever to Bradley's fitness for office. "The disorder amounts to little more than a nuisance, according to the American Heart Association," as the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, and many other newspapers reported.

Al Gore

The Vice President, in contrast, managed to get coverage that matched the kind of campaign he wanted to project.

As an example, 45% of the stories about Gore were candidate driven (that is, they were triggered by things the candidates themselves said or did). By comparison, only 33% of Bradley stories were candidate driven. Gore, in fact, had the most candidate-driven coverage of any candidate in either party. To the extent that political candidates see their relationship as a struggle for control with the press over the story that is told about them, Gore was the most successful candidate in dictating his coverage.

In a similar vein, Gore had more success in controlling his coverage than Bradley, or any other candidate, in the sense that more of the stories were written as straight news accounts rather than framed around some more analytical or thematic story angle of the news outlet's choosing. Fully 47% of the coverage of Gore was written as straight news compared with 34% for Bradley.

Perhaps this explains something else. If Gore wanted to project himself as a candidate of ideas-not just Bill Clinton's Vice President–and to downplay his reputation as a dull or stiff personality, he succeeded in the press. The Vice President was nearly three times as likely as Bradley to get coverage of his policy ideas (30% versus 12% for Bradley). And he was ten times less likely to have stories focused on his personality or personal fitness (4% versus 44% for Bradley).

For Gore, as for others, most of the coverage focused on political matters like tactics. This, too, may have helped him somewhat, for it came at a time when he was righting his campaign before Iowa and gaining momentum. This is part of the inevitable challenge for political reporters. How are they to write about candidates without amplifying the momentum up or down? In this case, the overwhelming focus of the coverage on tactics and strategy tended to benefit the candidate on the rise and frustrate the one sinking.

John McCain

The Arizona Senator was the most successful of the Republicans at controlling his coverage in the sense that stories about him were candidate driven. Fully 40% of the stories about McCain were candidate driven compared with 26% for Bush, and 17% for all other Republicans.

McCain also got more coverage of his ideas than any other Republican. Fully 31% of the McCain stories were about his policy ideas, compared with 25% for Bush and 17% for the others.

This may be a signal that accessibility pays. McCain offers reporters constant access, unlike any candidate in years. The result is not so much that the coverage is more positive, but that the candidate is a direct link to the reporters covering him. The campaign is not filtered through aides and spin doctors. The candidate is the story, and so can dictate to a greater degree what he wants the coverage to be about.

George W. Bush

The Texas Governor stood out in one significant feature. He won the race for the most coverage. A full 18% of all the stories studied were predominantly about Bush, compared with 14% about Bradley, 14% about McCain, and 11% about Gore.

One feature of the Bush coverage is that nothing stood out. The press, in other words, did not fix on a particular feature or question about his candidacy, as it did in the case of Bradley's health. Bush was the only candidate to receive any coverage explicitly focused on how smart he might be, five stories in all, or roughly 7% of the coverage in which he was the dominant figure. Another 13% of the coverage of Bush examined his performance as a candidate. During the debates leading up to Iowa and New Hampshire, some critics questioned whether Bush had handled himself well, especially given the high expectations about his skills on the stump. These may even in some people's minds have connected to whether he was up to the job of president intellectually. Yet the amount of coverage, while noticeable, does not rise to the level of becoming a major story at this point, as Bradley's health clearly did.

Roughly half of the Bush stories (54%) dealt with political topics, less than was true of McCain or the other GOP contenders.

Other Republicans

Outside of the two main contenders, Bush and McCain, Republicans had little luck getting coverage of their ideas at all. In total, only one story was produced that focused solely on the policy positions of Steve Forbes, Alan Keyes, Orrin Hatch, or Gary Bauer. Two more did look at their core convictions. The vast majority concerned political matters. The debates clearly helped these candidates in that they were events at which they stood as equals to Bush and McCain. They also provided them with TV exposure that they would not have otherwise gotten in the national press.

Steve Forbes

For all the money he spent and his success in Iowa, the business magazine publisher generated only marginal coverage, accounting for just 3% of the stories. Only two of these stories were candidate driven. Of all the candidates in either party, Forbes stood out for having the largest percentage of his coverage be about his tactics and strategy, roughly six out of ten stories.

The study also suggests, perhaps, two models for candidates to drive coverage of their campaigns. One is the Gore model, which is tightly focused and controlled, and aided, of course, by the fact that the Vice President has the trappings of his office, the experience of White House staffers and the logistics of the Secret Service and the executive branch at his disposal. The other might be called the McCain model, in which openness and access to the candidate leads to coverage of the ideas he's running on and the policies he might implement.