May 1, 2001

The Unexamined Presidency

After three months, what do we know about the Bush administration? Less than we should. A review of the press coverage of George W. Bush reveals some unexpected and troubling features of contemporary political journalism.

What is most striking is that the image emerging of Mr. Bush as president is so indistinct. Even the most serious newspapers in the country have pulled back dramatically on covering the presidency.

Taking network and public-broadcasting television news, Newsweek, and the front pages of selected sections of The New York Times and The Washington Post as a whole, there were 41 percent fewer stories about Mr. Bush from Jan. 21 to March 21 than there were on Bill Clinton in the same two-month period eight years earlier, according to a new study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism. The study was funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts; Princeton Survey Research Associates assisted in the research. The methods used and news media studied were identical for both periods.

In Newsweek the dropoff was most dramatic — 59 percent. Why is this? Mr. Bush is boring? His agenda isn’t as bold as Mr. Clinton’s? He is staying inside the Oval Office, trying to avoid coverage?

The decline cannot be justified by any of these ideas. Actually, Mr. Bush has traveled more than most new presidents and has chosen to govern boldly, as if he had been elected with a mandate for ideological change. Some analysts believe his policies are fundamentally more conservative than Ronald Reagan’s.

Mr. Bush was elected under the most extraordinary circumstances in a century, losing the popular vote and assuming office only after a post-election intervention by a divided Supreme Court.

The election told us that the country was politically as divided as at any time in recent history. Americans seemed to be deeply disaffected from the political process, disgusted by the importance of money in campaigning and unexcited by their nation’s major leaders. The most compelling figure in the race, according to many voters, was John McCain, who epitomized a style of politics thoroughly at odds with that of Mr. Bush. Most readings of the electoral returns suggest that without a maverick candidacy by Ralph Nader on the left, George Bush would not be president.

All of this would seem to be the essence of journalistic excitement. It should attract readers and viewers and inspire reporters and editors. But the coverage of the Bush administration suggests that the current media culture does not see this as a moment of opportunity.

Interestingly, a similar decline in coverage did not occur on the op-ed pages. There, where columnists and citizens voice their concerns, the number of articles about the presidency and its implications was the same for both presidents.

The op-ed results suggest that an argument is raging in the country. But the journalistic sorting out of the facts that should inform that argument has diminished.

The deeper connections between Mr. Bush’s political vision and the country that are most intriguing and significant are largely absent in the press treatment. Despite so tenuous a mandate for his bold conservative agenda, the press has largely ignored the subject of his relationship to the American public. Indeed, in Mr. Bush’s first two months in office, the news outlets we surveyed featured only half as many stories on how presidential policies relate to the American people as they did in Mr. Clinton’s early days.

The coverage, already shrunken, has focused on the most obvious and routine elements of Mr. Bush’s new tenure.

In his first month the coverage was positive. It focused on quick judgments about whether Mr. Bush was up to the job — and declared that the answer, after low expectations, was yes.

In the second month the coverage turned more critical as Mr. Bush’s budget plan began to move through Congress. The coverage turned more negative, however, not because it keenly considered where the president wanted to take the country and how this would affect people, but because the budget plan seemed entangled in Congress. Mr. Bush’s ideas, in other words, are being dealt with on the level probably least interesting to citizens — the level of political jockeying.

What is missing in the picture are answers to the deeper questions most citizens — except perhaps news junkies — are concerned with: What change will the election and the crisis over voting bring? What are the implications of a president who lost the popular vote attempting to govern as if he had won it by a wide margin? How is it that Mr. Bush, a man depicted during the campaign as an affable deal maker not too concerned with policy, has emerged in the coverage as a sincere conservative willing to stake out a controversial agenda because he is so committed ideologically?

The consequences of the press further pulling back its coverage of the public debate — now even of the White House — are not trivial. Shrunken coverage leads to a shallower public understanding, more chance of abuse by special interests and less chance for the country to resolve its most difficult problems.

Not long ago, David Shribman, a journalist with The Boston Globe, reminded a group of journalism executives of how parents often define character for their children: it’s how you act when no one is looking. The definition of character in journalism, Mr. Shribman said, was whether we cover stories we think people aren’t paying attention to, but should be.