Character and the Primaries of 2008
Differences by Media
Were their any notable differences in the way different media portrayed the major personal narratives about the candidates? In some specific cases, stark differences emerged, though overall, the press was in many ways more similar than different.
Among the differences, on network television, the morning news programs stood out for an exceptionally positive portrayal of the female candidate. Her rival had a harder time of it.
Within cable news, which has given an extraordinary amount of attention to the campaign as it lifted ratings, there were noticeable differences among channels: MSNBC was the most positive about all of the three major candidates. Fox News was the toughest on Clinton and McCain—and much more positive about Obama. CNN fell somewhere in the middle.
Finally, talk radio, a medium that was dominated by discussions about the campaign, was also very harsh in its evaluations of Clinton and McCain, while Obama found more positive support.
The front pages of newspapers devoted 13% less coverage to the campaign compared to the media overall. Roughly a third of the space (33%) on newspaper front pages was about the campaign versus 46% for all of the media combined. The coverage that newspapers carried mostly mirrored the overall numbers.
The lead stories of the five most popular news websites, devoted even less attention than newspaper front pages to the campaign, at 29%.  The coverage of the candidates’ personal themes closely tracked that of the media overall, but small differences are worth noting. In the treatment of Clinton’s major personal narratives, these Web sites focused less on two particular negative themes. There was half as much attention to her unlikability (4% versus 8% overall) and nearly half as much to her lack of core beliefs (4% online versus 7% overall). At the same time, Obama was more likely to be portrayed as having wide appeal (21% online compared to 16% overall).
Network Morning News
If Clinton and Obama had nearly identical success in the press overall, this was clearly not the case on network morning news shows. The first 30 minutes of these programs from January 1 through March 9 painted an especially positive personal narrative about Clinton, more so than the media overall and much rosier than the narrative image portrayed of Obama.
Fully 84% of the assertions studied were positive in tone, 16 percentage points higher than the media overall (68%). And Obama did not have quite as much success on morning TV as he did in other media. On the morning shows, 61% of the statements about him personally were positive, compared with 69% overall.
The main reason for Clinton’s sunny portrayal on the morning shows? One possible explanation some might suggest may have to with gender and audience demographics. The programs might be sensitive to the fact that as a woman candidate, Clinton might have special appeal to the heavily female audience for these programs.
In its place, morning network television discussed her preparedness to lead the country—a key element of Clinton’s campaign message. Nearly half (48%) of the assertions studied about Clinton made this claim versus 38% in the media overall.
When it came to Clinton’s main rival, the first half hour of the morning shows gave more than twice as much attention than the media overall to the his dominant criticism: that he is too inexperienced to be president (21% versus 12%). The morning shows were also more than half as likely to refute the charge that Obama’s appeal is narrow and would hurt him in a general election, 6% versus 16% for the media overall.
Network Evening News
The network evening news programs offered a more similar treatment of the two Democratic rivals and a more positive portrayal of all three than did the media overall. Roughly three-quarters of the assertions studied about the two Democrats supported positive themes (75% for Clinton and 77% for Obama) as did 52% of those about McCain.
On cable, the first thing that stands out is the amount of coverage. During the first few months of 2008, fully 68% of the newshole studied on the three cable news channels (CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC), was devoted to the presidential contest. The vast majority of this came in the evening hours studied. At night, the programs examined spent more than three-quarters (76%) of their time on the campaign, nearly twice the coverage of the daytime hour studied (40%).
Differences between Cable Channels
But the other thing that stands out on cable news is how differently each portrayed the major candidates. MSNBC offered the most positive assessments of each of the candidate when it came to their personal narratives. Fox News was the toughest on McCain and Clinton and almost as positive about Obama’s personal themes as MSNBC. Fox News also spent significantly more time discussing McCain’s campaign than either of the other networks. CNN fell in between the other two.
All three major candidates had most success in projecting their message about character on MSNBC. Obama and Clinton received roughly equally positive narratives (70% for Obama and 72% for Clinton). The tilt was not as heavily for McCain (53%) but that was still better coverage than he received on either of the other two cable channels.
The Clinton campaign had MSNBC to thank for a greater portion of statements disputing the concept that she is unlikable, 22% on MSNBC versus 13% on CNN and 12% on Fox News.
For McCain, two factors contributed to his more positive image. First, MSNBC gave more attention than the other cable channels to his appeal to independents and moderates (22% versus 13% on CNN and 11% on Fox News.) In addition, MSNBC focused less on criticisms of him as not reliably conservative. Just 39% of MSNBC’s assertions about McCain were on this topic compared to 49% on Fox News and 46% on CNN.
The biggest factor for Obama’s positive coverage on MSNBC was less coverage of the assertion that he is too inexperienced to be president. Only 7% of the Obama themes on MSNBC made this claim compared with 17% on Fox News and 19% on CNN.
In our study of the first three months of the campaign in 2007 and again in the primary season of 2008, we found that MSNBC has been consistently more positive to all of the candidates than any other cable channel.
Fox News was the harshest of the three channels on the presumptive Republican nominee. More than half (55%) of the prominent personal statements about McCain were negative, the vast majority of which (49% overall) questioned his conservatism.
In its criticism, Fox News devoted more overall attention to McCain compared with the other cable channels, nearly the same attention it gave the two leading Democrats, 36% for McCain, 37% for Clinton and 39% for Obama. Both CNN and MSNBC, on the other hand, devoted far less of their coverage to the McCain campaign than they did to Clinton’s or Obama’s.
Fox News was also more positive in its portrayal of Obama’s major personal narrative than either McCain or Clinton. Fully 69% of the assertions about Obama personally were positive, a number that rivals what he received on MSNBC (70%).
Fox News did offer more positive than negative assertions about Clinton, but less so than the other channels (54% positive versus 70% on CNN and 72% on MSNBC). In particular, Fox News gave more attention to the image of Clinton as unlikable and divisive than either of the other networks, (22% versus 13% on CNN and only 4% on MSNBC).
If MSNBC was the most positive channel for each candidate, and Fox News was the harshest on Clinton and McCain, then CNN fell somewhere in between.
Coverage of Clinton’s personal narrative was nearly as positive as on MSNBC, an overwhelming 70% of all assertions studied. McCain’s personal message was almost evenly balanced (49% positive and 51% negative), versus a negative tilt on Fox (55% negative) and a positive one on MSNBC (53% positive)
Obama, on the other hand, found CNN to be much tougher on his campaign than either of the other channels. In particular, CNN spent less time reaffirming the notion that Obama representing hope and change (19% of Obama themes versus 28% on Fox and 26% on MSNBC). The network also spent more time questioning his integrity and honesty (11% versus 6% at both MSNBC and Fox.)
In talk radio, the campaign was also a major focus. In the five talk radio shows tracked as part of PEJ’s News Coverage Index, more than two-thirds (67%) of the airtime was devoted to the race. Clinton was the biggest focus of attention. Fully 37% of the campaign segments including her as a significant figure, followed by Obama at 30% of the segments and McCain at 23%.
While McCain got the least amount of attention on talk radio, he also got the most negative attention when it came to the personal narrative themes about him. Only 19% of the assertions about McCain personally were positive in nature while 81% were negative. By far, the biggest topic of conversation for McCain was the question of whether he was a true conservative politician. Fully 69% of the assertions about McCain, and 73% from the three conservative talk show hosts included in our sample, were supporting the notion that McCain was not a true conservative. From the conservative talk show hosts, only 16% of assertions about McCain were positive. Liberal radio talk show hosts, by contrast, barely paid attention to McCain during this time period; only 12% of campaign segments including McCain in any meaningful way.
One major reason for the amount of negative coverage about McCain on conservative talk radio was the doubts about his ideological credentials. Top-rated hosts such as Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity made McCain a key target during the Republican primary season. They argued that such candidates as Fred Thompson and Mitt Romney were genuine conservatives while McCain was a maverick and the candidate of the mainstream, or as Limbaugh calls them, the “drive-by” media.
If McCain was given a hard time from talk radio, so was Hillary Clinton. Thirty percent of the assertions about her suggested that she lacked core beliefs or was too politically calculating. (This included 16% of the assertions on the two liberal radio shows we tracked and 38% of the assertions on conservative talk radio.) Overall, only 25% of the assertions on conservative talk radio about Clinton were positive compared to a much higher 55% on liberal talk radio.
Obama found himself with much more support on talk radio, both for liberals and conservatives alike. Among liberal talkers, 67% of the assertions were postive. Conservative talkers, who would seem to oppose the Democratic senator’s campaign, also gave Obama more positive assertions (55%) than negative ones (45%). That was a rate more than three times higher than they gave the Republican front-runner McCain. The motives here are impossible to divine, but one obvious possibility is that a desire among conservative talk hosts to defeat a familiar antagonist in Clinton made Obama seem more attractive.
1. The sites tracked by PEJ were AOL News, CNN.com, Google News, MSNBC.com, and Yahoo News.