The big news event in the presidential campaign last week was the Democrats’ debate Oct. 30 in Philadelphia, an encounter in which frontrunner Hillary Clinton faced into her toughest bombardment yet from party rivals.
Calling it “strikingly different in tone” from the previous ones, The New York Times reported that Clinton came under “withering attack” on everything from her “candor” to “electability.”
Two days after the debate, NBC’s “Today” show showed footage of Clinton brandishing the red boxing gloves she received at the AFSCME union endorsement while correspondent Andrea Mitchell worked over the pugilistic metaphors. “After getting punched around in Tuesday’s Democratic debate, Hillary Clinton is still acting tough.”
Less noticed, however, the news media last week were also busy sharpening some other “master narratives” about several candidates. These master narratives are broader and thematic “storylines” about different contenders that often reflect and reinforce public perceptions and can powerfully shape press coverage. In a sense, the battle for exposure in a campaign is often a battle to see which master narrative the press leans toward about your candidate. Is Hillary Clinton hard and calculating, or is she tough and sophisticated? Is Rudy Giuliani too liberal for the GOP, or redefining it?
Last week, two of these narratives—one involving Illinois Democratic Senator Barack Obama and another concerning former Arkansas Republican Governor Mike Huckabee—showed signs of becoming significantly more fleshed out in the coverage of the campaign.
With Obama, the issue—boiled down to basics—is whether he is too mellow and mild mannered for the rugged nature of presidential politics. An Oct. 29 Los Angeles Times story that puzzled over why the charismatic Senator was not faring better quoted a political consultant chalking it up his “gentle style.” An anecdote in the story noted that Obama generated only mixed results in face-to-face meetings with Iowa voters, partly because of his “mild…rhetoric.” Other stories last week went even further, questioning his toughness.
In the case of Huckabee, there were signs of a new master narrative as well—that in the absence of an heir to Ronald Reagan, his conservative values and affable manner are turning him into a more viable contender. An Oct 29 National Public Radio report—noting that Huckabee had enjoyed a big jump in online fundraising and a bump in some Iowa polls—interviewed a voter who originally passed over Huckabee because of doubts about his electability, but then decided “what really matters is the person.”
The story also showcased Huckabee’s skills as a bass guitar player. In front of a crowd of Iowa GOP revelers, his band played a song appropriate for a political campaign, the 1960 pop hit—later covered by the Beatles—titled “Money (That’s What I Want).”
The Philadelphia debate, along with the emerging Obama and Huckabee story lines, helped make the presidential campaign the dominant story last week, filling 17% of the newshole as measured by PEJ’s News Coverage Index for Oct. 28-Nov. 2. It was the top story in the newspaper sector (11%) and network TV (13%) and racked up even bigger number in the two sectors—cable TV (27%) and radio (28%)—where the talk hosts regularly hold forth on the election. Thanks in part to the Philadelphia face off, the week was a big one for Democrats, with their candidates generating about five times as many stories as the Republican hopefuls.
After the campaign, the second-biggest story last week was the situation inside Iraq, at 6%, followed by the western wildfires at 4%, tropical storm Noel at 4%, and the U.S. economy at 4%. During the week of Oct. 21-26, the raging California wildfires utterly dominated the news, accounting for 38% of the coverage. With the blazes coming under control last week, coverage of the story fell by 34 percentage points.
PEJ’s News Coverage Index examines the news agenda of 48 different outlets from five sectors of the media. (See List of Outlets.) It is designed to provide news consumers, journalists and researchers with hard data about what stories and topics the media are covering, the trajectories of major stories and differences among news platforms. (See Our Methodology.)
In the early phase of the 2008 campaign, Barack Obama was the recipient of largely flattering coverage in the mainstream media. (A new PEJ study on election coverage from January through May 2007 found that he generated more positive coverage than any other announced major candidate, with upbeat stories outnumbering the negative ones by about three to one.) His early fundraising prowess and clear emergence as the leading challenger to Clinton in the polls seemed to fuel the good press.
But as the campaign has dragged on, Clinton’s ability to stretch her lead in the polls and Obama’s failure to translate his obvious talents into more strategic success has started raising questions in the media about the T-word—toughness.
One night before the Philadelphia debate, MSNBC host Tucker Carlson opened his show by wondering about that very issue. “Barack Obama swears he’s gonna get tough with Hillary Clinton,” said Carlson. “But the thing about real tough guys—they don’t talk all that much about being tough. They just do it. Is Obama for real?”
The next night, in an NBC nightly news report previewing the debate, anchor Brian Williams noted Obama’s promise “to be tougher in the campaign against frontrunner Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton.” And the subsequent story featured Pennsylvania Democratic Governor Ed Rendell’s blunt warning that Obama “needs a performance where the media…are saying ‘he showed some strength, he made some points, he looked liked a leader.’ Right now, the buzz from the debates is…he’s not ready for prime time.”
On the GOP side, Huckabee, the little-known pastor and former Arkansas chief executive, was part of a group of presumed Republican long shots (such as Tom Tancredo and Ron Paul) virtually ignored by the media in the early part of the campaign. But his star began to rise when he finished a fairly strong second to Mitt Romney in the August Iowa straw poll, an event journalists are often quick to dismiss even while it does become a benchmark that influences their coverage. Upward movement in recent Iowa polls and an increased profile have generated attention from a political press re-evaluating its original decision to marginalize him.
Previewing his interview with Huckabee on the Oct. 30 edition of ABC’s “Good Morning America,” George Stephanopoulos asked the question of the moment: “Could he be on the verge of becoming a real contender?”
On the previous night, MSNBC’s Carlson acknowledged that Huckabee’s “laid back style and easy laugh are winning over crowds.” That however, led into a discussion with the Wall Street Journal’s John Fund about how solid Huckabee’s conservative credentials are. Acknowledging that he is “a very engaging fellow [and] a terrific campaigner,” Fund said Huckabee’s Arkansas record “is not the record of a fiscal conservative.”
In an odd way, the questioning of Huckabee’s conservative bona fides lends credibility to his campaign since that issue has already repeatedly arisen with the four top Republican contenders—Rudy Giuliani, John McCain, Mitt Romney, and Fred Thompson.
In the “Good Morning America” story on his strengthening candidacy, Huckabee himself posited a theory for why he’s suddenly finding his record as governor under much closer scrutiny. With his opponents and critics now realizing that “this guy’s alive,” they’ve decided “let’s go get him.”
Mark Jurkowitz of PEJ
Note: This week's sample did not include the presidential debate that MSNBC aired on Tuesday, October 30, but included an episode of Tucker instead. Also, CNN aired special programs on the evenings of October 31 and November 1. Other CNN shows were substituted for those evenings rather than the normal rotation.