The First 100 Days
Taking the first two months in office as a whole, Bush's coverage has been slightly less positive than his Democratic predecessor's (22% positive stories for Bush versus 27% for Clinton)4.
For both presidents, the bulk of stories were neutral (49% Bush, 44% Clinton). The percentage of negative stories for both presidents was identical (28%).
In praising Bush, stories tended to applaud his leadership skills.
In a story about Bush's unexpected visit to the Congressional Democratic retreat, for instance, Newsweek reporters Bill Turque and Howard Fineman wrote, "Bush seemed to steal their oxygen, staging unprecedented drop-ins to preach the bipartisan gospel. "Bush has not only seized the momentum; he's done it with the Democrats' ideas."5
In an ABC News story on Feb. 3, anchor Elizabeth Vargus led into a story about Bush's outreach to Democrats by saying "there's not much question now" about Bush's style succeeding in "politically savvy Washington." After supportive quotes from Senator Ted Kennedy and David Gergen, reporter Terry Moran offered, "The tactic is typical of Bush, say Texans who for years have watched him leverage his sunny temperament into political victories."6
Criticism for Bush often focused on his ideology and policy decisions. A March 15, page one story at the Washington Post read, "Bush appeared to send mixed signals about the U.S. economy. To reporters, he said he was concerned about the market turmoil but has 'great faith in our economy.' Later, in a speech, he declared: "Our economy is beginning to sputter."7 Soon after Bush became much more guarded when the issue of the economy arose.
For Clinton, praise tended to be attached to his policy statements, as in a page one story in the Washington Post on February 3, about Clinton's pledge on welfare reform. After quoting Clinton's speech, the story then quoted several governors, including Republican governors Tommy Thompson and John Engler, as "very excited," Senator Moynihan as "hugely gratified," and welfare analyst Robert Rector as calling it "a very dramatic departure from Democratic proposals in the past."8
Similar tendencies appeared on network news. A February first report on NBC quoted two experts applauding Clinton's vaccination plan for children as "long overdue" and the answer to "a tragedy." The only critical remark came as an indirect claim made by Robert Hager that "government officials say the [drug] companies are resisting."9
Clinton's critical stories most often dealt with his leadership abilities. A few days before the vaccination story, NBC's Tim Russert assessed Clinton's problems. "There's concern among Democrats in Congress, Tom, that Governor Clinton like Governor Carter, is used to working with weak legislatures. That's not Congress…. [Republicans will say:] On Zoe Baird, illegal immigrants, he was tone deaf…. Even his most avid supporters are saying that in the last few days, the president is stumbling."10
Clinton was also harshly criticized for his agenda over gays in the military. In a New York Times page one story on the Joint Chiefs' strong opposition to this policy, critical comments that the plan would "wreck morale, undermine recruiting, force devoutly religious service members to resign and increase the risk of AIDS for heterosexual troops," disproportionately outweighed arguments for the policy from gay advocates or the administration.11
The more striking figures about tone are when and where the judgmental stories appear.
As stated earlier, Bush got off to a fast start but gradually began to falter. For Clinton, it was the reverse.
The second notable difference is where the judgments came. Bush has had the better time in news stories. Again, looking only at hard newspaper stories and all broadcast news, most of the Bush stories have been neutral (57%) and positive stories have outweighed negative (24% to 18%).
On January 28, the front of the New York Times carried the headline, "Bush's Transition Largely a Success, All Sides Suggest," and wrote in the lead, "As President Bush completes his first week in office, prominent Republicans and even many Democrats agree that he has presided over one of the most orderly and politically nimble White House transitions in at least 20 years."12
Bush's harsher stories were on the opinion pages, at least in the New York Times and Washington Post. There, critical columns and editorials outweighed praiseworthy ones 46% to just 18%. About a third (35%) have been neutral or mixed.
Editorials in both the Post and the Times criticized Bush's budget. A Washington Post editorial on March 5 concluded that the administration's budget is "the wrong policy. His administration should tend to the programs first; eat its spinach, then dessert. This budget is the other way around."13
A week earlier, the New York Times editorial board wrote that Bush's budget plan, "is twisting the entire budget out of shape in a very unhealthy way. It is too big, too weighted toward the rich and too unlikely to be an immediate help to the economy."14
For Clinton, the opinion pages were much kinder. Favorable columns outweighed unfavorable (37% versus 26%) and equal to neutral or mixed reviews (37%).
A Washington Post editorial praised Clinton's trade policy as "heartening" and establishing "the direction—and it is the right direction—in which he means to exert American leadership in the world's economy."15
But looking only at the news coverage in the papers and on TV, the new Democratic president suffered from more unfavorable news stories than favorable (28% versus 23%) and less than half of all news stories were neutral (47%).
But in this study of traditional media, the opinion pages of the Washington Post and New York Times may well be more liberal in tone than a range of commentary that one would here on talk radio and cable news, not included in this study. The more conservative tone of those outlets may have added to the general impression that Bush in enjoying better press than Clinton. It is interesting to note that two networks who's programming have often proved hostile to the Clinton administration, MSNBC and FOX were not on the air at the start of the Clinton administration.
The decided advantage Bush has enjoyed in the news pages versus the opinion pages may reflect the liberal attitudes of the Times and Post editorial pages versus their news coverage. In that regard, the study would suggest that the difference journalists insist exists between the news and editorial pages, but which some conservatives doubt, is actually demonstrable.
4 To measure tone, researchers counted all the assertions by journalists themselves or comments by their sources in the story that were either clearly negative or positive. For a story to be considered anything but neutral, the positive or negative comments within it must outnumber each other by a ratio of at least two-to-one. For example, for a budget story to be considered positive for Bush, there would have to be eight positive assertions for every four negative ones.
5 Bill Turque and Howard Fineman, "Wandering in the Wilderness," Newsweek, February 12, 2001
6 ABC World News Tonight, February 3, 2001, transcript
7 Glenn Kessler and Paul Blustein, "With Words, Bush Runs Economic Risk," Washington Post, March 15, 2001
8 Ruth Marcus, "President Pledges to Reform Welfare; Jobs Would Be Required After 2 Years," Washington Post, February 3, 1993
9 NBC Nightly News, February 1, 1993, transcript
10 NBC Nightly News, January 27, 1993, transcript
11 Eric Schmitt, "Joint Chiefs Fighting Plan To Allow Homosexuals in Military," New York Times, January 23, 1993
12 Richard L. Berke, "Bush's Transition Largely A Success, All Sides Suggest," New York Times, January 28, 2001
13 Editorial, "Spinach Before Dessert," Washington Post, March 5, 2001
14 Editorial, "Mr. Bush's First Battle," New York Times, February 25, 2001
15 Editorial, "Trade — Looking Outward," Washington Post, February 28, 1993