During the bruising Republican primaries, there was one candidate whose coverage was more relentlessly negative than the rest. In fact, he did not enjoy a single week where positive treatment by the media outweighed the negative.
His name is Barack Obama.
That is among the findings of a study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, a Washington nonprofit that examined 52 key newspaper, television, radio, and Web outlets.
“Day in and day out, he was criticized by the entire Republican field on a variety of policies,” Mark Jurkowitz, the group’s associate director, says of Obama. “And he was inextricably linked to events that generated negative coverage”—including rising gas prices, the ailing economy, and the renewed debate over his health care law.
In short, while the president was being hammered on both fronts, his message was somewhat drowned out by the volume of news coverage surrounding the GOP candidates.
Not that the Republicans were faring all that well with the press. Mitt Romney’s news coverage “vacillated between mixed and unflattering,” depending on whether he was winning primaries, the report says. “He was constantly dealing with this meme of not being able to close the deal,” Jurkowitz says.
Overall, it was no contest. From Jan. 2 through April 15, Romney’s coverage was 39 percent positive, 32 percent negative, and 29 percent neutral, the researchers found. Obama’s coverage was 18 percent positive, 34 percent negative, and 34 percent neutral. That means Romney’s depiction by the media was more than twice as positive as the president’s. So much for liberal bias.
The tone may well change, of course, as the two settle in for a one-on-one contest, now that the other GOP contenders have lost their megaphone.
Rick Santorum “never enjoyed a sustained period of positive press,” because his victories were invariably followed by losses, says the study. And Newt Gingrich “had only one week…in which he enjoyed significantly more positive press coverage than negative”—the week that he won South Carolina.
The exception was Ron Paul, who drew consistently positive coverage most of the time. Alas, this was offset by the fact that the media virtually ignored him.
What the research makes clear is that media outlets assumed the power to declare the race over, regardless of how many states had voted. I argued that this was happening in March, and the project’s numbers back it up.
After Romney won his home state, Michigan, on Feb. 28, his coverage turned more favorable. Santorum’s didn’t simply grow more negative; it began to shrink. What helped Romney, says Jurkowitz, is that “the media really began to pick up on this theme of inevitable delegate math, even though he was not winning all the primaries.”
References to Romney’s accumulated delegates and electoral inevitability jumped 12-fold the week after the Michigan primary, even though Santorum would go on to win Minnesota, Colorado, Missouri, and Louisiana. The press had already pulled the plug. “In the media narrative, for all intents and purposes, the general election had begun,” the study says.
Although Obama is the incumbent, the media have treated him more like a candidate, with nearly two thirds of the coverage involving political strategy and only 21 percent primarily about domestic and foreign issues.
The president had a rough month in January, with negative assertions outweighing positive ones by between 28 and 37 points. He cratered again in early April, when positive comments fell to 13 percent and negative ones rose to 37 percent—triggered by gas prices, the Supreme Court hearings on Obamacare, and his open-mic incident with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.
How substantive is the media’s approach to the 2012 race? From November through mid-April, the horse race won by several lengths.
Sixty-four percent of the media attention was framed around polls, advertising, fundraising, strategy, and who was up or down. Another 12 percent focused on the candidates’ personal backgrounds—families, religion, marriages, and finances.
As for the candidates’ stands on the issues, that accounted for a mere 11 percent of the coverage.
The good news: that’s actually an improvement from the 2008 campaign, when 80 percent of the primary coverage revolved around strategy and tactics. Not that many people have noticed.