< The Media, the President, and the Horse Race

Transcript

Friday, October 21, 2011

BOB GARFIELD:

From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

And I'm Brooke Gladstone. Amid the general atmosphere of political gridlock and economic dread, the Pew Research Project for Excellence in Journalism studied the media coverage of the current crop of presidential contenders and found — sit down — that the President's coverage is overwhelmingly negative.

And by “overwhelming” I mean that when looking at 11,500 news outlets over the previous five months, Pew found that Obama's negative coverage outstripped the positive by nearly four to one.

Mark Jurkowitz is the associate director for the Project for Excellence in Journalism. Mark, welcome back to the show.

MARK JURKOWITZ:

Thanks very much.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

How do you measure positive and negative press, ‘cause you’re talkin’ about news coverage as much as editorial and opinion.

MARK JURKOWITZ:

Yes we are, and this is kind of a new research tool for us. It was a computer algorithm developed by a company called Crimson Hexagon.

And we actually used our own human researchers and coders to train the computer basically to look for positive, negative and neutral assertions. Our sample was over 11,000 different media outlets.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

So, how do you account for this overwhelmingly negative coverage of the president? This was like 9 percent positive verses what, 34 percent –

[OVERTALK]

MARK JURKOWITZ:

Thirty-four percent negative.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

- negative, yeah.

MARK JURKOWITZ:

When we first looked at the numbers, Brooke, it surprised us too. But then when you start to actually understand sort of the structure of the coverage, it makes more sense. And here's what we found. We're talking about seven, eight, nine Republican candidates out there now in the news every single day. They're debating frequently. And all of them, to one degree or another, are constantly critical of the president. That gets baked into what people see, hear and read. So you’ve first got this multiple chorus of people who want the president's job. Then you're gonna have clear tensions that we have between the administration and the Republicans on Capitol Hill.

You also, frankly, have plenty of Democrats who voiced displeasure with the President, either the results or the tactics, so he had problems within his own party.

And then there's one other huge element. The biggest single story in this five-month period that we were looking at is the United States economy. It filled about one-fifth of all the coverage we look at. By and large, the economic story has been an unrelentingly negative one in those months. And those stories, which are linking the president to a bad economy, put all those things together and you get this almost four to one ratio.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

All right, but there's also the part of it that there isn't a whole lot of coverage, for instance, of the things that the President has done to try to relieve the economy, wouldn’t you say?

MARK JURKOWITZ:

Well, he's out there making the case that, you know, he's done certain things. He staved off what could have been a depression, all that kind of stuff. And those things would be positive assertions about him. But they're almost always part of a broader story that takes a look at well, what is the state of the economy or that has people who are critical of the president for the economy. So  so it's a harder case to make that things could have been worse than they are. And it's not something that's frequently a dominant issue in the media narrative.

One of the oddest things we found — and this may be illustrative of the problem the President has in the media — we actually begin this survey on May 2nd. That's one day after the killing of Osama bin Laden. We actually expected, at least from the week of May 2nd through May 8th, that the President would have a positive narrative.

Well, as it turns out, he didn't. He still had a negative narrative. And the stories said things like, Americans, disgruntled by a bad economy, soured by rampant partisanship in Washington and uncertain about their own economic prospects, cheered the killing of Osama bin Laden last night.

[BROOKE LAUGHS]

So even in those kind of st –

[BROOKE LAUGHING]

I’m not kidding. [LAUGHS] Even in those kind of stories, you're gonna have these negative connotations that arise.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

So let's pivot to the GOP candidates. Their coverage has been, relative to the president, very, very good. Part of the reason, obviously, is that there aren't any policies they have to own at this point, right? This is all horse-race coverage. So if you’re up you get positive coverage, and if you're down you get negative coverage?

MARK JURKOWITZ:

That's very true. They don't own anything. The president’s being judged by everything that's happening in the United States these days. These folks are being judged on a much narrower scale, which is how are they competing against their own rivals.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

You mentioned the word “narrative” and I know some people complain that the word is used too much when applied to the news media. But I think it's really important. I feel like I'm getting hammered with the same story, different face, every other week, which we saw with Bachmann and we saw with Perry and now we're seeing with Herman Cain. And they’re up, and they’re way, way up, and then they’re down.

MARK JURKOWITZ:

The dynamic of this race has been really interesting in that in the key Republicans we've seen, their trajectories have all been bumpy and not smooth at all, with one exception: Mitt Romney. So I'll start with him for just a second.

[BROOKE LAUGHS]

And the tone of Romney’s coverage remains sort of mixed week in and week out, doesn't change very much. I think it reflects two things. Number one, he does well in a lot of the horse race indices. His fundraising is very good; he's at or near the top of the polls usually, and that generates positive coverage.

On the other hand, the one element of the storyline that he's unable to escape is the consistent suspicions that he has real problems ideologically, maybe even theologically, with some of the Republican base.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

Let us, for the sake of argument, say that  these polls have any meaning. Did the polls drive the coverage, did the coverage drive the polls? None of the above.

MARK JURKOWITZ:

Maybe all of the above.

[BROOKE LAUGHS]

That's the better answer, D. We did look at it for the period of time that we’re studying, and it varied widely. For example, Michelle Bachmann’s poll numbers actually jumped well ahead of the improvement in the tone of her coverage, which could suggest some skepticism about her on the part of the media.

In the case of Herman Cain, however, his positive coverage preceded by weeks, frankly, his ascension in the polls.

And then again, you look at Mitt Romney. It  looks like the tone of his narrative remains sort of impervious to his status in the race, because when Rick Perry got in in August and zoomed ahead of Romney, you would think intuitively, okay his narrative is gonna go down. It didn’t. It stayed mixed.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

So you’re saying that's our story and we're stickin’ to it.

MARK JURKOWITZ:

Yes, for now anyway.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

One last question. What about the media's liberal bias?

MARK JURKOWITZ:

We look at the numbers, we don't try and deduce what the motivations might be for journalists. We tell people what we found, which is if there was some idea that perhaps the media is in the tank to Barack Obama, then obviously his numbers would belie that. If there would have been some expectation that the media, being part of the establishment, would probably have been more receptive to a traditional establishment Republican candidate, Romney's coverage does not suggest that, particularly when measured against the coverage of Perry or Bachmann,  conservative candidates aligned closely with the Tea Party.

So I would say, based on what we’ve seen right now, there are some myths that probably could be put to rest.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

From what I'm seeing right now, the mainstream media are Tea Partiers.

MARK JURKOWITZ:

No, that is – that is –

[BROOKE LAUGHS]

What the main [LAUGHS] — What the mainstream media are doing right now, they are deep in the horse race phase of the campaign. They are looking at it through this frame:  Here is a competition. We're not judging the  candidates on their ideology, even on their readiness to be president or whatever the case. They’re in the first leg of the race. There’s seven or eight of ‘em on the track. Who’s winning? That's driving the coverage at this point.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

Mark, thank you very much.

MARK JURKOWITZ:

My pleasure, Brooke. Good to be with you.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

Mark Jurkowitz is the associate director for the Project for Excellence in Journalism.