ĎThus Far and No Furtherí
Journalists Screen Presidential Candidates and Establish Boundaries
by Chris Shumway

January 27, 2004
First Published in The New Standard

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Last autumn, long before Democratic Party insiders Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts and Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina finished one-two in the Iowa Caucus, the most important primary of the political season was already underway. But unlike the Iowa Caucus, or the Washington DC primary held one week before it, this primary does not involve actual voters going to the polls. Rather, it is the process through which major news outlets "elect" the presidential front-runners and frame the issues, thus setting the boundaries for acceptable political discussion.

Such a process - call it the Media Primary - established Kerry and, to a lesser degree, Edwards as serious candidates worthy of attention, while at the same time, it declared the campaigns of several other candidates to be unworthy of public interest.

One can better understand how the Media Primary works by reviewing the content of a Democratic Party debate in New Hampshire last December moderated by Ted Koppel, anchor of the ABC news program "Nightline." Throughout the debate, Koppel focused much of the discussion on the latest poll results and political endorsements. After he was gently chided by Congressman Dennis Kucinich of Ohio for being overly concerned with "horse race" questions, Koppel asked Kucinich, Ambassador Carol Moseley-Braun, and Rev. Al Sharpton why they were still in the race even though they hadn't gotten major endorsements, weren't climbing in the polls, or had failed to raise millions of dollars from special interest groups and wealthy individuals. Werenít they just running "vanity" campaigns? Koppel asked.

In following this line of questioning, Koppel let slip one of the secrets of mainstream journalism. As John Nichols, political reporter for the The Nation, puts it: news outlets "prefer easily described, sound bite-driven contests between a handful of well-known candidates, not wide open contests with lots of candidates and lots of interesting ideas." Indeed, such campaigns are cheaper to cover, plus they save reporters the trouble of having to do research on a wide range of social issues and critically examine multiple candidatesí policy positions. Hence the need for a Media Primary to weed out unwanted candidates.

Koppel also inadvertently revealed the three main criteria news media apply when evaluating candidates: (1) fundraising ability, which makes the Media Primary a close cousin of the corporate sectorís Money Primary; (2) experience and establishment support - the longer one has served in Washington and/or the more oneís policy views adhere to those of party leaders, the better; and (3) position in early polls, which are almost useless because well-funded, well-known candidates will naturally fare better than unknowns or newcomers.

In order for a candidate to merit thoughtful media attention, he or she must strongly satisfy at least one of these criteria. Those lacking funds or doing poorly in the polls can rely on experience, ideology or celebrity to win media approval. This helps explain why Edwards and fellow Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, both favorites of the conservative, corporate-backed Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), got far more media coverage early on than Kucinich, an anti-war, pro-labor progressive - despite the fact that Edwards, until very recently, hadnít fared well in most national polls, while Lieberman didnít even campaign in Iowa and has struggled to raise money. Why didnít Koppel ask why he was still in the race?

The marginalization of Sharpton and Moseley-Braun, who is no longer running, suggests that race and gender are also factors in the Media Primary. Is it just a coincidence that the only black female candidate garnered scant national media attention? No wonder she had trouble raising money and had to leave the contest so early. Sharptonís campaign has also been largely ignored by major news outlets, even though his sharp critiques of president Bush - and moderate and conservative Democrats - coupled with his opposition to the death penalty and his call for economic justice, routinely draw enthusiastic crowds of progressive voters at campaign stops. With the mainstream media blackout likely to continue, both Sharpton and Kucinich will need to put even greater emphasis on getting their messages out through alternative media venues and grassroots, activist networks.

Meantime, the campaigns of party insiders Kerry and Edwards now surge ahead with the blessings of Iowa voters and the Media Primary. The two like-minded candidates are joined as front-runners by two "outsider" candidates: retired General Wesley Clark, who like Lieberman opted out of the Iowa Caucus to focus his campaign on New Hampshire, and former Vermont Governor Howard Dean. Clark is considered a legitimate candidate not because of any bold idea or policy position, but because heís from the South, is close to Bill and Hillary Clinton, has a military background, and appears to have the ability to raise large sums of money ($15-million already).

The Dean Factor

Howard Dean, on the other hand, is much more of a political anomaly, though itís hard to consider a wealthy M.D. and former five-term governor, known in his home state for his pragmatism and pro-corporate policies, as a political outsider. To be sure, he is from outside Washington but, geographically speaking, so were Bill Clinton and George W. Bush when they first ran for president. Nonetheless, journalists tagged Dean as an outsider because his campaign initially didnít seem to fit the Media Primaryís script. He was an virtually unknown Democrat from a small state using the Internet as a primary organizing and fundraising tool, skillfully building a network of support among disaffected Democrats and young, independent-minded voters.

Complementing his use of the Net, which completely slipped under the radar of major news outlets and political pundits that donít seem to understand the Net can be used as a two-way communication medium, Dean carefully positioned himself as a strong opponent of the war in Iraq, thus drawing sizable support from peace activists, who had also been organizing via the Net.

Seizing on Deanís antiwar rhetoric and his direct speaking style, journalists quickly painted a portrait of the candidate as an angry, liberal insurgent who opposed the war from the beginning and wanted to take on the entrenched powers in Washington. Never mind that in October 2002, Dean went on record in support of the Biden-Lugar proposal, which if passed, would have authorized unilateral action against Iraq if UN diplomacy had been exhausted and the president declared the country a threat to the U.S. (Des Moines Register, 10/6/02). Never mind also that Dean goes out of his way to reject the notion that he is on the left. "I think itís pathetic," he told the Washington Post, "that Iím considered the left-wing liberal" (7/6/03).

Mainstream journalists and pundits, however, are a disciplined lot. Once theyíve settled on labels for the candidates and decided how to frame their reporting, theyíre not likely to seek out inconvenient facts or arguments. A survey of reporting on the Dean campaign shortly after the media named him as one of the front-runners is instructive. "Short-Fused Populist, Breathing Fire at Bush," blared the headline of the same Washington Post article in which Dean argued he wasnít left wing.

Six weeks later, the same paper ran a story describing many of Deanís supporters as "rabid Bush haters," implying that the candidateís supporters are unbalanced or too radical (8/23/03). The piece also argued that the candidate would have to "broaden his appeal" beyond his apparently radical base in order to win the nomination. This line of thinking seems to have come straight from the DLC, which has long argued that Democrats must run to the middle in both the primaries and the general election. Journalists buy into it despite the fact that in 2000, Al Gore was most effective in the general election when running, at least rhetorically, as a liberal populist.

Joining the Post in playing up the DLC angle were Newsweek, U.S. News & World Report, ABC News, and the New York Times, which all ran stories last summer asking whether Dean would pull the party to the left and thus weaken it during the general election. Although a few reporters looked beyond this frame and actually documented Deanís moderate record as governor, the dominant storyline prevailed in the days before the Iowa vote, as indicated by a recent piece in the Post. "The question haunting Dean," reporter John Harris wrote on January 16, "is whether he stands any chance of exerting appeal beyond core Democrats who share his strong opposition to the Iraq war and his liberal social views."

Reporting about Kerry and Edwards, by contrast, focused on how well their campaigns appeared to be resonating with Iowa voters. Buoyed by mostly positive coverage - and in Edwardsí case, the endorsement of Iowaís biggest daily newspaper - both candidates ticked upward in the polls while Dean began to slip.

Setting Boundaries for Debate

In addition to parroting DLC arguments about Deanís electability, the Washington Post also used its editorial page to describe the candidate as being stridently against the war, failing to note the far more nuanced position Dean actually took early on. "Mr. Dean," the editors wrote, "really caught fire when he-unwisely in our view-became the most visible Democratic candidate to oppose the war in Iraq (6/28/03, emphasis added). The paper continued its assault in a December 18 editorial, writing that Deanís views on foreign policy, which include support for negotiations with North Korea backed up by the threat of force, a position not unlike that of General Clarkís, were "beyond the mainstream."

By positioning Dean as the most liberal of the Democratic front-runners, then harshly criticizing his temperament and his tepid opposition to the war, the editors of the Post have sent a message to the other leading candidates: Anyone who attempts to run to the left of Dean, especially on foreign policy issues, is unacceptable. Thus far and no further. Kerry, Edwards and Clark have been placed on notice.

Moving beyond the campaign itself, the Post and other outlets that attacked Dean are helping police the boundaries for political discussion. Only those ideas and arguments which fall somewhere between Deanís positions and those of the neoconservatives who advise Bush are worthy of sustained attention. This, then, is the real essence of the Media Primary. While it may be in the interest of major news outlets to ignore or marginalize unwanted candidates before the first primary, it is more crucial in the long-term, when voters are actually involved in the process, for reporters and editors to keep the anointed front-runners safely within the bounds of approved political thought.

Chris Shumway is a teacher, writer, and community media activist in Columbus, Ohio whose articles have appeared in Z Magazine, The Free Press, Common Dreams and many others. He is co-author of the book Digital Dilemmas: Ethical Issues for Online Media Professionals (Iowa State Press, 2003), and an instructor in the Department of Communication at Capital University in Columbus. Prior to working as a teacher and writer, Chris was a broadcast journalist and meteorologist. For 15 years, he worked at network-affiliated TV stations in Alabama, Georgia, Texas, and Ohio, winning over a half-dozen awards in both journalism and weather forecasting categories. This article first appeared in The New Standard, a new publication that Noam Chomsky describes as "an exciting initiative, organized by people with great experience and impressive achievements. It offers real promise of meeting needs that are widely and rightly felt: for regular news and commentary about important issues, truly independent, not constrained by concentrated power. The significance of such an endeavor for those committed to freedom and justice can hardly be overstressed." Please visit their website and support their important endeavors.







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