MSM Primary Coverage

There is a lot of buzz today about a new Pew study of mainstream media coverage of the 2012 Republican presidential nominating contest. According to the study, which focused on the period between November 2011 and April 15, 2012, fully 64% of news content involved “strategic elements of the GOP primary fight,” defined as “horse race, tactics, strategy, money and advertising.” This obviously dwarfed coverage of “personal issues” (12%); “domestic issues” (9%); “public record” (6%); “foreign issues” (1%); and everything else (6%). Bad as that sounds, the “strategic elements” obsession was much less severe than in the 2008 primaries, when 80% of the GOP coverage and 78% of the Democratic coverage was about this presumably non-substantive stuff.

Now before hyperventilating about the much-deplored “horse race mania” of the MSM the study seems to document, it’s helpful to think about it a bit. For one thing, there is no way around the fact that the bulk of primary coverage was devoted to primary results, and the significance of primary results to the ultimate question of identifying the party nominee: yeah, “horse race” coverage. But beyond that, much of the 2012 nominating contest has revolved around candidate efforts to outflank each other ideologically, mainly by endless assertions of their own fidelity to the Conservative Cause, and by content-light but symbolism-rich dog whistles, along with heavy-handed negative advertising disputing their rivals’ orthodoxy. When candidate A blasts candidate B for not being a “true conservative,” and this utterance (at a debate or speech or in an ad) is reported, the better reporter (or analyst) will interpret it as a strategic move, while the inexperienced writer might well just report it straight up in a way that might be coded by the monks at Pew as a reference to candidate B’s “personal issues” or “domestic issues.” To use more specific examples, on those occasions when Mitt Romney’s rivals baited him over his Massachusetts health plan, should that be reported as a discussion of “health care policy” (i.e., as a “domestic issue”) or as a strategic issue? Moreover, to the extent that Romney’s eventual victory had an awful lot to do with his effective use of superior financial resources, should discussion of money have ranked lower than the candidates’ pithy views on the Keystone XL pipeline?

Hard to say. My own feeling is that MSM coverage of the early primaries was tainted not so much by the quantity as by the quality of coverage of the “strategic elements” of the campaign. Far too much coverage, particular on the tube, was devote to raw feeds of campaign spin, and far too many “commentators” were grinding axes for a candidate or for some “signature” interpretation of how it was all going to come down on a particular night, month, or the entire cycle (and yeah, I’ll pledge guilty to that last tendency myself). As always, coverage of the primaries themselves all too often seemed gripped by a slender narrative dictated by the great god of “expectations,” with “big picture” analysis all too often failing to transcend the banalities of the “Establishment versus Tea Party feud” or some triple-loaded “next-in-line” theory based on superficial precedents.

In the end, all the coverage focused on “strategic elements” rarely seemed to capture the strangeness of the contest from beginning to end: the spectacle of last cycle’s “true conservative” candidate moving steadily to the Right yet being treated as the perennially suspect moderate RINO; the temporary emergence of fringe characters like Bachmann, Paul and Santorum as viable candidates; the serial resurrections of one of the 20th century’s least popular politicians, Newt Gingrich; the rapid deflation of the one-time behemoth Rick Perry based on a few bad moments in debates; the bizarre moment when Herman Cain, a man with no record and virtually no visible campaign, zoomed to the top of the polls. Perhaps the most accurate coverage might have been someone shrieking repeatedly at the Republican electorate, What the hell are you thinking?

In any event, a deliberately wonky and non-strategic coverage philosophy that treated 9-9-9 or fetal personhood as an interesting new idea among “domestic issues” would have kind of missed the point of a political party whose voters were simultaneously on a drunken ideological bender, yet were coolly calculating how much radicalism might be sneaked into the White House thanks to a bad economy and an unlucky incumbent. In that respect, the 2012 contest has been simply incomparable.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.