Analyzing Coverage Of Politicians p. 19

By: Debra Gersh Hernandez Study lends credence to complaints about negative reporting on the GOP sp.

REPUBLICAN COMPLAINTS about negative coverage by the press may be more than just political posturing.
A new report from the Center for Media and Public Affairs (CMPA) shows that "criticism outweighed praise for GOP policies by margins of 2-to-1 in editorials and 3-to-2 in news stories at eight major media outlets" during March.
"Reporters are convinced that Republicans have been paranoid about press coverage ever since [then-President] Dwight Eisenhower complained about the sensation-seeking commentators. I guess the message of our study this year is: Even paranoids can have enemies," CMPA co-director Robert Lichter commented during a panel discussion about the report.
Focusing on what Lichter called "the biggest story of the year," CMPA examined 748 news items ? 446 front-page news stories and 140 unsigned editorials ? about the new Republican Congress in the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Washington Times and USA Today.
The center also analyzed television news coverage, looking at 162 news stories broadcast by ABC, CBS and NBC during their network evening newscasts.
Television news was more critical of the Republicans than were newspapers, with 71% of its reports consisting of negative evaluations. The newspaper evaluations overall were 61% negative.
One of the study's "key findings is that if you read the editorials in a newspaper, you don't need to read the news. They both look pretty much the same. The news and editorials seem to speak with the same voice these days," Lichter said.
"In other words, journalism speaks in its own voice on the editorial page and quotes other people to the same effect on the news pages," he said.
"I think that's a very disturbing phenomenon, in the context of the tradition of the American press of seeking balance and objectivity on the news pages and separating them from the editorial," Lichter added.
For example, CMPA found that at the Washington Post, evaluations of the Republican Congress ? by both sources and reporters ? were 66% negative in news stories and 67% negative in editorials.
In USA Today news stories, 70% of evaluations of the Republican Congress were negative, compared to 76% in its editorials.
Front-page news stories in the New York Times, however, were 65% negative, while the editorials were 87% negative.
The more conservative Wall Street Journal and Washington Times, however, were found by CMPA to be more balanced. At both papers, 47% of the evaluations in their news pages were positive.
In the editorial pages of the Journal, 48% of comments were positive, and at the Times, 41% of editorials were positive.
"The Wall Street Journal editorial page is famously conservative, but what you get is criticism of Republicans for getting thrown off balance, for not going far enough, for not passing term limits, for not passing the balanced budget amendment," Lichter explained.
"So the criticism is in a different direction, but there's still enough criticism to bring down the positive image of the Republicans. Something similar happens in the overtly conservative Washington Times," he said.
If the Congress took its lumps in the press, two of its most visible members, House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) bore the brunt of the criticism
Gingrich was the most visible Republican on television with 21 stories, and Dole received the most coverage in the newspapers, appearing in 52 front-page stories during March.
Sixty-nine percent of all the evaluations of Gingrich were negative, 64% for Dole. The New York Times had the highest percentage of negative comments about both men (89% negative for Dole, 91% negative for Gingrich), while the Washington Times was the most positive (56% positive for Dole, 41% positive for Gingrich).
But while Dole and Gingrich were the most visible targets, they did not receive the most negative coverage.
Eighty-five percent of all press about Sen. Alfonse D'Amato (R-N.Y.) was negative. In second place was Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.), with 81% negative comments.
The best press went to Rep. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), who received positive evaluations in 88% of the coverage, and Rep. Greg Ganske (R-Iowa), who had 87% positive comments.
Republican tax plans received the most coverage by newspapers (52 stories), while welfare reform was the most frequently discussed topic on TV network news (28 stories).
The abortion policies of the GOP received the most negative coverage (85%), followed by children's welfare (81% negative), school lunches (78%) and funding for the arts and public broadcasting (77%), CMPA reported.
The only issue that was praised in both news stories and editorials (70% positive in each case) was the devolution of government to the state level.
Lichter cited the negative coverage as "one of the reasons we have such a cynical public toward public policy these days."
Michael Barone, senior writer at U.S. News & World Report, however, said of the negative coverage that "in some sense, it didn't matter.
"One of the things we found in the response at the end of the Contract with America period was, despite this barrage of negative press, a great deal of it with a partisan tinge, voters on balance generally liked the Republican Congress and the Contract with America," he said.
"When you assess their full responses to it in light of how people responded over history to different congresses ? to group bodies, as opposed to individuals ? it's quite a positive response.
"The fact is," Barone continued, "voters, when they read the mainstream press, know they are reading a partisan press, a press that is anti-conservative, moderately pro-liberal, and they take their messages accordingly."
Barone also noted that "negative news is always bigger news than positive news." News media "report when things don't work. We don't report when things do work."
Annenberg Washington Program senior fellow Ellen Hume pointed out that she believes "there's a whole cottage industry in Washington now that says the press is too negative ? including some journalists themselves."
Studies have shown "not just a negativity bias toward . . . conservatives and Republicans, but toward officials, toward institutions," she said, adding that underlying the coverage is a desire not to be taken in by anything.
"We've seen the press trying to play catch-up, because they missed the story in the beginning. They didn't cover the Contract with America during the election, which is when the voters deserved to know about it," Hume said.
"Suddenly, they were faced with what we've been calling here a revolution in Washington, and they seemed totally unprepared to figure out what it was.
"What they do in situations like that ? I found, as a reporter for 20 years ? is that one falls back on the established wisdom," she explained. "What journalists tend to do is defend the establishment. The establishment has been this FDR/New Deal establishment all these years. That's what they're defending."
Hume said she believes the press exhibits an establishment bias rather than an ideological bias, "more a negativity bias and simply being out of touch with a resurgent conservative mood in this country. Really out of touch, and we saw that with the failure to cover it."
Tom Rosenstiel, congressional correspondent for Newsweek Magazine, said he is "in the middle on the question of whether the press has an ideological bias.
"As a journalist, I think that most journalists tend to be liberal, but the effect of that is that they fail to understand conservative arguments and fail to give them adequate explication," he said. "I think if you look into the details of the study, that's what's at work here as much as anything else."
Rosenstiel also noted that during President Bill Clinton's first years in office the "press was unbelievably and unrelentingly negative . . . to an unprecedented degree.
"That's the culture that we are in, unfortunately," he added.
Rosenstiel also pointed out that "if you look into the details here, what are the stories that got the most coverage? Welfare reform, tax cuts lead that list. Well, these are the issues where there was the most conflict inside the Republican Party, and where the Democrats had their best arguments in terms of class warfare."
On the positive side, however, the fact that much of the coverage "focused on actual issues . . . rather than on simply scandal and personality is an improvement and a credit, frankly, to the contract, with the Republicans driving the agenda based on issues and ideas."
U.S. News & World Report's Barone said he believes the president has been treated much better by the press than he would have been if he were a Republican.
"With the same set-of-facts situation, with his personal life, with the collapse of the health care thing, he would have been treated much worse if he were a Republican," Barone said.
"He doesn't believe that, and he, like every president we've had in recent times, believes he's gotten the worst press since Thomas Jefferson," he added.
Barone also cited what he called a "Rolodex problem." Journalists "know all sorts of liberal sources. They've been working with them for a long time. They've been useful to journalism. They're their friends. They're the people they know," he explained.
"They don't know anybody in the National Rifle Association. They don't know anyone in the Christian Coalition. Those numbers are not in the Rolodex.
"And when they're flipping through at 5:30, trying to write an article, they don't know how the heck to get in touch with these people," he said.
Another problem cited by Barone is what he called a "Manhattan problem."
"Opinion is so monocultural, or monolithic, in Manhattan island right now," he said, noting, for example, that while the majority of the state voted for Republican George Pataki for governor, New York City supported incumbent Democrat Mario Cuomo.
"That gives you a sort of mind-set," he said. "When you go into your office as a TV network producer in New York, you can't imagine that any decent person could ever believe the Republican stuff.
"Nothing in your daily life, nothing in what you read in the morning ? except the New York Post, which is obviously a tabloid ? leads you to think that any decent person, anybody who's not a Nazi or a Klansman, could believe those arguments. And that affects your journalism," Barone said.
Hume noted that both political institutions and the press "are hooked on a polarization and a negativity that I think both are going to have to get over, if we're really going to come to progress in our society.
"I think our political life is breaking down in some pretty terrible ways, because each has a vested interest in finding the most extreme and ugly argument and hammering it home," she said.
In addition to the need of putting stories in context, Hume said what also is missing is coverage of success stories, a problem some news organizations are beginning to tackle through civic journalism programs.
"There is hope. There are people out there, trying to do this, but success stories are still very hard to come by," she added.
Hume also pointed out that politics "has become this theater piece, and I think that is something that is a deeper problem.
"I truly believe that journalism is in danger, because the audience is fleeing," Hume said. "I think that journalists have to figure out how to respond to that and really rethink what news is about."
Newsweek's Rosenstiel said he thinks the problem begins when journalists decide how they are going to cover an issue like welfare reform.
"Our first assumption is that the public has a short attention span and is put off by the subject," he said.
Then, political reporters want to write about "the big drama" rather than welfare programs around the country, he continued.
"So, when we do the story about the combat ? about the speaker vs. the president ? it's a gladiator story, or a theater story, because that's what political reporters feel more comfortable doing," Rosenstiel said.
"Our problem is a lack of respect for our readers, and a lack of intellectual rigor on our own part to really deal with the ideas that drive the story," he added. The panelists also discussed the impact of affirmative action ? both physical and ideological ? on news coverage.
Barone said he believes "the problem is, the people attracted to this profession, for whatever reason, are overwhelmingly on the political left.
"I think there's a good case to be made for affirmative action for the Christian right, and so forth," he said. "I'm not kidding. If the purpose is to give accurate coverage of society, you ought to have a large number of journalists who know different parts of society and what it's about."
Lichter pointed out that CMPA studies have found that journalists who are women and minorities tend to be more liberal, so, as more of them are hired by the media there, a liberal tilt does enter the newsroom.
"So you're getting newsrooms that look more like America and think more like the liberal white males who used to run the place," Lichter said.
Rosenstiel agreed that "we do need to recognize that the newsroom needs to look ideologically more like America . . . because if they don't, the public will become even more alienated from the press than it already is.
"However, I also think that simply to say that, and leave it at that, suggests somehow that journalists are there basically without any professional ethic, and . . . there's a manifest conspiracy to advance your own political ideology in your coverage.
"I don't think that's true," he countered. "I think the problem is that journalists fail to transcend . . . their biases, but they are trying."
Rosenstiel suggested that journalists "recognize the role that our bias plays, cope with that by making the newsroom look more like the country, but also redesign and reform the professional ethics that we have, so that it is not grounded simply in conflict, in negativism, in cynicism.
"One of the traditions that is haunting us today in the press is that the grand traditions that have lured people into this profession were the civil rights movement and coverage of the civil rights movement and the role the press played in that, in which the press was a liberal reform agent; [and] coverage of Vietnam and coverage of Watergate, in which the press was an unmasker of lies and deception and corruption.
"Those two things have made this profession a model place for liberals" and people who tend to be skeptical, Rosenstiel noted.
Lichter pointed out that he does not "think journalists are sufferers of the virus of cynicism. I think they're carriers of it. If anything, it's their moral arrogance that tends to make other people with whom they come into contact cynical."


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