campaign desk

Rooting for the Race

Journalists are suddenly eager to admit the media is biased in favor of an extended campaign. Will they do anything about it?
February 2, 2012

In a column earlier this week, The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank penned a public love letter—to Newt Gingrich. Taking on the mantle of spurned lover for the entire political press corps, Milbank pleaded with the candidate who loves to pose as the media’s victim:

I speak for many colleagues when I say that we in the news media are great fans of your candidacy: of the 200 people in the room for your “Victory Party” when polls closed Tuesday night, about 185 of them were journalists. And no wonder: You’re the only thing saving us from a long spring of despair, the only person who can, by extending the presidential race, drive up our audience and bring us the revenues we so desperately need.

You give us exactly what political journalists crave. Sure, some of us are ideologically biased, but we are far more biased in favor of conflict — and that’s why we’re all in the tank for you.

While the satiric tone was distinctively Milbank’s, he was going where some other high-profile journalists have recently trod. Just a few days earlier, New York magazine’s John Heilemann argued that the same media Gingrich is forever excoriating is, “in fact, in his corner in his battle with [GOP front-runner Mitt]
Romney.” Heilemann offered a few candidate-based explanations for this situation: Gingrich is a sensational traffic magnet; Gingrich “gets” the media game; Romney seems kind of phony—but gave top billing to an alternative account:

“The tone of the coverage depends less on the candidates than on the overall dynamic of the race,” says [Center for Media and Public Affairs]
director Robert Lichter. “Journalists love a horse race and hate a front-runner.”

And Heilemann was following in the footsteps of The New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza, who in late December penned a tongue-in-cheek blog post in which he worried that the entertaining, colorful GOP primary campaign could become a dull rout:

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And yet there is the terrible realization that all this excitement and drama could come crashing down around us in less than two weeks if the sober and reasonable Mitt Romney ends the year of Republican nonsense by winning Iowa and New Hampshire and securing the nomination before things even really get started. Reporters won’t admit it, but they—we—are all rooting for a dramatic primary season in 2012.

Nor is the message confined to wry columns or half-joking confessions. After Gingrich’s win in South Carolina, Broadcasting & Cable found that TV producers were positively giddy about the possibility of a protracted primary contest:

“It’s the best possible outcome for us,” says Jon Banner, executive producer of ABC’s This Week with George Stephanopoulos. “We want this to be a race.”

Viewers are obviously more interested in a close race than a landslide (CNN saw the audience for its coverage of Gingrich’s unexpected win in South Carolina up 22% over that for the early call for Mitt Romney in New Hampshire), which CNN Washington bureau chief Sam Feist calls particularly interesting given the S.C. coverage happened on a Saturday night.

And as long as Gingrich remains up in the polls, the news networks will continue to cover him as a top contender going forward.

“My only bias is to keep the story going and to have a great story to cover,” says Betsy Fischer, executive producer of NBC’s Meet the Press. “Of course the longer it goes, the more interesting it is and the more there is for us to talk about on the program. Politics is the bread and butter of Meet the Press, so as long as that topic is top of people’s minds, that’s what we like.”

I just root for the story. It’s a line sportswriters use all the time, to defend against the charge that they favor a particular team. The echo is no coincidence. As Jack Shafer recently noted, the professional incentives facing campaign reporters and sportswriters are strikingly similar: both must “maintain reader enthusiasm for the months and months of caucuses or preseason games, primaries or regular season games, conventions or playoffs, and the general election or Super Bowl (or World Series).” In both cases, if you have a colorful underdog, you want him to stick around.

The difference is that to a much greater degree, political writers are participants in the race they’re covering—one way they might “have a great story to cover” is to do what they can “to keep the story going.” The analogy’s not perfect, but it’s sort of like having an umpire with an incentive to keep the underdog close.

Not every political correspondent has been so willing to acknowledge that the press corps has this bias. When, in a recent podcast, Slate editor David Plotz said that political reporters entertain “Rube Goldberg fantasies” about how long-shot candidates still have a chance because “they want there to be something interesting in the spring,” his colleague John Dickerson called the claim “wrong” and “offensive,” and said campaign reporters were—sticking to that sports metaphor—calling the plays as they came, not cheering them along.

But there’s at least some evidence to the contrary. Heilemann cites an analysis from the Center for Media and Public Affairs, which found that Romney received “markedly more negative” coverage “in the ten days leading up to the New Hampshire primary, when the post-Iowa sense of Romney’s inevitability kicked in.”

And anecdotally, while in Iowa I was struck by how readily the media latched onto the story of the “Santorum surge,” which was declared when that underdog candidate was polling in third place. (In that case, at least, the storyline was vindicated—though it’s hard to know how Santorum would have fared in Iowa without the media’s eager attention.)

Or consider this headline from the Los Angeles Times, which practically pleads with readers not to lose interest after Romney’s resounding Florida victory: “Mitt Romney’s Florida win won’t seal race: Despite his landslide victory, the battle for enough delegates to secure the Republican presidential nomination could run for weeks or months.”

(Politico, typically, covers every angle here: a media piece noting the press’s need for drama, a straight news piece that hammers home Romney’s inevitable win, and an analysis piece that argues that the next month is “uncharted territory” and “conservatives are still resisting Romney.” Even Mitt Romney’s inevitability, it seems, flip-flops. Update: Also, this.)

When CJR contributor Brendan Nyhan grappled with this subject after Iowa, he urged reporters to recognize their role in creating campaign “momentum.” Similarly, during the Santorum surge, I argued that the press should exercise “some self-awareness and restraint.”

If Milbank, Heilemann, Lizza et al are any indication, we have plenty of recognition and self-awareness in the press. Now how about that restraint?

Erika Fry is a former assistant editor at CJR.