George Boardman: Candidates wanting coverage apparently need to pick a fight
Believe it or not, there’s at least one thing Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders agree on: The Washington Post doesn’t treat them fairly. (I’m sure the editorial staff at the Post is proud as can be.)
Trump, of course, has complained long and loud about the Post, and just about every other newspaper you can mention, claiming they peddle “fake news” when they run articles he doesn’t like. The Post is owned by Jeff Bezos, the gazzillionaire founder of Amazon, and Trump has charged that Bezos uses the Post to carry out a vendetta against him while lobbying for Amazon’s interests.
Sanders’ complaint about the Post also involves Bezos, claiming his criticism of Amazon’s employment practices and tax history has led to negative stories about the candidate.
“Anybody here know how much Amazon paid in taxes last year?” he asked the audience at a recent town hall meeting. (The answer is no federal tax.) “See, I talk about that all the time. And I wonder why the Washington Post … doesn’t write particularly good articles about me. I don’t know why. But I guess maybe there’s a connection.”
Marty Baron, executive editor of the Post, labeled the claim about Bezos’ influence a “conspiracy theory.”
“Senator Sanders is a member of a large club of politicians — of every ideology — who complain about their coverage,” Baron said in a statement. “Contrary to the conspiracy theory the senator seems to favor, Jeff Bezos allows our newsroom to operate with full independence, as our reporters and editors can attest.”
Sanders said the New York Times’ coverage of him is “not much better,” which I’m sure came as a relief to the paper. The Times was involved in its own little controversy recently with its coverage of Trump’s comments about the mass shooting in El Paso and Dayton.
“Trump Urges Unity vs. Racism” the Times headline proclaimed in its first edition. That immediately drew strong criticism from Democrats who want to paint the president as a racist.
Presidential candidates Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand and Beto O’Rourke all criticized the headline, the latter two describing it as “unbelievable.” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, never one to use a hammer when a sledge hammer is nearby, tweeted the headline is an example of how “… white supremacy is aided by — and often relies upon — the cowardice of mainstream institutions.”
The headline was changed to “Assailing hate but not guns” in later editions, a public relations representative explaining that the original headline was “flawed.” That prompted Trump to join the fray, citing the incident as an example of the partisan media coverage he has to put up with.
He’s not alone. Sanders has long accused the “corporate media” of being biased in its coverage of his presidential campaign. Jeff Weaver, a Sanders campaign staffer, has claimed that coverage of his polling numbers has been unfair.
“There seems to be a direct correlation between media coverage of polls and Bernie’s specific standing in those polls,” Weaver said. “The better the number is in the poll, the less coverage it receives. And the worse he does, the more it receives.”
Sanders’ campaign has launched “The 99,” a show live streamed on his YouTube channel to discuss “the issues the mainstream media often overlooks.” As Faiz Shakir, his campaign manager, put it: “While we appreciate our friends in the elite media, they don’t often cover the issues that truly matter to working Americans.”
That’s subject to debate. Every candidate thinks the issues he or she emphasizes are what really matter to people while the media resists letting candidates dictate what it covers. No media outlet — with the possible exception of Fox News — wants to be viewed as the handmaiden of any candidate.
But when it comes to the substance of what is covered, candidates do have a legitimate gripe. Recent studies suggest the traditional news media are giving less attention to what candidates believe and more to the trivial aspects of their lives and campaigns, and they truly love a good fight.
That’s one conclusion to be drawn from the work of Signal A.I., a British media monitoring firm that is tracking the coverage of presidential candidates to see how media coverage of the candidates looks over time, and how the volume of coverage has focused the public’s attention.
“The media doesn’t tell us what to think,” said Stuart Soroka, a professor at the University of Michigan. “They tell us what to think about.”
Signal A.I. has been tracking 10,000 print media, 1,500 broadcast outlets and 2.6 million online sources worldwide since January, and is finding that coverage focuses on less substantive issues. (It should be noted that Signal aggregates all media without regard to prestige, audience size or article prominence.)
When a major figure announces his or her candidacy, coverage of that person spikes and briefly dominates the news cycle. Revelations such as Bernie Sanders’ tax returns showing he is part of the 1% also grab attention, but policy statements, such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s plan to cancel student debt and eliminate tuition, get little notice.
Picking a fight helps. Sen. Kamala Harris received a big spike in coverage after her criticism of Joe Biden’s record on busing during the first round of Democratic debates. “That conflict was the most prominent reported moment of the debate,” said Danny Hayes, an associate professor of political science at George Washington University, “and that increased coverage of Harris. You can see it in the data.”
That takes us to Trump, the master of confrontational politics. While all of the Democrats combined were mentioned in 4.15 million articles worldwide since January, according to Signal A.I.’s tally, Trump was mentioned nearly 10.3 million times.
“It tells us something about media behavior and the kinds of incentives candidates have if they want to get more news coverage,” Hayes said.
I think I’m safe in saying we won’t see anything along the lines of the Lincoln-Douglas debates in next year’s presidential election.
George Boardman lives at Lake of the Pines. His column is published Mondays by The Union. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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