Tag Archives: Media

2008: The Unbroken Glass Ceiling


by Diego Del Campo

Women in positions of power in the public sphere is still a relatively new, if slowly progressing sight. It’s become now conventional wisdom that 2008 was a year when women broke barriers in politics. Hillary Clinton was a serious contender to win her party’s nomination, and Sarah Palin became the first woman to be nominated as vice presidential candidate by the Republican Party. Yet, despite this progress, and the fact that Nancy Pelosi became the first female Speaker of the House in 2007, the percentage of female representation in Washington D.C continues to grow at a glacial pace—increasing just 1 percent over 2006, to a total of 17 percent. Washington isn’t the only place where equal representation is at a stalemate.

By the end of 2008, 12 women will have worked as CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. In Hollywood in 2007, women made up only 6 percent of directors and together “comprised 15 percent of all directors, executive producers, producers, writers, cinematographers, and editors working on the top 250 domestic grossing films” (Lauzen 1). Taking all this into consideration it is important to analyze the role the media plays in reinforcing prevalent prejudices against women, important to ask why women is find it difficult to break through to top spots in government and elsewhere, and to what extent do our biases, acquired by us by our socialization (like watching or reading the news), contribute to the problem.  In June 2008, after Hillary Clinton lost the nomination, Katie Couric of CBS News made the following statement at the end of one of her shows:

“But like her or not, one of the great lessons of that campaign is the continued and accepted role of sexism in American life, particularly in the media. Many women have made the point that if Senator Obama had to confront the racist equivalent of an ‘Iron my shirt’ poster at campaign rallies or a Hillary nutcracker sold at airports or mainstream pundits saying they instinctively cross their legs at the mention of her name, the outrage would not be a footnote, it would be front page news. It isn’t just Hillary Clinton who needs to learn a lesson from this primary season; it’s all the people who cross the line and all the women and men who let them get away with it.”

Soon after the general election ended, and Barack Obama was elected president, an article published in New York magazine argued that the past election had actually reinforced prevalent gender stereotypes: the proverbial dichotomy of the “bitch” and the “ditz”–a dichotomy arguably codified in the media’s coverage of these two women, is prime example of what Couric described as “acceptable” sexism in the media.

Note and disclosure

There are numerous caveats to my analysis. One, it would be impossible to separate Hillary Clinton’s gender from the fact that she’s one-half of the Clintons, a political family that’s been on the media’s radar for nearly two decades. Similarly, separating Sarah Palin’s gender from the fact that she’s a conservative Republican would be problematic and somewhat of a distortion. Rather, I will try to focus more on the media’s coverage of these two women candidates and how the way they were covered contributes to the problem. Nonetheless, I neither make no insinuation that the media is solely responsible for each woman’s failure to win their respective elections, or that ALL of their media coverage was sexist—but rather a contributing factor. The “media” is a collective term for cable-new channels who generate 24-hour news cycles, to respected newspapers and blogs that bounce narratives off each other. The fact that I only focus on Sarah Palin in the general election isn’t an implication that Barack Obama or John McCain didn’t encounter discrimination because of race or age respectively.
Finally, in the Democratic primaries, I was a supporter of Hillary Clinton.

Part one: Hillary Clinton

“That I am a national figure because I was the first person in 192 years to be at once a congressman, black and a woman proves, I think, that our society is not yet either just or free.” – Shirley Chisholm, first black woman elected to Congress in 1968

From the moment Hillary Clinton announced on her website that she was forming a committee to run for president, her prominent status among the other presidential contenders meant that in the media, she had a target painted on her back. Out of all the candidates that would eventually announce their respective campaigns, among them John Edwards who had been the vice presidential nominee the previous presidential election, Hillary was the one “dubbed” a front-runner based on the national polling the media conducted. The coverage Hillary Clinton received as “front-runner” in the year between making her candidacy official in January 2007 and the Iowa caucus on January 3, 2008 and the one she received once the primaries actually started was different outwardly in tone but nevertheless had the same effect of being dismissive at best, and seriously offensive at worst. In fact, by March 2007, barely two months into the campaign and with the first primary election still some nine months away, the bias in the media had reached a point where the National Organization for Women released an article detailing some of the instances they found offensive. Chris Matthews of MSNBC, who would become a repeat offender to the point of issuing an on-air apology, was a large part of the article:

“Chris Matthews, host of MSNBC’s talk show Hardball, has become notorious for his sexist remarks about Clinton. On Dec. 19, 2006, he charged that she was being coy about her political ambitions, comparing her to ‘a stripteaser saying she’s flattered by the attention,’ and on two separate occasions—Jan. 25 and 26, 2007, he referred to her as an ‘uppity woman.’ In the aftermath of the Congressional election on Nov. 8, 2006, he discussed her delivery of a ‘campaign barn burner speech,’ which, he suggested was ‘harder to give for a woman,’ because it can ‘grate on some men when they listen to it, [like] fingers on a blackboard.’ Not content to level his sexist criticism on Clinton alone, he continued his rant, wondering how newly elected Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi could ‘do the good fight against the president…without screaming? How does she do it without becoming grating?’ “

Other media narratives that stand out was coverage of Hillary’s appearance—namely a column by the Washington Post that reported on her showing cleavage in a speech she made in the Senate floor. Attention was also paid to Hillary’s laugh, or “cackle” as some of her detractors put it. But it was in the immediate run-up to and aftermath of the Iowa caucus (but before the New Hampshire primary), where Hillary finished in third place that some of the language became more nakedly biased to the point where it became a media frenzy when seemingly teared up when answering a New Hampshire voter’s question. Rebecca Traister of Salon opined “For many of these pundits, especially those who pander to a mostly white male audience, a nearly pornographic investment in Clinton’s demise is nothing new.”

By the time Hillary delivered her concession speech on June 7, 2008, some of the media’s coverage had turned from silly and sexist to borderline violent and misogynistic. Some cartoonists took to drawing Hillary as a slain beast or other variations. Worse, various commentators like NPR’s political editor Ken Rudin and even elected officials like Tennessee congressman Rep. Steve Cohen (D) likened her to the psychotic villain of the film Fatal Attraction. Though both men later issued apologies, the comparison was an especially stinging one since Fatal Attraction is considered by many feminists to be an explicitly anti-feminist film. The media’s tone had been so noxious that the Gloria Steinem-founded Women’s Media Center created a video (above) called “Sexism sells—but we’re not buying it” which compiled some of the highlights of sexism in the media coverage of Hillary Clinton. Steinem also appeared on CNN and echoed what she had said about women candidates at the beginning of the primary in a New York Times op-ed saying, “This country can no longer afford to choose our leaders from a talent pool limited by sex, race, money, powerful fathers and paper degrees. It’s time to take equal pride in breaking all the barriers.”

On CNN she pointed out:

“Clearly part of the problem is the misogyny in the culture at large and especially in the media. I mean, you know, no candidate in history has been asked to step down by the media. She was. The average time that it takes for a loser to endorse a winner in this situation is four months. Four months. She did it in four days, and look how she was criticized, you know, for not doing it the very same night. It’s outrageous.”

Steinem was referencing articles like Jonathan Alter’s of Newsweek, who in late February wrote a column arguing that it would be best for Hillary if she stepped out of the race then. (Hillary went on to win nine out of the next 16 contests.) Steinem also seemed to be referencing the uproar in the media when Hillary didn’t endorse Obama on June 3, the night most media organizations reported that Obama had amassed the amount of delegates needed to secure the nomination.

Part two: Sarah Palin

I say this with all due respect to Hillary Clinton…but when I hear a statement like that coming from a woman candidate with any kind of perceived whine about that excess criticism or you know maybe a sharper microscope put on her, I think you know that doesn’t do us any good—women in politics, women in general wanting to progress this country. -Governor Sarah Palin (R-Alaska) in March 2008

Seemingly out of nowhere, Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain picked Alaska Governor Sarah Palin to be his vice presidential nominee. Sarah Palin bursting onto the political scene was arguably a chance for the media to report fairly and accurately on virtually unknown candidate turned vice presidential nominee. Instead, like Steinem argued, sexist narratives seemed to spread virally from within the media. Within days of her announcement, liberal talk show host Ed Schutlz commented to his listeners that Palin had set off a “bimbo alert” and blogs like Daily Kos circulated rumors that Palin’s newborn son Trig, born with Down syndrome, was allegedly her daughter Bristol’s son, while blogs like the Huffington Post took to publicizing images of Palin (under the headline “Former Beauty Queen, Future VP?”) in a swim suit that alluded to her background as a participant in beauty pageants to make the suggestion that she wasn’t qualified to be vice president—a variation of Ed Schultz’s “bimbo alert” crack. Even people who were outwardly supportive of Palin, like CNBC’s Donny Deutsch, were so obssesive over her looks, that they came across as sexist, ignorant, and patronizing all at the same time:

Complicating matters, women organizations who had stood up for Hillary Clinton during the primaries, including Gloria Steinem herself, now for the most part disavowed Palin. The National Organization for Women (NOW) put out a statement that read in part, “Gov. Palin may be the second woman vice-presidential candidate on a major party ticket, but she is not the right woman. Sadly, she is a woman who opposes women’s rights, just like John McCain.” WomenCount was seemingly the only organization to defend Palin against the sexist media treatment Palin was receiving. WomenCount, a politcal organization formed by Hillary Clinton supporters in the waning days primaries to at first to advocate for Hillary Clinton’s candidacy and later to promote and support Democratic women candidates across the country, sent an email to supporters that questioned the media’s immediate criticism of Palin’s nomination, among them John Roberts of CNN who said, “Palin would not be able to focus on her job given her family distractions,” and columnist Sally Quinn of the Washington Post who wrote, “Of course, women can be good mothers and have careers at the same time. I’ve done both. Other women in public office have children…but…a mother’s role is different from a father’s,” which implies that unlike fathers, mothers ought to have more of a responsibility as a parent and by accepting the vice presidential nomination, Palin was being an irresponsible mother by placing her career ahead of her child.
WomenCount’s email statement read in part:

“The question came not just from members of the media but also from voters around the country who wrote in to news organizations and on blogs. The obvious retort is whether anyone would ask the same question of the father of a four-month-old with Down Syndrome and a pregnant teenager. We think not.”

Unlike Gloria Steinem, who would by and large sidestep the issue of the biased media coverage against Palin in a Los Angeles Times op-ed, WomenCount addressed the seeming paradox of progressive feminists standing up for Palin:

“Throughout the weekend, we have been asked about WomenCount’s views on Sarah Palin as the Republican nominee. It is important to distinguish between the broader issue of sexism and the ideology of an individual. WomenCount was born of the passion its founders had for Hillary Clinton’s clear view of social issues and progressive values. We cannot pretend that Governor Palin meets any standard of progressive politics or social values.
But regardless of the candidates’ ideology, we will work to stamp out sexism when we see it on the campaign trail. To paraphrase the words of one blogger who said it best over the weekend: We will defend Sarah Palin against misogynist smears not because we like her or support her, but because that’s how feminism works.”

Needless to say, even though Palin slammed the media in her acceptance speech at the GOP convention in Minneapolis-St. Paul, her subsequent stumbles in the media may have had the effect of silencing any or all allies she may have had across the aisle. Ironically, it was Palin’s interview with Katie Couric, who earlier in the year had criticized sexism in the media, that may have been the most damaging to Palin and her public image. Maybe because of the fact that she had spoken out against sexism in the media, Couric was the right person with the right sensibilities to interview Palin: Couric strayed from the superficial questions that plagued Hillary, like questions about her image or “likability,” instead Couric asked sensible questions like, “When it comes to establishing your worldview, I was curious, what newspapers and magazines did you regularly read before you were tapped for this to stay informed and to understand the world?“ or “What other Supreme Court decisions do you disagree with?”—Arguably easy questions that utterly stumped Palin as shown by her cringe-worthy responses and showed her to be, perhaps not the candidate best suited to be the next vice president. Unfortunately, like New York magazine’s Amanda Fortini said, Palin’s apparent lack of intellectual curiosity reinforced a stereotype as women as a “ditz.” Even in our own class, Palin was dismissed with terms such as “VPILF,” which reduced and belittled Palin to her looks.

The “Palin is a ditz” media narrative continued, unfortunately, all the way from shortly before the election, when news broke that the Republican National Committee had spent $150,000 on Palin’s make-up and wardrobe to after the election was over, when anonymous McCain staffers told the media that in her debate prep against Joe Biden, Palin had allegedly claimed to not know that Africa was a continent and not a country, and also that she reportedly didn’t know the signing members of NAFTA. Geraldine Ferraro, who was the first woman to be nominated for vice president in 1984, appeared on Fox News shortly before the election to talk about the similarities (and differences) between how she was treated and how Palin was being treated by the media:

Said and Done

In the end, I don’t think, like I said before, that the media was the only reason Hillary and Sarah lost in their elections. But, as some of the clips show, there is an accepted and pervasive bias against women that slows the progress of women everywhere. Even today, I’m still not sure why Sarah Palin’s preparedness was questioned from day one on the basis that she had barely served two years in her term as governor, in way that Barack Obama’s preparedness arguably wasn’t questioned when he announced his candidacy, since at that time he had also barely served two years in his term as senator. As it turned out, there was a mountain of difference between Obama and Palin’s preparedness, as shown by their respective bodies of knowledge, but still, I would have liked for the media to have made more of an issue of Obama’s experience, if indeed experience was a litmus test of sorts against which Palin did not measure up.

I would also hope that in the future, women candidates are respected more and held to the same standard that every other candidate is—a woman shouldn’t have to sound tougher just because she’s a woman. Additionally, we shouldn’t be too dismissive of women who point out the problems the media sometimes has in reporting about women. As the clip above shows, an observation Katie Couric made both in her CBS newscast and in her acceptance of an award at a journalist’s association, earned her the top spot on Keith Olbermann’s “Worst Persons in the World.” It troubles me that even within the ideological circles we sometimes wrap ourselves in, there’s still an outward prejudice against women—Olbermann’s show is praised by liberal blogs like Daily Kos, where he is a contributor, and Huffington Post. Even with all the progress Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin have made toward the acceptance in the public sphere of a woman running for the top positions in government, that “highest and hardest glass ceiling” remainsl unbroken. As we continue to progress, hopefully we’ll have learned lessons from what each woman’s campaign and not allow sexism to control–in any way–media coverage of other women candidates.


1 Comment

Filed under American Electorate, Democratic Party, Media, Palin, Republican, Vice-President, Women Voters

Playin’ the Palin Game

By Heather Ellerbrock

She is like Hurricane Katrina; loud, confident and will come into your house without even blinking an eye. She is Sarah Palin and for the last six weeks, we have all been caught up in Palin Maina. Her “popularity” is so intense that instead of hearing ‘Sarah Who?’ we are making jokes that this is a presidential race between Obama and Palin. Outlets other than mainstream media (see Saturday Night Live) are making her even more intriguing to Joe 6-Pack with their late night skits that although make fun of her, keep her popular. We must ask ourselves, is her superstar status along the likes of a one hit wonder?

When John McCain chose his Vice Presidential running mate, there was an immediate infatuation with Sarah Palin. Who was she? What was her experience? What does she stand for? All of us ran toward the Palin train grabbing with hooks. Within the first two weeks of her introduction, McCain’s choice gave him exactly the thunder he needed. After her convention speech, 60% of Republican voters were more enthusiastic than usual about voting compared to only 42% the week prior and 39% prior to the announcement of Palin. This effect however did not last long.

About a month after her RNC speech, Palin began losing ground with a conservative base that had welcomed her with open arms. Kathleen Parker, a writer for the National Review and a known conservative, reversed her support for Sarah Palin in an article titled “Palin Problem”. “When Palin first emerged as John McCain’s running mate, I confess I was delighted. She was the antithesis and nemesis of the hirsute, Birkenstock-wearing sisterhood…It was fun while it lased. Only Palin can save McCain, her party, and the country she loves. She can bow out for personal reasons…Do it for your country.

Although the infatuation has ended, her “popularity” is by no means gone. Even today, five weeks after Sarah Palin entered our lives her spotlight, although not as bright, is still shinning alongside the economy, the war in Iraq and Bush’s low approval ratings. Only this time, more Americans are concerned rather than excited. As Op-Ed comlunmist Roger Cohen perfectly puts it,  “I wonder, after the lying and the dead of the Bush Administration, in the midst of the wars, in the face of 760,000 lost jobs, is Palin’s offer of a “little bit of reality from Wasilla Main Street” enough?”.

From the moment she clouded Obama’s acceptance speech to present day when, in the midst of an economic crisis, you can still turn on the TV or open the newspaper and there will be an article about her, it is clear that her spotlight has not gone anywhere. It has always been argued that even bad press is good press. As Frazier Moore with Associated Press states, “You’d hardly know the Democrats have even chosen a presidential candidate, judging from late-night comedy monologues. It was Republican John McCain and…his vice presidential running mate, Sarah Palin, who claimed most of the jokesters’ attention.” Who’s the celebrity now?


Filed under Media, Obama, Republican, Uncategorized, Vice-President

A Pro-Obama Media?

“The Biblical term for it is ‘Deliverance,’” said MSNBC’s Chris Matthews in commenting on the Obama campaign. “We are being picked up and taken where we want to go…”

While Matthews is among the most dreamy-eyed of journalists in his thrilled obsession with Obama, there are many other journalists claiming a widespread pro-Obama sentiment in the media. Consider the following sampling of journalists commenting on the “Obama-love” of their peers:

“The media’s love affair with Barack Obama is all consuming…” — Joe Scarborough

“The feeling most people get when hearing a Barack Obama speech is…I get this thrill going up my leg, I don’t have that too often…” — Chris Matthews

“I must confess my knees quaked a bit…” Lee Cowan

“Its more than love, it’s the kind of love that anybody whose been a ninth grade boy understands this species of love. I think about you when I go to bed, too embarrassed to stand up, its sealed with a kiss love” –Tucker Carlson

Following in the steps of a famous Saturday Night live spoof of the media’s pro-Obama bias, the McCain camp has recently released its own humorous montage of “Obama-moments” in the starry-eyed media. Enjoy them both…

Saturday Night Clip


McCain Camp “The Media Loves Obama” video

Is the hype real? Are media commentators and reporters truly obsessed with covering Obama, and is their coverage slanted in favor of Obama? What do the answers to these questions teach about how the media covers elections?

Evidence of Obamania in the Media

There is good evidence that stories focusing on Obama have received more air and print time throughout the election than stories focusing on McCain. The non-partisan Project for Excellence in Journalism tracks a wide range of media stories in its “Campaign Coverage Index,” and in every week since the race has narrowed to McCain and Obama, they have found substantially more stories focused on Obama than on McCain. In mid-July, they offered the following coverage chart, and reported that

“Obama was at least a significant presence in fully 77% of the campaign stories studied, compared with 48% for McCain. Obama has led in coverage in all five weeks since the race narrowed to two presumptive nominees. A week earlier, that gap narrowed to 11 points and offered the prospect that the coverage might equalize, but last week suggested that might not be the case.”

Another study, by the Tyndall center reporting the same kinds of findings—discovering three times as many broadcast minutes dedicated to Obama than to McCain stories in the weeks after the primary season ended.

Is More Coverage Better Coverage?

Obama receives the lion-share of media attention, it’s true—but is that necessarily good? The media is known for their penchant for scandal, for their obsession in discovering flaws, conflicts, and contradictions, and then exposing them to maximizing drama and attract viewers. Perhaps much of the coverage on Obama is actually negative—obsessing with such things as Obama’s alleged radicalism, his race, rumors of his Muslim/Madrassa background, and his political inexperience?

There is a sense out there that the media is slavishly pro-obama in their bias. Rush Limbaugh, for example, makes it part of his daily fodder to berate the Obama-love in the air—though relying on Limbaugh as an expert in media balance is a bit like consulting the Flat Earth Society for directions on your upcoming “round-the-world” cruise.

“The Soviet leaders from Lenin and Stalin all the way up to Brezhnev and Gorbachev, they never got this kind of fawning press from Pravda and they owned it. I mean, they wrote their own press and they didn’t get this kind of good coverage. The Beatles never got this. Princess Di never got this…The Drive Bys have arrested development. They are just a bunch of teenagers here. The only thing they haven’t done is throw their underwear and bras at the guy when he’s up there on stage, yet.” –Rush Limbaugh, on Obama’s favorable press coverage

It’s early in the game, and beyond these kinds of general impressions, there is very little way in the serious scholarship proving whether the media coverage, overall, is biased towards or against Obama. What scholarship there is actually suggests that Obama has perhaps received more negative, rather than positive, coverage from the press.

Here’s an L.A. Times story, summarizing recent findings from a well-respected university media-research center.

“The Center for Media and Public Affairs at George Mason University, where researchers have tracked network news content for two decades, found that ABC, NBC and CBS were tougher on Obama than on Republican John McCain during the first six weeks of the general-election campaign.

You read it right: tougher on the Democrat.

During the evening news, the majority of statements from reporters and anchors on all three networks are neutral, the center found. And when network news people ventured opinions in recent weeks, 28% of the statements were positive for Obama and 72% negative.

Network reporting also tilted against McCain, but far less dramatically, with 43% of the statements positive and 57% negative, according to the Washington based media center.”

And what about that data from the Project for Excellence in Journalism which showed that Barack Obama received substantially more attention from the media than did McCain? Well, it turns out much of that attention might actually not be so great for his campaign. The Project for Excellence in Journalism points out that most of those Obama stories were centered on an obscene Jesse Jackson quote criticizing Obama for “talking down to Obama,” and threatening bodily harm. Two other topics taking up a lot of Obama air-time were documentation of Obama’s evolving/changing positions as he moved to the “center” in order to win the presidential election, and stories focusing on the Clinton/Obama divide in the party. Issue coverage of the economy and Iraq also made an appearance, but they did NOT drive the coverage. It’s not at all clear that obsessive coverage of issues like campaign gaffes, party division, and issue “flip-flopping” helps the Obama campaign. Remember the media pack journalism frenzy over the Reverend Wright comments damning America? Surely, Obama wished the media did not focus so heavily on him and his reverend during those days.

But all of these studies are early, and there is no denying the sense out there that the media coverage is indeed pro-Obama. The American public certainly thinks such a bias exists. In a Rasmussen poll, 49 percent of respondents believed reporters would favor Obama in their coverage this fall, compared with just 14 percent who expected them to boost Sen. John McCain. So let’s just assume that there is a love affair with Obama among the nation’s journalists, and that they are delivering obsessive and pro-Obama slanted coverage this summer.

What might account for such a result?

Answer 1: Liberal Bias

One of the most common answers, certainly the answer given by conservative journalists like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, is that the media is “liberal” and is biased in favor of Democrats. Political Science textbooks will tell you that allegations of liberal media bias have become staple fare among conservatives, ever since the 1960s. But are the allegations true?

Here are some relevant facts (found in Government in America by George Edwards, et. al., and The New American Democracy, by Morris Fiorina, et. al.)

  • A L.A. times study in the 1980s found that reporters were twice as likely to identify as liberal than were members of the general public.
  • A 2002 survey of 1,149 journalists found that 37% identified as Democrats—only 19% said they were Republicans.
  • Opinion polls show that journalists are substantially to the left of the general public on social and cultural issues—and they are far more likely to take the “Democratic” position on such issues as abortion, gay rights, gun control, religion in public life, and drug laws.
  • Since 1964, more than 80% of the nation’s journalists have voted for the Democratic nominee in every presidential contest (including Republican blowouts like Nixon over McGovern in 1972 and Reagan over Mondale in 1984).

It is undeniable that the nation’s journalists tend to be more liberal/Democratic than the populace at large. But does that influence how they present the news? Does a Democratic reporter necessarily have to produce pro-Obama coverage? Here’s how a set of leading political scientists address that question.

“The vast majority of social science studies have found that reporting is not systematically biased toward a particular ideology or party. Most stories are presented in a ‘point/counterpoint’ format in which two opposing points of view (such as liberal versus conservative) are presented, and the audience is left to draw its own conclusions.” — George Edwards, et. al., Government in America, p. 231

Regardless of this evidence, not everyone agrees that the biased background of reporters doesn’t matter. CBS news reporter Bernard Goldberg claims that overall reporting topics and framing of issues is undeniably slanted by the cosmopolitan big-city environment in which most reporters live. He asks: “Do we really think that if the media elites worked out of Nebraska instead of New York; and if they were overwhelmingly social conservatives instead of liberals…do we really think that would make no difference?” (George Edwards, et. al. Government in America, p. 232).

Before a final word can be given on whether today’s media is pro-Obama obsessed or not, we will need more campaigning, more coverage and more serious scholarship. The bottom line is informed opinion is divided on whether the media is pro-Obama or not, and on whether it matters.

Answer 2: The Kennedy Factor

Another commonly cited reason for the media’s (alleged) pro-Obama slant is “the Kennedy Factor.” Many media pundits long for the charisma, the romance, and the wordly charm of the old Kennedy days—and in Obama, they see today’s young Kennedy rising again. Consider the following example, posted on various website, including the media research center and newsbull.com

To mark the 40th anniversary of Senator Robert F. Kennedy’s death, Good Morning America’s Claire Shipman filed a fawning report on Thursday in which she compared Barack Obama to RFK. Splicing together footage of Kennedy and Obama, Shipman noted the “similarities” and nostalgically declared: “The search to shift that mantle, futile of course. But also a quintessentially American desire for, if not a happy ending, some sense of completion.”

At the top of the segment, Shipman cooed: “Even 40 years later, most Democrats can’t utter the name ‘Bobby’ without a wistful, ‘what if’ sort of reverence.” A true enough statement, but considering that the rest of the piece was all about Kennedy’s greatness, what does that say about the people who produced the segment? An ABC graphic cheered, “The Vision of RFK: Honoring an American Legend.” Shipman then proceeded to make her comparison clear:

SHIPMAN: Landmark crowds, striking charisma, a focus on healing the divide. [Video of Obama and RFK cut together.]

SENATOR BARACK OBAMA: We are the hope of the future, the answer to the cynics who tell us, our house must stand divided.

BOBBY KENNEDY: This election will mean nothing if it leaves us, after it is all over, as divided as we were before it we began.

See the full transcript here, or here.

Along this vein, Any Youtube search will turn up dozens of clips of Obama himself referring to his desire to take up the Kennedy mantle. Those clips even include one featuring Caroline Kennedy (JFK’s son) and Ted Kennedy (JFK and Bobby Kennedy’s brother) claiming that Barack Obama is the candidate to help people:

“Over the years I have been deeply moved by the people who have told me that they wish they could feel inspired and hopeful about America the way they did when my father was president….hopefully there is one candidate who offers that same hope and inspiration…” — Caroline Kennedy, President John Kennedy’s daughter, endorsing Barack Obama for President

“Every time I have been asked over the past year who I would support in the Democratic primary, my answer has always been the same…I’ll support the candidate who inspires me, who inspires all of us, who can lift our vision and summon our hopes and renew our belief that our countries best days are still to come. I have found that candidate….It is time now for a new generation of leadership. It is time now for Barack Obama.” –Senator Ted Kennedy, President John Kennedy and
Senator Robert Kennedy’s brother, endorsing Barack Obama for President

Answer 3: Covering the Real News

A third reason for the tilt towards Obama in the media coverage (though not a reason for the alleged pro-Obama slant in that coverage) is that media outlets are simply covering the news. It is a fact that the Obama campaign is a ground-breaking, historic campaign. This is the first time a black man has won the nomination of a major party, his candidacy was an unpredicted underdog victory over the establishment candidate Hilary Clinton (who herself represented historic change, which could only double the interest in the Clinton/Obama contest and its eventual outcome), and his campaign has fueled a record-shattering surge of new and young voters across the nation. The fact is that the Obama campaign is NEWS, and it is no surprise that the media outlets cover it.

For his part, McCain has been on the public stage for decades—he simply cannot represent fundamental change or news in the same way the newcomer Barack Obama can, and especially since McCain is generally running to continue much of the legacy of the incumbent. Newcomers and challengers commonly receive more attention than old-timers and incumbents—the news, after all, tends to cover what is new.

When we are faced with the historic nature of the Obama campaign, and with truly newsworthy events by the candidate such as a trip to meet various world-leaders, while the McCain camp tours small towns in America, it is natural that Obama receives more coverage, says Bob Friedman senior vice-president of ABC news.”what are we supposed to do, go gin up some story about McCain to get some rough equality of airtime?” he said. “I don’t think so.”

NBC news president Steve Capus agreed. “We’re just trying to do our jobs. There’s no question that there’s great news value in Sen. Obama’s trip overseas. That’s why we are doing this.”

Other respected news figures such as Jim Lehrer of the PBS Newshour reiterates this opinion that the coverage of Obama is driven more by the newsworthy events that the Obama campaign is involved in (such as foreign trips and policy announcements) and the newsworthiness of Obama himself, than by some kind of inappropriate bias on the part of the media.

Public Desires and Pack Journalism

A final answer to “why all the coverage of Obama” relates to the phenomenon known as pack journalism. The fact is that the media is a business, with different operations like CNN, FOX, ABC, CBS, NBC and all manner of smaller outlets driven by the profit-motive to cover the kind of news people like to see. Competitive pressures to drive up ratings and secure viewers relates to the phenomenon known as “pack journalism”—which simply means that media outlets tend to obsess on the same or very similar stories day after day—stories that are proven winners in bringing in viewers and readers.

If stories about Obama gain more viewers—than journalists will “pack” around those stories, knowing that this is the only way to remain competitive in the race for ratings, advertising dollars, and (ultimately) survival as a media outlet.

The media wolves pack around popular stories, and the numbers don’t lie: Barack Obama is a popular story. The Rolling Stones March 2008 Obama cover was the magazine’s best seller of 2008, selling 40,000 more copies than usual for a month (about 25% more than normal). Some sales figures are mixed, and an Obama cover story is not always a ticket to rising sales, but more often than not, a focus on Obama results in a popular monthly magazine. Here’s how Conde Nast reporter Jeff Bercovici describes the numbers:

The Atlantic also scored big with its December issue, whose cover story was an Andrew Sullivan essay on “Why Obama Matters.” That issue, which sold 73,500 copies, was The Atlantic‘s best seller of the year, performing 28 percent better than average.

Three men’s magazines have put Obama on the cover so far. Men’s Vogue saw the biggest lift. Its Sept. 2006 issue sold 129,582 copies, the second-highest total for any issue so far, after only the debut issue, which was on newsstands considerably longer. GQs Sept. 2007 issue sold a little better than its average for the period, at 245,105 copies, but 12 percent less than the year-earlier issue, which featured Clive Owen.

Newsweek‘s July 16, 2007 issue sold 124,290 copies, putting it among the top-selling single-week issues of the year. And Time‘s Oct. 23, 2006 cover, “Why Barack Obama Could Be the Next President,” was the title’s second-best selling issue of the year, with 206,000 copies.

If it’s true that the media’s Obama obsession stems first and foremost from the public’s media obsession, it should fundamentally change the nature of the critique. In a free market economy, its hard to blame businesses for giving the consumers what they seem to want. When the public’s appetite for Obama coverage wanes, we can expect that media outlets (which are well attuned to which stories win the most viewers) will tilt their coverage elsewhere.

Obama versus Obama

Does any of it matter? Does it matter if Obama receives more media attention than McCain—and does it matter if that coverage is positive or negative? There have been many studies on the abilty of media coverage to influence or determine the mood or votes of the public—and the scholarly consensus is fairly strong. Scholars tend to pool around what is called a “minimal effects” school of thought when it comes to evaluating whether the media can shape public opinion. Media coverage cannot fundamentally change people’s opinion about issues, and the tone of coverage cannot determine nor much influence how people are going to vote. There are much stronger influences on people’s voting patterns, including the actual issues themselves, the strength of the candidates, and party identification. Media coverage is WAY down the list of factors influencing how someone is going to vote.

Still, scholars have found that although media coverage cannot fundamentally change how people think about things, media coverage does tend to have an effect in helping voters determine which issues are most important in their vote (in other words, which issues are most “salient”), and in helping voters decide how to “frame” the issues and their vote. In other words, the media coverage is unlikely to fundamentally turn a conservative voter in to a liberal, but unrelenting media coverage of Obama and his health care plan could help determine that most voters were highly focused on whether then liked or disliked Obama and his health care plan when they actually voted. Media coverage can help determine whether an election is mostly about McCain and his war record, threats of Middle East terrorism, or Obama’s Iraq plan—though the coverage can’t tell voters how to think about each of these issues.

To that extent, the media’s undeniable bias towards covering Obama might mean that this election will ultimately come down to a referendum on Obama, more than being a “choice” between Obama and McCain. When they pull those levers, voters might more than anything else be thinking about whether they are excited or terrified by the idea of an Obama presidency, and the answer to that question is likely to shape the results of the election. But again, it should be pointed out that the media reporters and executives didn’t force this Obama referendum on the American people—voters themselves, through what they read and what they are talking about, seem to have declared that 2008, more than anything else, is about how they feel about Barack Obama.

Yes We can? Or No We Can’t?

Leave a comment

Filed under Media, Obama, Uncategorized