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Reinventing John Kerry

Under the front page headline "Reintroducing the Candidate: Convention's Goal is to Ensure Voters Know Kerry," Wednesday's Washington Post said Democratic Party leaders "acknowledge (Kerry) remains an opaque figure for millions of Americans."

What the story omitted was that the Post and other media outlets are at least as responsible for Kerry being an enigma as is his campaign.

Research shows that the press is more likely to tell you a candidate hasn't gotten his message across than to tell you what that message is, much less put this information on the front page. More commonly, superficial stories about strategy and tactics end up on A1 while substantive stories that would actually give voters the information they need to get to know a candidate and cast an informed vote get buried.

Scholars have been documenting and decrying this pattern of privileging horse race stories over those about issues since the mid-70s, and increasingly so since the 1988 Bush-Dukakis race, perhaps the least substantive and most poorly covered campaign in modern presidential history.

This year appears to be shaping the same way, and the result is turning into Kerry's biggest problem heading into the Democratic convention: Voters (and journalists, it should be noted) say they don't know what he stands for and are therefore more open to the Bush campaign's exaggerated and hypocritical argument that Kerry is a flip-flopper.

With the help of Gadflyer super-intern Zoe VanderWolk, I looked at the news coverage of Kerry in the Post and New York Times from April through June to see how the two most important papers had covered his candidacy.

A brief note on methodology to explain how I went about this: Stories were downloaded from Lexis-Nexis, and only news (i.e., not opinion pieces) stories in the A section that discussed Kerry were analyzed. The discussion of Kerry had to be more than passing, so a story in the Times about strip clubs and the convention was not included. For that matter, stories solely about the convention that weren't focusing on Kerry's role there were excluded. Stories were coded as either focusing on "strategy/tactics" (which included those about polls and advertising) or "issues." Substantive biographical stories were coded as "issue," while superficial arm chair psychobabble got sent to the "strategy" category.

For example, the A1 Times story headlined "G.O.P. Offensive Puts Small Dent in Kerry's Image" got coded as "strategy", while the A18 story "Bush and Kerry Offer Plans for High-Tech Growth" was clearly more substantive.

One important note: I mainly used the headline to determine whether a story fit under "strategy" or "issue", though in the rare case where that was vague I used the lead of the story to help make a determination. Often, scholars will look at the lead of a story (or more) to determine whether it is framed strategically or substantively. But since I was concerned more with the topic of the story than its narrative style, looking at headlines (while always reading enough of the story to be sure) was a more appropriate choice.

Interestingly, the results show that both papers were about as likely to run issue as strategy stories about Kerry overall: The Times ran 73 stories about strategy and tactics versus 65 about issues, while at the Post there were 33 stories about both. This isn't totally man-bites-dog - in election years it is during the summer doldrums that relaxed deadline pressures and less frequent polling (i.e., less frequent than the orgy that occurs during contested primaries and, especially, the Bacchanalia of the general election) give bored reporters the courage to tip-toe away from the crutch of simplistic strategy stories.

If this pattern continues after Labor Day I will be pleasantly shocked, although my joy will be shortlived since that will mean the earth will soon stop spinning on its axis and life as we know it will end.

But still, this is only half the story. Contrary to conventional wisdom, Kerry spent the post-primary period making many substantive attacks on the Bush administration, and laying out his positions on everything from the economy to foreign policy to stem cell research (and much more).

The problem for Kerry has been that most readers probably missed or at best skimmed those stories because they ran inside the paper and not on the front page: The Times only ran nine of its issue stories on A1 during this period, and none in June (versus 20 strategy stories overall and 10 in June alone). The story was even worse at the Post, where only three issue stories ran on page one for the entire period, as compared with 12 page one strategy stories.

Of course, another story embedded in these numbers is that Kerry rarely gets on the front page at all. By comparison, stories mentioning Bush got on the front page 239 times in the Post and 331 times in the Times during this period. Not that all of those stories, many of which were about the administration's myriad policy failures and the lost lives resulting from them, were good for Bush. But the contrast highlights the predicament for a challenger: No matter what the President does it's news; conversely, it sometimes seems as if no matter what you do, it's not.

And let's be clear: When a paper puts a story on A1 they are screaming at you "This is important!; but when they put it on A23 they are grunting in passing, "Eh, whatever." Kerry got the brush-off treatment, not the bullhorn.

Of even more concern is that since these are the two premier news organizations in America (though the Los Angeles Times is right on their heels in terms of political journalism) this is probably the best coverage Kerry got. As Post editors Len Downie Jr. and Robert Kaiser pointed out in their savagely good book The News About the News, most American newspapers are unreadable and uninformative. And of course television news is even worse, as numerous studies have shown.

Research also shows that this is not a trivial issue. Studies demonstrate that exposure to a lot of strategy coverage has the effect of activating our latent cynicism about politics and politicians. It also decreases learning, which isn't a surprise given its superficiality. The research is less clear about whether issue coverage taps our more civic-minded side, but one thing is for sure: It gives us more information and doesn't lead us to be as cynical as horse race coverage.

No one is saying there shouldn't be any strategy coverage - god knows political junkies like me get cold sweats if we have to go too long without a poll. But clearly these ratios are out of whack. Yes, Kerry needs to introduce himself at the convention (which of course the networks are always threatening to stop covering; this time each of the big three will give each convention a measly three hours), but it's not for lack of trying the last few months.

The problem is, as we move into the fall when reporters stop even flirting with substantive stories, this may be Kerry's last chance other than the debates to break through the media's cynical filter and connect with voters.

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