Sep
01
2003

Weeding the Field

Press tries to determine who should and shouldn't run for president

Ten years ago, political science professor Thomas Patterson argued in his book Out of Order that the "road to nomination" for potential U.S. presidential candidates "now runs through the newsrooms." In particular, he asserted, "the press performs the party's traditional role of screening potential nominees for the presidency--deciding which ones are worthy of serious consideration by the electorate and which ones can be dismissed as also-rans." In addition, he proposed, journalists choose a "prevailing story line" around which news about candidates is framed.

Patterson's observations aptly describe current media coverage of the nine Democratic candidates for their party's nomination. Some, the media declare, are valid contenders; others are ineffective has-beens or laughable distractions. In addition, they adopt a "prevailing story line" suggesting that even the presumably "serious" Democratic contenders pose no real threat to Bush's reelection.

These judgments, and the reasons presented for them, reveal much about the press's attempts to weed the field of Democratic candidates, determine what issues should and should not matter to voters, and place any Democratic nominee at an overwhelming disadvantage against President Bush in the 2004 election. In order to explore these aspects of the coverage in depth, let us consider articles and opinion pieces published from January to June 2003 in four major print media outlets: the New York Times, the Washington Post, Time magazine and U.S. News & World Report.

The lowest circle

For all intents and purposes, the media have divided the nine candidates into three groups. (Although cult leader Lyndon LaRouche is also a declared candidate, he is not treated as a legitimate contender by either the Democratic National Committee or by the press.) The lowest tier of candidates, according to reporters and pundits such as the New York Times' Adam Nagourney (3/29/03), the Washington Post's Dan Balz (5/5/03) and George F. Will (5/6/03), and U.S. News' Michael Barone (5/6/03), consists of Rep. Dennis Kucinich, former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun and the Rev. Al Sharpton. When this group is given any attention at all, the media tend to dismiss them out of hand, emphasizing their presumed inability to win and their marginal status in the race.

Sharpton's ideas are seldom explored in any depth; instead, he is assumed to be irrelevant and/or self-serving, in the race merely to gain attention and money for himself. An editorial in the Washington Post (1/22/03) emphasized such past issues as his work for singer James Brown and his role as advisor to Tawana Brawley, whose charge of rape was not supported by a grand jury. Sharpton's candidacy, the editorial suggested, is an attempt to garner "most of the resources that flow to black precincts from groups such as the Democratic National Committee at the time of a presidential race." Nagourney (New York Times, 1/13/03) similarly remarked that "many Democrats" believe Sharpton wants only to "win publicity for himself, and contributions to his civil rights organization, the National Action Network."

Numerous reports have called attention to Sharpton's "one-liners" (Washington Post, 5/5/03, 5/6/03; New York Times, 6/29/03) and his ability to please crowds (Time, 2/3/03; Washington Post, 3/5/03, 5/18/03), as if he is merely in the race to provide a comic antidote to the presumably serious candidates. In keeping with the general media dismissal of progressive black leaders (Extra!, 3-4/03), reporters and commentators alike belittle and ridicule Sharpton without any clear exploration of his ideas or positions.

The press's response to Moseley Braun is even more dismissive. Will and David S. Broder (both Washington Post, 5/6/03) portrayed her as a failed has-been, citing the loss of her Senate seat to a weak opponent. Assuming she has no chance of winning, the media suggest that she must be in the race merely to make a statement. Francis Clines in the New York Times (2/24/03) described her candidacy as a "measured assault on the last great glass ceiling" and "a nostalgic touch of party inclusiveness." One might wonder why inclusiveness is a "nostalgic" value in the Democratic Party, but the label reinforces the journalistic bias against progressive African-American leaders such as Moseley Braun.

Notably, the press frequently portrays Moseley Braun not as a contender for the Democratic nomination or even a challenger to the seven white male candidates in the race, but merely as Sharpton's rival for the support of African-Americans. "She seems to be out to stop Al Sharpton," Washington Post columnist Mary McGrory proposed (2/23/03), "who hoped to be sole black contender." Since she "can't win," New York Times columnist William Safire mused (5/5/03), is she "in it to siphon votes from Sharpton?" The assumptions on which these comments are based--that African-American voters are a monolithic group that can only have one spokesperson, that Sharpton and Moseley Braun will only appeal to black voters, and that African-Americans are only valid competitors against one another and not against whites--are, to say the least, troubling.

Coverage of Kucinich calls attention to what Safire (New York Times, 5/5/03) described as his "unreadiness for prime time." Both Safire and Will (Washington Post, 5/6/03) inaccurately maintained that the city of Cleveland went into bankruptcy during Kucinich's tenure as mayor during the 1970s. In fact, Cleveland went into default, which, as James L. Rowe Jr. of the Washington Post reported at the time (12/16/78), is "the inability to pay a debt," and "is different from bankruptcy, which is a legal determination of insolvency requiring the courts to appoint a receiver to manager the city's finances."

Pundits also fault Kucinich for lapses seemingly unconnected to his abilities to govern. In an op-ed about men shopping for clothing with their wives, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd remarked (6/11/03), "It seemed perfectly natural when Dennis Kucinich had a dark brown stain on his light blue tie at a recent presidential candidates' forum." Dowd (New York Times, 6/8/03) also noted the "hundreds of poems" Kucinich has written on various subjects: "Metaphysics. Love. Urban America." Writing about the first debate, Broder (Washington Post, 5/6/03) made explicit Dowd's implications, asserting that Kucinich "came up short on the gravitas scale."

Rather than discuss his proposals for single-payer healthcare or workers' rights, or his opposition to the war with Iraq, journalists represent Kucinich's ideas as marginal positions that will appeal only to a fringe element among voters. McGrory (Washington Post, 2/23/03) remarked that "only if the White House fears a genuine populist does he appear to be a threat." "Peaceniks . . . idolize him," she maintained, suggesting that his supporters are wild-eyed idealists out of touch with mainstream views.

If McGrory's description suggests that Kucinich is living in the 1960s, Barone (U.S. News, 5/6/03) placed his views even farther in the past (and to the left). Discussing the May 5 debate among the candidates in Columbia, S.C., he dismissed Kucinich without giving any details about his platform: "Dennis Kucinich presented a view of America and the world seldom heard since the heyday of the International Workers of the World in the 1910s."

The irrelevant middle

Former Gov. Howard Dean, Sen. John Edwards and Sen. Bob Graham find themselves in a media middle ground. Particular pundits might present one or another of them as a serious contender, yet they generally are viewed as just important enough to cause problems for the presumed leaders on certain issues and in debates, but not to really challenge them. Although more attention is given to their positions, they are still depicted as ultimately unelectable (and frequently dislikable), their ideas irrelevant and non-mainstream.

News outlets have variously described Dean as self-righteous, cold and annoying (Washington Post, 5/6/03; New York Times, 5/12/03; U.S. News, 3/17/03). His followers are portrayed as fringe characters. In a feature article about Dean's appeal to the "peace vote" (3/19/03), Washington Post reporter Mark Leibovich described a supporter's attire: "Per peacenik cliche, he has a long gray ponytail and wears an ancient flannel shirt." McGrory asked (Washington Post, 1/19/03), "Will he just provide therapy for liberals whose only comfort is derived from The West Wing's lefty Yankee president, Josiah Bartlet?"

Dean's ideas, the media imply, are as out of touch as those who endorse them. Leibovich (Washington Post, 5/5/03) portrayed his support for energy efficiency, for example, as a political failing, noting that Dean's praise for the Dutch, who get "60 percent of their energy capacity from the wind," is a strategy that "seems dubious in South Carolina."

Graham, too, is viewed by the media as tiresome, unappealing and unconventional. Karen Tumulty and Broward Liston in Time (5/19/03) reported on his "lackluster stump style," while Broder (Washington Post, 5/6/03) suggested that he lacks presence: "In a field of self-promoters, he needs to develop aggressive salesmanship--and quickly." While voters may be hard pressed to find particulars of his positions in coverage by mainstream journalists, they can read much about his "signature eccentricity," to use Leibovich's term (Washington Post, 5/7/03), of keeping detailed logs of his daily activities in notebooks (see, for example, Safire, New York Times, 6/5/03; Brain Faler, Washington Post, 6/11/03). This habit may remove him, in media eyes, from serious consideration as a candidate; New York Times reporter Carl Hulse (6/4/03) wondered if it is "a disqualifying eccentricity" and questioned whether voters are "ready for a president who could all but moonlight as a stenographer."

If Graham is portrayed as lacking self-awareness and outward appeal, the media present Edwards as superficially attractive but short on substance. Descriptions emphasize his youth and inexperience; he's "callow," Tumulty remarked (Time, 1/20/03), while Nagourney (New York Times, 6/29/03) noted that he "may seem a little too young and slight to be Leader of the Free World; in White House circles, he is mockingly known as the 'Breck Girl.'" When pundits mention his populist appeals, they tend to slam his approach rather than giving his ideas any fair consideration. Broder (Washington Post, 5/6/03) commented, for example, "Edwards is running on his humble origins and an anti-corporate repertory of Enron lines, punctuated by elegant hand gestures. Is that enough?" Safire (New York Times, 5/5/03) also shifted attention from Edwards's platform and to his mannerisms: "Edwards kept chopping the air with a stiff-fingered hand; if he's imitating JFK, he should soften the gesture by curling the fingers and pointing with his thumb."

Front-running losers

Finally, the top tier of candidates--a designation given them explicitly by Leibovich (Washington Post, 2/22/03)--consists of Sen. John Kerry, Rep. Richard Gephardt and Sen. Joe Lieberman. Pundits disagree on whether one or two of these should be put at the very front of the pack; Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz (3/5/03) named Gephardt and Lieberman the leaders, while Post reporter Paul Waldman (2/23/03) and Tumulty (Time, 2/3/03) granted Kerry this status. These presumed front-runners receive the most attention and respect from the media, and their platforms are examined more seriously than those of their fellow contenders. Yet, notably, they are still portrayed in terms that diminish their stature, implying that even if they win the Democratic nomination, they are likely unelectable in a contest against Bush.

News outlets (Washington Post, 1/11/03; Broder, Washington Post, 2/20/03; Joe Klein, Time, 5/19/03) cannot resist reminding voters of Gephardt's failure in the 1988 primaries and his inability as minority leader to win back the House for the Democrats. He is a boring has-been, they proclaim, with uninspiring ideas. Joe Klein (Time, 3/3/03) described him as having "the coloring and demeanor of macaroni and cheese"; his colleague Tumulty (Time, 1/20/03) declared him "yesterday's news."

Even ideas that are not presumed to be outdated are still described as dull; Gephardt's proposal for a "global minimum wage," McGrory remarked (Washington Post, 2/23/03), is "hardly a grabber." His plan to reform healthcare is viewed as at best archaic and at worst a gratuitous appeal to the far left. It demonstrates "old-fashioned thinking," according to the Washington Post (5/9/03); Time commentator Joe Klein (5/19/03) deemed it "immense and anachronistic"; Will (Washington Post, 5/6/03) called it "red meat for the liberal incorrigibles who choose Democratic nominees."

Although, as we have seen, the media depict the anti-war Democratic candidates as appealing only to the wild-eyed left, they also question Gephardt's support for the war against Iraq. He's a "modern-day Scoop Jackson," Safire (New York Times, 1/6/03) maintained (referring to the Democratic senator from Washington who backed the Vietnam War and ran twice for the presidential nomination in the 1970s), "and that liberal hawk was never able to get the Democratic nomination."

Lieberman is a relic of a more recent past. "His frequent references to his 2000 run with Al Gore may remind Democrats of an unhappy chapter in their history," Broder proposed (Washington Post, 5/6/03). Despite the fact that the Gore/Lieberman ticket won the popular vote in 2000, Washington Post Magazineorter Michael Leahy (6/29/03) similarly argued that Lieberman was "part of a losing ticket" that many Democrats "want to forget." Like Gephardt, Lieberman's pro-war stance is seen as a potential obstacle to his nomination; Safire (New York Times, 1/6/03) compared him, too, to the failed hawk Scoop Jackson.

Although Lieberman is presented as a generally decent and pious man by pundits such as Leahy (Washington Post, 6/29/03) and U.S. News chief political correspondent Roger Simon (5/12/03), he is also viewed as lacking general appeal. Washington Post feature writer Robin Givhan (1/10/03) noted that he "isn't particularly telegenic," having "distinctive looks" that are "geared to a niche market." (It is unclear exactly what "niche" Givhan has in mind and why.) Noting Michael Dukakis's "ill-fated 1988 photo op in a tank," occasional New York Times columnist Frank Rich (5/11/03) suggested that Lieberman would have a similar problem appearing as a "credible" military leader: "Against the cultural backdrop of war-on-terrorism America, it doesn't matter that Senator Lieberman is Jewish; what does matter is that he's short."

Even as early as February 2003, Tumulty (Time, 2/3/03) declared that "John Kerry is starting to look like a front runner." Waldman (Washington Post, 2/23/03) echoed this judgment: "Chances are, he's already won the 2004 Democratic nomination." Yet even this presumed leader is frequently presented as a dislikable and potentially ineffective candidate. In a profile of Kerry, Washington Post reporter Laura Blumenfeld noted (6/1/03), "There is something about him, 'the Kerry effect,' that provokes a visceral response. He is too towering, too confident and too rich (his wife's fortune exceeds half a billion dollars) for people to walk away indifferent." At least on a personal level, Blumenfeld suggested, Kerry most often prompts a negative response: "Even in Massachusetts, polls have put his job approval rating ahead of his personal popularity rating." Other pundits remark that he has been accused of being "aloof" (Safire, New York Times, 5/5/03; Simon, U.S. News, 3/17/03; Tumulty, Time, 1/20/03), "calculating" (Tumulty, Time, 2/3/03) or "an opportunist" (Lois Romano, Washington Post, 5/25/03).

As the latter two adjectives suggest, all aspects of his persona and ideas are perceived as overly self-conscious, adopted merely to gain favor with voters. Describing Kerry's physical greeting of all of his fellow candidates except Dean at the South Carolina debate, Leibovich (Washington Post, 5/5/03) noted, "He is a promiscuous shoulder-squeezer, in general, but this touching seems conspicuous. As if to show Dean...that this is his clique." Dowd (New York Times, 6/8/03) suggested that Kerry's persona in Blumenfeld's aforementioned profile was an effort to appear manly in order "to compete with the Bush buckoes."

As with the other pro-war candidates, Kerry's stance on the war with Iraq is seen as potentially problematic. "He voted for the war, but reluctantly," Klein (Time, 5/19/03) pointed out. "One almost senses that it was a political vote, intended to neuter his opposition to the first Gulf War." Rather than explore in detail the intricacies of Kerry's position--for the war but critical of the Bush administration's approach to it--U.S. News columnist Gloria Borger remarked (2/17/03), "Sen. John Kerry . . . has decided to torment himself and the rest of us by taking an exquisitely and painfully nuanced position." Although she noted that it "may be true," as a Kerry aide maintained, that many in the country were similarly conflicted, she suggested that such positions are unappealing in presidential candidates: "People don't elect leaders to play out their ambivalences."

A no-win plotline

To return to Thomas Patterson's terms, let us identify the plot elements in the "prevailing story line" that journalists have adopted about the Democratic candidates. First, the media presume that only candidates with certain characteristics--those who are white and male, supported the war, and have what are called "moderate" ideas on such issues as healthcare or the environment--should be taken seriously.

If, as many media observers have noted, the Democratic party has moved to the center in recent years, in the process often undermining traditionally Democratic positions (on welfare or labor, for example) and ignoring once-respected constituencies (workers, minorities), the mainstream press seems all too happy to aid them in this shift. As alternative columnist Norman Solomon noted (6/26/03), "Most of the nation's political journalists, including pro-Democrat pundits, insist that the party should not nominate someone too far 'left'--which usually means anybody who's appreciably more progressive than the DLC"--the centrist, corporate-backed Democratic Leadership Council.

Also striking is the media's equation of electability with fundraising, a formulation that draws attention away from issues important to voters and favors candidates who either have personal wealth or who can appeal to rich and corporate donors. Columns and articles have declared that Kerry's strengths include his relatively strong fundraising (U.S. News, 3/17/03; Washington Post, 6/22/03) and the potential that he might tap into his wife's sizable fortune for his campaign (U.S. News, 5/26/03; New York Times, 6/14/03). Raising doubts about Lieberman's appeal to voters, the Washington Post's Thomas B. Edsall (5/10/03) and U.S. News' Simon (5/12/03) illustrated their points with references to his fundraising, which lagged behind that of Edwards, Kerry and Gephardt in the first quarter of the year.

Coverage of Dean illustrates sharply the media's central equation of money with possible nomination. By the end of June, various pundits began to describe Dean as a potential top-tier candidate--not because of any shift in his appeals to voters but because of his fundraising success. "Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean (D) announced yesterday that he has raised more than $6 million in the second quarter of this year," Edsall declared (Washington Post, 6/30/03), "an achievement many of his competitors privately conceded will add new credibility to his insurgent bid for the Democratic presidential nomination."

Noting that Dean had raised $9 million in the first half of 2003, Nagourney (New York Times, 6/30/03) proclaimed, "The figure stunned his rivals and transformed Dr. Dean from a maverick into a more traditional contender." Gephardt and Lieberman, Nagourney added, "who had weak financial showings in the first quarter," needed "strong showings" for the second quarter "to erase any concerns among Democrats about their viability."

Yet the media's story has another element as well: Even those Democratic candidates that have the media's presumed "qualifications" are not serious contenders for the presidency. Wrote Time's Tumulty (1/20/03): "The [Democratic] nomination may not seem like much of a prize, given that the winner gets to run against an incumbent president with a currently healthy approval rating and probably a quarter-billion dollars to spend in the campaign." Klein (Time, 5/19/03) described 2004 as "another election the Democrats should lose," while U.S. News (6/30/03) suggested that "maybe the whole Democratic ticket had better give up"--based on polls taken 18 months before Election Day.

It is hard to miss the frequent no-win situations into which the media put both the presumed front-runners and the Democratic party as a whole. If Kerry appears self-confident, he's aloof; if he's too collegial, he's engaging in calculated glad-handing. Lieberman is too grave, moral and pious, but when push comes to shove, he is not serious enough, somehow unable to appear as a determined military leader. And how can Gephardt's ideas be at once boring and somehow alarmingly radical? While the media, as we have seen, fault Democratic candidates for being purportedly out of touch with "real" Americans and their concerns, they simultaneously suggest they are panderers. What the Democrats really need, in the words of Klein (Time, 5/19/03), is "a candidate talented and fearless enough to meet the public without having to consult a focus group first."

Even when it comes to fundraising, the media place the Democrats in a double bind. Fail to raise enough, and you're through. But the relative success of Edwards over that of his rivals renders him suspect. Pundits (Broder, Washington Post, 6/8/03; Richard W. Stevenson, New York Times, 6/18/03) have noted that his money comes from trial lawyers, bringing up the negative connotations conservatives have effectively managed to attach to this profession. U.S. News reporters Paul Bedard and Julian E. Barnes (4/21/03) even portrayed the Edwards campaign's fundraising as somehow vulgar: "Maybe this is why Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards has vacuumed up more money this year than any other competitor: The word 'contribute' is imposed over the American flag on the top of his campaign Web page. 'It's tacky,' says a Democratic foe."

By contrast, Bush's huge war chest is portrayed not as a sign of impropriety but as an almost insurmountable strength (see, for example, Mike Allen, Washington Post, 5/18/03; Stevenson, New York Times, 6/27/03). The distinction, as described by Stevenson and Nagourney (New York Times, 6/15/03), could hardly be less flattering to Edwards: "'No one is turning down any of the [fundraising] calls or saying, "I don't want to contribute,"' said one of Mr. Bush's most active fund-raisers.... By contrast, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina--who raised $7.4 million in the first quarter, making him the most successful fund-raiser among Democrats--found himself last Saturday standing in the rain in a parking lot at a corporate park in Raleigh. A steady drizzle soaked the small crowd huddled under a tent, as the band played 'Ain't Too Proud to Beg.'"

Journalists and pundits, of course, do not create these storylines in a vacuum; their assessments of the candidates reflect opinion polls. Yet their reliance on such data is problematic. At this point in the campaign, when many candidates are still unknown to voters, it is inadvisable to declare someone unelectable because of low poll numbers. Early polls mainly serve to enable the media to stack the deck against various candidates while seeming to distance themselves from their role in weeding the field: Candidates who are unfamiliar to voters do not fare well in polls, prompting the media to discount their candidacies, leading to further poor showings in polls and continuing negative judgments in the press.

Discerning voters, regardless of their political perspectives, no doubt find this coverage frustrating. They likely long for stories that truly inform them about candidates' positions and platforms rather than casting them as characters in a narrative of winners and losers, likeable and unattractive candidates, serious contenders and dubious upstarts. Yet it is unlikely that the media will attempt to remedy their deficient coverage. Indeed, they seem to have already chosen the end of the story, presuming that Bush will win in 2004. Unless voters look beyond this script and attempt to rewrite it, they will be right.