The "Invisible" Primary
This early attention presents a conundrum. The vast majority of voters (in the ballpark of 75%) have yet to tune into the race, and for those who have, vast disparities in media coverage provide an arguably skewed picture of the field. The bulk of coverage centered on five candidates (Clinton, Obama, Giuliani, McCain and Romney, in that order), and the tone of coverage, with the exception of Obama, was decidedly negative. McCain fared the worst, with 47.9% of stories negative in tone, and only 12.4 positive.
Democrats received a disproportionate amount of coverage, besting the GOP field 49%-31%. They also received more positive coverage, 35% of stories to the GOP's 26%. The latter disparity is mostly a product of positive coverage for Obama, and negative press for McCain. Even topical differences surfaced. Coverage of the Democratic candidates has been more personal in nature, while coverage of the GOP field was more idea-centered.
Outside of partisan imbalances, the vast majority (86%) of campaign coverage is candidate-centered, namely assessing their prospects for winning. A mere 12% of stories focus on how the election of a particular candidate will impact individual voters. The overwhelming emphasis on the "inside baseball" aspect of politics centers on candidate viability and electability, essentially taking the winnowing process out of the hands of voters.
Although there is significant variation across media channels, the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer stood out for the lower priority it placed on the 2008 election (not necessarily a good thing), its attention to lesser-known candidates (admirable), and its tendency to summarize stories by comparing multiple candidates (absolutely vital). The tone of coverage was also more neutral than its competitors.
The latter tendency across the media feeds the argument of the perceived liberal bias. This is probably overblown in my mind, particularly in light of the many conservative options now available (Wall Street Journal, Fox News, talk radio). Clinton and Obama are obvious centers of attention given their status as the most formidable female and African-American presidential candidates to date. Moreover, the GOP field is more atomized, and party stalwarts are less excited about their options, not to mention the fact that many of the candidates launched their campaigns at a later date (see Fred Thompson).
These caveats considered, the media does have a responsibility to provide "fair and balanced" coverage and to really mean it. Furthermore, they should cover as many of the candidates as possible and allow voters to decide who is and isn't viable. Does the ability to raise millions translate into effective leadership in the Oval Office? I think not. It is one sign of viability, but how then does one describe the blossoming campaign of former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee?
Additionally, the press must move beyond the horse race aspect of the campaign, addressing the issues of our day, whether they be domestic or foreign policy. While 63% of stories have focused on the "inside baseball" scenarios of the campaign, only 7.2% have addressed domestic issues, and 7.5% of stories concentrate on foreign policy. A scant 1.4% of stories have examined the public records of candidates! Scary! Aren't we in the process of examining qualifications for office and what candidates would do if elected? Talk about dropping the ball.
My hope is that as the field winnows, substantive coverage emerges. My concern is that this race for party nominations will be over before a majority of Americans tune in, and those who have followed the race know little more than who leads in the polls and at the bank. Here's a wake-up call to both the media and the electorate. 2008 will be here before we blink.