Press Gravitates Toward Few of Many Candidates

The media often focuses its campaign coverage on a few star presidential candidates and ignores the others. For the little guy, catching any bit of the spotlight can seem like a long shot — but there may be hope.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

From the studios of NPR West, this is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

I'm Madeleine Brand. Coming up, the British troop pullout from Iraq: One expert calls it a retreat from defeat.

CHADWICK: First: The political campaigns in this country. Congress is off this week which means the nine senators and representatives who are running or likely to run for president can get out there with the retired members of Congress.

BRAND: The retired governors, the sitting governor, the retired mayor, the assorted military men, and religious leaders.

CHADWICK: Maybe there's a rodeo clown in there somewhere?

BRAND: Well the point is that's a lot of sharing, no matter how bright the spotlight. NPR's Mike Pesca asks if the long shots really have any shot at getting attention.

MIKE PESCA: In December of last year, as Democratic Senator Evan Bayh of Indiana was laying the groundwork for a run for the White House, he saw that the ground was shifting.

On a visit to New Hampshire Bayh drew crowds of a hundred or so - which is fine with more than a year before the primaries. But at the same time an opponent was drawing crowds of 150 - reporters, and thousands of citizens.

And at that point no poll even had Barack Obama as the frontrunner. Bayh stuck his finger to the cold New Hampshire wind and concluded, nope, not enough oxygen for a smaller candidate like myself.

But others have decided they can carve out some media coverage. How many others?

Mr. DOYLE MCMANUS (Washington Bureau Chief, Los Angeles Times): Senator Joe Biden, Senator Hillary Clinton, Senator Christopher Dodd, former Senator John Edwards, former Vice President Al Gore - maybe - former…

PESCA: Doyle McManus is the Washington Bureau chief of the Los Angeles Times. We'll let him read the list.

Mr. MCMANUS: …Richardson, Reverend Al Sharpton, and former Governor Tom Vilsack are all mentioned on the Democratic side. Republicans: Senator Sam Brownback, former New York City Mayor Rudy Guiliani…

PESCA: But his point is clear. It's nearly impossible to give all the candidates the amount of coverage they deserve let alone the amount of coverage they think they deserve.

Mr. MCMANUS: I do think we owe all of the candidates some coverage. But the basic problem we have at this point is they've got us outnumbered. We don't have enough reporters to pay attention to that many people.

PESCA: Here are some stats from McManus's paper: since the beginning of the year the name Barack Obama has appeared in 101 L.A. Times articles; the name Tom Vilsack, 16.

On the Republican side, John McCain was mentioned 101 times; Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, seven. No wait - one mention was for the movie, "I Heart Huckabees." So it's six mentions.

Huckabee - the man, not the movie - says he's not worried.

Governor MIKE HUCKABEE (Republican, Arkansas): Certainly there's been an incredible focus on Barack Obama and Hillary and some of the other people who have either raised a lot of money or who had a certain celebrity about them.

But short of shaving my head like Britney Spears, I'm not sure that there is a way to break into the headline mode.

PESCA: Now the three Democrats and three Republicans getting the most press coverage or the highest in their party's polls, they've all demonstrated fundraising ability. That means that conventional wisdom has some legitimate foundation.

The only thing is an early lead in the polls means about as much as an early lead in a pie-eating contest. And fundraising - OK, quick, which Democrat raised the most money last quarter. Exactly. Christopher Dodd of Connecticut.

Barack Obama was out-raised by at least six of his rivals. In his case the media is betting on the come(ph), says ABC's political director Mark Halperin.

Mr. MARK HALPERIN (Political Director, ABC): But it's not just about fundraising. It's also, again, about people believing that you can be nominated and that you could be a strong general election candidate.

A lot of people who are paying attention now, who set that conventional wisdom and who set the tiering of the candidates, believe that more about Barack Obama than they do about any of the other Democrats, except for Hillary Clinton and perhaps John Edwards.

PESCA: To be clear, the conventional wisdom isn't simply invented by the media. They listen to insiders, wise guys, bag men, fixers. They all have their say. But the media does take into account the perception - however it's formed - of a candidate's chances of success.

Mr. RICHARD BERKE (Assistant Managing Editor, The New York Times): We don't see ourselves as king makers so much as just trying to be fair-minded about it.

PESCA: Richard Berke is The New York Times' assistant managing editor and veteran political reporter. He says early on in his career he used to think the paper should run articles of uniform length and placement upon each candidate's announcement.

Not anymore. He looks at the phenomenon of a Barack Obama and doesn't see, say, Sam Brownback meriting the same treatment.

Mr. BERKE: I mean look at the crowds he's attracted. Look at the politicians and the fundraisers and people who want to sign up with him. I think the press is reflecting that sensation that's out there.

PESCA: For fun I showed Berke my stats on the amount of coverage different candidates got in his paper. Hillary Clinton - OK, she's the home state senator - she led the pack with 432 articles mentioning her this year.

I asked Berke to guess about some of the others, like New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson.

Mr. BERKE: How much for Obama?

PESCA: 148.

Mr. BERKE: So I bet Richardson 40.

PESCA: Yeah. It's actually 13. That was…

Mr. BERKE: I would have thought a little more than that.

PESCA: There are a million reasons why more anonymous candidates can't break through. Here are some.

Mr. MCMANUS: Duncan Hunter of California, Senator John McCain of Arizona, Congressman Ron Paul of Texas, bet you didn't know he was running…

PESCA: And there's also things like perceived viability, actual viability, goes on talk shows too much, doesn't go on talk shows enough.

But all the political and media insiders say it's possible for even the littlest candidate to get more coverage. He just has to come up with a good idea or a resonate phrase. Or if he's really desperate, call the front runner clean.

A spokesman for Tom Vilsack echoed Team Huckabee when he said he wouldn't want to be the front runner so early. As for comment the actual front runners were too busy to return calls.

Mike Pesca, NPR News, New York.

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