Does the press pick presidents?

Media criticism.
April 16 2007 6:05 PM

Does the Press Pick Presidents?

What coverage says about a candidate's prospects.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty

Scholar Leon V. Sigal observed three decades ago that one measure of a presidential campaign's vitality prior to the nominating conventions was the number of full-time reporters assigned to it by the top-tier news organizations: the elite dailies especially (New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, and the Wall Street Journal), the TV networks, the wires, and the newsweeklies.

Editorial resources being scarce, news organizations can't cover every declared candidate full time, so whenever a senior editor at a newspaper or network assigns a reporter to a campaign, he votes the institution's conviction that the candidate has a shot at the nomination. Whenever a news organization pulls its reporter from a candidate's campaign, it cancels that vote of confidence. Sigal writes:

The impact of the news media lies in their role as the Great Mentioner—paying attention to some candidates and not to others, conferring recognition on the few, thereby boosting their standing in the polls and increasing their future news coverage. This is particularly important in a closely bunched field of relative unknowns. …

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To Sigal's insight, let me add a few. The frequency, length, and placement of the stories filed by top reporters indicate a news organization's assessment of a candidate's strength. In fact, by grading coverage and placement of the campaign stories in the major media, I'll bet I could gauge the major media's collective assessment of the candidates.

So, why don't I?

The campaign is still too green to glean a strong sense of what the press thinks of the prospects for Romney, Clinton, Giuliani, Edwards, McCain, Obama, and all the rest. We'll know better how seriously the major media take the candidates after Labor Day, when the campaigns and coverage accelerate. If the past is any guide, the Post, the New York Times, and the Los Angeles Times are likely to honor two orthree candidates in each party with a full-time reporter. (Here's betting that one of the favored isn't Dennis Kucinich.) The designated also-rans will have to get by with part-time coverage unless they do something—raise lots of money or win a primary or caucus—to cause editors to reconsider.

Sigal views presidential campaign coverage as a product of the conversations between reporters and the campaigners, notably the candidate and his campaign manager. Reporters with the best access to the campaigners snag the most reliably publishable material, and generally speaking, the best access has gone to the reporters from the major media. "Attention-getting is a vicious circle," Sigal writes, "them that's got is them that gets."

Sigal explains that the campaigns use the major media to reach four target audiences: rival campaigns, members of its own campaign, political elites, and other national and local journalists.

Campaigns use the top news organizations to issue challenges, threats, and promises to the opposition. Packaged and delivered by the press, these messages carry greater weight than private correspondence. A campaign also communicates its views to the rank-and-file members—or receives messages from its rank and file—through the major media. The major media are also the most efficient way to send a message from the campaign to the political elites, who provide money and political support. And last, the campaigns rely on the major media to help them set the news agenda for the rest of the press. Obviously, these goals can be accomplished only if the big press pays attention to the campaigners.

Let me emphasize that Sigal doesn't think press attention is the be-all and end-all of campaigns. The game is always alive and always afoot. If press coverage determined the winners, 1972 would have been a much better year for Edmund Muskie.

Still, his essay incites me. In the coming days I hope to jury-rig some sort of spreadsheet-powered charticle that will measure the "sense of the press" on a day-to-day basis.

Wish me luck—and very little coverage until I work out its kinks.

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Sigal's "Newsmen and Campaigners: Organization Men Make the News" was published in the Fall 1978 issue of Political Science Quarterly. If you request a copy by sending e-mail to slate.pressbox@gmail.com, I'll ignore you. Do what I did and beg a college student to fetch it for you via his JSTOR account. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.