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24 May 2001

Our current howler (part IV): Hardly science

Synopsis: There were far fewer stories about Bush, Pew found. Politely, they didn’t note why.

The First 100 Days: How Bush Versus Clinton Fared in the Press
Project for Excellence in Journalism,
5/01

Divided We Stand
Roger Simon, Crown Publishers, 2001

Commentary by Fred Barnes
The Beltway Boys, Fox News Channel, 1/27/01


Forget the problems with Pew’s basic method (but see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/23/01). Pew did come up with one clear finding which had its researchers puzzlin’. Early on, in paragraph 3 of its report, Pew noted Bush’s very low "N:"

PEW REPORT: Bush is dramatically less visible than Clinton was with fully 41% fewer stories about Bush on network TV, in newspaper section fronts, opinion pages and in one major newsweekly in the first two months in office.

Weird! According to Pew, there was much less coverage of Bush in 2001 than of Clinton eight years before. How many stories were done on each? Bush got less coverage everywhere:

TV networks: 193 stories on Clinton, 111 stories on Bush
Newsweek: 49 stories on Clinton, 20 stories on Bush
Washington Post and New York Times: 324 stories on Clinton, 202 stories on Bush

Total: 566 stories on Clinton, 333 stories on Bush

Jeez! There were 233 fewer stories on Bush than on Clinton eight years earlier.

Pew puzzled over the drop-off, which it called "the most striking single statistic" in its study. Why in the world had the drop-off occurred? Here is Pew’s entire discussion:

PEW REPORT: While some analysts have suggested that this may be a function of Bush shrewdly keeping a lower profile, it also may reflect in part changes in the nature of the media culture. The selection of stories in the media is now often lighter, with a movement away from politics, other studies have found. One sign of this is that, in looking at the total number of stories, the president is still a dominant figure on op-ed and editorial pages, but dominates stories on the front pages, newscasts and financial pages less often.

Maybe it’s just the media culture, Pew mulled. Maybe stories about presidents "dominate stories on the front pages and in newscasts less often." Maybe the selection of stories just shows "a movement away from politics."

But we couldn’t help noting that Pew forgot an obvious part of recent history. During Bush’s first month as president, political stories about a certain ex-president were in fact "dominating" front pages and newscasts. That ex-president, of course, was this same Bill Clinton, who was being slapped around in the press corps but good, sometimes for things which he’d actually done and sometimes for things which he hadn’t. For at least a month after Bush took office, everyone in America discussed the way the Clinton coverage pushed Bush off page one. For example, here is a passage from Roger Simon’s new book, Divided We Stand:

SIMON: Bush found himself where Gore had found himself for eight years: in the shadow of a man who seemed unwilling or unable to step out of the spotlight. On February 22, the day of Bush’s first news conference, ABC, CBS, and NBC spent a combined 5 minutes of their nightly newscasts reporting on Bush and a combined 21 minutes reporting on Clinton.

For the record, Simon offers the press corps’ Standard Account of this much-remarked phenomenon. According to this standard narration, Clinton somehow forced the press corps to keep him center stage; he was "unwilling or unable" to step from the spotlight. But is it possible that the press corps played the active role here? That the press corps actively generated these stories? Heaven forbid such a horrible thought; the vile idea never passes Press Lips. But, whoever was responsible for the ongoing stories, everyone discussed the way the Clinton coverage was pushing Bush off the front page. But at Pew, they never heard of it. Pew doesn’t even mention the syndrome when it tries to explain Bush’s drop-off in coverage, and here’s the one fleeting comment Pew does make, much later, about Clinton’s endless coverage:

PEW REPORT: Indeed, even in 2001 Bush had to share the spotlight with the irrepressible Clinton, who midway through Bush’s first two months generated yet another cover for himself, "Exclusive–Sleepless Nights & Secret Pardons: The Inside Story of Bill’s Last Days," overlaid against a grainy black and white shot of a staring, half shadowed Clinton.

Cheerfully, Pew describes Clinton as "irrepressible," like the Unsinkable Molly Brown. Pew presents the Standard Account, just as Simon limned it. Clinton "generated another cover for himself;" Clinton did it, not the press corps. And it doesn’t seem to cross Pew’s mind that that "grainy, black and white shot of a half shadowed Clinton" is just more "negative coverage" for Bill–and that it might even serve as "positive coverage" for Bush, who was newly in power.

Amazing, isn’t it? Everyone discussed it in real time–the Clinton frenzy was crowding out Bush. And everyone discussed another possibility–the possibility that Bush was actually gaining in stature by comparison with disgraced Clinton. Here, for example, is conservative Fred Barnes, on The Beltway Boys (January 27):

BARNES: Now, you know what else helped Bush have such a good week? It was the contrast with the Clintons’ sleazy departure from the White House, which is a hot story in itself....You had the trashing of the White House itself. We don’t know how much, but the typewriters, the voicemail, the graffiti on the walls and so on, reflecting, I think, a real bitterness…

It’s now fairly clear that the trashing didn’t happen. But the press corps was busy pretending it did, and Barnes, among others, was saying the obvious–that it added up to good coverage for Bush.

Everyone discussed these things in real time, but they’re never mentioned by Pew. Those well-known events are airbrushed out of Pew’s widely ballyhooed study. Why didn’t Pew even mention this syndrome? At THE HOWLER, we really can’t say. But surely, many of those 233 missing stories on Bush were being written about Clinton. We chuckled as Pew searched high and low, fumbling for other explanations.

Was Pew just being a good little critic when it dropped this episode from its report? At THE HOWLER, we simply can’t tell you. But the missing Bush stories do help to show the crudeness of Pew’s basic method. Did the stories about Clinton help build up Bush? Many people said so in real time. But according to Pew’s rigid research method, these stories about Clinton don’t even exist; all Pew can do is take the stories that were written about Bush, and count up the good and bad comments. Here we see it once again; Pew’s research method is very restrictive, and keeps Pew from studying the world as it is, in which the press corps–bashing Bill freely–may have helped George in the process.

The moral of the story? It isn’t easy to study press bias, and it’s almost impossible to do so "objectively." Our public discourse is a complex beast, not subject to simple review. But pampered Pew loves to pretend. It studies only sixty days–then makes sweeping statements about the first hundred. It studies only seven news orgs–then claims to have studied "the media." Most important, it wants to pretend that it’s done something grand–it wants to pretend that it’s doing hard science. So it sets up a very crude research method, and pretends to create an objective account. It looks like science–the report uses numbers–and right on cue, the pundits quote it. But this hapless study is a near-total fraud–a good example of the miserable work being churned by our hapless press corps.

 

The occasional update (5/24/01)

There were some interesting findings: Do Pew’s basic methods make any sense? At best, Pew offers a very crude measure. But, to the extent that you credit its methods, Pew came up with some interesting findings. They all were buried by the report’s sweeping statement about how Bush got jobbed by "the media," of course. But we thought we’d list a couple of findings that do merit further cogitation:

  1. Drop-off in coverage. Let’s say it again: Clinton got 566 "stories" in 1993, Bush got only 333. How many of those missing Bush stories were actually being done about Clinton? We’d like Pew to go back and report.
  2. NBC’s changing coverage. Pew noted a massive change in NBC’s reporting. "In general, its stories have been much more positive or neutral toward Bush than they were toward Clinton," Pew said. "Only 9% of its stories were negative in tone in Bush’s first two months, compared with 42% of its stories on Clinton eight years earlier." This is one of Pew’s most striking findings. But we know where you’ve seen it: Nowhere. Standard Pundits don’t mention his stuff.
  3. Split between news and editorial pages. Another point concerning the Post and the Times–at each paper, news reporting was better for Bush, while editorials were hugely better for Clinton. Pew drew a sensible conclusion: "In that regard, the study would suggest that the difference journalists insist exists between the news and editorial pages, but which some conservatives doubt, is actually demonstrable." That point is also worth noting.

But in the end, let’s say it again. To the extent that you credit Pew’s basic method, there is one key finding in his report. In every branch of the media studied, Bush got more favorable news reporting. And now we can add one final point: Bush got more favorable news reporting without even counting all the trashing that was being aimed at Clinton. This is the one key result from this study, and it was totally obscured by Pew’s hapless report. But you know how it is with this excellent press corps. It don’t always matter how things turn out–you’re going to hear preferred stories.