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Cult of Personality: Media Coverage of the 2008 Primary Race

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The early presidential primaries are scheduled to begin in mid-January. With a number of states like Florida and Michigan moving up their primary dates, rumor has it that Iowa, the traditional first primary state, may move its primary to 2007. That’s roughly four months away. The media are fascinated by this change in the political calendar, and have used the occasion to wax poetic on which candidate will be able to raise the most money by year’s end. Tens-of-millions of dollars have already been raised by senators Hillary Clinton, and Barrack Obama. Both, along with former senator John Edwards, have rejected public financing, which would require that their campaigns raise no more than 10 million, in exchange for matching government funds.


For anyone who’s had the fortitude to stomach the media’s coverage of the presidential primary races, certain patterns have likely become apparent, none of which come close to resembling anything like objective or informative journalism.


If we look back at the 2004 primary race, we’ll perhaps remember a few names that were predominate in the media—John Kerry, Howard Dean, John Edwards. The field of candidates, back then as now, actually totaled nine (though former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack had to drop out of the current race back in February because his campaign had only raised a paltry $2.4 million.) Looking at today’s primary race, the names the public are familiar with also only form a trio—Clinton, Obama, and Edwards. Luckily for us though, we really only have to learn one new name, since Clinton is the name of a recent former president, and Edwards was the VP nominee for John Kerry back in 2004.


The media’s logic for this intentional narrowing of the field is that it focuses on the candidates who are the most popular with the public, measured in large part by funds raised. The problem with this theory is that one could just as easily argue that the candidates who become the most popular with the public are the ones who receive the most media coverage, thus earning them greater campaign contributions. When you couple this with the fact that the media often offer little information about candidates’ platforms, but rather choose to focus on personality traits, the public is left with little knowledge of candidates stances on issues, but are well acquainted with intangibles of personality—“I like Barrack Obama because he has vision,” or “Hillary Clinton would be a strong leader.”


Further scrutinizing this issue, we discover that the candidates who receive the least amount of attention in the media always include the ones furthest to the left of the political spectrum. Not inconsequentially, these candidates also usually trail far behind in raising money in comparison to the “major” candidates, the coin-phrase the media uses to describe its darlings.


But at times, the marginalized candidates protest, as Representative Dennis Kucinich did at a televised 2004 democratic debate hosted by ABC’s Ted Koppel. After Koppel had badgered the congressman and the two African American candidates, Al Sharpton and Carol Moseley Braun, about dropping out of the race, Kucinich said to Koppel, "We start talking about endorsements, now we're talking about polls and then talking about money. When you do that you don't have to talk about what's important to the American people." The audience applauded loudly, and the next day ABC pulled it’s embed reporters from the campaigns of Kucinich, Sharpton, and Braun.


Another tendency of the media is to take candidates’ claims at face value unquestioningly, and in many cases knowingly propagating deliberate misconceptions. So for instance, when Barrack Obama’s campaign disseminates ambiguous and misleading information about his opposition to the Iraq war, the media reports it as factual. A TV viewer watching the February 60 Minutes special on the senator would have learned that, “Barrack Obama was the only major candidate to oppose the war,” when in fact, Barrack Obama wasn’t elected to the senate until two years after the Iraq war authorization was voted on. Also, notice 60 Minutes usage of the word “opposed” instead of the phrase “vote against.” Surely, the producers had researched enough to know he hadn’t voted on the war authorization. Though, their wording in the statement would lead a viewer to believe otherwise.


Barrack Obama did, to his credit, speak out against the buildup to war, but as a state senator of Illinois. And while he might have voted against the war authorization had he been in the senate, it can’t be assumed. There are complicated political and corporate interests that sway many politicians who might otherwise oppose war. What we do know for fact about Barrack Obama is that he’s voted for all but one war supplemental (which he ultimately did support after a veto by Bush,) has suggested he might increase the pentagon budget if elected, and has stated he might bomb Pakistan with or without President Musharraf’s okay. Only the latter fact received any media coverage, and sent off a round of criticisms by his competitors, many of whom themselves haven’t ruled out bombing Iran. There was also some mention of President Musharraf being irked for some strange reason, but this tidbit was secondary to Clinton’s criticisms of Obama.

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Finally, one must take into consideration the media’s own self-interest in studying its coverage of candidates in elections. Back in 1983, 50 different corporations controlled the majority of the news media. Today that number has dwindled down to 5: Time Warner, Disney, Ruppert Murdoch’s News Corp, Bertelsmann, and Viacom. These companies make up an oligopoly worth billions. In 2006, Time Warner doubled its profit and netted $6.6 billion. These five companies have all benefited from the Telecommunications Act passed in 1996 by then president Bill Clinton.


Among the changes in media regulatory rules the bill ushered in were: removing the cap of 40 radio stations that any one company could own (allowing the creation of radio goliaths like Clear Channel, that owns more than 1,200 radio stations,) raising the cap from 25% to 35% for the percentage of households a company could reach through its television stations, and deregulating cable rates, which soared nearly 50% between 1996 and 2003.


Within the last several years, the media giants have pushed for even more deregulation; championed by former FCC chairman Michael Powell, son of former Secretary of State Colin Powell, who’d benefited from his son’s overseeing of the AOL Time Warner merger in 2000 (Colin Powell owned stock in the company.)


What all these trends inevitably point to is the fact that the media isn’t likely to give favorable, or even fair, coverage to a candidate who is staunchly against media deregulation. Of all the candidates, republican and democrat, who have campaign websites, only Dennis Kucinch’s lists media-reform as an issue. And barring a leap in the polls for the congressman, doubtful with the near blackout he enjoys courtesy the mass media, media reform will once again be an issue non-grata in 2008. Ensuring the same tired horse-race media coverage will repeat itself in the future.


The only option left for any citizen who requires more usable information about candidates when the media doesn’t adequately do its job is to turn to alternative forms of media, be they publications or websites. In a culture that demands expediency in every aspect and function of life, that might not be an attractive choice for many. But for others who are willing to take some time, a good way to start is by researching who candidates receive their greatest campaign contributions from, and what their actual voting records are.

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Rhetoric is carefully crafted by highly paid campaign advisers and PR consultants. Vague clichés about a new future are always replete in candidates’ speeches.  In these times, we must probe deeper than the media sound byte to get a full picture of any candidate running for the presidential office. The stakes, as always, are high.

 For info on voting records of candidates and donor info, the following websites may prove useful:  http://projects.washingtonpost.com/congress, http://www.opensecrets.org


Justin Finney is the name of a male Homo-sapian who once used to pay an inordinate amount of time fuming over the immoral politics of most governments on planet earth before he threw up his hands and joined the ignorant masses.

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Cult of Personality: Media Coverage of the 2008 Primary Race


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Of course the corporate media only pay attention t... by Marcus B on Thursday, Aug 23, 2007 at 1:29:53 PM
Indeed, track records and where their financing is... by Kevin Gosztola on Thursday, Aug 23, 2007 at 9:46:49 PM
Hey everyone. I just noticed that the hyperlink fo... by Justin Finney on Friday, Aug 24, 2007 at 7:20:30 AM