Campaign Tales: On an Angle


By Sean Brenner

Published Oct 1, 2008 7:00 AM

The way candidates have been covered in the Presidential campaign has become a campaign issue itself. We asked two Bruin experts to weigh in on how the media has shaped the 2008 presidential election.

Lynn Vavreck
UCLA Assistant Professor, Political Science

Media coverage of the election is routinely panned. Fair or unfair?
"I think a lot of those criticisms are unfair. It's an incredibly long campaign season ... [Journalists'] reporting might not always have had a high level of fidelity to what the candidates were saying or doing, but if a candidate changed views on an issue, we heard about it. For the most part, they revealed information in a way that was helpful to voters."

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One specific complaint in 2008 was that there was too much coverage of candidates' personalities and not enough of their policies. Is that justified?
"It can be good to understand that one candidate is empathetic and warm, and one isn't. If a politician seems cold and unfeeling, shouldn't they write about that in the paper? If you did an in-depth analysis, my hunch is that coverage of policy versus character would break down pretty similarly for [the candidates]."

Was primary coverage of Senator Clinton sexist?
"I don't see it that way. She's the first woman who seriously contested a major-party nomination for the top of the ticket. If you think that people aren't going to be interested in how you say things and how you present yourself — which includes what you look like — that's delusional. People wanted it both ways. They wanted her to be the first woman nominee of a major party, but they wanted it never to come up when people interview her and evaluate her."

So, you're optimistic about where election coverage is headed?
"Not necessarily. A lot of the criticisms levied against the media are just convenient. But could they do a better job? Yes. People like [MSNBC talking head and sometimes anchor] Chris Matthews could stop masquerading as journalists. A lot of voters view people in his role as journalists, but what he's doing is not reporting."

Mark Kleiman
UCLA Professor, Public Policy

Was Senator Clinton's campaign hurt by sexist media coverage?
"The coverage was pretty obnoxious. There were comments like, 'Senator Clinton, wearing a blue ruffled blouse, explained that nuclear war would be a bad thing.' We rarely got commentary on what male candidates wore."

Has coverage of the candidates been biased?
"In 2000, the Republican candidate [Bush] got a free ride, and the Democrat [Gore] got nitpicked to death. So far in 2008, it's been pretty much a repeat of that."

But the common perception is that media are generally liberal.
"That perception has been carefully cultivated. It's probably true that most reporters vote Democratic, but coverage hasn't been biased."

Are there any good trends in election coverage?
"Not that I can think of. What bothers me is a pretense of objectivity that keeps reporters from saying that Candidate X said Y yesterday, but Y is false."