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Jewish World Review May 16, 2001 / 23 Iyar, 5761

Michael Kelly

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Lessons in media logic -- NOW that independent news organizations have reported that, under almost any conceivable scenario of recounting the Florida vote, George W. Bush beat Al Gore, the cry that Bush is a robber-president has lost a bit of oomph. So a new--well, actually, not new--cry arises: Media Bias! Media Bias!

Specifically, as both John F. Harris and Howard Kurtz have reported in The Washington Post, Democratic war-roomers have brought forth a new bottle of the old whine that the national press corps, manipulated by right-wing ideologues, unfairly savaged Bill Clinton--and is too soft on Bush.

The latest proof for this is supposed to lie in the differing tones of press coverage afforded to Clinton and to Bush in their first hundred days in office. "The Washington press corps has become like little puppy dogs; you scratch them on the tummy and they roll right over,'' complained the master dog trainer and former Clinton aide Rahm Emanuel.

This would be interesting if true, since it would seem to confound all logic. That the national press corps, shown in every survey to be overwhelmingly liberal and Democratic, would grant friendlier treatment to a conservative Republican president than to a liberal Democratic president--can it really be so?

No. "Contrary to Democratic complaints, George W. Bush has not gotten an easier ride from the American media in his first 100 days than Bill Clinton did in his famously rocky start. ... Despite a very good first month, Bush's coverage overall was actually less positive than Bill Clinton's eight years ago.''

That is the conclusion of "The First 100 Days: How Bush Versus Clinton Fared in the Press,'' a report by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, an independent group run under the auspices of the Columbia School of Journalism and funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts. To produce this report, the project examined 899 stories reported by four network news divisions, two major newspapers and one major newsweekly during the first 60 days of the Clinton administration and the first 60 days of the Bush administration.

Among the specific findings:

  • Clinton received far more coverage than Bush in his first 60 days: 41 percent more stories on network TV, in newspaper section fronts and on opinion pages.

  • In the tone of stories, 27 percent of the Clinton stories were positive vs. 22 percent for Bush; both scored the same--28 percent--for negative stories.

  • Bush did better in his first month than Clinton, with 27 percent positive stories to 23 percent negative, compared with Clinton's 22 percent positive and 32 percent negative. But Bush's coverage tanked in the second month: 36 percent negative to 17 percent positive.

  • Bush fared much worse than Clinton in the editorial and op-ed pages of The New York Times and The Washington Post, with half of all editorials and 40 percent of all op-ed columns critical of Bush and only 20 percent of editorials and 16 percent of columns positive. Forty percent of Clinton's editorials were positive and only 20 percent were negative.

  • Clinton was portrayed far more as ``a man of the people'' than Bush has been, while Bush is portrayed far more as a Washington ``insider.''

  • Clinton was hammered in his first month for missteps in management, but ``his coverage became more positive because his policy positions on the budget, free trade, health care and reinventing government were depicted as widely popular.''

  • For Bush, the dynamic was reversed: ``After expressing clear doubts about Bush's intelligence and competence ... the press gave the new president high marks'' for competence in the early days, but ``that began to give way when Bush's budget plans were released and more of his policy positions became clearer, including such issues as global warming, water pollution, bankruptcy law and mining cleanup.''

The truth here is really not so complicated. The media gave Clinton a hard time over events that tended to confirm its suspicions about his character. And there were, over the years, many such events, because Clinton in fact had a really awful character. But Clinton generally got good press for his policies--because they were policies most reporters approved of. Because they were liberal policies.

Bush does not suffer analogous doubts as to character, and has done nothing serious to confirm doubts as to intelligence. He has properly gotten decent press as a manager. But the coverage of Bush in policy terms has been sharply and heavily negative--because most reporters do not approve of his policies. Because they are conservative policies.

And this is the bias that endures.

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Michael Kelly is the editor of National Journal. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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