Media Coverage for Minor Candidates

CBS accidentally admits that they are giving less attention to some of the Republican contenders.

Michele Bachmann has caught a news outlet admitting what we all know: that they give more coverage to candidates they consider “major.” She thinks this is unfair. She’s of course right.

NYT (“A Finger Slips, and the Bachmann Camp Pounces“):

It is not exactly a state secret that the news media tend to lavish more coverage on perceived front-runners in presidential campaigns.

But CBS News’s political director, John Dickerson, made the mistake of saying basically that in an e-mail and accidentally sending it to the campaign of Representative Michele Bachmann. In a slip of the finger that quickly ignited a furor among Mrs. Bachmann’s supporters, Mr. Dickerson e-mailed his colleagues that he would prefer to “get someone else” other than the Minnesota congresswoman for an online show after the CBS News/National Journal debate on Saturday night. The e-mail said that Mrs. Bachmann was “not going to get many questions” in the debate and that “she’s nearly off the charts” — an apparent reference to her low standing in many polls.

The problem was that Mrs. Bachmann’s communications director was copied in on the e-mail, and Mr. Dickerson hit “reply to all.” Oops.

The incident highlighted the tricky calculus media organizations must engage in when deciding which candidates to pay attention to, and which not, as they factor in criteria like standing in the polls, fund-raising and more nebulous things like momentum.

Aides to Mrs. Bachmann, who is polling in the single digits, seized on the e-mail as evidence of liberal bias by CBS News and used the episode to rally its supporters against a favorite Republican foe: the mainstream media.


Even when Mrs. Bachmann was riding high in the polls, her relationship with the press was strained, in particular over coverage of the Christian counseling practice of her husband, Marcus. Mrs. Bachmann has gone from being a media fascination after winning the Ames, Iowa, straw poll this summer — she was featured in cover stories in The New Yorker and Newsweek, and frequently appeared on Sunday morning talk shows — to being largely an afterthought. A review of hundreds of election news stories from Oct. 3 to Nov. 6 by the Project for Excellence in Journalism found that Mrs. Bachmann figured prominently in just 13 items.

The review found that Mr. Cain received the most press attention, with at least 297 stories in which he was a dominant subject; Gov. Rick Perry of Texas was second with 150 stories; Mitt Romney was third with 148. Representative Ron Paul of Texas and Mr. Gingrich trailed Mrs. Bachmann with eight and five stories.

Here’s the Dickerson email, with only the addresses redacted:

This is rather awkward. But it’s hard to fault Dickerson’s news judgment. Bachmann was an interesting story earlier in the campaign as she was being introduced to a national audience and making an unexpected surge into co-frontrunner status. But the nominating electorate has long since come to the judgment—entirely correct in my view—that Bachmann is not cut from presidential timber.

On November 12, then, the best guests would likely have been Perry (the “oops!” gaffe was still hot news), Cain (the sexual assault scandal), Gingrich (the suddenly resurgent star/flavor of the week), and Romney (the frontrunner who’s everyone’s second choice). Failing to get one of the big stories, Huntsman would likely be the best alternative in the wake of the first foreign policy debate (So, how frustrated are you that you’re behind these bozos?)

In terms of the larger question of media coverage, the fact of the matter is that there is only so much time on the nightly newscasts, so many column inches on the front pages of newspapers, so many magazine covers, and so much time for reporters and readers alike. So, choices have to be made.

This can result in a self-fulfilling prophecy, of course. I don’t think Gary Johnson was likely to appeal to this year’s Republican nominating electorate. But we’ll never know since he has been all but ignored by the press and excluded from the debates, so he never got a chance to make his case.

Even with somewhat arbitrary cut-offs based on poll numbers, though, too many people are in the debates. It’s just silly to give air time to Rick Santorum, Ron Paul, Michele Bachmann, and Jon Huntsman at this point. Then again, I’d have said that of Herman Cain, too, and he managed to become the frontrunner for a short time before the sexual harrassment/assault charges started to deflate his support.

Given that early frontrunners often crash and burn–see Tim Pawlenty and Rick Perry this cycle and Rudy Giuliani and Fred Thompson last cycle–and early nobodies–think Herman Cain this cycle and Mike Huckabee last cycle–often surprise us, it’s probably best to err on the side of cacophony until the debates, fundraising race, and early primaries sort things out.

Most will agree that we ought to exclude random yahoos who are running for president for the sheer novelty value while including legitimate candidates, even if they’re long shots to win the nomination.

My instinct would be to invite anyone who is a declared candidate and is either at 10 percent in the polls (I’d go with the RealClearPolitics average or some other index rather than the “any national poll” standard) or who has held in the past six years one of the following offices: President, Vice President, governor, or US Senator.

If applied at the outset of this race, that formula would have included Johnson and Santorum while excluding Bachmann, Cain, Paul, and Gingrich. Adding US Representative to the list–which goes against modern precedent but one could argue still satisfies the “serious candidate” requirement–would include all the national candidates except Cain, who was nowhere in the polls until getting exposure in the debates.

There’s really no perfect system here. There’s no modern precedent* for Cain–a minor business executive who failed in his sole previous attempt at getting elected to political office–winning a major party nomination, much less the presidency. Yet, he managed to make himself a serious candidate–at least for a while–when given the opportunity.

The answer may be a sliding scale, allowing almost everyone into the debates at the outset (requiring perhaps 1 percent standing in the polls) and then gradually raising the bar as we get deeper into the season. Once the race gets down to two or three contenders, we should focus all our attention on them despite whatever novelty having the minor candidates share their thoughts might provide. At some point, it should be a debate among people who can win the nomination rather than a vanity exercise for people looking for a platform to raise their profile.

*Abraham Lincoln comes pretty close but I’d date the modern era from 1960 (when television became a major factor and party primaries were beginning to matter). Whatever the comparative merits of the systems, precedents from the days when party bosses chose the nominees aren’t meaningful in an era when ordinary voters choose the party nominees.  

FILED UNDER: 2012 Election, Media, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Moosebreath says:

    Not that it matters for your point, but Lincoln is not a good counterexample, as he was a longtime leader in Illinois State politics (including many times elected to the State Legislature, as well as 1 term in Congress). He was also nominated for the VP slot in 1856, but came in 3rd or 4th in the convention balloting. I’d use Wendell Willkie as a better counterexample.

  2. Hey Norm says:

    Dickerson is showing appropriate news judgment in my view…with only 657 debates there just isn’t time for everyone to be heard.
    It’s a tragedy though, because Bachmann is so f’ing whacky.
    First there is her endorsement of Chinese communism as a model for the United States. Then on one of the Sunday shows she defends torture…and when it was pointed out that military types ranging from all current generals to ex-military types like Colin Powell and John McCain do not endorse torture…and even state that it is not effective….she countered by saying she is on the side of Dick Cheney.
    For sheer entertainment value you can’t really beat the Tea Stain Republicans. Hard to imagine that a guy like Huntsman can’t get traction in this party. Shocking.

  3. Moosebreath says:

    I stadn corrected — Lincoln finished 2nd in VP balloting at the 1856 Convention

  4. EddieInCA says:

    James –

    As loathe as I am to quote Tucker Carlson, I must do so at this time. On RedEye, on Fox, a few days ago, Carlson said the following:

    “Come on, can we just stop pretending?” Carlson remarked. “I don’t know what happened with these women, the ‘he said, she said, she said, she said’ thing.

    He is not qualified to be president, and we are all pretending he is. He’s a nice guy. I know him, I like him. I think he’s a great guy. He would be a better president than the current president, but he can’t explain his own economic plan.

    “Isn’t that all we need — is somebody better than Obama?” asked host Greg Gutfeld.

    “Presumably there are people much better than Obama! Okay?” Carlson exclaimed.

    “We all have to sit and pretend, ‘Oh, Herman Cain would be a great president’. The truth is — he would be great at a lot of things, but he is not qualified to be president. We had to pretend he isn’t. I wish we could stop and acknowledge this was a really serious election. It’s a crummy selection perhaps, but there has to be someone who understands the issues better than Herman Cain.

    Herman Cain has never been a serious candidate. That he’s polling so well shows nothing more than the intellectual bankruptcy of a small segment of the GOP constituency.

  5. Even with somewhat arbitrary cut-offs based on poll numbers, though, too many people are in the debates. It’s just silly to give air time to Rick Santorum, Ron Paul, Michele Bachmann, and Jon Huntsman at this point.

    According to the polls, Ron Paul was in second place back in June, in third place back in September. In neither case did those spikes result in increased coverage. Let’s stop pretending coverage levels have anything to do with actual poll results. The media has clearly decided certain candidates will be treated seriously and others will not; everything else is just an attempt to rationalize aesthetic decisions by the producers and editors in the news media.

  6. @Stormy Dragon:

    I would argue that Ron Paul has gotten more coverage this cycle than another candidate with the same support level, and the same unlikelihood of rising very far above that level, would. He’s regularly on CNN and FNC, for example.

  7. matt b says:


    Herman Cain has never been a serious candidate. That he’s polling so well shows nothing more than the intellectual bankruptcy of a small segment of the GOP constituency.

    You need to add in “vocal” and “base” to that segment. Cain’s ascendancy in many ways was the victory of Right Wing Talk Media. What will be interesting to see is how Talk Media handles his eventual defeat.

  8. Franklin says:

    Heh, I just drove by an empty Thaddeus McCotter for President campaign office the other day. He didn’t get or deserve any attention, as far as I can tell.

  9. James Joyner says:

    @Stormy Dragon: Ron Paul got a lot more attention in 2008. In 2012, he’s not only old news but everyone understands that, while he’s a great spokesman for a particular point of view and has a hard core following, he’s pretty much peaked at 9-10 percent. They’re the most enthusiastic 9-10 percent in the field but they’re it. Mitt Romney, by contrast, has much more lukewarm support but he has the potential of getting at least grudging support from 95 percent of the Republican base.

  10. EddieInCA says:

    @James Joyner:

    Mitt Romney, by contrast, has much more lukewarm support but he has the potential of getting at least grudging support from 95 35 percent of the Republican base.

    Fixed that for you, James.

  11. PD Shaw says:

    I confess that when I was watching the CNBC debates, I muted the minor candidates like Cain and Bachmann — I had better things to do with my time.

    Bachmann, she’s no Garfield.

  12. Christine says:

    I want to know how wanting another GOP hopeful to interview in place of Bachmann is “liberal media bias.” Funny how conservatives throw that around but apparently are blind to the way FOX news reports issues.

  13. Rick DeMent says:

    @ James

    The question is what would propose to do about it? I mean Broadcast news is a private commercial venture and they are simply making business decisions about content based on what can deliver the most eyeballs. what is so “unfair” about it. There is nothing unfair about this if you look at though the lens of your libertarian ideals. We have freedom of speech not a guarantee of being heard.

    On the other hand if you believe as some do that the airways do in fact belong to the people and since taxpayer money when into develop the cable infrastructure you could extend that idea to cable as well, then I suppose there is a role for government to play to even the playing field a bit.

    But I’m curious If you think this is a wrong that needs to be addressed, what would you do?

  14. James Joyner says:

    @Rick DeMent: I don’t argue that anything needs to be done about this; I’m just discussing the dynamics.

    Something can be both unfair and the way they ought to be. For example, it’s unfair that I wasn’t born a foot taller and with the amazing athletic talent necessary to become a multi-millionaire playing basketball and Shaquille Oneal was. I don’t propose that the NBA be forced to adopt a lottery system of allocating roster spots.

  15. Hey Norm says:

    PPP will be out with a poll showing Newt with the lead in the GOP. Clearly Bachmann just peaked too early. Big question…who’s takes the lead after Newt implodes?

  16. EddieInCA says:

    Big question…who’s takes the lead after Newt implodes?

    Romney, with 21%

  17. PJ says:

    More evidence that the left leaning MSM, liberal Republicans, and the Mormons are picking next year’s Republican nominee.

    Time to vote for a real conservative third party candidate.


  18. Hey Norm says:

    @ Eddie…
    It might be time for a frothy mix of Santorum…

  19. PJ says:


    PPP will be out with a poll showing Newt with the lead in the GOP. Clearly Bachmann just peaked too early. Big question…who’s takes the lead after Newt implodes?

    PPP had a poll with Gingrich leading back in July 2010. And back then Huckabee was leading a couple of polls, so I’m going with Huckabee deciding to run again 😉 Christie and Palin also led some polls back then, but they have also quit. If not Huckabee (or some other quitter), then maybe Bachmann? She obviously is persecuted by the liberal MSM and that ought to get her to soar in the polls.

    What is clear here is that instead of picking Romney, these primary voters would rather regurgitate failed candidates.
    They really show how much they love Romney.

  20. EddieInCA says:

    Romney 2012: The Best of the Worst

    Romney 2012: Because You’ve Tried Everyone Else.

    Romney 2012: All positions on All Issues

    Romney 2012: Because It’s My Turn, Dammit!

  21. @PJ:

    Christie and Palin also led some polls back then, but they have also quit.

    Christie didn’t quit. He was quite emphatic about not running from the very beginning.

  22. ponce says:

    Gallup now has Obama leading Generic Republican Candidate.

    Guess Generic Republican Candidate won’t be getting much coverage now.

  23. Hey Norm says:

    Somewhere else I read a conection between Romney’s increasing inevitability and Obama’s lead. In other words…as more GOP’ers accept the likelihood of Romney’s nomination…Obama’s lead increases. Can you say enthusiasm gap?