Pew’s Project for Excellence in Journalism produces some very good studies on the media’s coverage/effects of/on presidential elections. What the Pew researchers attempt to do is to identify the press’s master narrative of the two candidates, and how that narrative influences public thinking and the outcome of the race.
The master narrative stems from the ideal that the press does not just dispense with raw facts, but instead puts facts into story form. And stories need an arc–they need to be compelling–and they need a central message that helps the audience understand and comprehend the complexity of the campaign by relating it to something they know.
The problem with the master narrative is two-fold–first, they are overwhelmingly negative, leaving voters with a bad impression of the candidates. Second, they drive out facts that contradict the central message.
To give you a sense of just how powerful the master narrative is, Kathleen Hall Jamieson and Paul Waldman found in their book, The Press Effect, that the narratives of George W. Bush and Al Gore in the 2000 presidential campaign had a great deal in the outcome of the race. George W. Bush’s master narrative was that of a class dunce–a not so bright guy who got by in life through the good fortune of being born a Bush. The narrative was set early on when in 1999 Governor George W. Bush failed a pop quiz on the names of international leaders. This was followed up with an examination of his less than stellar academic record as a college undergraduate, followed by his mangling of the English language, captured so well in the on-going Slate column, Bushisms.
For Al Gore, the master narrative set was of a scheming liar–someone who would do or say anything to get elected, including lying about his record and his history. This of course was set off after Gore gave a late 90s interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer where it was claimed that Al Gore said he invented the Internet. From there it was downhill–Al Gore claiming he was the central character in the book Love Story. Al Gore claiming that he cleaned up Love Canal. Al Gore claiming that his grandma sang “Look for the Union Label” to him when he was just in his crib, even though the song wasn’t published until the 1970s.
The problem with the narrative is that it pushed out facts that would have altered the perception of the narrative itself. For instance, George W. Bush generated a lot of attention on the late night comedy shows when we learned that his favorite childhood book was “The Very Hungry Caterpillar”, even though the book was published in 1969 when Bush was in college. The facts, however, showed that Bush didn’t answer the question at all, but rather one of his campaign aides, who read the question as if it were asking him what his favorite childhood book was. And for Gore, the dismissal of counter facts were far more egregious. For instance, in the famous “I invented the Internet” quote, Gore is misquoted. Instead he said when he was in Congress, he took the initiative to invent the Internet, which is true, though probably taking more credit than necessary. And several high school students lobbied the mainstream media to correct the quote that Gore said he fixed Love Canal, which is something he did not say at all!
In the 2008 Election, Pew’s findings suggested that perhaps a new day in press coverage of presidential elections were upon us. In the 2008 Election, the narrative of the two candidates were either mostly positive or barely negative–a break from the past.
So what has Pew found so far in the 2012 election? The master narratives of Obama and Romney are very negative, with Obama receiving more negative coverage than Romney. For Obama, the narrative is one of three things: that his policies have failed our economy and America, that his policies have prevented things from becoming worse than without them, and that Obama’s policies are against capitalism and American individualism. For Romney, the three narratives include: that he is a “vulture capitalist” who does not care about workers; that he is an out of touch elitist; and he is gaffe-prone and awkward.
Pew found that the dominant of the three narratives for Obama have been that his policies are a failure and are hurting America, while Romney gets hit with a mix of vulture capitalist and out of touch elitist. What we know about the narrative is that it not only influences public perceptions about the candidates, but also captures the candidates in playing toward the narrative itself. For example, in 2004, the central narrative of John Kerry was that of flip flopper, which proved devastating when he tried, in a campaign stop, to explain how he was for a war supplemental that he voted against. In 2012, the narrative has caught the candidates as well–in Obama’s comment that the “private sector is doing fine” and Romney’s comment about 47% of the American public dependent on government support.
One other thing jumps out in the Pew study. And that is how little journalist involvement in setting the master narrative. Pew argues that shrinking resources in the newsroom and overworked journalists, coupled with the fragmented media environment, has actually given the campaigns the bigger role in setting the narrative, meaning that the press is no longer an intermediary between the campaigns and voters, but instead a campaign surrogate, vulnerable to the public relations skills employed in the modern political campaign.
You can find the Pew study here.