Media hostility toward anti-establishment candidates

The press coverage accorded to the candidacies of Edwards, Huckabee and Paul reflects their status as outsiders.


Glenn Greenwald
December 19, 2007 7:09PM (UTC)

(Updated below - Update II - Update III - Update IV - Update V)

Digby writes that the media is not merely obsessed with dreary "horse-race" coverage, but that their coverage even in that regard is profoundly flawed. In particular, she notes that two of the most significant "horse-race" political phenomena of the year -- the extraordinary fundraising by the Ron Paul campaign and the massive popularity of Mike Huckabee's candidacy among Republican voters -- are receiving scant attention, at least scant analytical attention, from our political press.

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There is no question that the media has paid far less attention to Ron Paul and Mike Huckabee than the respective successes of their campaigns merit. To that list, though, I would add a third candidacy that has received far less media attention than it merits by all objective metrics (polls, stature and money): the John Edwards campaign. In 2004, Edwards was the party's Vice Presidential nominee, came closer than anyone else to beating Kerry, and has continuously been very near the top of Iowa's polls. Yet the media has all but ignored him -- it's Clinton v. Obama in their World -- except to mock him on the pettiest of grounds, from his hair to his house.

Edwards, Paul and Huckabee are obviously disparate in significant ways -- ideologically, temperamentally, and otherwise. But there is a vital attribute common to those three campaigns that explains the media's scorn: they are all, in their own ways, anti-establishment candidates, meaning they are outside and critical of the system of which national journalists are a critical part, the system which employs and rewards our journalists and forms the base of their identity and outlook. Any candidate who criticizes and opposes that system -- not in piecemeal ways but fundamentally -- will be, first, ignored and, then, treated as losers by the press.

It is very striking how little Edwards' substantive critique of our political system has penetrated into the national discourse. That's because the centerpiece of his campaign is a critique that is a full frontal assault on our political establishment. His argument is not merely that the political system needs reform, but that it is corrupt at its core -- "rigged" in favor of large corporate interests and their lobbyists, who literally write our laws and control the Congress. Anyone paying even casual attention to the extraordinary bipartisan effort on behalf of telecom immunity, and so many other issues driven almost exclusively by lobbyists, cannot reasonably dispute this critique.

Yet because that argument indicts the same Beltway culture of which our political journalists are an integral part, and further attacks the system's power brokers who are the friends, sources, and peers of those journalists, they instinctively react with confusion, scorn and hostility towards Edwards' campaign. They condescendingly dismiss it as manipulative populist swill, or cynically assume that it's just a ploy to distinguish himself by "moving left." In the eyes of our Beltawy press, the idea that our political system is "rigged" or corrupt must be anything other than true or sincerely held.

As Digby notes, Ron Paul is going to raise more money than any Republican candidate this quarter; he just topped the record for most money raised in a single day; and has now exceeded Howard Dean's 2004 quarter total when Dean was at the peak of his online fundraising prowess. Huckabee is now tied for the lead in national polls and is leading in several of the key early states. Yet our establishment media stars continue to sneer at these anti-establishment candidates as though they are aberrational jokes, and there is virtually no serious effort to understand the meaning of their success.

Worse, whenever these candidates are discussed, it almost never entails any discussion of the critiques they are making. Is Edwards right that corporations and lobbyists dictate legislation in Washington and that this state of affairs is profoundly anti-democratic and corrupt? Are Paul's criticisms of our bipartisan imperial policies and his warnings of resulting financial unsustainability (and increasing anti-Americanism) accurate? Is Huckabee's claim true that the GOP has obliterated the economic prospects of its own middle- and lower-middle-class followers? Who knows. Who cares. One searches any media discussions in vain for mention of such matters. As Eric Boehlert writes:

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The most recent manifestation came in the form of Harvard's Center for Public Leadership National Leadership Index. The ongoing survey included interviews with 1,207 adults nationwide and focused mostly on leadership issues, but also asked people their impression of the media, and specifically, how the media is covering the campaign. The results?

[T]he press receives the lowest ratings of all. This is troubling, because democracies rely on a vibrant, probing, and trusted press. This year, we dig more deeply into the public's views on news media election coverage. The key finding: Americans' lack of confidence in the press stems from deep unease about bias and editorial content.

According to the survey:

* 88 percent agree that the news media focuses too much on trivial rather than important issues

* 92 percent say that it is important that the news media provide information on candidates' specific policy plans, but 61 percent believe that the news media is not providing enough coverage of policy plans

* 67 percent say that coverage of embarrassing incidents or mistakes that make a candidate look bad is not important, but 68 percent say the news media is providing too much coverage of embarrassing incidents and mistakes

The conclusion was painfully obvious: Citizens claimed they were getting "exactly the type of campaign coverage that they want the least," according to the report. [Emphasis added.]

But even within the framework of the media's pettiness, not all candidates are treated equally. While anti-establishment candidates are virtually ignored (except when held up for ridicule), the candidates who are treated as Legitimate and Serious are those who are creatures of the political establishment, or who at least attract the establishment's support. Both Obama's campaign and Clinton's campaign are the recipients of enormous amounts of cash from our nation's largest corporate interests which control much of what happens in Congress. The same is true for Giuliani and Romney. By contrast, the three candidates whose candidacies are steadfastly downplayed if not scorned by the press -- Edwards, Paul and Huckabee -- have received very little money from those realms, and instead, the vast bulk of their contributions are from small donors and individuals (plaintiffs' lawyers -- who represent generally poor individuals against those same corporations -- donate heartily to Edwards).

It is true that media coverage can't be explained away by any one simple factor. In presidential campaigns, there are all sorts of factors influencing media coverage -- partisan, ideological, personality, a desire for drama, etc. Some candidates aren't really susceptible to facile categorization -- such as Obama, who has many large corporate donors but also much individual support, and whose campaign arguments are alternatively establishment-soothing and establishment-criticizing. And while Clinton may be accorded inherent respectability because of her present role as an establishment candidate (wife of a former President, a campaign staffed by the media's favorites, flush with corporate cash), other factors -- including the press' residual anti-Clinton hatred -- can counteract those that lead to more favorable coverage.

But those complexities aside, there is a clear dichotomy in both the Republican and Democratic fields -- one which is a microcosm of our political system generally -- of establishment candidates versus anti-establishment candidates. Edwards, Paul and Huckabee are clearly the latter. And that certainly explains a large part of how the media insufficiently covers their campaigns.

By definition, our most influential media outlets are vital parts of the establishment and dependent upon it in countless ways. They perceive attacks on the establishment to be attacks on them. And thus, most journalists are instinctively hostile to candidates which are outside and critical of that establishment. Journalists just don't believe that the system on which they depend and which gives them their access and purpose can possibly be fundamentally broken or corrupt. They are, after all, the establishment press.

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Such outsider candidates begin as the nerdy losers to be held up by our campaign journalists for adolescent, giggly mockery. If their campaigns prosper, they become the target of outright hostility (see, e.g., the media's role in the destruction of Howard Dean's candidacy in 2003). In different ways, that has been the arc of media treatment accorded to Paul, Huckabee and Edwards, all of whose candidacies -- for better or worse -- represent something significant in our political culture, represent direct challenges to prevailing conventional pieties and dominant power centers, and yet (or, rather, therefore) are treated as silly jokes when they are discussed at all.

UPDATE: Mike Huckabee was on the Today Show this morning and was asked about criticisms from Rich Lowry and other members of the right-wing establishment. In response, he said that he's not part of the "Wall Street-to-Washington axis, this corridor of power," and then added:

They don't control me. I'm not one of theirs. I'm not one of those guys that just owe my soul to the people on Wall Street. I'm not a wholly-owned subsidiary of them. I don't live in the circles of power in Washington. I really do come right up from the people. . . .

There's a sense in which all these years the evangelicals have been treated very kindly by the Republican Party. They wanted us to be a part of it. And then one day one of us actually runs, and they say, Oh, my gosh. Now they're serious. They don't want to just show up and vote. They actually would want to be a part of the discussion, and really talk about issues that include hunger and poverty and things that ought to be really a concern to every American, Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative. . . .

I never did propose that we would impose our religion on somebody else. What I did do [as Governor] was improve children's health, education, the road system. But we didn't do it just for the people at the top. The tax policies and other things we did, it helped the people at the bottom so they might have a chance to live the American dream. For that, I apologize to no one.

Whatever you might think about any of these specific candidates and their other views, this is the kind of talk that the establishment -- including the establishment press corps -- hates the most.

UPDATE II: Marc Ambinder reports:

On Monday, the Edwards campaign recorded more e-mail sign-ups than almost any day in its history.

Over the weekend, the campaign was forced to add four new servers to handle all the web traffic.

Contributions are up online: Thursday and Friday, the two days after the debate, made for one of the highest 2-day totals they've seen in months. . . .

Not only has Edwards been greeted by unusually large crowds for him, he is outdrawing Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton head-to-head. In Des Moines Monday, Edwards drew 400 to Hillary Clinton's 200; in Mason City on Saturday night, Edwards drew 600 to Obama's roughly 300.

Edwards has been a credible, legitimate candidate all along, but has probably received the absolute worst treatment from the press -- measured both by the quantity and quality of the coverage.

UPDATE III: Numerous commentators, in comments and by email, are making the claim that the media "likes" Huckabee, that they think he's a "nice guy," find him charming, etc. That may be (though I think that was more of the patronizing type of affection when he was at 2%), but it's really besides the point.

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The point here is not the quantity of the coverage or even the press' affection for a specific candidate, but rather, whose candidacy and positions are taken seriously. As Digby put it in the post to which I linked at the beginning: "If Huckabee wins it, it would be quite a shift and it must say something about the current state of the Republican party." There is virtually none of that analysis, because the substance of Huckabee's campaign -- and Edwards and Paul's -- is alien to most of our establishment press and thus basically ignored if not scorned.

UPDATE IV: A couple of weeks ago, David Sirota wrote :

The media's version of the Iowa presidential caucuses is a story of five candidates and two rivalries. On the Democratic side, it is Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., against Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., and on the Republican side it is former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney against former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson. But the numbers suggest the most compelling story is about two underdog candidates and one demographic: former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R), former Sen. John Edwards (D) and the middle class . . .

What explains the unlikely rise of these two dark horses? . . .

Huckabee and Edwards are the only two major candidates staking their campaigns on an indictment of economic inequality, corporate power and corruption.

I would say that Ron Paul's campaign is also grounded in a type of populism as well, though a markedly different strain. Either way, all three candidates are clearly running on an anti-establishment platform and their press coverage reflects that.

And, as is depressingly necessary to note any time one even touches on the presidential race: the point of this post isn't to support or oppose any specific candidate, just to make some observations about the media coverage they prompt and the reasons why.

UPDATE V: Wired's Sarah Lai Stirland reports this about Ron Paul's amazing fundraising on Sunday:

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Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul made history Sunday by raising $6 million in online contributions in 24 hours, breaking the record for the most money raised by a national candidate in a single day, and potentially putting Paul on track to surpass the fourth quarter fund raising of all of his competitors in both parties. . . .

The Paul campaign reports that more than 58,000 people contributed on Sunday, December 16th, which was the 234th anniversary of the Boston Tea Party.

Of those 58,000 people, almost 25,000 were first-time donors, the campaign says. The 58,000 makes up a base of individuals of 118,000 people who contributed to the Paul campaign in the fourth quarter.

The median donation was $50, [Paul spokesman Jesse] Benton says.

"One of the most important things Ron Paul does, which I think is a service to all of us, is to bring back on the table a lot of ideas that the MSM and most candidates treat as off the table," says Zephyr Teachout, a visiting assistant law professor at Duke University who directed internet organizing for Howard Dean's 2004 presidential campaign.

It's rare, but Zephyr Teachout is right: Paul's campaign does "bring back on the table a lot of ideas that the MSM and most candidates treat as off the table" -- such as whether we ought to be acting as an imperial power in the world, i.e., whether we ought to be intervening in other countries that haven't actually attacked us. That's one of the principal reasons the campaign isn't taken seriously despite the increasingly extraordinary support it is generating.


Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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