The Pew Research Center released a survey of which U.S. candidates have received the most positive and negative coverage during the primary season so far, with Rick Perry and now Herman Cain getting particularly positive coverage and Newt Gingrich getting a particularly tough time. But the big news from the survey is this bit of information, which has people arguing over what exactly “positive” and “negative” means in this context:
One man running for president has suffered the most unrelentingly negative treatment of all: Barack Obama. Though covered largely as president rather than a candidate, negative assessments of Obama have outweighed positive by a ratio of almost 4-to-1. The assessments of the president in the media were substantially more negative than positive in every one of the 23 weeks studied. In no week during these five months was more than 10% of the coverage about the President positive in tone.
Now, apart from questions about the methodology, which is necessarily subjective (since it judges “the level and tone” of coverage, and since “neutral” coverage, the biggest category, is difficult to define), the probable reason for the finding is that Obama is the president during a time of mostly bad economic news, so there are more negative things to say. Most of the GOP candidates are not truly national figures yet, and some of them don’t even hold office at the moment, so the negative coverage mostly comes when they say something embarrassing. This may be one reason why Sarah Palin registers as having some of the most positive coverage: she just hasn’t been doing all that much in the last few months, and it turns out she wasn’t even a candidate, so what was there to say?
Still, the survey doesn’t seem completely at odds with the reality of the situation, and not just because there are non-partisan reasons for negative coverage of Obama. Obama and his administration have displayed a rather prickly relationship with the press, sometimes verging on open contempt. That frosty attitude to the media might translate into an in-kind response. Also, there’s the usual imbalance: conservative outlets give him mostly negative coverage, whereas liberal outlets are also frequently negative. (Which may simply mean that everyone has good reason to be negative, of course.) Rick Perry and Sarah Palin’s averages are driven up by Fox and other outlets; Republicans who are not Fox favourites, like Ron Paul and Tim Pawlenty, tend to be further down on that list.
The results will likely change some once Obama has an actual opponent onto whom all the coverage of the GOP, positive and negative, can be focused. Also, whether or not the Obama administration is viewed favourably by the U.S. press, they really can’t do much about it: running against the press is a strategy that worked for Nixon/Agnew, but simply doesn’t work for Democrats. Clinton had reason, probably better reason than Obama, to be angry about the way he was covered in the press, yet he didn’t make that a part of his strategy; he couldn’t. There simply aren’t enough Democratic voters who accept accusations of media bias, whereas Republican base voters believe very strongly in liberal media bias. So the Republican can talk about the “lamestream media,” but if the Democrat tries it, it won’t work; he’ll be portrayed as a whiner.