Republican Development and Use of a Conservative-Leaning Political-media
Regime, with Application to the Clinton, Bush II, and Obama Presidencies
Robert Sahr, Oregon State University
My overall argument is that since the 1950s a political-media regime has emerged that works to the advantage of
Republicans and Conservatives more generally than it does toward Democrats and liberals. I am not arguing that
Republicans and conservatives always win through the media; if that were true, we would not have only one
Republican and two Democrats among the last three presidents. Instead I am arguing that the current political-
media regime more often helps Republicans and conservatives, whether they are in office or in opposition.
I suggest that since the 1950s there have been several stages in the development of what I am labeling, awkwardly
but descriptively, as the “conservative-leaning political-media regime.” By regime I simply mean the characteristics
of the dominant media system, of the political system, and the patterns of interaction between the two.
This presentation attempts four goals concerning presidents and media:
• First, to examine the initiation, transition, and maturation of what I call the conservative-leaning political-
media regime. I argue that this emerged and developed at least partly because of systematic Republican
efforts to influence the media environment.
• Second, to characterize features of the contemporary media-politics environment that in recent decades,
and, I argue, especially starting in the 1990s, have enabled Republicans more often than Democrats to use
media to their advantage. I propose that this occurred The result can be described as a conservative-leaning
media-politics regime, despite—and to some degree because of—widespread accusations of “liberal
• Third, to suggest some judgments about how the political-media regime has affected media-president
interactions and the relative successes and failures during the Clinton, Obama, and particularly George W.
• And fourth, to consider the possible emergence of countervailing tendencies to the conservative-leaning
I intend the argument that follows to be analytic rather than partisan. Some readers might be persuaded by the
analysis and believe it describes developments that are positive. Others might be persuaded but believe what it
describes is negative. Partisan Republicans, for example, might strongly challenge the conclusions because they
appear to undercut what they seek to use for strategic advantage. Partisan Democrats might argue they have been
more effective than described here. Others, of course, might believe that the description and analysis are not
accurate, so are irrelevant in making judgments about American politics. The argument here is intended to be
persuasive, but evaluation of the whether the developments described here are positive or negative is left to others.
The initial part of this analysis argues the following core elements:
1. Republicans generally have been more successful than have Democrats in recent decades using media to
their advantage. One important contributor to this success is the constant charge of “liberal bias.”
2. This success is due partly to the fact that the current media-politics regime favors Republicans, and it does
so largely because Republican leaders and supporters have implemented a systematic campaign to
influence the American political-media context.
3. Republican efforts have been based on recognition and utilization of some core components of journalist
methods of operation, among them journalist reliance on sources and the core professional value of
objectivity, which increasingly has come to be defined as “fairness” or “balance.”
4. Republican media actions have been part of a larger effort to influence ideas, institutions, and policies
rather than an isolated endeavor.
The Tipsy Triangle
In relation to presidents and media, I suggest what might be called a “tipsy triangle,” which involves the relationship
among presidents, their opponents, and the press (defined to include electronic and other news media).
Sahr, Republican Development and Use of a Conservative-Leaning Political-media Regime, page 2
The relationship of presidents and journalists can be visualized as a triangle, which is “tipsy” for two reasons: first,
almost always one of the two sides—presidents and journalists or opponents and journalists—“tip” against the other,
strengthening either presidents or opponents and hurting the other; second, the triangle at least potentially is unstable
and so subject to change.
The “tipsy triangle” occurs largely because of journalistic methods, particularly reliance on sources. Journalists very
rarely act entirely independently of sources and certainly seldom act in opposition to widely shared views of
political reality, the “conventional wisdom” (CW).
Even in instances of investigative reporting, widely shared
assumptions guide journalistic actions. Journalists are strongly influenced by sources directly and by the
“conventional wisdom,” which sources also influence and reflect. That is, sources, rather than journalists
independently, largely set the range of debate and so determine journalistic coverage.
Central to analyzing journalist presentations of politics is recognition that “news is not reality, but a sampling of
sources’ portrayals of reality, mediated by news organizations.”
In developing “news,” journalists “seek to appear ‘transparent,’” Bartholomew Sparrow reminds us in his Uncertain
Guardians. That is, journalists want us to believe that they are simply the glass that transmits, or the mirror that
reflects, reality and that they play no active role in determining what is transmitted. They prefer that we believe that
“news making is a frictionless process and avoid acknowledging that political information is actually mediated by
organizational employees and intricate bureaucratic practices.”
A central part of this process is that journalists do not highlight efforts to influence their coverage by using sources,
through “photo-ops,” leaks, and other means. Journalistic practices instead emphasize the autonomy of reporters,
and implying that “news” is simply “there” for them to find. Skillful sources can utilize this practice to their own
To understand media treatment of the Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama presidencies, then, we must
examine all three elements: the president, the opposition, and the press. However, because the presidential
opposition is sometimes Democrats and sometimes Republicans, it is important to examine each of those separately
in their opposition roles.
My overall approach to the presidency might be called a “solar system model,” in which the presidency is seen as
individual, institution, and set of relationships. In studying presidents and changes over time, it is insufficient to
focus primarily on the characteristics of individual presidential and even on the institutional changes of the
presidency. Instead, it is essential to examine changes in the institutions with which presidents interact. A core
institution is the press—a term I use broadly to apply to print, electronic, and possibly other media.
A quick illustration of the effect on presidents of changes in how journalists operate in covering presidents and
politics, in a shift I describe as from an objective political-media regime to a conservative-leaning political-media
regime is a sharply reduced journalistic sense of “reverence” toward the office of president and especially toward its
office holders. Almost certainly the different coverage of Presidents Kennedy and Clinton reflects not only different
views of the two presidents but also a larger change, one illustrated by Marvin Kalb’s anecdote in his analysis of the
Clinton-Lewinsky press actions, One Scandalous Story.
As Kalb approached a room in New York City’s Carlyle Hotel in September 1963 to interview President Kennedy,
Secret Service agents pushed him toward the floor. As he looked up, he saw and heard a woman enter the elevator.
Although it was obvious to Kalb what had happened, he did not act on what he knew. He states:
This emphasis on the triangular relationship among journalists, presidents, and the opposition is part of a larger framework, which might be
labeled a “solar system model” of the presidency. In this model, the presidency is seen as individual, institution, and set of relationships. The
relationships include a very large set of participants, from Congress to the judicial system to—the focus here—the media. Just as changes
occur in the relationship among the various bodies as the sun moves through space, so the presidency moves through time, with changes in
relationships among participants. This perspective draws on but differs in important ways from the role theory framework of Byron Daynes,
Raymond Tatalovich, and Dennis Soden, To Govern a Nation (New York: St. Martin’s, 1998).
See Robert Parry, Fooling America (New York: William Morrow, 1992), esp. “Introduction.”
Leon V. Sigal, “Who: Sources Make the News,” in Robert Karl Manoff and Michael Schudson, eds., Reading the News (New York:
Pantheon, 1987), pp. 27-28.
Bartholomew Sparrow, Uncertain Guardians: The News Media as a Political Institution (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press,
1999), pp. 126-129
Kalb, One Scandalous Story, “Introduction,” esp. pp. 5-6. Concerning John Kennedy’s sexual practices, a detailed careful analysis is
James Giglio, The Presidency of John F. Kennedy (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1991), esp. ch. 10, “Image and Reality.”
Sahr, Republican Development and Use of a Conservative-Leaning Political-media Regime, page 3
As I write about this incident more than thirty-seven years later, I am amazed not by my decision to do nothing
but by the fact, quite undeniable, that never for one moment did I even consider pursuing and reporting what I
had seen and experienced that evening. . . . It was my judgment at the time that such an incident was simply not
Can anyone imagine such a scenario in recent years?
Changes, then, have fundamentally altered the American political-media context. What are the elements of the
previous media-politics context that remain, even if in modified form, by these economic, cultural, and political
changes? Core in what remains is the centrality of journalist reliance on sources, and the concept of “indexing.”
To begin we examine a core element of journalist methods of operation: reliance on sources and some effects of
Indexing and the Use of Sources
The “indexing” framework proposed by W. Lance Bennett
suggests that the range of views reflected in media
debate largely mirrors the range of views presented by dominant elites, for example, in Washington. Journalists
very seldom act independently of sources, especially those who are authoritative because of holding or running for
government office. Even regarding Vietnam, where journalists have been portrayed as playing a critical,
independent role, they did not emphasize critical coverage of government policies until important elites in
Washington began questioning; that is, the journalists did not act independently of changes among official elites.
The indexing perspective emphasizes the centrality of sources, upon which journalists draw as the core element of
their standard methods of operation. A question to be addressed is whether the relative centrality of sources that
traditionally indexed journalistic choices—at the national level, presidents and leaders of the opposition party—has
decreased as the need for more sources to supply more “news” has increased.
The perspective here argues that Republicans have been much more effective than Democrats in broadening or
narrowing to their own advantage the range of debate reflected in media. Also, despite the increased range of
sources journalists use, to a large degree non-traditional sources appear to be “credentialed” by their supporting the
position of one of the two sides, the president or leaders of the dominant opposition, and in this also Republicans
appear to have been particularly successful.
To begin the analysis of the current context requires that we start in the 1950.
Analyzing Political-Media Regimes
My analysis draws on the work of analysts who have suggested that American media have developed in a number or
stages or eras.
These eras are characterized both by particular combinations of media characteristics and by
particular relationships between news media and political figures. Modifying the terminology of David Swanson in
discussing the “political-media complex,”
I use the term “political-media regime.”
I suggest that two political-media regimes have characterized the period from the 1950s to the present in the United
States, with a transitional period.
A much more negative and critical interpretation is Seymour Hersh, The Dark Side of Camelot (Boston: Little, Brown, 1997).
W. Lance Bennett, “Toward a Theory of Press-State Relations in the United States,” Journal of Communication 40 (Spring 1990), pp.
103-127. See also his News: The Politics of Illusion, 5th
edition (New York: Longman, 2003). A detailed elaboration and
application of this perspective is Jonathan Mermin, Debating War and Peace: Media Coverage of U.S. Intervention in the Post-
Vietnam Era (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999).
In addition to Bennett, “Toward a Theory of Press-State Relations in the United States,” and Mermin, Debating War and Peace, see
Daniel Hallin, The “Uncensored War:” The Media and Vietnam (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), and We Keep America
on Top of the World: Television Journalism and the Public Sphere (New York: Routledge, 1993).
See Robert Sahr, “U.S. Network News’ Framing of the 1990 Nicaraguan Election,” in David L. Paletz, ed., Political Communication
Research: Approaches, Studies, and Assessments, Volume II (Norwood, N.J.: Ablex, 1996).
The following have especially influenced this analysis: Jay G. Blumler and Dennis Kavanaugh, “The Third Age of Political
Communication: Influences and Features,” Political Communication, 16:209-230, 1999; Darrell M. West, Rise and Fall of the
Media Establishment (Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2001);
David L. Swanson, “The Political-Media Complex,” Communication Monographs, 59: 397-400 (1992), and “The Political-Media
Complex at 50: Putting the 1996 Presidential Campaign in Context,” American Behavioral Scientist 40: 1264-1282 (1007).
Sahr, Republican Development and Use of a Conservative-Leaning Political-media Regime, page 4
In the analysis below I modify the perspective of Darrell West
, who suggests that US media developments since
1789 have involved a series of stages, from the partisan media of the early decades, to the commercial media, to the
objective media—which emerged in the Twentieth Century and reached its peak in the 1960s and early 1970s, and
then what he calls “the interpretive media,” which he suggests emerged during the 1970s and 1980s.
I argue that the “objective” media political-media regime of the 1950s gradually has replaced by what I awkwardly
but descriptively label the “conservative-leaning political-media regime,” a transition that began in the 1960s, that
continued in the 1970s and 1980s, reached its “maturity” in the 1990s, and continues in modified form today. As
noted earlier, I use the term “political-media regime” to refer to dominant characteristics of media institutions and to
forms and patterns of interaction between journalists and political leaders.
This analysis will do the following: briefly characterize the objective media political-media regime of the 1950s,
discuss the origin and maturation of changes, characterize the current political-media regime, and then discuss some
effects of that regime. Finally I briefly discuss the emergence of some possible countervailing forces.
(Appendix B examines some cultural developments that central to the changes discussed here.)
The “Objective Media Political-media Regime,” the 1950s and 1960s
Several core features characterize this era:
• The dominant news sources were newspapers initially and then television, as Figures A and B show.
Television expanded rapidly during the late 1950s, so that by 1960s television was the dominant media in
the United States. Television news expanded in the early 1960s so that by the mid-1960s was the most
often used source, and also the most highly evaluated among the public. Figures A and B show these
• Journalists saw themselves as professionals, whose core operating goal was to be “objective” in reporting
news, and who generally treated political leaders with respect
• Party leaders and members of the public were not sharply divided and those from opposing parties
generally treated each other as “opponents” rather than as enemies. Neither leaders nor members of the
public were sharply polarized.
• Politicians generally a positive and symbiotic relationship with journalists
In the words of Jeffrey Cohen:
the news media were highly concentrated and produced a comparatively high volume of news about the
president. News about the president tended to be favorable during this era, and the relationship between
presidents and journalists was generally civil and respectful. The mass public, while not notably interested in
politics, tuned in to television news broadcasts in relatively large numbers and held the news media in relatively
high regard. . . .
All of these changed, in many instances sharply reversed, by the end of the Century.
The Initiation and Transition toward a Conservative-Leaning Political-Media Regime
The contrast between the political-media regime of the 1960s and that of the early 2000s is stark. The transition
from the objective-media regime emerged and developed from both the media side and the political side.
From the media side the changes reflected broader shifts in intellectual perspectives, for example, “post-modern”
approaches, which challenged the existence of a knowable objective reality. As West points out:
Slowly, these intellectual ideas began to have a discernible impact on how journalists practiced their craft. It
was not sufficient merely to discover so-called objective facts. Rather, events must be placed in context and
understood within the framework of broader structures. News developments needed to be probed and
interpreted so that readers and viewers could understand what really was taking place. Superficial observations
were no longer sufficient; coverage became more interpretive and more contextually based. . . .
As a result, journalists began to see themselves as interpreters rather than simple reporters of political developments.
“One way in which journalists became more interpretive was through news analysis pieces placing stories in broader
Darrell M. West, Rise and Fall of the Media Establishment (Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2001).
West, Rise and Fall of the Media Establishment, p. 71.
Sahr, Republican Development and Use of a Conservative-Leaning Political-media Regime, page 5
context or ‘instant analysis’ following major speeches. . . . Rather than reporting the facts of particular events,
reporters now explained what lay behind the surface that was relevant to the news story. . . . The justification for this
change was that reporters had unique insights into political coverage.”
This change fundamentally modified what people expected journalists to do. At the very least the change meant that
reporting was less anchored to any objective reality of “who, what, where, and when” and therefore more subjective.
The change also meant that journalists were more subject to the charge of “bias” because their reporting involved so
much choice. As this point implies, it is important to recognize that this change among journalists provided an
opening for conservatives in relation to political-media orientations, which conservatives systematically exploited.
Changing intellectual currents also influenced political thinkers. In the words of F.A. Hayek,
conservative intellectual, “What is relevant in the study of society is not whether these laws of nature are true in any
objective sense, but solely whether they are believed and acted upon by the people.”
Politically, political-media regime changes were stimulated from within politics as well.
The Republican party during the Eisenhower era was relatively “moderate,” but the conservative wing was restive,
with many bothered that the President did not seek to overturn the New Deal changes. The divisions emerged
especially obviously during the 1960s, most obviously with the moderate-conservative split over the selection of
Barry Goldwater as the Republican 1964 candidate and his very large loss. The large loss by Goldwater suggested
to conservatives that they needed to develop the ability to counter what they saw as the “liberal establishment”
Although such earlier efforts as William Buckley’s formation of National Review in the 1950s and actions by
various conservative religious and other groups had helped conservatives, the late 1960s and the early 1970s saw the
emergence more concerted efforts, ones which I argue sharply shifted the political-media regime toward one that
now is much more favorable to Republicans and conservatives.
In pushing these changes, Republicans had some inherent but previously under-developed advantages:
• American political culture, especially distrust of government and trust of business
• Corporate and other business connections with Republicans and so at least the potential for larger financial and
others resources than those available to Democrats
• The corporate structure of American media was directed by publishers and others who more likely shared the
values and interests of Republicans than Democrats, though the then-current journalistic norms limited
• An emerging electronic media that appears especially conducive to simplification either/or thinking
Numerous factors explain the increasing advantage to Republicans of the politician-press relationship but a central
point is that Republicans recognized the importance of the effort and their weaknesses, and began organized efforts
to offset those weaknesses. The efforts emerged during the 1960s and 1970s and, I argue, reached their maturity
during the 1990s. Some of the changes emerged in the political arena, but others emerged outside that arena but had
very large effects on politics.
Early efforts by conservatives began during the 1950s, when William F. Buckley founded the National Review.
Richard Scaife after the 1964 Republican losses formed an openly-conservative, though relatively small-scale,
media empire, and similar efforts illustrate. And during his one-and-a-half terms in office, President Richard Nixon
and Vice-president Spiro Agnew engaged in efforts to offset what they saw as a generally hostile news media. The
Nixon administration also began to push the charge of “liberal bias,” publicizing Edith Efron’s The News Twisters,
which used “scientific” analyses to argue for liberal bias. The Nixon administration not only emphasized the books
but purchased many copies so that it would become a “best seller” and so gain additional sales and larger influence.
More fully organized efforts to develop a long-term media and related strategy appear to have emerged somewhat
later and to have developed as much outside the formal political arena as in it.
A very important stimulus occurred in 1971. Two months before President Nixon selected him to replace Hugo
West, Rise and Fall of the Media Establishment, p. 71.
F.A. Hayek, The Counter-Revolution of Science: Studies on the Abuse of Reason (Free Press, 1952), p. 30, , quoted in West, Rise and Fall of
the Media Establishment, p. 70
Nash Publishing, 1971.
Sahr, Republican Development and Use of a Conservative-Leaning Political-media Regime, page 6
Black on the U.S. Supreme Court, Virginia jurist Lewis Powell on August 23, 1971 wrote a memo to the Chair of
the Education Committee on the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The memo, entitled “Confidential Memorandum:
Attack of American Free Enterprise System,” which later became known as the “Powell Manifesto,”
circulated among conservatives and business groups but did not become generally known until years after his
confirmation hearings for the Supreme Court. Powell’s memorandum emphasized that American business and the
free enterprise system were facing fundamental challenges and that business should respond forcefully in four areas:
academia, the public (mainly through the media), the political arena, and the courts.
Later in the 1970s, former Nixon Secretary of the Treasury William Simon published his book A Time for Truth
In it he called for significantly enhanced efforts—and large financial resources—on the part
of business and conservatives generally to overcome the strengths of the other side. “There is only one way to
generate a broad public awareness of the issues I have listed and to launch a broad challenge of the assumptions and
goals presently underlying our political life. . . . What we desperately need is America today is a powerful
counterintelligensia that will issue such challenges.” Neo-conservatives were a second important group, just then
emerging within American conservatism. “And the third broad movement in opposition to prevailing trends is to be
found in the world of business itself, where the most intelligent and courageous leaders have faced the fact that they
must fight for free enterprise before it is too late.”
He called for “nothing less than a massive and unprecedented mobilization of the moral, intellectual and financial
resources which reside in those who still have faith in the human individual, who believe in his right to maximum
responsible. . . . The mobilization would involve three elements [pp 230-233]:
“1. Funds generated by business. . . must rush by multimillions to the aid of liberty, in the many places where it
is beleaguered. 2. Businesses must cease the mindless subsidizing of college and universities whose
departments of economics, government, politics and history are hostile to capitalism and whose faculties will
not hire scholars whose views are otherwise. “3. Finally, business money must flow away from the media
which serve as megaphones for anticapitalist opinion and to media which are either pro-freedom or, if not
necessarily “pro-business,” at least professionally capable of a fair and accurate treatment of procapitalist ideas,
values, and arguments. The judgment of this fairness is to be made by businessmen alone—it is their money
that they are investing.”
In response to these and other efforts, business and conservatives groups responded by funding a number of
institutions that have had, and continue to have, large impact on American politics and policy. Those developments
began a systematic conservative effort in the 1960s and 1970s that has continued to the present.
Richard Viguerie, an early leader in conservative efforts to use direct mail to raise money for various conservative
activities, suggests that the decades from the 1970s to the present involved systematic efforts to achieve conservative
power and influence in direct mail (which helped fund all other elements of conservative efforts), in talk radio, in
cable news television, and finally in the internet.
As these points suggest, media were not the only focus of conservative efforts, but they were central to the overall
conservative strategy. Conservatives emphasized several core goals in their long-term strategies to achieve parity,
and preference dominance, with what they saw as the liberal establishment.
Media changes did not occur in isolation but as part of a larger campaign that worked to influence both ideas and
institutions Building intellectual resources to gain credibility among journalists, other elites, and the public and to
influence public policy in a more conservative direction. Unlike moderate predecessors such as the Brookings
Institution, conservatives established ideologically based “think tanks” which from the beginning were (1) to serve
explicitly conservative goals, and (2) disseminate their messages widely among journalists and the public. They
operate seeking what Greg Easterbrook has called “directed conclusions.”19
The intent was to provide resources to
The “Powell Manifesto” is available online at various locations, for example, http://www.progressiveu.org/powell_memo.
A Time for Truth (Reader’s Digest Books/McGraw-Hill, 1978). The quotes are from pages 223, 227, and 230-233. A very useful overview of
some of the core changes can be found in John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, The Right Nation: Conservative Power in America
(2004), esp. ch 6, “The Rive Droite.”
Richard A. Viguerie and Davie Franke, America’s Right Turn: How Conservatives Used New and Alternative Media to Take Power
(Chicago: Bonus Books, 2004), “Conclusion,” esp. pp. 329-333.
“Ideas Move Nations: How Conservative Think Tanks Have Helped To Transform the Terms of Political Debate,” The Atlantic, January 1986.
Sahr, Republican Development and Use of a Conservative-Leaning Political-media Regime, page 7
further conservative goals rather than simply to add to the store of knowledge. Although this goal is not primarily
about media, it closely connects because of the importance of media for transmitting the conservative message.
• Challenging the “liberal media” to put pressure on journalists. In addition, establishing the view that journalists
are “liberal” provides conservatives and others a tool to reject information with which they disagree. I argue
that the charge of liberal media is a central element of the emergence and continuing influence of the current
• Establishing a “truly conservative media,” for which the “liberal media” charge provides justification, to
provide balance for an otherwise overwhelmingly liberal media. Despite arguing that, for example, Fox News
is “fair and balanced,” the argument was that the fact it seemed conservative demonstrates the liberalness of
• Using all these to establish among journalists, government officials, other elites, and the public, a “conventional
wisdom” (CW), that is, a base of nearly universally-believed information which strengthens conservatives and
weakens opponents. They did so in relation both to small and large elements of the CW.
The Maturing of a Conservative-Leaning Political-Media Regime
David Brock, a participant in the conservative media movement during the 1980s and early 1990s who broke with it
in mid-1990s and became a vocal critic, suggests that specifically in relation to media, conservative goals and
emphases included the following four main components:
• “jawboning,” that is, complaining about “liberal bias” at any and all possible occasions, to put pressure on
journalists to treat conservatives “fairly” and also to cover non-conservatives more critically
• encouraging news media to seek “balance” rather than their previously-emphasized “objectivity,” with the
intent of pushing news organizations to present conservative views to achieve that balance; as part of this effort,
they encouraged news organizations to institutionalize the office of “ombudsman,” which would serve as
convenient focal points for conservatives to direct charges of lack of balance
• external monitoring of the mainstream news organization to provide evidence of liberal media and to place
continuing pressure on the “liberal media”
• finally, to seek outright takeover, either through placing conservatives in important positions within the
mainstream media, or through establishment of “really conservative media,”
In seeking all these, the financial support conservative foundation funding has been central, with the direct intent to
build a national movement. Although those foundations had much less money than such “liberal” foundations as
Ford, the money was directly more narrowly and with explicit intent to build a conservative movement.
Part of the effort also involved the explicit development of language and other cultural resources, to affect not only
how people—journalists and others—defined public policy and politics but also the language they used about it.
In developing the new regime, conservatives not only took advantage of changes within the media universe but
helped steer those to their advantage. That is, a conservative-leaning political-media regime did not simply emerge
by accident but instead by systematic directed effort.
A core element of Republican strategy was using media methods of operation in ways that benefited them. Among
the most important were:
• Reliance on sources and, as noted, increasing focus on balance instead of objectivity, balance as represented by
“both sides,” which conservatives could use to gain hearing for conservative views
• The importance of “conventional wisdom” in guiding journalist choices about what to cover, how to present it,
David Brock, The Republican Noise Machine: Right-Wing Media and How It Corrupts Democracy (Crown Publishers, 2004), chapter
3, esp. pp. 92ff. Brock was one of the founders of Media Matters for America, an online critic of conservative media [add address].
Earlier he had written Blinded by the Right: The Conscience of an Ex-Conservative (Crown, 2002), which described his activities
within the conservative media and the reasons for his break with his former colleagues.
This term is the title of chapter 13 in Eric Alterman, What Liberal Media? (Basic Books, 2003), where he puts “really” in parentheses.
See, for example, Geoffrey Nunberg, Talking Right (Public Affairs, 2006), and especially Mark A. Smith, The Right Talk: How
Conservatives Transformed the Great Society Into the Economic Society (Princeton, 2007). For the focus on language applied to
current politics, see Frank Luntz, Words That Work: It's Not What You Say, It's What People Hear (Hyperion, 2007).
Sahr, Republican Development and Use of a Conservative-Leaning Political-media Regime, page 8
and other core elements
• Explaining political actions by focus on individual level explanation, especially in relation to the attribution of
motives, which the “interpretive” perspective made more common, thereby reducing elements of context that
would deflect attention from individual-level explanations. For example, reporting of scandal allegations about
Bill Clinton almost always blamed his actions and ignored the ability of opponents to claim scandal, and
essentially manufacture scandal, so that scandal allegations were treated as actual scandals. Harris’s point about
a well-organized coterie of opponents emphasizes this point, and Sparrow’s point about media “transparency”
emphasizes its importance in affecting journalistic presentation.
The changed journalistic norm toward “interpretation” had several very large longer-term effects:
• Because media reports became more subjective, it enhanced the ability to charge liberal bias; this continuing
goal was institutionalized by the establishment of a number of well-financed conservative “media watchdog”
• Republicans reinforced the push to replace “objectivity” with balance or fairness, both of which would lead to
the need to use more conservative views, and both words—not coincidentally—appear in the language Fox
News uses about itself
• Over time the interpretation orientation appears to have reduced the level of public evaluation of journalists,
who came to be seen as more subjective and therefore more subject to bias
• The increased interpretation itself emphasis opened the way for including more conservative views
The emergence of cable television news, which began with CNN in 1980, had very large effects, which reinforced
the conservative emphases:
• Because cable news had so much airtime to fill, political discussion and similar subjective programming opened
very large room for conservatives, who pushed for inclusion on the basic of “fairness.” CNN, which
conservatives sometimes labeled the “Clinton news network” to emphasize bias, from the beginning used many
on-air conservatives, a practice adopted later by others
• The expansion of on-air political discussion programs increased the “need” for conservatives to offset
“liberals,” though televised efforts generally pitted strongly conservative spokespeople against moderates or
relatively moderate liberals, who represented a truncated other side to the conservative views
• Cable news stimulated the rise of a class of “pundits” starting in the 1980s, which not only allowed but
encouraged the expansion of a class of conservatives who presented conservative views on air, often against
relatively weak—and seldom strongly liberal—opposition.
The emergence of cable television and the proliferation of channels, for entertainment as well as news, produced a
sharp reduction of the proportion of television viewers, as Figure C shows. Increasing public dissatisfaction with
journalism, concern about bias, and other critical judgments probably contributed to this decline.
A second major source of conservative strength occurred through the expansion of talk radio in the late 1980s and
1990s. Talk radio can be overwhelmingly conservative because the Fairness Doctrine ended in 1987. During the
recent period changes in broadcast regulation also enabled sharply increased concentration by such groups as
conservative-leaning Clear Channel, which, because there was no Fairness Doctrine, were able to broadcast
essentially wall-to-wall conservative messages. Talk radio serves as a powerful initiator, echo chamber, and
enforcer of conservative views.
Later changes in the media environment appear less one-sidedly conservative in their effects. For example, although
conservatives and libertarians were especially prominent in the early years of the expansion of the World Wide
Web, non-conservative presence has increased sharply.
A major effect of the expansion of the internet as a source of political news and views is that it enables those seeking
political news to locate views that support their own, thereby reinforcing pre-existing views. Conservative emphasis
on the bias of the liberal media and the need to “balance” such views probably stimulates this effort somewhat more
consistently for conservatives than for others.
See Kathleen Hall Jamieson and Joseph N. Cappella, Echo Chamber: Rush Limbaugh and the Conservative Media Establishment
(Oxford, 2008), and also David C. Barker, Rushed to Judgment: Talk Radio, Persuasion,” and American Political Behavior
Sahr, Republican Development and Use of a Conservative-Leaning Political-media Regime, page 9
The main features of what I call the contemporary “Conservative-Leaning Political-media Regime” can be
characterized by re-wording Cohen’s earlier statement about the 1950s to reflect today’s media system:
the news media are highly diverse and generally produce a relatively middle but sharply varying volume of
news about the president. News about the president tends to vary rather than be uniformly favorable and
journalists can not be assumed to be generally civil and respectful in dealing with the president. The mass
public, while still not notably interested in politics, has many more choices among news sources and so can
select news that supports its point of view, especially in relation to the “really conservative media.”
I conclude this historical narrative by reminding that my argument does not suggest or even imply that conservatives
always are able to win by using media to their advantage. Instead, I argue that the existing political-media regime
generally benefits conservatives more than it does liberals and that it does so partly because Republicans and other
conservatives have worked so assiduously to produce a conservative-leaning regime.
A Brief Excursion about Media Bias
A core argument of this analysis is that the charge of liberal bias has been tremendously central to the emergence
and power of a conservative-leaning political-media regime. Although it is not the intent of this analysis to examine
in detail the topic of media bias, some points about that topic are important for understanding the argument about the
importance of the “claim” of media bias:
• The concept is very difficult even to define precisely because it is not clear what “unbiased” means. For
example, if a president’s speech includes points that a journalist knows to be questionable or even false, does
unbiased simply mean reporting accurately what they president said or also putting the statement in context, by
quoting others or in other ways pointing to the questionable nature of the statement.
• Most analysts distinguish two kinds of media bias, those, generally labeled content or political bias, that result
from intent to hurt or—as is often overlooked—to help a candidate, party, or other person or group, and
structural biases, those that result from media methods of operation (for example, journalists generally provide
more positive coverage to candidates who are ahead in the polls, at least to the degree they [add]) and, I would
suggest, also from journalist reflection of elements of conventional wisdom/stereotypes in ways that help or hurt
• Almost always when people claim “media bias” they are referring to negative bias that involves intent on the
part of journalists or others
• Almost always conservatives prove “liberal bias” by pointing to data that show more working journalists
identify as Democrats than Republicans and as liberal or (more often) moderate than conservative.
• Almost never do those who claim liberal bias point to the fact that the publishers and editors who employ those
journalists (and who influence not only their reporting but also their advancement within the news organization)
are much more likely to be conservative and Republican
• The combination of points in the previous item imply that journalists have essentially complete autonomy in
their reporting, so that their reports can and do reflect their personal political views, which are not filtered out or
affected by organizational routines, input from superiors, and so on.
suggests that the conservative critique of liberal media “is based on four propositions: 1) the
decisive power over the news lies with journalists—owners and advertisers are irrelevant or relatively powerless; 2)
journalists are political liberals; 3) journalists abuse their power to advance liberal politics—thus breaking the
professional code; and 4) objective journalists would almost certainly present the world exactly as seen by
contemporary U.S. journalists. He suggests a resulting imbalance.
The unwillingness of traditional professional journalists to commit to a partisan ideology has led to a striking
bifurcation of stances. Mainstream journalism is cautious and attempts to do nothing that would suggest it
favors Democrats over Republicans, and most research indicates that Republicans fare well in this climate.
Conservative critics, and the increasing number of explicitly conservative media, argue that the mainstream is
blatantly favoring Democrats. They then feel no obligation to be fair to Democrats because they are ‘balancing’
The Problem of the Media: U.S. Communication Policies in the 21st
Century (Monthly Reviiew Perss, 2004), pp. 99ff.
McChesney, ibid., p. 109.
Sahr, Republican Development and Use of a Conservative-Leaning Political-media Regime, page 10
the bias of the mainstream.
He quotes a senior writer at the conservative Weekly Standard [p. 108]: “we’ve created this cottage industry in
which it pays to be un-objective. It’s a great way to have your cake and eat it too. Criticize the other people for not
being as objective. Be as subjective as you want. It’s a great little racket.”
The most important particular point of evidence come from an interview by McChesney:
“Rick Kaplan, former
head of CNN, acknowledged that he instructed his employees to provide the Lewinsky story with massive attention
despite his belief that it was overblown; he knew he would face withering criticism from the Right for a liberal bias
if he did not pummel it.”
There also is a striking difference of tone between the two sides, as Michael Tomasky found in his analysis of
• The liberal papers criticized the Clinton administration 30 percent of the time. By contrast, the conservative
papers criticized the Bush administration just 7 percent of the time.
• The liberal papers praised the Clinton administration only 36 percent of the time (the balance were mixed). The
conservative papers, on the other hand, praised the Bush administration 77 percent of the time.
• The liberal papers criticized Bush 67 percent of the time. The conservative papers criticized Clinton 89 percent
of the time.
• The study finds that there was often a striking difference in tone between the two sides as well.
• The Clinton adminstration had barely unpacked its bags when The Wall Street Journal referred administration
figures as "pod people from a 'Star Trek' episode. . .genetically bred to inhabit the public sector." That sort of
language does not appear on the liberal pages. In sum, the two sides define partisanship quite differently and
envision the roles they play as political actors very differently as well.
Although the intent here is not to exhaustively analyze the meaning of media bias, the analysis does suggest the
central importance of the charge of such bias.
What About the Democrats?
The argument here is that Republicans have influenced media developments and then have been able to use those
changes their advantage. What about the Democrats during this period? Until relatively recently, they have been
much slower to recognize and act on the insights of political-media trends.
Changes among Democrats concerning journalists appear to have been much less systematic, so the argument here is
that those efforts have produced both less sustained effort and less success. There appear to be a number of reasons
for greater Republican effort and success.
A first reason is the greater ideological unity among Republicans, mirrored by a greater ideological dis-unity among
Democrats. Theodore Lowi has suggested that Republicans are a political party whereas Democrats are a collection
trying to please various interest groups.
In addition, whereas after the Goldwater defeat in 1964 the Republican
Party has become more unified and more consistently conservative—the term “moderate Republican” now appears
to be nearly an oxymoron—the Democratic Party remains divided, especially, but not only, between southern and
northern members of the Party.
Those divisions compound difficulties Democrats face responding to changes in American journalism. Republicans
are effective developing media strategies not only because of resources, commitment, and persistence, but also
because they are more united about message. Whatever their other divisions, for nearly all Republicans tax cuts
remain a core value and strategic goal. It is difficult to find any unifying ideological and policy focus for
McChesney, ibid., p. 108, quoting from . from Richard Blow, “Conservative Journalists’ Dirty Little Secret,” www.tompaine.dom.
McChesney, ibid., p. 119. Interview at Urbana, Illinois, March 2002.
Whispers and Screams: The Partisan Natures of Editorial Pages (Harvard: Kennedy School, Shorenstein, 2003), p. 2.
Theodore Lowi, speaking at the American Political Science Association, Boston, August, 2002, and also in his The End of the
Republican Era (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1995).
Sahr, Republican Development and Use of a Conservative-Leaning Political-media Regime, page 11
Democratic divisions over taxes illustrate the difficulty. A Democratic Party that was as uniformly liberal as the
Republican Party is conservative almost certainly could have united in the 2002 election campaign to fight to protect
core elements of national government policy.
A core element of a united Democratic effort would have been to modify the tax changes that President Bush pushed
in 2001. (And, of course, if Democrats were united, few or no Democrats would have voted in favor of those tax
cuts, which might not have passed.) Polls show that majorities among the public favor tax cuts when the only other
choice is “government” or “more spending.” However, tax cuts are a distant runner when respondents are offered a
choice among tax cuts and more spending for education, paying down the national debt, protecting Social Security
and Medicare, and other options. In addition, for more than 90 percent of American families, all the tax cuts from
the 2001 tax bill had already occurred by the end of 2002; nearly all the yet-to-be-implemented tax changes affect
only those near the top. The combination of these elements suggests that for all the seeming risks involved in
challenging tax cuts, a coordinated effort to educate the public, to emphasize the need for shared sacrifice, and
similar might have resulted in public support for Democratic efforts to postpone or cancel tax cuts. The word
“coordinated” here, though, illustrates the difficulty: Democrats are much too divided and apparently too
disorganized for such efforts.
This difficulty is magnified by the move of the Democratic Party from its traditional base among the working class,
the declining vote turnout among its traditional supporters, and by the effort by the Party to appeal to upper-income
individuals for campaign funding. Policies that appeal to its upper-income funding sources seldom match those that
appeal to traditional voting supporters.
The combination of these elements—southern vs. northern Democrats,
emerging sources of funding from non-traditional voting groups, and declining turnout among traditional
supporters—lead to sharp divisions among Democrats. That difficulty is magnified when Republicans engage in a
systematic effort to increase turnout among their supporters, as occurred with great effect in November 2002.
Despite these fund-raising efforts, Democrats almost always lag Republicans in fundraising totals and in support
among business and other groups that help fund think tanks and other efforts. Similarly, their allies appear more
divided and less likely to form supportive coalitions on a broad range of issues than is true of Republicans.
An important illustration of these elements regarding the Democratic and Republican parties is the health care
proposals put forward by President Clinton in 1993, probably the most important element of his domestic policies in
his first term. It was declared “dead,” without actual congressional votes, in fall 1994.
sharp divisions internally and among supporters and only lukewarm efforts among those who did support the
Clinton proposals. Republicans, on the other hand, not only were united in opposition but very effective in
developing and using allies in the private sector, who opposed the proposals for both self-interested and ideological
reasons. As a result, polls showed that a majority of the public wanted the health care changes that actually were
included in the proposals but, because opponents had so successfully and inaccurately defined the Clinton proposals,
most of those respondents opposed what they thought to be “the Clinton health care proposals.”
A core difficulty of Democrats, then, in developing media strategy and message is an unclear message. That is
compounded because party leaders and allies have not given the same level of effort as Republicans to a long-term
media strategy. These have been reflected during both the Clinton presidency and the George W. Bush presidency.
The following section examines core elements of the current political-media regime. It emphasizes particularly first
the effect of the changes on perceptions of the “conventional wisdom”—what “everyone” just accepts as true—and
See also the perceptive analysis of Democrats in relation to media strategy and effectiveness in Robert M. Entman, Projections of
Power: Framing News, Public Opinion, and U.S. Foreign Policy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004).
Thomas Ferguson, Golden Rule: The Investment Theory of Party Competition and the Logic of Money-Driven Political Systems
(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995). See also John B. Judis and Ruy Teixeira, The Emerging Democratic Majority (New
York: Scribner, 2002). The book focuses primarily on newer sources of support for Democrats and gives less emphasis to
traditional working-class support for Democrats, which has drawn questions from some reviewers, e.g., Ronald Brownstein, “Books
in Review: A Red-Blue Stalemate?,” American Prospect, November 18, 2002.
See Theda Skocpol, Boomerang: Health Care Reform and the Turn Against Government (New York: W.W. Norton, 1997).
See the very interesting poll reported in Hilary Stout, “Many Don’t Realize It’s Clinton Plan They Like,” Wall Street Journal, March
10, 1994, p. B1. See also Lawrence Jacobs and Robert Shapiro, Politicians Don’t Pander (Chicago: University of Chicago Press,
2000), esp. ch. 5-7.
Sahr, Republican Development and Use of a Conservative-Leaning Political-media Regime, page 12
then in relation to effect on Democrats and especially Republicans both in power and in opposition.
Interaction of Changes with Traditional Journalism and the Resulting Contemporary Media-
What has the intersection of these changes with the earlier media-politics culture produced?
Kovach and Rosenstiel argue there are five core characteristics of what they call “the new Mixed Media Culture:”
• A never-ending news cycle makes journalism less complete
• Sources are gaining power over journalists
• There are no more gatekeepers
• Argument is overwhelming reporting
• A “blockbuster mentality” means that news organizations are constantly seeking “big stories” that “temporarily
reassemble the news audience”
These changes reflect that the economic, cultural, and political changes interact with traditional journalistic practices
and change but do not necessarily replace them. Two of those practices appear particularly important not only for
their historical centrality to US journalistic practices but also because, in interaction with the above-mentioned
changes, they persist and so have effects, though in sharply divergent ways.
The first traditional practice persists, journalistic reliance on sources. This emphasis on sources persists partly
because it fits with journalist training and experience and partly because it helps fill the news hole in a timely and
economical way without requiring journalistic substantive competence. However, the need for sources has hugely
expanded because of the changes. Traditional sources—particularly government officials and others in official
political positions—remain important but they must be supplemented. A result is the emergence of “loosely
credentialed personalities who often thrive on being provocateurs.”
A result of this demand is that a second traditional journalistic practice appears to have been much attenuated, the
influence of “gatekeepers,” primarily editors and similar news personnel, who traditionally served as important
clearance points and quality control monitors, to maintain certain relatively-agreed upon standards for “news.” The
acceleration of the demand for “news” results in less time for such gate-keeping functions.
Coupled with these changes is a reduction in standards of journalistic reporting. Time pressures and other factors
have reduced the ability of journalists to check as thoroughly as in the past. Under these pressures, standards of
reporting have declined. During the Lewinsky developments, some journalists allowed sources—particularly
Clinton opponents—to set conditions for the use of their information and many journalists began to accept one
source as sufficient, a sharp departure from the previous two-independent-source rule.
All these changes mean that content expectations have been altered. Straight news reporting largely has been
replaced by increased subjectivity in reporting, identified most prominently with Maureen Dowd of the New York
Times, to produce “soufflé journalism:” “one part information mixed with two parts attitude and two parts of
Such efforts are easier in that they require less actual reporting. They also fit the emphasis on
conflict, strongly stated positions, and in many instances fewer factual requirements.
A continued effect of these changes is increasing focus by journalists on the style of candidates and officials—which
most journalists feel competent to judge—and away from the content of their messages. To examine content
requires expertise that most journalists do not have, so increases their dependence on experts and other sources, and
reduces journalist control. In addition, focus on candidate content does not fit usual journalist assumptions that
candidates use substantive policy promises as parts of the strategic game, not as proposals they take seriously.
Kovach and Rosenstiel, Warp Speed, from the list on pp. 6-8.
Kovach and Rosenstiel, Warp Speed, p. 21.
See Marvin Kalb, One Scandalous Story (New York: Free Press, 2001), various chapters, esp. ch. 14. See also Kovach and
Rosenstiel, Warp Speed, ch. 4-5, about the strengthened role of sources relative to journalists. Kalb and also Kovach and Rosenstiel
strongly criticize this lowering of standards and the reduction in the quality control of traditional journalistic gate keeping.
Rosenstiel, The Beat Goes On, pp. 31 and 33. The term “soufflé journalism” is from John Broder of the Los Angeles Times.
See Patterson, Out of Order, esp. “Prologue.”
Sahr, Republican Development and Use of a Conservative-Leaning Political-media Regime, page 13
Journalistic Orientations toward Presidents
These changes have been reflected specifically in journalistic coverage of presidents.
A comparison of journalistic orientations toward presidents during the presidencies of John Kennedy and Bill
Clinton shows very large changes in assumptions and practices.
A fundamental change in coverage of presidents is a sharply reduced journalistic sense of “reverence” toward the
office of president and especially toward its office holders, as illustrated by the point cited earlier about Marvin
Kalb’s anecdote about his observations that he did not even think about reporting what he had seen about John
Kennedy in the Carlyle Hotel in New York.
Along with this reduced reverence has been reduced credibility by journalists toward presidents and presidential
spokespeople, a trend sometimes referred to as “gotcha journalism.” Beginning particularly with the presidency of
Lyndon Johnson and then expanded during the Nixon presidency and Watergate, journalists became increasingly
less trustful of presidents and their spokespeople. However, this analysis argues, not all presidents suffer the same
degree of challenge to credibility.
Other changes in journalistic coverage of politics are illustrated especially by coverage of elections. In the period
from the late 1960s to the present, the average candidate sound bite shown on network television news has decreased
from more than 40 seconds to fewer than 10 seconds.
Not surprisingly, during this period the proportion of news
coverage of candidates presented in the candidates’ own words has shrunk, with a sharp expansion in proportion of
news time devoted to commentary and analysis by network correspondents. And increasingly the focus of these
analyses has been the strategies of politicians rather than the content of their messages, and an increasingly negative
tone in coverage of politics, reinforcing the general cynicism and negativity of the cultural changes.
These economic, political, cultural, and resulting media-politics culture elements set the context for examination of
the media coverage of Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush. But first it is important to examine the effects of the
these changes on what “everyone knows to be true,” the conventional wisdom.
Influencing Content: The Centrality of Conventional Wisdom for Guiding Journalist and Public
Jamieson and Waldman suggest, “Each day’s news is a product of choices made by reporters in which certain pieces
of information are deemed important and relevant and others ignored.”
A central element guiding those choices is
what has been called the “conventional wisdom” (CW, for short).
Conventional wisdom exists on various levels: concerning such particular individuals as Bill Clinton or George W.
Bush, in relation to such policy topics as welfare and Social Security, and regarding such foreign policy issues as the
appropriate standing in the world of such nations as Cuba.
Conventional wisdom that is even more widely shared among American journalists and public includes core
assumptions of political culture, such as the centrality of individualism, the moral standing of the United States as a
“city on a hill” as a model for other nations, and the natural superiority of checks and balances as a form of
government. Although the extent of acceptance of particular elements of CW varies, the core point is that they are
accepted as given, without the need to check or justify or provide evidence of their truthfulness.
Elements of conventional wisdom stimulate the emergence of certain specific “compelling narratives” in the press’s
role as “storyteller,” and discourage the emergence of other potentially equally plausible narratives. Narratives that
are dramatic, compelling, and persuasive quickly can overwhelm any factual counter-evidence. That is, “When an
assumption is widely shared within the press, an allegation inconsistent with the assumption is more likely that it
See Daniel Hallin, “Sound Bite News: Television Coverage of Elections, 1968-1988” (Woodrow Wilson Center Paper, 1991), and
Mitchell Stephens, “On Shrinking Soundbites,” Columbia Journalism Review, September/October 1996).
See Patterson, Out of Order, and The Vanishing Voter, esp. ch. 3.
Kathleen Hall Jamieson and Paul Waldman, The Press Effect: Politicians, Journalists, and the Stories That Shape the Political World
(New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), p. 35.
See Parry, Fooling America, “Introduction.” The popular use of the term evidently originated with early writings of John Kenneth
Galbraith (Max Skidmore, personal communication).
Sahr, Republican Development and Use of a Conservative-Leaning Political-media Regime, page 14
otherwise would be to travel uncorrected into news.”
Conventional wisdom, what “everyone” knows to be true, guides not only public perceptions but also journalist
choices. Because “everyone” knows that Gerald Ford is a klutz, journalists “see” examples of his klutziness much
more easily than of his gracefulness. And because “everyone” knows he is a klutz, it is much more economical for
journalists to portray this, since it builds on shared “knowledge” upon which readers and viewers can draw.
Conventional wisdom is largely self-reinforcing, because journalists see what they expect to see and report based on
that perception. As Thomas Patterson points out, “believing is seeing.”
And because conventional wisdom is self-
reinforcing, once established it is very difficult to change.
In the words of fictional presidential speechwriter Sam Seaborn, the Rob Lowe character in The West Wing:
“Conventional wisdom in Washington is like concrete: it hardens. There’s nothing you can do about it.”
An important example of widely shared conventional wisdom that helped Republicans was the view that the Clinton
presidency was the most scandalous in history, a view that conservatives worked to spread. The Doonesbury
examples shown later illustrate how widespread was that view, in counter-distinction to the very different view of
Republican “hero” Ronald Reagan.
Conventional wisdom often, of course, is factually correct, but factual correctness is not a necessary condition for
widespread acceptance. Consider some examples of conventional wisdom:
About President Reagan and Other Presidents
Ronald Reagan was exceptionally popular, despite public opinion data showing he was not; he was a “legislative
magician,” always winning with Congress, despite the fact that his success rates with Congress declined sharply after
his first year and by the end of his term were the lowest to that point since Congressional Quarterly had begun
collecting those data during the Eisenhower presidency
Ronald Reagan was a skilled athlete, despite playing minor role in Eureka College, hardly a football-powerhouse; Gerald
Ford, on the other hand was a klutz, despite having been a talented football player at the University of Michigan and
being offered professional football contracts
Reagan was macho and tough, despite having spent World War II making films in Hollywood; on the other hand, George
H. W. Bush had to fight the image of “wimp,” despite his having served in World War II and putting his life at risk as
a Navy pilot.
About Parties and Their Policies
Republicans are strong on defense, Democrats weaken it, despite the fact that prior to George W. Bush only under Ronald
Reagan among recent Republican presidents did inflation-adjusted defense spending increase: it fell under
Republican presidents Nixon, Ford, and G.H.W. Bush and rose under Democrats Kennedy, Johnson, Carter, and even
Democrats are the party of “big government,” while Republicans cut government, despite the fact that inflation-adjusted
spending grew only 1 percent and 4 percent in Clinton’s terms and 14, 10, and 9 percent during the Reagan and
G.H.W. Bush terms, respectively, and increased significantly more than 10 percent during each of the George W.
Examples of policy-relevant conventional wisdom are nearly endless, for example that welfare families involve
large numbers of children by teen-age women who never marry. Although that is true for some, the average number
of welfare family children has fallen from three children in 1970 to fewer than two in the late 1990s, according to
statistics about welfare families. Similarly, estimates of foreign aid spending by the United States always vastly
exaggerate the approximately one percent of the budget actually spent.
Journalists who challenge established conventional wisdom must have not only courage but also the willingness to
invest time and effort to present “news” that diverges from what “everyone knows.” Imagine the reporter who
Jamieson and Waldman, The Press Effect, p. 7. As an example, they use the claim that Enron’s Kenneth Lay had stayed in the White
House while Bill Clinton was president, a partisan charge that fit with journalist views of Clinton so went essentially unchallenged,
despite its being factually not correct.
Thomas Patterson, Out of Order, p. 115.
Sam Seaborn, presidential speechwriter played by Rob Lowe on The West Wing, January 9, 2002 episode.
See data available at http://oregonstate.edu/cla/polisci/faculty-research/sahr/sahr.htm.
See for example, the 2008 Green Book (Washington: US House of Representatives Ways and Means Committee Print, 2000).
Sahr, Republican Development and Use of a Conservative-Leaning Political-media Regime, page 15
wanted to write how graceful and athletic Gerald Ford was; doing so would require both getting past editors who
“know” that Ford is a “klutz” and presenting much evidence to challenge what “everyone” knows. Or imagine the
journalist who wants to suggest that Ronald Reagan was not an exceptionally popular president. Elliot King and
Michael Schudson examine why the CW emerged that Reagan was unusually popular, despite the overwhelming
evidence the perception was untrue.
Nevertheless, once the CW—whether or not factually correct—is established,
it is almost impossible to reverse. It guides not only public views but also journalistic choices, which, in turn,
reinforce the CW.
The more sensitive and potentially risky the topic, the more journalists are protected by the conventional wisdom.
CW determines what is accepted as true, for which there is no need to check evidence or re-consider conclusions. It
appears, for example, that “everyone” knows Democrats cut defense spending and Republicans increase it. When
vice-presidential candidate and former Defense Secretary Cheney in the 2000 campaign attacked the Clinton
military policies, those attacks occurred in a context where “everyone knew” that former President Bush had
strengthened defense and Clinton had weakened it. Defense spending fell 13 percent in inflation-adjusted dollars
under former President Bush but that never became part of the public consciousness, partly because it was not part
of the journalistic consciousness and partly because Democrats ignored it.
Conventional wisdom gains “momentum” and becomes reinforced and very difficult to change. It is reinforced not
only by news coverage and opinion columns but also by the questions pollsters ask in surveys. For example, when
pollsters choose to ask about the “character” of Bill Clinton but not of George W. Bush, that reinforces specific
elements of the conventional wisdom about both individuals. Similarly, late night talk show hosts David Letterman
and Jay Leno reinforce conventional wisdom very powerfully, a reason why campaigns monitor such programs.
Conventional wisdom also defines what counts as “bias.” During the Clinton presidency almost no negative
judgment by journalists about Bill Clinton were portrayed as biased, because “everyone” knew that he suffered from
“character” and other flaws. Opponents, of course, reinforced these judgments to their own advantage. Analogous
statements about President George W. Bush would appear as very biased, because “everyone” knows that it was
Clinton, not Bush who had “character” problems.
Conventional wisdom, then, is an extremely powerful tool, and establishing CW elements supportive of one’s
policies and orientations is a central goal of officials and candidates. As Ginsberg and Shefter point out, journalists
are part of the “politics by other means” that continues after elections are over and that uses non-electoral means.
And part of that effort involves establishing a conventional wisdom supportive of “our side.”
In order to understand changes in media and presidents need to examine briefly changes in American journalism,
presidential media practices, and developments among Democrats and Republicans as opponents.
Having focused on effects of these developments on perceptions of “conventional wisdom,” attention now shifts to
effects on coverage of Republicans and Democrats in power and in opposition.
Asymmetries in Media Treatment of Presidents Clinton and Bush [Obama to be added]
Consider some media and politics developments:
Republicans during the Iraq War insisted that it was unpatriotic to criticize Commander in Chief George W. Bush, yet
news coverage during Balkan War developments carried frequent criticism of Commander in Chief Bill Clinton, often
quoting Republican leaders
CNN, sometimes called “the Clinton News Network” by conservatives, presented many more live presentations of
Elliot King and Michael Schudson, “The Press and the Illusion of Public Opinion: The Strange Case of Ronald Reagan’s
‘Popularity,’” in Theodore Glasser and Charles Salmon, eds., Public Opinion and the Communication of Consent (New York:
Guilford, 1995), pp. 132-155. Jerry Yeric, co-author of Public Opinion, 3rd
ed. (Itasca, Ill.: Peacock, 1996), reports that even many
of his colleagues, with Ph.D. degrees in political science, shared the mistaken view that Ronald Reagan was “exceptionally popular”
(personal communication, 1990).
See defense spending increase by president, available from http://oregonstate.edu/cla/polisci/faculty-research/sahr/sahr.htm.
Questionnaires distributed to university students show that the vast majority “know” that defense spending adjusted for inflation rose
under Republican presidents Nixon, Ford, and Bush and fell under Democrats Kennedy, Johnson, and Carter. A national survey on
similar questions is planned to examine public “knowledge” of elements of “conventional wisdom.”
Benjamin Ginsberg and Martin Shefter, Politics by Other Means: Politicians, Prosecutors, and the Press from Watergate to
edition (New York: Norton, 2002).
Sahr, Republican Development and Use of a Conservative-Leaning Political-media Regime, page 16
President George W. Bush than they had of President Clinton, even of actions and presentations not related to
terrorism or other international developments
In nearly every presidential election many more newspapers among the “liberal media” endorse the Republican than the
Democratic candidate for President; 2004 was one of only three exceptions since the 1930s
Journalists presented continuous coverage to Whitewater allegations during the Clinton administration but devoted almost
no attention to the financial backgrounds of candidates—George Herbert Walker Bush, Bob Dole, George W. Bush,
and even Al Gore—who had larger personal wealth than the Clintons in 1992
Presidential candidate Al Gore in 2000 did not say “I invented the Internet” or a number of other statements that
“everyone” knows he did, since journalists frequently reported them as unquestionable facts
During the Clinton administration journalists joined Republicans in nearly continuous journalistic and editorial pressure on
the Clinton White House to release quickly all records involving Whitewater and for Hillary Rodham Clinton to
release the names of those involved in advising on the 1993-94 health care proposals; by contrast, very few journalists
challenged efforts by Vice President Cheney to release the names of those with whom he consulted in developing the
President Ronald Reagan was not, in fact, “exceptionally popular,” and the President who had the highest approval ratings
at the end of his presidency was Bill Clinton
Defense spending, adjusted for inflation, rose under Democratic Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and even Carter and fell
under Republican Presidents Nixon, Ford, and even George H. W. Bush
None of these fit standard stereotypes and assumptions about media or about public life.
This analysis uses these and similar counter-intuitive developments as starting points for examining the operation of
American media in relation to politics. It examines contemporary American political and media culture and how
that culture has been reflected in journalistic coverage of the presidencies of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.
While the press may not tell people what to think, it gives them a list of things to think about. In so doing the news
culture still shapes the lines of the political playing field and the context in which citizens define meaning for political
events. The rules of the political and media culture alter not only how politics is conducted but increasingly who
participates, why, and the nature of what can be accomplished.
The argument here is analytic rather than partisan. Some readers might be persuaded by the analysis and believe it
describes developments that are positive. Others might be persuaded but believe what it describes is negative.
Partisan Republicans, for example, might strongly challenge the conclusions because they appear to undercut what
they want to use for strategic advantage. Partisan Democrats might argue they have been more effective than
described here. The argument here is intended to be persuasive, but evaluation of the conclusions is left to others.
Two theses guide this analysis.
First, to understand presidents and journalists it is essential to examine the role of the opposition. Journalists seldom act
independently. Instead, they largely take cues from sources, which include the president and many others. The
president is essentially a constant. The variation is in the role and success of the opposition. That is, the opposition
largely sets the range of debate because journalists respond to cues from the spectrum of sources defined on one end
by the president and on the other end by leading opponents. If the opposition largely agrees with the president, the
range of presented views is narrow; if opposition disagrees with the president, the range of presented views broadens.
Second, Republicans have been much more skillful and effective in opposition to presidents than have Democrats. This
was evident during the Clinton presidency but it did not arise then. Instead, it is the result of long-term Republican
efforts much more systematic and much more successful than those of Democrats. There have been no similar efforts
by Democratic and other opponents toward President George W. Bush, even prior to September 11, 2001.
Given this argument, it is no surprise that a Republican, former Treasury Secretary and White House Chief of Staff
Donald Regan, stated this point: “The first fundamental rule of politics [is] perception is reality.”
This analysis includes examination of central changes that have affected the current media-politics context because
part of the argument is that Republicans have responded much more successfully than Democrats to the new media-
politics culture and have used it much more to their advantage.
Republicans have responded much more successfully to the media-politics context emerging since the early 1960s
for two reasons:
Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel, Warp Speed: America in the Age of Mixed Media (New York: Century Foundation, 1999), p. 3.
Donald Regan, as quoted by Norman C. Miller in the Wall Street Journal, June 3, 1982, p. 16.
Sahr, Republican Development and Use of a Conservative-Leaning Political-media Regime, page 17
First, Republicans have devoted resources and effort to the task much more fully and systematically than have
Second, the contemporary media-politics context itself appears more hospitable to Republican than to
Democratic emphases, skills, and concerns, at least partly because Republicans and their allies, much more than
Democrats, have influenced the emergence and development of this new media-politics culture.
Before beginning the historical analysis it is necessary to consider some core features of the current situation.
In early 2001 Washington Post reporter John Harris received numerous comments from Democrats about the “soft”
media coverage George W. Bush was receiving. At first he rejected this view but after examining the evidence he
decided that, in fact, media coverage of Bill Clinton had been more critical than that of George W. Bush. In a May
2001 analysis, “Mr. Bush Catches a Washington Break,” Harris attempted to suggest reasons for the difference:
Above all, however, there is one big reason for [George W.] Bush’s easy ride: There is no well-coordinated corps of
aggrieved and methodical people who start each day looking for ways to expose and undermine a new president.
There was just such a gang ready for Clinton in 1993. Conservative interest groups, commentators and congressional
investigators waged a remorseless campaign that they hoped would make life miserable for Clinton and vault
themselves to power. They succeeded in many ways. . . .
It is Bush’s good fortune that the liberal equivalent of this conservative coterie does not exist. . . .
Conservatives became skilled in using the same news media they reviled. In the early days—well before Clinton’s
Whitewater and sexual controversies reached full flower—every misstep was pounded by the opposition and turned
into a major event. The storms of that first year whirred by in an indistinguishable blur: Zoe Baird, Waco, the
Christophe haircut, the travel office, Somalia. From the vantage point of the right, there were no small stories, only big
ones; no complicated explanations, only ones that illustrated Clinton’s incompetence or venality. . . .
Reporters and editors do not work like commentators. There are no newsroom deliberations about how “soft” or
“mean” to be on a president. . . . But there’s no denying that we give more coverage to stories when someone is
shouting. . . .
The Clinton Presidency and Journalists
The details of media coverage of the Clinton presidency are beyond the scope of this analysis, but in many ways it
all began with Whitewater.
Why did the New York Times give such resources to Whitewater and why did it not spend similar effort examining
the financial backgrounds of George Herbert Walker Bush, Bob Dole, Al Gore, and George W. Bush, all of them
much wealthier than the Clintons in 1992? We do not know the answer, but the effects of this decision had huge
repercussions. The prestige of the Times gave legitimacy to efforts by journalists to pursue this topic. A “feeding
frenzy” emerged, that eventually “produced” additional scandal allegations, in a way that no such “frenzy”
developed in 1999 and 2000 about the financial history of George W. Bush in relation to Harken, for example.
Most likely, Whitewater emerged in the New York Times because of Arkansas sources working with journalists, in
this instance Jeff Gerth, to push an anti-Clinton message. As Conason and Lyons argue in their Hunting of the
President, there was a ten-year campaign by opponents to go after Bill Clinton even before he ran for President.
More important, Whitewater set in motion and reinforced efforts to define Bill Clinton in particularly negative ways.
That is, the early efforts helped establish the “conventional wisdom” about Clinton and so to stimulate journalists to
pursue the barest hint of scandal.
Republicans had warned the Clintons that they would be targets of actions directed at damaging them politically:
[Bill Clinton] In 1990, before I decided to run, I got a call from a guy in the Bush White House who told me not to run.
Bush was at like eighty percent in the polls, and I was saying how the President should use his popularity to fix the
economy. And, after about five minutes, this guy says, “Now let’s just cut the crap. I’ve looked at this crowd”—all
the Democrats considering a run against Bush in 1992—“and we can beat them all. You’re the only one who might
John Harris, “Mr. Bush Catches a Washington Break,” Washington Post, Outlook Section, Sunday, May 6, 2001.
The term is from Larry Sabato, Feeding Frenzy: Attack Journalism and American Journalism (New York: Free Press, 1993).
Joe Conason and Gene Lyons, The Hunting of the President: The Ten-Year Campaign to Destroy Bill and Hillary Clinton (New York:
St. Martin’s Press, 2000).
Sahr, Republican Development and Use of a Conservative-Leaning Political-media Regime, page 18
cause us trouble so, if you do run, we’re going to have to knock you out early.”
[Hillary Rodham Clinton:] When we were getting ready to announce for the 1992 campaign, the Bush people said to
us, “Don’t run this time—wait four years and you’ll have a free pass. If you do run, we’ll destroy you.” And I said to
Bill, “What are they talking about—how could they do that?” And now we’re finding out.
Equally important is that the emergence of Whitewater in 1992 and especially in 1994 began a “feeding frenzy,”
which stimulated news organizations to send journalists to Arkansas, where these journalists began to develop their
own “conventional wisdom” about Bill Clinton. Not only were many of these journalists part of the continuing
coverage of Clinton scandal allegations, their views became widely shared throughout news organizations, thereby
affecting what “everyone” among journalists knew to be true:
The small band of journalists who began looking into Whitewater in Arkansas during and after the 1992
campaign developed their own view of Clinton—and it was far from complimentary. . . . A number of these
[journalists] would play key roles in the coverage of the scandal of 1998. . . .
In the evening they would bond at the bar of the Capital Hotel, which they fondly nicknamed “Rick’s Café,”
exchanging theories about Whitewater and Clinton.
In time, most of these reporters developed a portrait of Clinton as a wild, reckless womanizer accustomed to
lying about what Isikoff called his “serial indiscretions” to protect his political career and family. They saw him as
unscrupulous and unprincipled, a cunning cad who kept slipping through their investigative net, evading responsibility
for his immoral and possibly illegal activities and, whenever possible, laying the blame on others. Of course, this
remained an essentially private portrait of the president, discussed among themselves and their editors but not yet
That orientation became so widely shared that it was taken as obviously true, in other words, “conventional
wisdom.” The frustration among some journalists sometimes resulted in presenting even exonerating findings about
the Clinton—as with the final Whitewater report—in the New York Times and elsewhere as not necessarily proving
the innocence of the Clintons but instead as showing their success in hiding and avoiding charges.
Some journalists did point out that Whitewater and other allegations were being used to attack the Clintons and
weaken support for their policies, for example, the 1993-1994 health care proposals.
However, for most journalists
any allegations reinforced the existing very strongly negative conventional wisdom about the Clintons, even after he
left the presidency. The Clintons had become “outlaws in the old-fashioned sense of the word—that is, their
enemies may attack them with impunity, with no fear of being called to account even if said attacks turn out to be
unfair, misguided, or just plain wrong.”
That conventional wisdom about Bill and Hillary Clinton was taken as obviously true, not to be challenged, as
David Brock points out in his Blinded by the Right,
paraphrasing NBC’s Lisa Myers in a telephone call to him just
after Lewinsky developments broke:
[Myers] Clinton had been lying about so much for so long, wasn’t it great that he finally got caught?
[Brock] Conversations like these left me frustrated, for what exactly had Clinton been lying about for so long, other
Lisa Myers’s statement illustrates the conventional wisdom among journalists, that Clinton was a frequent liar. That
perspective stimulated journalists to look for examples and to portray them as dishonest in a way they would not do
for someone about whom different conventional wisdom existed.
Opponents, of course, reinforced this negative orientation, which generally was accepted by a national news corps
Bill Clinton, quoted in Joe Klein, The Natural (New York: Doubleday, 2002), pp. 85-86.
Hillary Rodham Clinton, March 1998, quoted by David Talbot, Salon, April 17, 2002.
Kalb, One Scandalous Story, p. 21.
Neil A. Lewis, “Whitewater Inquiry Ends; A Lack of Evidence Is Cited in Case Involving Clintons,” New York Times, September 21,
2000; Neely Tucker, “Ray: Prosecutors Had Evidence to Charge Clinton,” Washington Post, March 6, 2002; Jill Abramson, “The
Legacies of Whitewater,” and especially editorial, “The Lessons of Whitewater,” both New York Times, March 24, 2002. Joe
Conason emphasizes the self-interested journalistic interpretations of the final reports in “Let the butt covering begin,” Salon,
September 22, 2000, and in “Where’s the media mea culpa?,” Salon, March 28, 2002.
Haynes Johnson and David Broder, The System (Boston: Little, Brown, 1997), esp. ch. 13, “Waves of Whitewater.”
Dan Kennedy, “Media: The Clintons: Guilty as charged, even when they’re not,” Boston Phoenix, February 6, 2001.
David Brock, Blinded by the Right: The Conscience of an Ex-Conservative (New York: Crown, 2002), pp. 306-307.
Sahr, Republican Development and Use of a Conservative-Leaning Political-media Regime, page 19
that accepted the same conventional wisdom. This was illustrated when MSNBC’s Chris Matthews said to
Republican Dan Burton: “I just wish one of these times you would catch them, congressman. You’ve been in
pursuit. You’ve been like Smokey the Bear trying to catch this guy, and he keeps hauling the produce past you”
There appears also to have been a “class,” aspect of the media and other elite response to the Clintons, “class” here
in its double meaning, as in prestige and style (“classy”) and as in social-economic class. Much early reference to
the Clintons in Washington and New York media emphasized the Arkansas aspect much more than the Georgetown,
Oxford, and Yale components of the Clinton background. Frequent reference to Arkansas in editorials and columns
compared the very negative images of that state’s political and cultural orientation with the much more refined and
honest Washington, New York, and other Eastern establishment culture. This orientation persisted and sometimes
reached extremes, as when the Clintons were referred to as living in “public housing” because they did not own a
home and lived in the Arkansas Governor’s mansion, which was, of course, publicly funded.
An analysis of coverage of the Clinton post-presidency by a British journalist—possibly more aware of elements of
class than American journalists in an officially “class-less” society—highlighted the class aspects of US
presentations when she wrote a month after President and Mrs. Clinton left the White House:
The unspoken assumption here is that the Clintons, who had no house of their own while in the White House and
comparatively little money, needed gifts more than most presidents and took what was not theirs. In its undertone of
class prejudice, the criticism recalls the succession of accusations that dogged the Clintons in the White House, starting
with the loss-making Whitewater land deal and Mrs. Clinton’s profitable one-time flutter in cattle futures: no wrong-
doing was found. The wealthy are permitted to play the stock market (the two George Bushes) and accept gifts and
loans from benefactors (the Reagans) in peace; the poor must be investigated.
These elements illustrate that journalistic orientations and opponent actions were reinforced and magnified among
the “Washington establishment,” many of whom did not support the Clintons, as exemplified by the widely
discussed Sally Quinn Washington Post article that appeared immediately before the November 1998 elections.
Instead, that establishment appears to have amplified opponent charges. Those views were reflected very strongly
after the Clintons left the White House, as illustrated by the closing lines from a Washington Post editorial entitled
“Count the Spoons,” which appeared January 24, 2001 and ended with these belittling words:
The list [of items the Clintons removed from the White House] demonstrates again the Clintons’ defining
characteristic: They have no capacity for embarrassment. Words like shabby and tawdry come to mind. They don’t
begin to do it justice.
That extremely condescending language is amazing not only in its tone but also in its absolute acceptability: no one
appeared appalled, or even surprised, by such language directed at a recently-departed president and his wife, who is
now a United States senator. It would require immense journalistic courage to oppose that CW.
Most journalists have continued to treat President Clinton as distinctive, almost always in a negative way, as when
New York Times reporter Richard Berke wrote in a front page report about efforts by Clinton and allies to repair his
reputation in late 2001: “No modern president has ever mounted such an aggressive and organized drive to affect
the agenda after leaving the White House [as has former President Clinton].”
As this illustrates, the failure of reporters to present historical context and comparison concerning President Clinton
usually reinforces a negative conventional wisdom, whether about pardons, gifts accepted by the Clintons when they
left the White House, or other developments. Reports about pardons by earlier presidents appeared in the
Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, and other newspapers, but very seldom until more
than a month after the Clinton pardons began receiving front-page coverage. And these historical analyses of
presidential pardons almost always appeared on inside pages or in columns, not as front-page news items. Similarly,
there was very little coverage of gifts to previous presidents except in such non-traditional and small circulation
news outlets as Salon and the New York Observer, which emphasized gifts to the senior Bushes in 1992—after four
years, nearly equal in inflation-adjusted value to the Clintons after eight years—and especially the large loan to the
“Hardball,” MSNBC, Jan. 25, 2001, quoted by Vaughan Ververs, “Before You Go...,” National Journal, Jan. 29, 2001.
Mary Dejevsky, “Citizen Clinton Is Getting a Very Raw Deal,” Independent (London), February 17, 2001.
Sally Quinn, “Why Washington’s Mad at Clinton: America may understand, but the Establishment can’t forgive him,” Washington
Post National Weekly Edition, November 9, 1998, pp. 6-7; see also the many responses to this article, especially James Fallows,
“Rush from Judgment: How the Media Lost Their Bearings,” American Prospect, March-April 1999.
Richard Berke, “Clinton and Aides Lay Plans to Repair a Battered Image,” New York Times, December 21, 2001, p. A1.
Sahr, Republican Development and Use of a Conservative-Leaning Political-media Regime, page 20
Reagans to buy a house for $2.5 million.
One of the few reporters to emphasize previous efforts by Republicans is John Harris, quoted earlier. As he wrote in
relation to the Clinton Library groundbreaking just weeks before Berke’s report about the Clinton efforts appeared:
[P]residential reputations are political battles just as much as scholarly debates. It’s a truth that, in recent years,
Republicans have understood better than Democrats. Ronald Reagan’s reputation teetered in the balance after he left
office, his achievements dimmed by the Iran-contra scandal and his weakening faculties. But his backers have engaged
in a coordinated effort at presidential iconography, painting his history in heroic strokes and naming every edifice they
can find in his honor.
The use of the constant attack strategy, reinforced by journalist amplification, illustrates the success of opponent
efforts to establish conventional wisdom about the Clintons that has prevailed long after the end of the Clinton
presidency. To paraphrase again the words of fictional West Wing presidential speechwriter Sam Seaborn, the
conventional wisdom about the Clintons had hardened, like concrete, and there was little that could be done about it.
The Clinton presidency was marked at the beginning by weak media strategy.
However, it is not clear that a
stronger media strategy from the beginning—Clinton practitioners did became more skillful as his presidency
progressed—would have been more successful in overcoming a very skillful opposition.
Republicans as Opposition during the Clinton Presidency, 2000 Campaign, and Clinton Post-
During the Clinton presidency, it appears that the triangle “tipped” against the Democratic President and his party,
despite some important specific successes. There was from the beginning, as quoted earlier, “a gang ready for
Clinton in 1993. Conservative interest groups, commentators and congressional investigators waged a remorseless
campaign that they hoped would make life miserable for Clinton and vault themselves to power.”
Republicans were very successful in their ability to prime journalists and the public about the standards and criteria
to be used in evaluating the Clinton presidency. He was to be judged by questions of character, which themselves
were defined narrowly.
An illustration of this is that pollsters often asked about Clinton’s character during and
after his presidency; they almost never ask such questions about George W. Bush.
Journalists gave Clinton no honeymoon. Instead he received, at best, a kind of one-night stand. From day two of his
administration, coverage was increasingly negative. Brit Hume of Fox News, who covered the George H.W. Bush
and Clinton presidencies for ABC, argues that the lack of honeymoon was Clinton’s fault:
[H]e would have. I mean, he was on track to get a honeymoon, but he really made it impossible for him to get a damn
honeymoon. And the reasons were pretty clear. There was a series of promises broken and broken conspicuously and
unmistakably before the inauguration. . . . Then he had a couple of problems right off the bat that were really with his
own party. . . . And they created an atmosphere here where you had this phenomenon, with which you are well
familiar, of a running story, and the running story was one of trips and stumbles.
Hume blames Clinton for the lack of a honeymoon, but the argument here is that “no honeymoon” resulted largely
from the success of opponents, working with journalists, rather than simply, or even primarily, from actions by
President Clinton and his administration.
Jeffrey Toobin, Gene Lyons, Joe Conason, and others have presented details of Republican efforts strategy and the
specific targets during the Clinton presidency.
The core point was that, to quote Harris again,
See, for example, Eric Boehlert, “The Clintons’ gift rap,” Salon, January 20, 2001.
John F. Harris, “Groundbreaking for a Library and a Legacy,” Washington Post, December 6, 2001.
See, for example, Rosenstiel, The Beat Goes On, and Patterson, Out of Order, “Postscript to the Vintage Book Edition.”
Harris, “Mr. Bush Catches a Washington Break.”
Concerning the concept of priming as the setting of criteria or standards by which events, individuals, and so on should be judged, see,
for example, Shanto Iyengar and Donald R. Kinder, News that Matters: Television and American Opinion (University of Chicago
Press, 1987), esp. ch. 7. On closely related concerns, see W. Russell Neuman, Marion Just, and Ann Crigler, Common Knowledge:
News and the Construction of Political Meaning (University of Chicago Press, 1992).
Hedrick Smith, “Interview With Brit Hume, ABC News White House Correspondent,” The People and the Power Game, PBS, 1996
(date not specified). See also the perceptive series by Los Angeles Times media analyst David Shaw, for example “Not even getting
a first chance: Early coverage of the President seemed more like an autopsy; White House missteps and aggressive media never
allowed Clinton the customary honeymoon,” Los Angeles Times, September 15, 1993, p. A-1.
See especially Jeffrey Toobin, A Vast Conspiracy: The Real Story of the Sex Scandal that Nearly Brought Down a President (New