The presidency and local media: local newspaper coverage of president George W. Bush.

Author:Eshbaugh-Soha, Matthew
Position:SYMPOSIUM: THE PRESIDENT AND THE PRESS - Essay
 
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Leading the media, public, and Congress through speeches is at the core of modern presidential governance. But just as the modern political environment requires presidents to appeal for support through speeches, presidents are increasingly unable to cultivate public opinion. Presidents who attempt to lead the nation are faced with a public that tunes out the president's prime-time addresses (Baum and Kernell 1999) and a news media whose attention to presidential addresses is fleeting (Peake and Eshbaugh-Soha 2008). When the national news media cover the presidency, the coverage is typically more negative than positive (Farnsworth and Lichter 2005; Groeling and Kernell 1998). As a result, presidents have difficulty setting the media's agenda (Edwards and Wood 1999; Eshbaugh-Soha and Peake 2003) or moving public opinion (Edwards 2003).

The difficulty presidents face generating positive and frequent national news coverage is not lost upon recent chief executives. Increasingly, presidents have turned from the so-called "filter" of national news coverage to appeal to local and regional media for coverage. This has manifest itself in increased domestic travel (Cook 2002; Cohen and Powell 2003) and efforts on the part of the White House to nurture favorable relations--and presumably news coverage--with local media. Cultivating local media begins with one expectation: Local media are more responsive than national media to the White House's efforts to generate news coverage, whether support for the president's policy or reelection goals. Indeed, presidential administrations target local media for two reasons, argues Martha Joynt Kumar (2007, 97-99). First, "the president generally receives positive coverage when he travels to localities around the country" and that coverage is typically comprehensive. Second, people generally trust their local media more than they trust national media outlets. This, in turn, makes local media the primary source of news for most Americans (Hamilton 2004). Journalists, White House insiders, and some political scientists hold this as conventional wisdom and suggest it is one of the reasons for why presidential administrations since Nixon have targeted local media through domestic travel and other efforts.

Recent research on newspaper coverage of President George W. Bush's trips provides support for this conventional wisdom. In 2001, for example, President Bush's domestic travel led to mostly positive local newspaper coverage (Barrett and Peake 2007). Bush's Social Security reform tour in 2003, which included a significant "going local" strategy, received ample and generally favorable local coverage from local newspapers in comparison with stories in the Washington Post (Eshbaugh-Soha and Peake 2006). Despite these findings, the burgeoning literature on this understudied topic is not definitively supportive of the conventional wisdom. One study of everyday coverage of the presidency--unrelated to specific presidential visits--demonstrates that local newspaper coverage of the presidency is in fact decidedly negative (Eshbaugh-Soha 2008b). Another study, which focused on a broad set of local newspapers and front-page coverage unrelated to domestic travel by President Bush in 2006, produced decidedly mixed findings (Peake 2007).

To further develop our understanding of local media coverage of the presidency, we examine local newspaper coverage of the third year of George W. Bush's presidency. We expect that local news media will cover presidential trips favorably in part due to the unique and rare nature of a presidential visit. Yet, we expect substantial variation in local news coverage across several important variables, including audience support for the president and numerous characteristics of the story itself. What is more, we explore the impact that local coverage of the war in Iraq had on the tone of presidential news coverage to see if President Bush is correct that local media would offer a more favorable perspective of the president and his policies in light of increasingly negative national news coverage of the war after the fall of Baghdad. Our results suggest, however, that the more a local newspaper story focused on Iraq, the more that story's tone reflected unfavorably upon President Bush.

Local Media Coverage of the President

A typical view of local media coverage of the presidency, including coverage of the president's local visits, is that it should be mostly positive, especially in comparison with the president's coverage by national media (Graber 2002; Kumar 2007). These claims, also supported by journalists and White House insiders, appear valid for several reasons. First, to a local community, a presidential visit is a unique event to local reporters and the newspaper's readers. This alone produces a newsworthy event that should generate numerous local stories related to the president's visit. Second, local media's ability to cover the president differs from that of the national media. Local newspapers lack the resources that national newspapers have (Kaniss 1991). Because of this, local newspapers will rely more on what the White House provides them at staged media events, contributing to more extensive and positive coverage as some research has already demonstrated (Barrett and Peake 2007; Eshbaugh-Soha and Peake 2006). In addition, local reporters typically have less experience in public policy than national correspondents, which may contribute to a more descriptive, less analytical, take on the president's visit (see Eshbaugh-Soha and Peake 2006). This, in turn, may produce a story that is less negative than stories that present the pros and cons of a president's policy positions.

Fueled in part by these perceptions, the White House devotes substantial time, energy, and other resources to cultivating a positive image with local news. Kumar (2007) illustrates how the Office of Media Affairs handles local media, in general, and has provided numerous anecdotes to support the significance recent administrations have placed on the local press. For example, the Ronald Reagan administration used interviews with local media to buttress its support for Robert Bork's nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court (Kumar 2007, 173). Sometimes these efforts might be geared to raise awareness of broader policy issues, such as when the Bill Clinton administration invited local news stations' weather forecasters to the White House to attend a speech on global warming after the Kyoto agreement was defeated in the Senate in October 1997. The White House then asked them to deliver weather forecasts for their areas. These actions were designed to reach out to local audiences, particularly those not interested in politics, and generate mostly positive news coverage about an important policy issue (Kumar 2007, 39-40).

President Bush, in particular, made targeting local news central to his media relations strategy and a top priority throughout his tenure. Bush signaled his intentions to bypass the filter of national news media as early as March 27, 2001, during a speech at Western Michigan University when he maintained:

I find it's important to get out of town--at least out of the Nation's Capital--to take my message directly to the people who matter. You see, oftentimes, what I try to say in Washington gets filtered. Sometimes, my words in Washington don't exactly translate directly to the people, so I've found it's best to travel the country. (1) Even if national and local news outlets differ as President Bush suggests, there still exist numerous differences across local newspapers, which should contribute to substantial variation in how these local newspapers cover the presidency. Limited theory suggests that media, as profit-seeking entities (Gentzkow and Shapiro 2006), will want to maximize audience exposure to stories that it sees favorably. Because of this, local support for the president should influence newspapers' coverage of the presidency, particularly its tone of coverage. Qualities of the newspaper itself, such as available resources, corporate ownership, and editorial endorsements may also matter to the content of local newspaper coverage of the presidency. In addition, the attributes of each story, such as its policy content, may impact local newspaper coverage of the presidency.

Audience Support

Profit and other economic factors provide a clear guide for explaining the tone of local newspaper stories. A newspaper wants to maximize readership to increase circulation and, with it, its bottom line. Because of this, a newspaper's coverage of the presidency may be a reflection of the political leanings of its audience, as newspapers give their readers what they want to read. The motivation is clear from an alternative perspective, too: A newspaper in an area that supports the president but that criticizes the president regularly may lead to a decline in its readership, which may undercut its profitability.

Much research supports this contention, and it appears to be a consistent finding across the few studies that examine local news coverage of the presidency (Barrett and Peake 2007; Gentzkow and Shapiro 2006). Indeed, demand for news on the presidency is higher in markets where support for the president is high, with studies showing a positive impact of audience support for the president on the number of words in stories that cover presidential visits (Barrett and Peake 2007) and the likelihood that a newspaper will cover the presidency on a given day (Eshbaugh-Soha 2008a). Media also tend to slant their news reports toward the beliefs of their audience in order to maximize profits (Gentzkow and Shapiro 2006), with coverage of presidential trips being more favorable in newspapers serving locales that generally support the president (Barrett and Peake 2007; Eshbaugh-Soha 2008b). As such, we hypothesize a positive relationship between audience support and local newspaper...

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