In today’s paper, the New York Times buried its article on U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet’s entrance into the presidential campaign on page A12. Last Friday, the Times featured former Vice President Joe Biden’s announcement of his candidacy on the front page, as a lead story for the day. While there will be many surprises between now and November 2020, we can be confident that the media will repeat many of the mistakes it makes in covering presidential elections.
Indeed, as the much more favorable treatment of Biden reflects, a key failing is the media’s routine “horse-race” treatment of campaigns. Who is leading in the polls and who has raised the most money disproportionately drive coverage. During the primary stage of the 2016 election, for example, major news organizations devoted 56 percent of their coverage to matters like poll results, electoral projections, election returns, delegate counts, and fundraising success, and only 11 percent to the policy positions of candidates, their records of service, or other substantive concerns. Instead of providing information that would better inform voter choices, the media does much more to reinforce the advantages of better-known candidates.
Consider in that regard, how the media worsens the role of money in elections. The media could use it’s free coverage to level the playing field between candidates who have good access to funding, either from their own wealth or from well-heeled supporters, and candidates who lack such access. But when the news organizations make fundraising a barometer of coverage, they only exacerbate the problem. As they do when they reward celebrity. Among the egregious examples is the 2016 cycle. Through February 2016, President Trump had received 64 percent more coverage than all of the Republican candidates combined and 75 percent more coverage than all of the Democratic candidates combined.
It’s still early in the election process, and news organizations have ample time to correct their approach to coverage. It’s critical that they do so, and quickly.