- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Media coverage of Congress is a bifurcated enterprise. Here in Washington we read the inside-the-Beltway coverage about the process and policies of the House and Senate, profiles of powerful lawmakers or the next “rising star,” the obligatory embarrassing stories about hypocrisy or personal peccadilloes, and the “who is up, who is down” reports about the politics of congressional elections. Add to this the commentary on Congress found in blogs and other new media outlets, and it’s clear how the weight of these stories could lead to information obesity for political junk-food addicts.

Yet how are congressional processes and elections covered outside the squally tempest of the nation’s capital? Lots of the information we have is anecdotal, but conventional wisdom suggests “local” newspaper coverage provides incumbents with sunnier coverage, leaving the dark storm clouds of anti-incumbent bias to the national mainstream media.

One of the few systematic looks at the issue is a 2004 book by Princeton political scientist R. Douglas Arnold, “Congress, the Press and Political Accountability.” Mr. Arnold analyzes a sample of newspapers from across the country and how they covered not only congressional elections, but also the entire two-year term of 25 members of Congress. His conclusions about outside-the-Beltway news coverage may surprise you.

He finds, for example, most of the coverage avoids detailed reporting about a lawmaker’s leadership roles in advancing initiatives. Most articles focus on representatives as “position takers, rather than active bill introducers, committee members, or leaders,” Mr. Arnold writes. Related to this, the benefits of holding a leadership position in Congress don’t seem to matter a great deal when it comes to local coverage. “Newspapers provide only occasional coverage of representatives acting as party leaders, caucus leaders, or coalition builders.” Moreover, while newspapers provide extensive coverage of lawmakers acting as “local agents,” trying to enact or protect constituency benefits, they rarely cover the final decision or a representative “claiming credit for the outcomes.” Finally, while lawmakers invest a great deal in constituent “casework,” newspapers rarely cover these activities.

Local news coverage of incumbents during elections is no better. Mr. Arnold finds, for example, that newspapers do approximately the same number of stories covering challengers as those already in office. He also finds that “campaign articles tend to portray challengers somewhat more favorably than they do incumbents.” This is especially true in competitive congressional contests, according to Mr. Arnold. It seems the press tries to offset any special advantage incumbents possess in close elections by boosting the challengers with the quality and quantity of stories it prints.

Incumbents do, however, fare better among editorial writers by a wide margin. “Most newspapers endorse incumbents for reelection,” Mr. Arnold finds. And, “editorial writers often emphasize things that are not part of their regular news coverage, including leadership, independence, experience, committee service and seniority.” Incumbent members also benefit from more coverage than their challengers receive, according to Mr. Arnold, although their principal advantage “is not in campaign coverage, but in all the non-campaign coverage that they receive over the entire two-year election cycle.”

While Mr. Arnold’s book provides critical insights about the way local newspapers cover the performance of lawmakers in Washington and at home, as well as incumbents vs. challengers, his book focuses little attention on another important variable — the partisan nature of newspaper coverage. I have a sense that if newspapers devote considerable attention to challengers in congressional elections — particularly in competitive races — as Mr. Arnold finds, they probably focus the bulk of their positive coverage to Democratic challengers trying to unseat Republican incumbents.

The Washington Post coverage of the Virginia Senate race is a prime example. One of the newspaper’s “local races” is the contest between incumbent Sen. George Allen and challenger James Webb. Two weeks ago The Post ran a front-page story about a 27-year-old article Mr. Webb wrote about why women didn’t belong at the Naval Academy.

Had the old story been about Mr. Allen’s views, it would probably have portrayed him as a “sexist.” Yet The Post’s “news” story had a different spin. Instead of focusing on the clearly sexist remarks of Mr. Webb, the first paragraph turned the story on the incumbent, Mr. Allen, charging he had launched a “character attack” on his challenger.

If Mr. Arnold’s research holds, incumbents, particularly those in competitive elections, should expect local reporting to cover challengers in a favorable light and try to turn these contests into horse-races with a photo-finish. So, for those incumbents in tight races heading home this week and expecting the clearer skies of local coverage: Buckle up, you may experience some unexpected turbulence.



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