Kucinich campaign coverage sparks controversy

By Johan Bergenas
Iowa Presidential Politics.com

As Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, sees it, reporters who judge his candidacy as not viable and therefore do not cover it as extensively as other presidential campaigns are doing a poor job of journalism.

As reporters see it, their job is to make exactly those sorts of judgments.

Kucinich's Iowa campaign manager, John Friedrich, said not only is media coverage of the Democratic presidential nomination race too narrow but the media also are trying to play kingmaker.

"The media is trying to select the presidential candidate," he said. "Instead they should let the voters decide that."

But David Yepsen, a political columnist for the Des Moines Register, said the amount of coverage a presidential hopeful receives is based on the chance the candidate has to get elected.

"[Kucinich] is not a serious candidate for the American presidency,"
he said. "Dennis Kucinich will not be president of the United States.

"We make judgments of what the reader is interested in, and we don't want to waste money on someone who has no chance of winning," Yepsen said.

Jodi Wilgoren, the New York Times Midwest bureau chief, agreed with Yepsen that a candidate's viability is central to media coverage.

Wilgoren, who is embedded with former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean'
s campaign, said that Kucinich does not have an embedded New York Times reporter because "he will never win the nomination."

Yepsen said it is the media's job to determine and make judgments about candidates' viability. He said readers expect journalists to take on that responsibility.

"We get paid to make these judgments," he said.

On the contrary, Friedrich said, the media's role is not to make judgments about a candidate's viability.

"The role of the press is to provide information," Friedrich said, adding that it is up to the public to sort the candidates out for themselves.

In fact, there may be other reasons besides perceived viability for variations in the amount of attention given to candidates, suggested Dallas Morning News reporter Robert G. Hillman.

"Covering a political campaign is horribly expensive," he said.

The media's resources are limited; newspapers only have "X number of people and X number of dollars," Hillman said.

But covering a campaign requires travel expenditures. In addition, newspapers need to allocate space, and broadcast media have to bring a large crew, which makes coverage especially costly for them, Hillman said.

Media organizations therefore must make choices about what stories, specific events and candidates to cover, he said.

Yepsen said Friedrich's comments show his inability to deal with the media. The columnist also pointed out that the Des Moines Register actually has covered Kucinich. According to the newspaper's Web site, as of Nov. 15, there had been 27 articles published about Kucinich -- 38 fewer than about Dean, and 17 and 16 fewer than about Rep. Richard Gephardt, D-Mo., and Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., respectively.

The Register has published 44 articles about Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., who received 5 percent support from likely Iowa caucus-goers in a Des Moines Register poll conducted Nov. 2-5. That is 17 more stories than about Kucinich, who had support from 3 percent in the same poll and has campaigned in Iowa only three days fewer than Edwards.

Kucinich also gets less coverage in the national media compared to candidates who receive similar ratings in the polls. For example, the Washington Post, as of Nov. 15, had published six stories about Kucinich, 21 about Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., 16 about Edwards, and 20 about retired Gen. Wesley Clark.

Friedrich said Kucinich's poor results in the latest polls could be due to poor media coverage

"If [the media] would cover [Kucinich] as seriously as other candidates, he would do well in polls," he said.

Yepsen disagreed, adding there are numerous other ways to get a political message out to the public other than the traditional mainstream media. He mentioned Web sites, other online news sources and on-the-ground efforts to bring out a lot of people for candidate campaign stops.

Hillman, who has covered politics for 30 years and is currently a White House correspondent for the Morning News, said there can be a correlation between polls and media coverage. But he stressed that there are ways to have fair and balanced coverage without having embedded reporters assigned to specific campaigns.

A reporter can cover a trend and write issue stories where all candidates get the chance to comment, he said.

E-mail Johan Bergenas at johan-bergenas@uiowa.edu

This story was published in the Sac (City, IA) Sun on December 9, 2003

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