The media go to humorous extents seemingly to pretend that Ron Paul doesn’t exist, Daily Show host Jon Stewart observed on Monday night, following Paul’s second-place finish in the Ames, Iowa Straw Poll last weekend. The clip has been buzzworthy in circles of political junkies, media observers, and young citizenry looking for the next revolution. As a member of all three, it has appeared on my Facebook feed constantly for the past three days.
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Thanks to the number crunchers at the PEW Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, we can put the claim to the test.
PEW conducted a content analysis of various news publications from January 1 to August 14 to determine how often each candidate that has thus far entered the 2012 Presidential race (and two that haven’t) was “a dominant newsmaker” in an individual campaign story (meaning that they were the focus of at least 50% of the story. For complete methodology, view the full report). Not surprisingly, they found that current President Barack Obama was the clear newsmaker, with almost double the coverage of his nearest potential adversary in a general election.
Among Republican nominees, Mitt Romney, who has been considered the GOP frontrunner for most of the campaign, topped the list, followed closely by Newt Gingrich and Michele Bachmann. But next we find Donald Trump, whose Obama birth certificate antics and reality-show type presidential considerations were the thing of media fascination earlier in 2011. Next is Sarah Palin, whose bus tour around America (and ironically it’s most hallowed political stumping grounds) have done little to quell anticipation of a possible White House bid.
After the never-have-been-candidates, we find the newest entries to the race. Jon Huntsman was only a nominee for 55 days of PEW’s 7 1/2-month study. Rick Perry was only an official candidate for two days of the time period observed. Yet, the Texas governor still had more media coverage than three other Republican contenders – Rick Santorum, Herman Cain… and Ron Paul.
PEW found that Paul was a dominant newsmaker in just 27 campaign news stories from January to mid-August. That’s 12% of Obama’s coverage (221 stories). More appropriate for comparison, it was around a quarter of the coverage given to Romney and Bachmann. PEJ’s headline went for the absurdist angle: “29% – Percentage of Ron Paul’s campaign coverage in 2011 compared to Donald Trump’s.”
Paul was 10th out of 12 GOP candidates, former candidates, and publicity hounds.
So, why is the media ignoring Ron Paul?
The most common retort I have heard is that Paul is a fringe candidate who has no chance of winning the nomination, nor the presidency. He takes far too many extreme positions to be a viable candidate (Mother Jones has listed fifteen of them). While the last part of the retort, in particular, might be true, it does nothing to explain the lack of media coverage. If anything, the caricature of Paul – a crazy old man who has no politically correct filter and for some reason is worshiped by 22-year-olds who follow him around the country – screams media obsession!
The extreme views angle doesn’t seem to be hurting Bachmann, coverage wise (and some of her positions align with Paul’s). Meanwhile, Trump was an utter sideshow with less chance of getting nominated than Tim Pawlenty, and yet the media couldn’t get enough of him.
Moreover, in our current political climate, do Paul’s libertarian positions really eliminate him from the GOP primary? Read that list of Paul’s extreme positions if you didn’t earlier. Does it not largely read like a Tea Party manifesto? And while nominating Paul might indeed be suicidal in the general election – couldn’t the same be said of nominating Bachmann… or Palin? Right now, Mitt Romney is the best chance the GOP has to appeal to moderates and win in 2012, yet considerable factions of the political right will not back him in the primary, instead opting for extremely partisan conservatives with little appeal to the general electorate.
And if the number one issue in 2012 is the economy – and it will be – then who better espouses the Tea Party conservative ideal of drastic financial reform than Paul (“End the Fed!”)? If there ever was a year for Ron Paul to have a real chance at nomination, this would seem to be it. Yet his media coverage is comparable to that of a guy whose presidential credentials involve pepperoni pizzas.
Finally, let’s play the numbers game for a moment. Television is all about ratings – and not just any ratings, it’s the holy grail of 18-49-year-olds. The young viewers. The families. The ones who go buy stuff. News programming generally skews much older – which is why as huge as Fox News’ ratings might be, you still only see ads for Hoverounds and AARP memberships. If Paul’s base are young voters – people in that 18-49 demo – why on Earth would the news networks not be plastering his face on every primetime graphic every single night?
It just doesn’t make sense.
This is likely the last run for Paul, who turns 76 on Saturday. He is not seeking re-election to his post in the House of Representatives, in order to focus fully on one final presidential bid, his third overall. His unabashed libertarian message still may not appeal to a majority of the electorate, but in our current circumstances, it appeals to more people than ever before. Like a Renaissance painter, it would seem Paul’s maxims are likely to be greater appreciated after he is no longer preaching them. Still, one would think the media would follow the story, even if for its own narrative, or its own greed. To not do so seems poor judgment, nevermind what it says about journalists’ responsibility for informing our political process.