Presidential Campaign Coverage

April 9, 1976

Report Outline
Impact of News Media on Elections
Changes in Press's Role in Politics
Today's Appraisals of Campaign Trends
Special Focus

Impact of News Media on Elections

Criticism of Early Primaries as Media Events

The press has been criticized for its presidential campaign coverage since the time of George Washington. This year is no exception. Indeed, the scrutiny of the news media—both broadcast and print—may be only slightly less intense than their scrutiny of the 1976 campaign. Many Americans see newspapers, magazines, radio and especially television as the primary power brokers in politics. It is the media, critics assert, that decide which candidates are to be taken seriously, how much and what kind of attention they receive, how their stands on the issues are publicized and what the early caucuses and primaries mean. The medium, as communications guru Marshall McLuhan proclaimed, is the message.

The message that seems to be coming across most clearly in this election year is that the media attached too much importance to the early caucuses and primaries. They became, it is said, “media events.” Steve Auslander commented editorially in The Arizom Daily Star on March 2 that it was a case “of the press tail wagging the candidate dog.” Interestingly, much of the criticism has been self-criticism, coming from political reporters, news executives and editorial writers who are mindful of the scorn they were subjected to for errors of judgment and emphasis in the 1972 campaign. That, year's political reporting stands accused, among other things (see p. 253), of underestimating the strength of George McGovern's candidacy until he toppled the favorite, Edmund S. Muskie, for the Democratic nomination. Many news organizations, now chastened, entered 1976 giving full coverage to almost all contenders and even to non-binding precinct caucuses.

Soon the media began hearing complaints that their coverage was not only extensive but excessive. Hours of broadcast time and reams of newspaper space were being devoted to the preferences of a relatively few voters in a handful of small states almost six months before the nominating conventions and nine or ten months before the general election. The Jan. 19 precinct caucuses in Iowa were illustrative. Six Democratic candidates—Birch Bayh, Jimmy Carter, Henry M. Jackson, Fred Harris, Sargent Shriver and Morris K. Udall—spent an average of 17 days each campaigning in the state and a total of at least $200,000 for media advertising.

ISSUE TRACKER for Related Reports
Presidential Candidates and Campaigns
Jan. 15, 2021  The Biden Presidency Updated
Jan. 31, 2020  Presidential Primaries
Nov. 16, 2018  The Presidency
Jan. 06, 2017  Trump Presidency
Mar. 06, 2015  Presidential Power
Feb. 03, 2012  Presidential Election
Jan. 30, 2009  The Obama Presidency
Aug. 08, 2008  Political Conventions
Jul. 18, 2008  Race and Politics
Apr. 20, 2007  Electing the President
Dec. 30, 1988  Promises vs. Problems
Jul. 10, 1987  Presidential Nomination Process
Feb. 03, 1984  Choosing Presidential Nominees
Jun. 06, 1980  Choosing Presidential Candidates
Apr. 09, 1976  Presidential Campaign Coverage
Feb. 23, 1972  Political Conventions
May 27, 1964  Foreign Policy Issues in Election Campaigns
Sep. 21, 1960  Voting in 1960
Jan. 06, 1960  Presidential Primaries, 1960
Jan. 04, 1956  Campaign Smearing
Nov. 30, 1955  Presidential Possibilities, 1956
May 09, 1952  Open Conventions
Jan. 16, 1952  Presidential Primaries, 1952
Oct. 12, 1949  Modernization of the Presidential Election
Jan. 14, 1948  Presidential Primaries
May 01, 1944  Foreign Policy in National Elections
Jan. 01, 1944  Choice of Candidates for the Presidency
Apr. 08, 1940  Republican Candidates for the Presidency, 1940
Apr. 01, 1940  Democratic Candidates for the Presidency, 1940
Jun. 19, 1939  Selection of Nominees for the Presidency
Aug. 19, 1938  Nomination by Primary
Mar. 11, 1936  Voting in Presidential Elections
Feb. 18, 1936  Presidential Candidates, 1936
Mar. 03, 1932  Decline of the Presidential Primary
Aug. 25, 1931  Presidential Candidates, 1932
May 05, 1928  National Nominating Conventions
Sep. 03, 1927  Presidential Candidates—1928
Jun. 14, 1927  Patronage Influence in Nominating Conventions
Sep. 11, 1926  The Future of the Direct Primary
Jul. 02, 1924  Proposed Reforms of Presidential Nominating Methods
Jun. 04, 1924  The Machinery of the Political Conventions
Mar. 15, 1924  Presidential Candidates and the Issues
Sep. 05, 1923  The Passing of the Second Term
Campaigns and Elections
Journalism and the News
Radio and Television