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Eye On Candidates
August 26, 2015

Media Influence in the 2016 Campaign

The influence of the media in how political campaigns unfold is nothing new  although the type and nature of that influence can be hotly contested.

Every candidate at some point comes to believe the media is being unfair to them in some way, and often with good reason. A couple of recent stories regarding how the media is shaping the 2016 campaign demonstrate the point.

Consider the case of businesswoman Carly Fiorina, who by nearly every account is surging in the polls after a stellar performance in the Fox News early debate for GOP candidates who failed to make the later event for candidates polling in the top 10. Politico this morning explains that the next debate, hosted by CNN, may also exclude Fiorina:

Carly Fiorina's camp cries foul in attempt to get on debate main stage

Faced with the very real possibility that she will again be relegated to a lower-tier debate, GOP presidential candidate Carly Fiorina’s campaign is going after the Republican National Committee and the news organization the RNC picked to host the next debate, CNN.

Fiorina has surged in the polls since a widely praised performance in the “happy hour” debate earlier this month. But she has a problem: There haven’t been enough polls to catapult Fiorina from 14th place, where she stood going into that debate, into the top 10 ranking for CNN’s Sept. 16 debate.

That’s because CNN — unlike Fox News, which only used the final five polls released before their debate — outlined criteria this spring in which it said it would average together the results of polls released between July 16 and Sept. 10. And of the 10 polls that currently qualify for inclusion in CNN’s average, 8 were conducted before the first debate.

In CNN’s defense, its criteria have been set for quite some time, well before Fiorina’s surge, and it’s not totally unreasonable to include polls from before the first debate in order to get a more stable representation of candidates and their ability to do well over the long haul. At the same time, it’s tough to justify keeping a candidate off the main stage who is currently in seventh place nationally and tied for fourth in Iowa according to the Real Clear Politics averages.

Failing to be included on the main stage at CNN’s event isn’t likely to be a crushing blow to Fiorina, as she’s clearly gaining traction as a result of her earlier debate performance that’s unlikely to dissipate over this setback. But it would indeed be a setback.

Fiorina isn’t the only candidate with a gripe over how the media is influencing (or could) the 2016 nomination process.

Businessman Donald Trump has clashed most notably with Fox News’ Megyn Kelly, complaining that her tough questioning of his past comments regarding women were somehow unfair and unprofessional.

Yesterday, he had a reporter from Univision removed from a press conference after he started asking questions of Trump before he had been called on. The New York Times has a fascinating article this morning on how Latino news media may be stepping beyond traditional news reporting roles to more aggressively challenge candidates they find problematic, with Trump being at or near the top of that list:

The adversarial relationship between Mr. Trump and the Spanish-language news media, which has simmered publicly since he announced his candidacy in June, boiled over on Tuesday at a news conference in Dubuque, Iowa, when the candidate erupted at Jorge Ramos, the main news anchor at Univision and Fusion, when he tried to ask a question without being called on. Mr. Trump signaled to one of his security guards, who physically removed Mr. Ramos from the event….

Mr. Ramos was eventually allowed to return. But for the Spanish-language press, which has grown in size and influence in politics, the tense exchange was a highly public flexing of muscle against a candidate who many outlets no longer pretend to cover objectively: They are offended by Mr. Trump’s words and tactics — and they are showing it.

Some, including Mr. Ramos, said that their networks have covered Mr. Trump more aggressively than their mainstream counterparts, which until recently, at least, largely dismissed Mr. Trump as a summer amusement — less a serious candidate than a ratings bonanza in the form of a bombastic reality television star.

According to the Times story, 80 percent of the Latino media’s coverage of Trump since his announcement has been focused on his immigration positions, compared to 58 percent of the mainstream media. And that coverage has been highly critical, with 69 percent of it being negative in the Latino media (although mainstream media hasn’t been kind to Trump either, with 58 percent being negative).

Critics of the Spanish-language news coverage, including Mr. Oliver-Méndez [of the conservative Media Research Center], say that the Hispanic press is engaging in advocacy and not journalism.

“The Spanish-language media is basically taking Trump through the prism of what’s best for the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the country, so to the extent that Trump is coming out with statements that are threatening the existence of that community, he’s been covered like an enemy,” he said.

He pointed to several moments last week on the national United States evening news broadcasts of Azteca America, a Spanish-language television network. In one, an anchor said that Mr. Trump had nothing in his head but air, and in another, Armando Guzmán, a Washington correspondent, accused Mr. Trump of lying: “As in everything else, Trump is not telling the truth,” Mr. Guzmán said.

And in a note that has no doubt caught the eye of Republicans concerned about the 2016 campaign, the Times notes the Latino media’s coverage of Trump might hurt the party in November even if Trump is long gone from the presidential campaign:

Alex Nogales, the president of the National Hispanic Media Coalition, a civil rights organization focused on American Latinos, said that the Spanish-language news media’s coverage of Mr. Trump has broad implications for the presidential election, whether or not he becomes the Republican nominee.

He said that for Latino voters, there will be a “reinforcement in terms of what they’re hearing, what they’re seeing, what they’re listening to” from the Republican candidates.

Over on the Democratic side, frontrunner and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is also no stranger to strained relations with the media, as a July article in Politico pointed out:

Hillary Clinton, who has long had a tempestuous relationship with the media, on Thursday said she may need to “work on” her “expectations” of the press.

Her comments, which came on NPR’s “On Point” program, follow criticism from former New York Times editor Jill Abramson that Clinton expects loyalty from journalists, especially female journalists.

Trump, Fiorina and Clinton aren’t the only three candidates who have or will at some point had major problems with the media, and how a campaign handles unfavorable media attention or decisions can have a crucial part in determining the ultimate viability of a candidate.

Activists and political “junkies” may be more immune than average voters to the ways in which media shape the nomination process, but it will be the average voter who holds more power at the ballot box or on caucus night. That’s something worth remembering as each campaign figures out how to deal with inevitable clashes with the media.