The Project for Excellence in Journalism and Boston University have published a study on how the media covered the race to succeed the late U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy, a race that culminated in Republican Scott Brown’s surprising victory over Democrat Martha Coakley.
Among the authors of the report, “Hiding in Plain Sight, From Kennedy to Brown,” was my old friend Mark Jurkowitz, associate director of the project, with whom I worked at both the Boston Phoenix and “Beat the Press.”
The findings of the study — which mainly focuses on the Boston Globe and the Boston Herald, and to a lesser extent on the Associated Press and the New York Times — are not surprising. Essentially we learn that the media devoted precious little attention to Brown during the primary and general-election campaigns until Jan. 5, when Rasmussen released a poll showing that Brown was within striking distance.
From that point on, according to the report (verified by anyone who was paying attention at the time), the media went into overdrive, covering the campaign relentlessly but devoting far more resources to the horse race and strategy stories than to the issues. You will also not be surprised to learn that the Globe was more favorable to Coakley and the Herald to Brown.
“In the end, a campaign that first seemed to lack drama and star power was the most important and intensely covered political story in the country,” the report says. “And while they were certainly not alone, the press never saw it coming.”
I have a few quibbles with what was looked at. The authors, for example, criticize the Globe and the Herald for rarely getting outside of the Boston area, arguing that they might have picked up the Brown surge earlier if they had pushed themselves outside their geographic comfort zone. A fair point, but it’s too bad the folks who did the study couldn’t find a way to incorporate coverage from other news outlets around the state.
Then, too, talk radio, which formed a near-monolithic cheering section for Brown (and jeering section for Coakley), doesn’t even get a mention. Granted, newspaper stories can be closely analyzed in ways that talk radio can’t. But right-wing talk may have been the single most important factor in Brown’s rise.
Still, “Hidden in Plain Sight” is a revealing and valuable look at how Boston’s two daily newspapers covered the state’s biggest political story in many years, and is well worth reading in full.