How the media covered Scott Brown’s rise

Meet the press: Scott Brown speaks with reporter following Senate debate in December at WBZ-TV.

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.

11 thoughts on “How the media covered Scott Brown’s rise

  1. Nial Lynch

    ***But right-wing talk may have been the single most important factor in Brown’s rise.***

    Dan: This seems to be an evolution in your opinion on the importance of talk radio on that election. On Jan. 22 Beat the Press you said: “A fairly substantial part of talk radio listenership is really just listening to see what outrageous thing Howie Carr or Jay Severin is going to say… I am skeptical of how much affect it had.”

    1. Dan Kennedy

      @Nial: Could be. I can’t remember what I had for lunch today. I’ll stick to at least one part of what I said then. I don’t think talk radio changes anyone’s mind. But I do think it can drive up turnout.

  2. Christian Avard

    I gotta say it’s frightening to see how much influence WEEI is having on elections now. Especially the likes of “D & C” and to a lesser extent “The Big Show.” It’s morphing into politics now than ever before. Who knows where it will end up in November or in 2012 when Brown is up for re-election.

  3. Duke Briscoe

    I remember being surprised when flipping through WRKO, the Sunday morning before the election, and Pat Whitley had decided to talk about Scott Brown (glowingly) rather than do his usual restaurant review show.

  4. I have not read the study but I will.
    However, the findings you report here are not really that surprising. The print media ignored both Scott Brown and Jack E. Robinson because they didn’t think either had a chance of winning against a Democrat in Massachusetts. There was also a nice bloody Democratic primary which distracted them. It was only when that poll came out that the media realized there could be an upset and they started doing their jobs.
    This is the way it always is though. The Boston print media has been doing this for years. They immediately decide right out of the gate who will get coverage and who won’t based on their opinions of who can win and not based on fair and open coverage for all candidates who obtain ballot access. They also decide how they will cover the races – relying on polling data and how much cash a candidate has or spends – while ignoring the important policy positions of the candidates or, by the same token, the concerns of the populace. The deplorable state of political coverage is one of the reasons I got out of politics and into journalism many years ago.
    Everyone who is on the ballot should get covered, it really is that simple. They should be allowed in all the debates and should be taken seriously. You don’t know what the voters are going to do in the end, as we saw in this case.
    On talk radio, I don’t know how influential the hosts were in getting people to vote for Brown since, generalizing, a good chunk of listeners to Howie Carr, Jay Severin, Michele McPhee, or Peter Blute, were probably going to vote for Brown anyway. They may have helped with GOTV – by pumping up Brown’s chances of winning – which would get those folks who weren’t motivated to help out the effort more involved. It also didn’t help that Coakley ignored talk radio, appearing only on Dan Rea’s show for the radio debate but not the actual interview (if I’m remembering this correctly).

  5. Al Fiantaca

    @Steve: I found that article to be a gripping read, drama in every line. Sarcasm off, I suppose mentioning the smoothie venture would have been ok, in passing, but making it as much of the story as seemed was a bit much. I think they were trying to portray how driven he was, even back then. It’s just that the smoothie aspect was a bit too much of the story. I did find the line that Cahill does not have much contact with his former partners interesting. What’s the story behind the story, there?

  6. Mary DeChillo

    Dan,
    Thanks for including the full report on the coverage. The reason I love your site is that you direct the reader to really interesting reports from other sources!

    As per the coverage issue–I agree with most of what was reported. However, there were other salient issues with regard to the outcome of the election: 1)timing–the abbreviated length of the general election (including the holiday season when people are distracted) gave little time for more than a superficial campaign and few opportunities for “mistakes”; 2) no other race was going on anywhere in the country and it was a high profile seat; 3)lack of exposure of Brown to the public during the primary season because he was running unopposed (he got to be a “stealth candidate”; 4)emergence of the Tea Party at the same time he was running; 5) the confluence of the race with the health care vote; 6)A united and energized state Republican party that wasn’t fractured by a primary race.

    I am sure that if Brown had had a primary candidate and a fractious primary race, the usual length of an election cycle (not a December to January race), and no outside funding, we would have seen a very different race.

    Senator Brown’s appearance on Face the Nation with his comments about Finance Reform, and other examples since his election to the Senate of him seeming to have no deep understanding of the isues, should give the voters of the commonwealth pause about just who is representing them. I am afraid that it is all “show and no go” with Senator Brown. He calls himself an “independent”. With a reported $14mil. war chest that he has received from outside conservative groups, let’s see how much fortitude he has to call’em as he sees ’em.

    It is the responsibility of the press not to be star-struck by Brown, Baker, or any other politician of any party. The relationship between politicians and those who cover them is in many ways a dependent relationship–each needs the other to make news. The relationship makes or breaks the coverage, regardless of substance. Beware the news reporter who is captivated by a politician–it’s that politician’s next press secretary!

    1. Dan Kennedy

      @Mary: How soon we forget! Brown defeated the immortal Jack E. Robinson in the Republican primary. But yes, he was virtually unopposed.

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