By Kathryn Watson | Watchdog.org, Virginia Bureau
ALEXANDRIA — It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that big-time legacy newspapers like the New York Times lean left politically. Maybe way left, depending on who you ask.
A new analysis of newspaper coverage of the Virginia gubernatorial race by the Reston-based Media Research Center, itself a conservative-leaning media watchdog, suggests local media are skewed to the left, too — both in negative coverage of a Republican and in their failure to cover a Libertarian.
“We normally look at national news here,” said MRC research director Rich Noyes. “This is sort of the only game in town right now for this off year. But it shows something, that at the national level you sort of have this prejudice against Republicans, and it does flow down even to mid-sized local newspapers.”
Taking all of the 405 news and editorial articles by the Washington Post and the Old Dominion’s three largest papers in terms of circulation — the Virginian-Pilot, Richmond Times-Dispatch and Roanoke Times — that mentioned the candidates from June 12 to Aug. 31, Noyes found they gave overwhelmingly negative coverage to both Republican Ken Cuccinelli and Democrat Terry McAuliffe. Cuccinelli easily received more negative coverage and a larger proportion of negative articles than McAuliffe, however.
Overall, readers saw four stories tilted in favor of Cuccinelli and 95 against him, versus 21 stories in McAuliffe’s favor and 66 against him, according to Noyes’ research.
Noyes also found that, while reporters and columnists labeled Cuccinelli “conservative” 26 times, he couldn’t find a single reference to McAuliffe as “liberal.”
Perhaps the most shocking point of bias was that the third candidate on the ballot, Libertarian Robert Sarvis, was mentioned in only nine news and editorial articles in the same papers this summer.
Coverage of Sarvis was almost entirely positive, but the lack of coverage sort of speaks for itself, Noyes said.
“It’s a two-party system, and they sort of accept the validity of these two choices,” Noyes said. “In fact, there was a story about how voters don’t like their choices. Voters are upset with both men, and yet there was no real effort to publicize the alternative. And of course, the reason is, well, he’s not registering in the polls, but without publicity, how do you register in the polls?”
Voters want to know more about Sarvis when they hear about him, but they have to hear about him in media coverage first, said Chuck Moulton, chair of the Libertarian Party of Virginia.
“Rob has gotten very positive coverage whenever the media will sit down with him and get to know him, but the problem is that often, there will be generic stories about the race that don’t include Rob,” Moulton told Watchdog.org.
To come up with its numbers, MRC analysts tallied all statements from journalists and quoted sources that were explicitly for or against one of the candidates. If the total of these comments in a story was tilted in either direction by greater than a 3-2 margin, the story was scored as either “positive” or “negative” for that candidate. Otherwise, the story was classified as “mixed” or “neutral.” Judgments about the “horse race,” such as poll standings or fundraising, were excluded.
Reporters have been harsher on Cuccinelli, who is still holding his office as attorney general, than McAuliffe, Noyes said.
Noyes said reporters were quick to point out Cuccinelli’s connections to the donor that has gotten Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell in trouble with the media and federal investigators. And Cuccinelli’s ethical challenges were discussed twice as much as McAuliffe’s.
Much of the Cuccinelli criticism rests in his social conservative views, which Noyes said were really never portrayed in a positive light, from the articles he researched.
“It is a lot like what you get at the national level, just this animosity towards a Republican,” Noyes said. “I’d say there’s not a lot of positive coverage of Terry McAuliffe either, although there is some. It’s just the complete absence of the puff piece or nice piece towards Cuccinelli. It’s virtually all critical.”
Cuccinelli’s campaign referred comments to the Republican Party of Virginia.
“The coverage has been largely one sided, but not in the way you’d think,” RPV chair Pat Mullins said in an email. “What I’ve noticed is that minor positive things that Terry does, or break his way, get played up with significant press, while comparable things for Ken Cuccinelli get little if any press.”
McAuliffe’s press secretary, Josh Schwerin, did not respond for comment on Tuesday.
Noyes said reporters probably didn’t label McAuliffe as liberal because as studies have shown, members of the media tend to lean left themselves. But more than that, Noyes said some Virginia reporters are simply taking McAuliffe’s campaign message at face value that he’s a moderate, rather than digging into his policy positions.
“It’s not so much that they labeled him moderate or mainstream — they sort of acknowledged that this is his strategy — but they didn’t try to dispute it,” Noyes said. “They didn’t try to go through his policy positions, point by point, and point out that this guy’s a liberal. If you don’t debunk a campaign’s claim, you’re more or less letting it stand and say this isn’t controversial.”
When news and editorial pages simply seem to echo McAuliffe campaign advertising, it sends a message to voters, Noyes said.
“When you have a campaign where McAuliffe comes in with the fundraising advantage, which means he’ll have more time on TV with advertising, and he gets the benefit of news coverage being more favorable to him or at least less negative towards him, that is sort of a one-two punch that really helps skew the race, I think,” Noyes said.
— Kathryn Watson is an investigative reporter for Watchdog.org’s Virginia Bureau, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.