Do Reporters Dislike Mitt Romney?

Do reporters dislike Mitt Romney? And if so, what kind of a difference might that make? I'm prompted to ask by this post from Andrew Gelman at the Monkey Cage, in which he expresses doubt that back in 2000, reporters disliked Al Gore and liked George W. Bush. I won't spend time on that question—it has been extensively reported over the years, with not only quantitative analyses of the press coverage the two received, but plenty of on-the-record comments from reporters who were there at the time testifying that they and their colleagues found Bush to be a friendly fellow and thought Gore was a pedantic, phony liar. (In his post, Gelman confesses to not owning a television, which obviously calls into question his standing as a true American.) But the more interesting question now is the one about Romney.

This is sometimes difficult to assess clearly, since we all have a tendency to see press coverage that reinforces our beliefs as fair and objective, and coverage that contradicts our beliefs as unfair and biased. Liberals and conservatives both do this, although only conservatives created an entire industry out of crying "liberal bias!" and succeeded in getting virtually everyone on their side to weave that belief into their opinions and rhetoric on every single issue. If you're trying to assess it systematically, "bias" is extremely difficult to measure, particularly on the grounds people usually argue about. Researchers have come up with a variety of measures, but they almost inevitably leave important questions unanswered, in part because we usually have an implicit standard of objectivity we're referencing, and that standard raises questions that are hard to answer.

For instance, right now conservatives are up in arms that the media have been giving substantial coverage to Mitt Romney's atrocious and false comments about the attacks in Cairo and Benghazi. But what, precisely, is the proper amount of attention they should have gotten? Although a reporter could give you all kinds of reasons why the story merits the coverage it does, there's no one right answer that everyone could agree on.

Although I know lots of liberal writers and journalists who basically think Mitt Romney is a turd, I haven't discussed this with any reporters for the "mainstream" outlets that are supposed to be objective, like the TV networks and big newspapers. But my sense is that they don't like Romney much. It's not ideological; instead, it exists where the personal and professional meet. They didn't like Al Gore or John Kerry, and John McCain has gotten more press worship over his career than any politician in modern American history. George W. Bush was extremely popular with the press corps, particularly in 2000, because he was a fun guy to hang out with who made an effort to hang out with them, and also because he successfully cultivated the idea that he was personally honorable and genuine.

Romney, in contrast, has been extremely distant with the press corps, probably because he has a (wholly reasonable) fear that if he spends time shooting the breeze with them on the campaign plane, he'll end up saying something that'll come back to bite him. So he avoids them, and when he is with them he's extraordinarily careful, which is the thing they hate more than anything. What they want is a candidate who's unguarded, unafraid, "authentic." In other words, they want John McCain circa 2000. And Romney is the opposite of that, just like Gore was before him. The fact that Romney is also about as cynical and dishonest a candidate as you'll ever see doesn't help either. Basically, the more a candidate embodies everything reporters hate about politicians in general—never straying from talking points, treating reporters like the enemy, being phony and manipulative—the less they like him.

It's important to note that reporters aren't all that fond of Barack Obama either. This is partly the nature of the presidency, but they think he's aloof and dismissive of them, and it's hard to cover a guy if you can never get within 50 feet of him.

But let's stick with Romney for the moment. If we stipulate that he's not reporters' favorite guy, how might that manifest itself in his coverage? If the past is any indication, it could mean primarily that they don't give him the benefit of the doubt. To see what I mean, here's something Cokie Roberts said in 2000 when she was asked about Bush saying things that weren't true: "In Bush's case, you know he's just misstating as opposed to it playing into a story line about him being a serial exaggerator." You know, you see. Because reporters knew Bush was honest, so if he said something false, they gave him the benefit of the doubt that he just made a mistake, whereas if Gore told you it was two o'clock and your watch said it was 1:58, you'd assume he was intentionally trying to deceive you, and you'd probably write a story about how this new time falsehood "raises questions" about his candidacy.

Now there may be cases where Romney says or does something that really comes from the heart, and it ends up getting portrayed as a cynical attempt at manipulation. It could happen. We don't actually have any evidence that the journalists covering the Romney campaign genuinely dislike him, but I wouldn't be surprised if some of them admitted that as a group they do. And that could well affect their coverage, but it won't be, as conservatives will charge, because he's a Republican. And if they do start assuming Romney is lying to them intentionally instead of by accident, it will be because on so many occasions, he has said something false, had everyone point out that it's false, and then continued to repeat it again and again, as though he's saying to the press corps, "Go ahead and call me a liar; I really don't care."

One final thing to watch out for: Barack Obama has moved ahead in the polls. This means that as long as that remains true, he'll get more favorable coverage in many ways than Romney will, for the same reason Romney got better coverage than the people he beat in the primaries. If you're ahead, reporters do stories exploring why you're ahead, and discussing the things you and your campaign are doing right. If you're behind, they do stories exploring why and discussing the things you're doing wrong. That is a kind of bias, but there's nothing ideological about it. And if Romney pulls ahead, he'll benefit from it.

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