The morning of Nov. 5, 2008, certainly didn’t feel different than any other crisp fall morning. Like the day before, birds chirped way too early, odorous steam wafted from underground city sewers, and I, creature of habit that I am, walked into Starbucks at 7:30 a.m.
It was immediately apparent, however, that something was askew. Reaching for The New York Times, I was met with nothing but forbidden, empty shelving on the newspaper stand.
“Has the delivery not come yet?” I inquired of the barista, thinking the late election returns the previous evening may have delayed final printing and delivery. “Hah,” she shot back. “We’ve been out for hours.”
The store had been open for two and a half.
Another customer chimed in.
“I just got back from Chicago. It was amazing,” said a woman who looked surprisingly vivacious for having not slept that night. She recounted the night that she stood with thousands of others, listening to the newly-elected Barack Obama address the crowd, the nation and the world. She was crying.
It’s no secret that the election of the first African-American president of the United States elicited strong emotions for countless people and groups, the most obvious of which was other African-Americans. So the tears of my fellow Starbucks customer were justified and certainly not shed in solace. The Rev. Jesse Jackson and Oprah Winfrey were famously caught on camera with wet cheeks that night in Chicago.
Hence, the empty newsstand.
The newspapers that eager customers scooped up in the store’s opening minutes — in this case, The New York Times and The Indianapolis Star — weren’t just reporting a news story that morning. Rather, the papers were hot commodities, collectors’ items that would be sealed in acid-free plastic or framed behind rich mahogany and tempered glass. Newspapers and other publications bearing the news of Obama’s election were in high demand. In some cities, people lined up outside newspaper offices to buy a copy. Many papers, such as The Indianapolis Star, ran second and even third printings, distributing again later that day or taking orders. It was obvious that to save the slumping newspaper industry — a common academic and economic question at the moment — the country merely needed to elect the first African-American president, well, every day.
But monumental events such as the Obama election only come around every so often, and journalists are there to document the proceedings from every possible angle. It’s up to the consumers and readers to decide what to do with the product, whether it be framed, torn and used to wiped a teary eye, or tossed in the garbage after the novelty dissipates.
However, some may have other theories for the media’s role in reporting cultural and historic occasions. For example, a sinister theory would hold that the media — which is an amorphous way of grouping thousands of different outlets and publications with varying editorial approaches — overwhelmingly conspired to elect Obama so their papers and magazines would sell at record high levels. That’s a conspiracy theory fit for Hollywood.
But there’s another, more benign, theory that holds the media — there’s that amorphous term again — is sympathetic of liberal or Democratic candidates because most journalists agree with such political ideology or platforms. It’s the kind of theory that keeps organizations like the conservative Media Research Center and its associated Newsbusters Web site in business, the expressed purpose of which is “exposing and combating liberal media bias.”
So what is it? Liberal bias or conservative bias? Conspiracy to sell commemorative issues or a majority of journalists who can’t separate personal belief from professional responsibility?
Unfortunately, the answer is nearly impossible to determine, if there really is a correct answer at all. Such a research question would require a study of epic proportions combining mass media trend analysis with the best that sociology, psychology and political science have to offer — clearly not an undertaking within the parameters of this article.
What’s more manageable is a review of the ways major news publications covered Obama’s victory and eventual inauguration. To compare, it seems fair to review the ways the same outlets covered George W. Bush in the aftermath of his election and inauguration. Thus, following is an unscientific, brief and very anecdotal review of the 2008-09 coverage of Obama and, as closely as possible, the corresponding coverage of Bush in 2000-01.
There are two important notes to consider. First, Bush wasn’t officially the president-elect until mid-December 2000, when the Supreme Court stopped the recount in Florida. Thus, one can’t completely compare how newspapers and magazines covered Obama’s and Bush’s first elections, since there was no concrete projected winner the day after the Nov. 7, 2000, election. However, using the Bush election in 2000, rather than his re-election, is more telling, since both 2000 and 2008 saw no president seeking a second term. Second, just as Obama ran on a platform of change and bipartisanship, Bush’s message in 2000 was similar in tone: A Washington outsider seeks to shake up politics and insert bipartisanship, restoring integrity to American politics.
The two most obvious choices are Time and Newsweek, not only for the weekly distribution but their seemingly nonpartisan stance. Including publications like The Nation and National Review would be improper since they outright express ideological agendas. In considering magazine coverage, though, one must remember the publication process is drastically different than that of newspapers. A magazine story and design may be in production weeks or even months ahead of distribution. Additionally, a magazine dated Jan. 26, 2008, may have actually hit newsstands a week before the date on the cover.
Dec. 25, 2001 (immediately following Supreme Court decision) — Cover story naming Bush “Man of the Year.”
Jan. 15, 2001 (one issue before Bush’s inauguration) — Cover story titled “Drugs of the Future.”
Jan. 22, 2001 (two days after Bush’s inauguration) — Cover story on Attorney General nominee John Ashcroft: “Should this man be attorney general?”
Jan. 29, 2001 — Cover story titled “Oh no — California Power Failure” with a small inset picture of Bush at top of page with the caption: “Boots, Barbeque and No New Taxes.”
Nov. 17, 2008 (first issue after Obama’s
election) — Commemorative issue with picture of Obama — “President-elect Barack Obama, Chicago, November 4, 2008.”
Nov. 24, 2008 – Cover story titled “The New New Deal: What Barack Obama can learn from F.D.R. — and what the Democrats need to do.” The picture of Obama is made to mirror a famous image of President Franklin Roosevelt. Inside is a note from managing editor Richard Stengel explaining the coverage of Obama and the cultural trends that shaped the magazine’s reporting. “The fact that people around the world woke up to learn that the new American president-elect is Barack Obama is in itself an enormous paradigm shift in the perception of the U.S.,” he wrote.
Dec. 1, 2008 — Sidebar on cover: “Why Obama wants a team of rivals.”
Dec. 8, 2008 — Sidebar on cover: “Why Obama’s presidency has already begun” and next to it: “… And Joe Klein on why Bush’s is already over.”
Dec. 15, 2008 — Sidebar on cover: “Team Obama: Strong résumés, strong egos.”
Dec. 29, 2008/Jan. 5, 2009 (double issue) —
Cover story naming Obama “Person of the Year.”
Jan. 26, 2009 (six days after Obama’s inauguration) — “Inauguration Preview” with cover picture of Obama: “Great Expectations: A new president and the burdens that await him.”
Feb. 2, 2009 — Commemorative issue with picture of Obama taking oath of office.
Dec. 25, 2000/Jan. 1, 2001 (Double issue) Cover story: “Bush Wins”
Jan. 15, 2001 (one issue before Bush’s inauguration) — Cover story titled “Beating Big Brother,” about countering government electronic spying. No reference to Bush on cover.
Jan. 22, 2001 (two days after Bush’s inauguration) — Cover story with picture of John Ashcroft titled “Holy War: Bush’s Washington — Is the fight over John Ashcroft a taste of things to come?” An interview with Bush from earlier in January is inside but not listed on the cover.
Jan. 29, 2001 — Cover story, “The Parent Trap,” unaffiliated with Bush. Top center of cover has small photo of inauguration with the caption, “Bush II Begins.”
Nov. 24, 2008 — Cover story, “Obama’s Lincoln,” about Obama channeling the lessons of the 16th president.
Dec. 1, 2008 — Cover story of Michelle Obama titled “The Meaning of Michelle.”
Dec. 8, 2008 — Cover photo showing Obama entering a plane titled “How to Fix the World.” Story written by Fareed Zakaria, extrapolating the November 2008 terror attacks in Mumbai as a reason for a change in terrorism strategy. Zakaria wrote an election endorsement of Obama in Newsweek for the Oct. 27, 2008, issue.
Dec. 29, 2008/Jan. 5, 2009 (double issue) — Cover story titled “The New Global Elite,” with pictures of Obama centered on names of other world political, business and philanthropic leaders. The story reviews the magazine’s 50 most powerful people in the world. Obama is No. 1, and the corresponding article is written by Fareed Zakaria.
Jan. 19, 2009 (one issue before Obama’s inauguration) — Cover story with picture of Obama and Dick Cheney titled “What Would Dick Do? Why Obama may soon find virtue in Cheney’s vision of power.”
Jan. 26, 2009 (six days after Obama’s inauguration) — “Special Inauguration Issue” with picture of Obama titled “Obama’s America.”
Feb. 2, 2009 — Cover story featuring Barack and Michelle Obama at an inaugural ball. Featured on the cover are two subheads: “Private inaugural photos,” and “With the global economic crisis, Obama’s smile won’t last long.”
As “the national newspaper of record,” The New York Times is a constant for all facets of coverage from multiple perspectives and corners of the world. But the paper is also commonly a lightning rod of debate for organizations such as the Media Research Center and its mission of debunking liberal media.
Although the Washington Post might well be considered a smaller version of the Times, it is distinctive for its national distribution yet close connection to the nation’s capital region. Of course, the way the paper covers presidents is of particular interest given its most notable accomplishment: bringing down Richard Nixon. But it’s also curious for the leadership of recently retired editor Len Downie, who famously admitted to never having voted while working in journalism so as to remain undeniably objective. Downie led the paper from 1991 until his retirement in 2008.
Last is The Indianapolis Star, the ed-itorial board of which endorsed Bush in 2000 and 2004 but declined to endorse a candidate in 2008.
Geographically speaking, it also has the virtue of being the largest newspaper in Indiana. This year the state voted for a Democrat for the first time since 1964. The three papers were reviewed the day of and day after each president’s inauguration. Compared to magazines during the 2001 inauguration, the papers also presented more breaking news coverage of outgoing President Bill Clinton’s legal troubles in the wake of the Monica Lewinsky perjury scandal.
THE NEW YORK TIMES
Jan. 20, 2001 (inauguration of Bush) — Headline above fold reads “Exiting Job, Clinton Accepts Immunity Deal.” A headline also on the front page reads “G.O.P. Celebrates Beginning and an End,” referring to Bush’s inauguration and Clinton’s exit. The only headline on the page with Bush’s name is below the fold. The story is titled, “At Hearings, Cracks Appear in Bush’s Party Line” and is about the incoming president’s cabinet nominees who have diverging views from the president on certain issues, such as abortion. The first actual picture of Bush is on page A14 in the special section “Transition in Washington,” an eight-page inauguration section attached to the main section of the paper. Roughly half of the coverage in the section is about the outgoing Clinton administration.
Jan. 21, 2001 (day after Bush’s inaugur-ation) — Headline above fold reads, “Bush, Taking Office, Calls for Civility, Compassion and ‘Nation of Character.’” The main photo is of Bush being sworn in, but he is not centered. He is on the far left of the picture with the first family. The platform party, including Clinton, is prominent in the right foreground. An inside section, “The Inauguration,” is seven pages. One and half pages are taken by a picture of Bush giving his inaugural address, framed by the crowd.
Jan. 20, 2009 (inauguration of Obama) — Headline above fold reads, “On Eve of History, Obama Follows Low-Key Path.” A six-page inside section titled “The 44th President” reviews Obama’s leadership, bipartisan efforts and health policy and the first lady.
Jan. 21, 2009 (day after Obama’s inauguration) — Headline above fold reads
“Obama Takes Oath, and Nation in Crisis Embraces the Moment.” The corresponding picture is of Barack and Michelle Obama walking the parade route, holding hands. Below the fold is a news analysis/opinion piece by David Sanger titled “Rejecting Bush Era, Reclaiming Older Values.” There is a 30-page pull-out supplement of inauguration coverage, reprinting the text of the inaugural address on one page.
THE WASHINGTON POST
Jan. 20, 2001 (inauguration of Bush) — Special 24-page inaugural section inside, although a large amount of content covers Clinton and his end-of-term pardons and post-Lewinsky fallout.
Jan. 21, 2001 (day after Bush’s inaugur-ation) — Headline above fold reads, “Bush Calls for Unity, Civility.” A subhead reads, “Day is filled with drama and defiance.” About eight pages are given to inauguration and surrounding issues (such as protests). There is no special commemorative section.
Jan. 20, 2009 (inauguration of Obama) —There is a 38-page pull-out commemorative section, “Barack Hussein Obama: Dawn of a Presidency.” The section focuses on his path to the White House and the course of African-American history.
Jan. 21, 2009 (day after Obama’s inauguration) — Headline above fold reads, “Obama Takes Charge.” There is a 30-page special inauguration supplement. The supplement headline reads, “A Vast, Diverse Sea of Humanity Celebrates the Dawn of an Era.” Inside is a two-page center spread of Obama taking the stage with millions of people lining the Washington Mall and a full-page reprint of the inaugural address. A full-page feature with pictures extrapolates the text of the oath of office, line by line, with reflections in text of what people around the world (from Chicago to Nairobi to Baghdad) were doing as Obama was sworn in.
THE INDIANAPOLIS STAR
Jan. 20, 2001 (inauguration of Bush) — Split headlines above fold, one describing the inauguration and one referring to Clinton’s immunity. There is no special section or pull-out. Inauguration coverage begins on page A12. The first photo illustration on the page (centered at top) shows eight inauguration protests and two counter protests on the parade route.
Jan. 21, 2001 (day after Bush’s inauguration) — Headline above the fold reads, “Like father, like son.” The subhead reads, “Bush pledges to lead with ‘civility, courage, compassion.’” The picture below is of the new president hugging his father, the 41st president, while Clinton, prominent in the background, looks on. Other stories, not related to inauguration or outgoing president, are on the page above fold. One in the right column reads, “Medicaid drug costs pain state officials.” The inauguration coverage is primarily on three pages inside, with no special pull-out or commemorative section. The inside coverage begins on page A8. The largest photograph on the page is of a protestor jumping off a light pole and into the crowd along the parade route. Of four bylined stories on the page, two are about protests, although the longest is about Indiana residents going to Washington, D.C., to support Bush. The coverage includes a half-page spread with the text of Bush’s inaugural address.
Jan. 20, 2009 (inauguration of Obama) — Contains the series, “An American Milestone: Special Inauguration Day Edition.”
Jan. 21, 2009 (day after Obama’s inauguration) — The front page is devoted entirely to the inauguration, with a wide photo of the first family. There are no non-Obama headlines on the page. There is a 13-page “Special Commemorative Section” with a full two-page spread of Obama’s inaugural speech wrapped around a color picture of him delivering his address to millions in audience.
Remembering how I’d been denied a newspaper on Nov. 5, 2008, I arrived at Starbucks promptly at 5 a.m. on Jan. 21, 2009. I was the first through the door and quickly snagged three copies of both The New York Times and Indianapolis Star.
All ended up as gifts to other people, some of which are now framed.
I didn’t care about reading the news that day, nor did anyone else rushing into a cold coffee shop to empty the shelves of newsprint. In fact, I doubt very many people — the kind eager enough to line up at 5 a.m. in the bitter cold — who barreled to newsstands that morning cared much about the content beyond a few photographs and quaint headlines.
There’s no doubt that media coverage differed between the 2000 and 2008 elections and the corresponding inaugurations. First, the technology to produce catchy graphics, covers and spreads has changed drastically. Second, more media outlets exist now than in 2008, at least on the Internet. Fundamentally the quality of coverage hasn’t changed, just the number of players in the game and the court on which the game is played. Of course, you can’t discount the types of media outlets that before Obama had little stake in covering presidential politics. Now every African-American magazine, from American Legacy to Essence to Black Enterprise, has Obama on the cover.
In the end, it’s true that “the media” covered this election differently than that of 2000, or any other election for that matter. But it’s a safe bet that would be true if a woman or Muslim or gay person had won. The first of anything is an extraordinary achievement. More coverage doesn’t necessarily mean softer coverage. Flashier graphics and commemorative sections don’t equal sympathetic journalists.
If there is a bias here, it’s distinctly apolitical. It’s a human bias, wanting to be
a part of something unique. Journalists are still telling the same story they’ve always told. This year they merely packaged it with a little more zest for those who demanded to own and preserve a part of history.