The Edwards eclipse

Talking about class can get contenders knocked off the media’s list of favorites

By John Seeley 01/31/2008

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Why has the decision for Democrats come down to Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama? Whatever happened to that John Edwards guy, the one who was nominated for vice-president four years ago?

Apparently, three was a crowd — or so the major media decided — and Edwards has dropped out of the race.

That should come as no surprise, considering the relative media blackout on Edwards that began months ago. And that being the case, there's a strong argument that poor coverage of Edwards is the cause, not the consequence, of his weak showing at the polls.

In the nation’s first Democratic contest, the Iowa caucuses, it was Edwards, not Clinton, who took the silver, edging the New York senator into third by a narrow margin. But did he get equal coverage in the post-Iowa period? Did he get attention for his upset of the supposed frontrunner? Not according to the Project for Excellence in Journalism, a research "fact tank" headed by former LA Times media critic Tom Rosenstiel, which monitors the proportion of media coverage accorded each week to presidential candidates of both parties, recording whether each was the main newsmaker or simply a “significant presence” in the story.

For the Jan. 6-11 period, half of which was before Edwards’ disappointing performance in the New Hampshire primary, he was featured in only 7 percent of the campaign stories — Clinton and Obama got 37 and 32 percent, respectively. On the PEJ Web site, www.journalism.org, analysis of that survey points out that third place was not a cause of invisibility on the Republican side: “Mike Huckabee, a distant third in the GOP race, got sizably more media attention than did John Edwards among the Democrats.”

What coverage Edwards got in major dailies after besting Clinton in Iowa was minor and often negative. The day after the caucuses, Jan. 4, the Washington Post ran a box showing the candidates’ poll standings from March through December against a timeline of campaign news. The only mentions of Edwards there were the recurrence of his wife’s cancer and the $400 haircuts; after that April story, he apparently said and did nothing newsworthy, in the Post’s view.

In the same day’s San Francisco Chronicle story, five paragraphs were Clinton-centered to one about Edwards. His picture was captioned “Even second place wouldn’t be enough to keep his underfunded campaign going much further.”

Similarly, the San Diego Union-Tribune’s story that day had five Clinton paragraphs but none devoted to Edwards, who “needed a win here to keep funds from drying up,” the paper said. In its look ahead to New Hampshire the next day, the Union-Tribune did have one short paragraph on Edwards, who, it said, “continued railing against special interests.”

But giving Edwards short shrift goes back many months. According to the Project for Excellence in Journalism’s Oct.29 report, Edwards “has had real trouble competing for media attention with the two celebrity candidates,” and was featured as “the major figure in only 4 percent of the campaign stories in the first five months of the year. … But even that number is in some ways deceptive. Were it not for the month of March, when Edwards’ wife Elizabeth announced that her breast cancer had recurred, [Edwards] would have been in the third tier of candidate coverage … despite the fact that Edwards had been leading, for much of this time, in the polls in Iowa.”

What’s particularly odd about the Edwards eclipse is that he has been neglected by the media even though — unlike Huckabee — he is probably his party’s strongest candidate for the November election, as measured by numerous one-on-one face-off polls.

“Edwards has consistently outperformed all other Democrats in general election match-ups,” pollster Rasmussen Reports declared in late June. September polls by SurveyUSA in swing states such as Ohio, Missouri and Iowa showed Edwards consistently stronger than Clinton or Obama against Mitt Romney and stronger in most states when facing Rudy Giuliani, who also dropped out of the race on Wednesday.

So if Edwards’ weakness as a candidate can’t be the reason for his weakness as a newsmaker, what might be the reason that he drew so little coverage — especially positive coverage?

Jeff Cohen, founder of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), notes in his yearend commentary, “The P-U-litzers" (Pasadena Weekly, “Bad news,” Jan. 3), that major media deployed a “three H’s” shorthand in their Edwards coverage, "expensive haircut, his hedge fund work after the 2004 election, and his sprawling homestead" to make the case that “Edwards — unlike the wealthy candidates who never mention the poor — is a hypocrite when he discusses poverty."

The Washington Post’s John Solomon mused “As Edwards has campaigned, his hair seems to have attracted as much attention, as say, his position on health care.”

But why did that happen? It’s something not yet explained by media spokespeople. However, it might be worth noting what the media have to say about Edwards in endorsements and editorials — when they tell us what they really think. According to a list on Wikipedia.com, Clinton has garnered 19 endorsements, Obama had 39, while Edwards had exactly one — the Fresno Bee.

In its December editorial embrace of Hilary Clinton, the Des Moines Register smacked Edwards (its 2004 choice) for his “harsh anti-corporate rhetoric [which] would make it difficult to work with the business community to forge change.” A few words about class conflict, it seems, and you’re no longer at the top of the class.

Former LA Times editor Bill Boyarsky compares Edwards to another rich candidate with good hair who spoke up for the underclass. It took a gun to shut down Bobby Kennedy’s crusade for justice. In Edwards’ case, it took just a silencer — the blackout of his message by a cynical and hostile press

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