The Presidency and Local Media: Local Newspaper Coverage of President George W. Bush

Article excerpt

Leading the media, public, and Congress through speeches is at the core of modern presidential governance. But just as the modern political environment requires presidents to appeal for support through speeches, presidents are increasingly unable to cultivate public opinion. Presidents who attempt to lead the nation are faced with a public that tunes out the president's prime-time addresses (Baum and Kernell 1999) and a news media whose attention to presidential addresses is fleeting (Peake and Eshbaugh-Soha 2008). When the national news media cover the presidency, the coverage is typically more negative than positive (Farnsworth and Lichter 2005; Groeling and Kernell 1998). As a result, presidents have difficulty setting the media's agenda (Edwards and Wood 1999; Eshbaugh-Soha and Peake 2003) or moving public opinion (Edwards 2003).

The difficulty presidents face generating positive and frequent national news coverage is not lost upon recent chief executives. Increasingly, presidents have turned from the so-called "filter" of national news coverage to appeal to local and regional media for coverage. This has manifest itself in increased domestic travel (Cook 2002; Cohen and Powell 2003) and efforts on the part of the White House to nurture favorable relations--and presumably news coverage--with local media. Cultivating local media begins with one expectation: Local media are more responsive than national media to the White House's efforts to generate news coverage, whether support for the president's policy or reelection goals. Indeed, presidential administrations target local media for two reasons, argues Martha Joynt Kumar (2007, 97-99). First, "the president generally receives positive coverage when he travels to localities around the country" and that coverage is typically comprehensive. Second, people generally trust their local media more than they trust national media outlets. This, in turn, makes local media the primary source of news for most Americans (Hamilton 2004). Journalists, White House insiders, and some political scientists hold this as conventional wisdom and suggest it is one of the reasons for why presidential administrations since Nixon have targeted local media through domestic travel and other efforts.

Recent research on newspaper coverage of President George W. Bush's trips provides support for this conventional wisdom. In 2001, for example, President Bush's domestic travel led to mostly positive local newspaper coverage (Barrett and Peake 2007). Bush's Social Security reform tour in 2003, which included a significant "going local" strategy, received ample and generally favorable local coverage from local newspapers in comparison with stories in the Washington Post (Eshbaugh-Soha and Peake 2006). Despite these findings, the burgeoning literature on this understudied topic is not definitively supportive of the conventional wisdom. One study of everyday coverage of the presidency--unrelated to specific presidential visits--demonstrates that local newspaper coverage of the presidency is in fact decidedly negative (Eshbaugh-Soha 2008b). Another study, which focused on a broad set of local newspapers and front-page coverage unrelated to domestic travel by President Bush in 2006, produced decidedly mixed findings (Peake 2007).

To further develop our understanding of local media coverage of the presidency, we examine local newspaper coverage of the third year of George W. Bush's presidency. We expect that local news media will cover presidential trips favorably in part due to the unique and rare nature of a presidential visit. Yet, we expect substantial variation in local news coverage across several important variables, including audience support for the president and numerous characteristics of the story itself. What is more, we explore the impact that local coverage of the war in Iraq had on the tone of presidential news coverage to see if President Bush is correct that local media would offer a more favorable perspective of the president and his policies in light of increasingly negative national news coverage of the war after the fall of Baghdad. …