Press Coverage of Legislative Appeals by the President

By Barrett, Andrew W. | Political Research Quarterly, December 2007 | Go to article overview

Press Coverage of Legislative Appeals by the President


Barrett, Andrew W., Political Research Quarterly


By and large, unless the president's public appeals for legislation are reported by the national media, only his immediate audiences will hear them. This article examines 541 presidential legislative appeals from the Reagan and first Bush administrations to determine how often such appeals are reported and which ones generate press coverage. It is discovered that the majority of appeals by the president are not reported. This finding helps explain why presidents struggle to build public support for their proposals, as the public cannot be persuaded by messages it never hears. Presidents themselves appear largely responsible for this limited coverage, as most of their appeals are quite short and not the central focus of their public remarks. However, appeals that meet the press's criteria for newsworthiness are reported more often, particularly those that are most significant to the president and that easily fit the narrative style of reporting favored by journalists.

Keywords: president; going public; media coverage

Over the past several decades, the number of presidential public activities has been steadily increasing (Hart 1987; Kernell 1997; Ragsdale 1998; Powell 1999). One purpose of these activities is for the president to drum up popular support for his legislative proposals (Barrett 2005). Only a handful of presidential speeches-and, therefore, legislative appeals by the president-are heard by a national audience, however. For the vast majority of his appeals, the president's audience consists of no more than several hundred people and reaches no further than a meeting of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the American Association of Retired People, the Detroit Economic Club, or some similar organization. To reach the mass American public, most presidential legislative appeals must be reported by the national media.

The president certainly is the star of the media's reporting on political news, and he receives more coverage than any other American political actor. As Hart (1987, 111) wrote, "No matter how pedestrian his day may have been, no matter what other matters of great moment may have imposed themselves on the nation that day, an American president will be seen, heard, and read every twenty-four hours." But how often does the press report the president's pleas to the American people for support of his policies in covering his daily activities? This question is important because, although there is no guarantee that the president will be able to build public support even if all bis legislative appeals are reported, it is a certainty that he will not be able to make bis case to the American people if they never hear it.

To analyze the reporting of legislative appeals by the president, I examined coverage of 541 such appeals from Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush. I found that the majority of appeals are never reported and only a small portion are ever a main focus of a newspaper story. These findings help explain the difficulty presidents have shaping public opinion regarding their proposals (Edwards 2003), as the American people cannot be persuaded by a message that never reaches them. The blame for the limited press coverage of legislative appeals apparently lies with the president, since most of his appeals are quite short and not the primary emphasis of his public remarks.

I also analyzed what characteristics of legislative appeals generate more press coverage. Appeals that meet the press's criteria for newsworthiness are most likely to be reported, especially appeals that are most significant to the president and those that easily fit the narrative style of reporting favored by journalists. To a lesser extent, the novelty of each appeal and whether the president created political conflict by directly challenging Congress to act increased the likelihood of an appeal being reported. Finally, the press was more likely to report appeals made by Reagan compared to those of his successor, while appeals made at fundraising events received less coverage. …

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