The Media Pounds the President: Does it Matter?

Sep 12 '13

President Obama’s speech on Syria has received mostly harsh grades from the media, as has his broader policy in the region so far: if I had a dime for every comment arguing (actually, mostly just stating) the scope of the damage done to Obama, to the presidency, to the United States, to the world, etc., from his handling of the Syrian situation I would have, well, many dimes. Peter Baker’s piece in today’s NY Times sums up the critics as seeing Obama as “feckles[s]…. reactive, defensive and profoundly challenged in standing up to a dangerous world.” In the blogosphere Stu Rothenberg says the Obama administration has been “confused, erratic and in way over its head,” “nothing short of sad,” “inept.”  Joe Klein goes further, calling it “one of the more stunning and inexplicable displays of presidential incompetence  that I’ve ever witnessed.” (Given that he was around to witness Bill Clinton deal with Haiti, this is saying something; but then Klein also manages to wax nostalgic for the heyday of Henry Kissinger.)  Even the more sympathetic Ezra Klein sums it up as “less George Kennan and more Mr. Magoo.”

So: how much should Obama worry about this?

At least one study suggests, not much. Jeffrey Cohen, in his 2008 book The Presidency in the Era of 24-Hour News, found that after the 1970s, “no correlation exists between the negativity of presidential news and public approval of the president.”  Before then – Cohen’s quite comprehensive data go back to the 1940s – there was indeed a strong connection, where a negative tone in press coverage was linked to lower approval. (Richard Brody finds this too in his earlier book on Assessing the President.)

Cohen suggests a number of reasons for this disconnect, tied to the broader structure of the “presidential news system”; I will condense them to two:

(1) in the pre-Watergate era, the press coverage of the president, and of government generally, was largely positive. Thus, negative news was a credible signal for the public to follow. When a Harry Truman, or Richard Nixon, attracted negative coverage, people assumed this meant something had changed they needed to take note of. Now, pretty much all coverage of the president is negative, so the public uncouples its sense of presidential performance from news coverage. (“The regularity of negative news makes it hard for the public to tell if the bad news reflects truly bad conditions that it should pay attention to or if it merely reflects the agenda of journalists,” broadly defined.)

(2) this is buttressed by the fragmentation of the media task from broadcasting to “narrowcasting,” thanks to the rise of cable/satellite/internet, etc., along with the shopping of the interested public for news and opinion framed to suit its preferred preconceptions (Obama is good, Obama is bad…): there is less “mass” in mass media, less trust in media generally, and fewer people likely to encounter evidence that would change their mind anyway.

It is of course nearly impossible to isolate the impact of the tone of coverage, especially in one short-term discrete case; how to keep all else equal when events are shifting rapidly (see Putin 2013)? Another twist in the current situation is that the new normal of polarization – where Dems express kneejerk approval, Republicans automatic disapproval, of the president – is complicated by the fact that some of Obama’s more reliable allies on the left are dead set against war in Syria and some in the GOP for it. Still, a quick glance at RealClearPolitics’ aggregation of presidential approval polls suggests they have held steady (the shift from Labor Day to today is from 43.8 to 43.5%). Whether approval itself matters… well, that’s a post for another time!