Journalists covering the 2008 presidential race have spent the past year-and-a-half obsessing over every incremental development. But after Thursday's caucus in Iowa they can finally respond to actual voting. Mark Jurkowitz of the Project for Excellence in Journalism took a look at some of the coverage.
BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York, this is NPR’s On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield. BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. [CLIP] [MUSIC UP AND UNDER] CHRIS MATTHEWS: Barack Obama, the senator from Illinois, has won the Democratic caucuses in Iowa. I'm telling you, Keith, history. This is Lexington and Concord. This is going around the world right now. In Rangoon they're [LAUGHS] putting their front page together. [END CLIP] BROOKE GLADSTONE: MSNBC’s Chris Matthews on Thursday night, arguably the opening night, not counting months of previews, of the 2008 presidential race. Expect that show to run for about a year. [CLIP] [MUSIC UP AND UNDER] CHRIS MATTHEWS: A guy named Barack Hussein Obama, whose father’s from Kenya, and here he is on a victory projectile to win the Democratic nomination, defeating the President’s wife. That’s the big story as well. I think the lead here is Barack Obama. The second lead is Hillary loses. [END CLIP] BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mark Jurkowitz is the associate director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism. Mark, what do you make of the enthusiasm of MSNBC’s [LAUGHS] Chris Matthews, not – [LAUGHS] MARK JURKOWITZ: You know, you took the words [LAUGHING] right out of my mouth, but I would say no one’s ever accused Chris Matthews of a lack of enthusiasm. But he reflects, I think, the level of sort of surprisingly decisive commentary that came out of Thursday night’s Iowa caucuses. This didn't feel like the first inning of a game. This felt like the ninth inning of a game — [BROOKE LAUGHS] — the way the media were covering it. BROOKE GLADSTONE: And do you think that was appropriate? Do you think that the media pump up the importance of the Iowa caucus merely because they spend so much time there? MARK JURKOWITZ: Well, there’s a real psychology to this, and recognize that [LAUGHS] journalists are human. And they finally actually got to see somebody vote. You could only imagine - [LAUGHTER] – the pent-up anticipation and excitement. So there’s going to be a natural emotional, psychological tendency to play this bigger than maybe it is.
Having said that you had very definitive messages coming out of the press. The first one was there was no weasel words about your limited mandate or anything like that. The victories by Huckabee and Obama were treated as definitive wins. There was a winner and a loser.
And then the most problematic message that came out of it was this sense that across the plains of Iowa swept a sweeping prairie fire and mandate of populist change. And here I think you got the most extrapolation and jumping to conclusions that may or may not hold up during the rest of the race. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Much was made on Thursday night about Edwards coming in second and Clinton coming in third whereas there was barely a point, if that, between them; a lot of discussion of McCain on the Republican side getting 13 percent, which was not seen as a defeat for him at all. Nobody mentioned Ron Paul’s 10 percent. Are the media still playing favorites when it comes to these candidates? Are they making too much of places beyond first? MARK JURKOWITZ: I don't think that Hillary Clinton was necessarily being given a demerit for finishing a very, very close third. It wasn't whether she finished third or second, frankly. It was that fact that Obama beat her by a solid margin that made her the loser.
Edwards, who finishes second by the narrowest of margins, we found the immediate coverage afterwards to sort of write Edwards out of the story again, other than he'll continue to fight on. It sort of continues a trend that we've had with John Edwards, which is he’s tended to frankly be ignored by much of the media.
On the Republican side, I think there was a lot of talk about this is a very good night for John McCain, which may leave a lot of viewers scratching their heads why. He finished fourth, or tied for third. He was way, way 30, you know, 20-some points behind Huckabee. How is that a good night?
And, of course, there, that’s the media already looking forward to Tuesday night in New Hampshire, assuming that McCain’s going to have a strong showing there and thinking that the defeat of Romney in Iowa turns out to be a very good thing for McCain. That’s some sophisticated tiering that we have to wait and see for a while. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Having watched a lot of the coverage on Thursday night and Friday morning and sampled a bunch of the headlines, what do you think the coverage of the Iowa caucus tells us about what we can expect in the coverage of the rest of the campaign? MARK JURKOWITZ: When we're looking at newspaper headlines in the immediate aftermath, we see a lot of sort of playing it straight. Didn't put a lot of spin on it, but really reinforced the sense that there were huge winners coming out of Iowa.
The lesson from the cable networks is they are managing to get their arms around – they managed to get their arms around the tricky prospect of both vote counting and projection. I sort of anticipated a night that would go on till 11 o'clock and 12 o'clock, and the projections and the predictions were in much earlier than that.
So my guess is that TV will be determined to make sure there is very little suspense on any night when people are casting votes from here through November. BROOKE GLADSTONE: You were saying that as far as you could see the newspaper headlines mostly played it straight. That’s a little depressing. No fun tabloids on this? MARK JURKOWITZ: You know, it was a little depressing. You know, we got a couple of sort of “winds of change”. But I will give you my personal nomination — [BROOKE LAUGHS] — for best headline this morning. It’s The Boston Herald, which until recently, you could argue, was Mitt Romney’s hometown newspaper. It’s the conservative tabloid in Boston. And they have almost a full-page headshot of Mike Huckabee, who does bear maybe a distant resemblance to Jim Nabors, who once starred in a very funny show [BROOKE LAUGHS]called Gomer Pyle.
So The Boston Herald has a big picture of Huckabee with the headline “Shazzam. Gomer Huckabee Whips Slick Mitt.” [BROOKE LAUGHS] So not only do you get an aged Baby Boomer pop culture reference but you also learn that even when voters in Iowa are casting the votes in Boston, all politics is local. BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Thank you so much, Mark. MARK JURKOWITZ: You’re welcome. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mark Jurkowitz is the associate director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism.