The Media vs. Conservatives, 2013 Edition: Virginia Newspapers’ Viciously Negative Coverage of GOP Gubernatorial Candidate

Last year, the national media spent the campaign highlighting (or inventing) problems for the Republican ticket of Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan, while downplaying or ignoring the shortcomings in Barack Obama’s record as President. Next year, we’ll find out if the media will be more successful than they were in 2010, when they attempted to marginalize and discredit conservative Tea Party candidates in a campaign that turned out to be a crushing defeat for liberals.

This year, however, there’s really only one major political race on the political radar: the Virginia governor’s race between former Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe (a longtime associate of Bill and Hillary Clinton) and Republican Ken Cuccinelli, currently the state’s attorney general. And a new MRC study of major newspapers in the state finds the GOP candidate is receiving far more negative coverage than his Democratic counterpart — just four positive stories vs. 95 negative ones, a whopping 24-to-1 margin.

For this report, Media Research Center analysts reviewed the coverage in Virginia’s four most widely-circulated newspapers: The Washington Post, the Richmond Times-Dispatch, the Roanoke Times and the Virginian-Pilot, based in Norfolk. Using Nexis, we located 405 news stories, editorial and columns that either mentioned the governor’s race or one of the candidates, beginning on June 12 (the day after the primary) and continuing through August 31. Of those, 221 stories were primarily about the governor’s race, while the remaining 184 either briefly mentioned the race, or talked about one of the candidates outside of the context of the campaign (usually actions Cuccinelli had taken as attorney general).

In fact, because of Cuccinelli’s role as an incumbent office-holder, he received significantly more coverage than his Democratic rival. Cuccinelli was featured in 205 stories, compared to just 135 for McAuliffe (and nine for Libertarian candidate Robert Sarvis). Cuccinelli was also mentioned in 173 additional stories, for a total of 378 (93% of the full sample), while McAuliffe was briefly discussed in an extra 124 stories, summing to 259 (just 64% of the total).

But this heavy coverage has not been a blessing for the Republican candidate. Our study found that Cuccinelli has received far more negative coverage than his rival, and only Cuccinelli has been cast by the newspapers as an ideological candidate. And, despite ongoing ethical questions surrounding Terry McAuliffe, these newspapers have collectively run twice as many pieces talking about Cuccinelli’s ethics than those of his Democratic competitor.


Spin: Democratic candidate Terry McAuliffe faced news coverage that was predominantly negative, with three times as many negative news stories (66) as positive ones (21). But that paled compared to the overwhelmingly negative spin faced by Republican Ken Cuccinelli, who saw only four news stories tilted in his favor, vs. 95 that were tilted against him, a astonishingly lopsided 24-to-1 margin.

METHODOLOGY: MRC analysts tallied all statements from journalists and quoted sources that were explicitly pro- or anti- one of the candidates. If the total of these comments in a story were tilted in either direction by a greater than three-to-two margin, then the story was scored as either “positive” or “negative” for that candidate. Otherwise, the story was classified as “mixed” or “neutral.” Our analysts only examined comments about the candidates’ merits, and excluded judgments about the campaign “horse race,” i.e., poll standings or fundraising.

The tone of Cuccinelli’s coverage was basically identical across all four newspapers examined, while McAuliffe received somewhat more favorable news coverage from the Virginian-Pilot and the Roanoke Times compared to the Washington Post and the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

On the editorial pages, Cuccinelli fared slightly better: seven positive items, vs. 78 negative ones, an 11-to-1 margin. McAuliffe, however, did worse, with just three positive stories here, compared to 46 that were negative, a better than 15-to-1 disparity.

Overall, readers saw 173 stories that were predominantly critical of Cuccinelli, vs. just 11 that reflected a pro-Cuccinelli tilt. For McAuliffe, the same numbers were 112 negative stories vs. 24 positive ones. Thus, the Republican faced not only more lopsidedly negative coverage, but 35% more negative stories overall than his Democratic opponent.

In much of the news coverage, both candidates were dragged down by the dynamic of daily campaign reporting, as each candidate (or their spokesmen) were usually quoted trashing their opponent, with little space given to repeating the campaigns’ positive messages. But McAuliffe received more than twice as much coverage for Democratic campaign events (ten news stories, vs. just four for Republican events), and these were usually positive. 

For example, Washington Post reporter Fredrick Kunkle on June 19 documented McAuliffe’s tour of a suburban subway station under construction, where the candidate talked up his own record and trashed Cuccinelli. The 15-paragraph story was dominated by McAuliffe’s point of view, with just two paragraphs for a rejoinder from Cuccinelli’s spokeswoman. On July 29, the Post’s Paul Schwartzman treated McAuliffe to a 1500-word softball review of his campaign, headlined: “As politicians go, McAuliffe is laid-back on Va. bid.”

Cuccinelli garnered no such bouquets for his work on the stump. Much of his coverage was dominated by questions about his ethics, often included in stories that were mainly focused on the related woes of Governor Bob McDonnell (more below). Cuccinelli was also heavily criticized in stories about his role in supporting new standards for abortion clinics; his stance against gay marriage, especially in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision on the issue; and his education plan, a component of which is expanding tax credits for companies donating to private school scholarships for needy students.

In a news story about Cuccinelli’s conventionally conservative education plan, the Virginian-Pilot’s Julian Walker uniquely suggested a racial angle, noting that such tax credits have been “a sore point for public education advocates as well as black legislators. They view it as a legally questionable work-around to a constitutional ban on public aid to private schools that, to some, evokes painful memories of Massive Resistance,” the effort to avoid school desegregation back in the 1950s.

One of the rare positive stories on Cuccinelli appeared on the August 19 Washington Post, as reporter Jerry Markon recounted how “the Virginia attorney general stood proudly at a news conference in late 2011 announcing the exoneration of a Richmond man who had spent 27 years in prison after being wrongfully convicted of rape,” referring to the moment as part of the “broad evolution” of the “tough law-and-order conservative” on issues such as mandatory sentences and restoring voting rights for non-violent felons.

Of course, “law and order” conservatives don’t believe in locking up innocent people, only guilty ones. But Cuccinelli’s role in championing the man’s release was apparently enough of a shock to the Post that it earned the Republican one of his few positive stories of the summer.


Labels: GOP candidate Ken Cuccinelli was labeled as a “conservative” 26 times (15 in news stories, 11 in opinion items) during the study period, while Democratic candidate Terry McAuliffe was never once described as a liberal. (Note: This tally only includes labels affixed by the reporter, editorial writer or columnist; it does not reflect any ideological tags used by partisan sources quoted in the story.)

The Democrat’s strategy was to claim the center, and by never once employing the “liberal” label, reporters obliged — even as they passed on claims of a “mainstream” McAuliffe. In a June 13 article about a joint appearance by the three-man Democratic ticket, the Washington Post’s Laura Vozzella relayed how they were “portraying themselves as mainstream alternatives to the Republicans’ ‘Tea Party ticket.’” A week later, describing the candidates’ speeches at a June 20 forum in Reston, the Washington Post’s Ben Pershing merely recounted how “McAuliffe presented himself as a business-friendly moderate,” making no attempt to puncture the persona.

In contrast, Cuccinelli was wrapped in his ideology. The Post’s Pershing on June 12 characterized Cuccinelli “as a conservative who stands by his beliefs,” while Richmond Times-Dispatch reporter Jim Nolan described him as a “tea party conservative” in an August 11 article. The next day, reporter Julian Walker of the Virginian-Pilot wrote about Cuccinelli’s “social conservative crusades against gay rights, abortion and a climate change researcher.”

Editorial pages were harsher, often dripping with disdain for Cuccinelli’s stance on issues such as abortion and gay rights. In an August 24 column, Virginian-Pilot writer Daryl Lease described the Republican nominee as a “run-of-the-mill, run-amok ideologue.” In the June 23 Richmond Times-Dispatch, columnist A. Barton Hinkle said Cuccinelli had been “denounced” by other conservatives as “a strident extremist whose views on social issues make Cotton Mather look like Caligula.”


Ethics: Controversies swirled around both candidates, but ethical questions surrounding Ken Cuccinelli drew twice as much attention from these newspapers as those involving Terry McAuliffe. From June 12 through August 31, 91 news stories (34% of the total) and 61 editorials and columns (44% of the total) mentioned or discussed Cuccinelli’s ethics, most prominently questions surrounding his belated disclosure of gifts from Star Scientific CEO Jonnie Williams (accounting for 119 of the 152 stories talking about Cuccinelli’s ethics).

In contrast, 48 news stories (18%) and 27 opinion pieces (19%) talked about McAuliffe’s ethical problems, chiefly his stewardship of GreenTech Automotive, currently the subject of a federal investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission. Overall, readers saw 152 stories about Cuccinelli’s ethics, vs. just 75 about McAuliffe, a greater than two-to-one disparity.

Cuccinelli’s name was frequently brought up in stories about Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell, who is currently being investigated for receiving far more in gifts and loans from the same businessman. A July 18 report by Commonwealth’s Attorney Michael Herring, a Democrat, cleared Cuccinelli of wrongdoing in failing to disclose his gifts until April 2013, when the investigation into McDonnell was underway, but the positive report did little to stem the flood of coverage.

While Richmond Times-Dispatch reporter Jim Nolan characterized Herring’s exoneration as “a significant political boost for Cuccinelli,” Roanoke Times reporter David Ress bypassed the good news for Cuccinelli in favor of a detail embedded in a footnote from Herring’s nine-page report. The Roanoke Times’ innuendo-laced headline: “Cuccinelli says he may have helped Williams.” The supposed “help,” according to the story: referring Williams to a private attorney when the CEO brought up a legal problem.

Cuccinelli faced other negative headlines as well. Roanoke’s Ress filed several pieces about a controversy involving e-mails a lawyer in the Attorney General’s office, Sharon Pigeon, sent to lawyers representing natural gas companies against Virginia landowners in a claim dispute. “Pigeon’s role in the case has become an issue in Cuccinelli’s bid to become Virginia’s next governor, with Democratic legislators calling for an investigation and arguing it shows Cuccinelli tends to side with big business against the interest of ordinary Virginians,” Ress insisted. Among all four papers, this controversy was mentioned or discussed in 28 stories.

The Virginian-Pilot ran a front-page item on July 18 by Julian Walker with the damning headline: “Marines dispute Cuccinelli’s account of his departure from the reserves.” But the story contained no evidence of any inaccuracy on the part of Cuccinelli, only that a public relations officer with the Marines thought one sentence in a campaign statement “may be technically accurate for the most part, but what it communicates is not.” But, according to Walker, she would not elaborate, “citing legal privacy standards.” None of the other papers in our study even bothered to pick up that report.

At the same time, while both the Washington Post and Richmond Times-Dispatch did major pieces on McAuliffe’s dealings, that controversy drew significantly less overall coverage than Cuccinelli’s gift disclosure. Building on a lengthy investigative piece by their correspondent Fredrick Kunkle, a Washington Post editorial summarized:

GreenTech relies heavily on financing from wealthy foreigners, many of them Chinese, who pony up at least $500,000 each through a federal program designed to attract overseas investors....The troubling question is whether GreenTech, as conceived by Mr. McAuliffe, is a serious and viable automotive enterprise or mainly a scheme to attract foreign investment capital and serve Mr. McAuliffe’s political agenda....According to former GreenTech employees who spoke to the Post, the plant is a Potemkin manufacturing facility, where managers stage a semblance of production for the benefit of visitors....If the company is mainly smoke and mirrors — if it is little more than a visa mill launched to serve Mr. McAuliffe’s political ambitions — that is disturbing. Virginians are right to press him for answers.

Unlike the Washington and Richmond newspapers, the Virginian-Pilot and Roanoke Times — papers that dogged Cuccinelli on his ethics — seemed less interested in digging through McAuliffe’s dirty laundry. The Roanoke Times even smacked the Cuccinelli campaign for daring to run an anti-McAuliffe commercial on the controversy, using it as an excuse to re-hash all of Cuccinelli’s potential problems in an August 26 editorial.

While none of the newspapers ran positive stories about the Democrat’s ethics (apart from an August 18 guest column by McAuliffe himself in the Washington Post), the disparity in coverage was a huge favor to Team Terry.

Poring over the local coverage that could make all the difference in this year’s closest political race, it’s obvious that many smaller newspapers harbor the same liberal impulses that skew political news at the national level. It’s one more advantage that Democrats and liberals enjoy, and one more obstacle that conservatives must overcome.