Contrary to Democratic complaints, George W. Bush has not gotten an easier ride from the American media in his first 100 days than Bill Clinton did in his famously rocky start, according to a new study of press coverage. Despite a very good first month, Bush’s coverage overall was actually less positive than Bill Clinton’s eight years ago, the study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism found.

But the impression the American public has of Bush at this point may be fairly shallow and transitory. Bush is dramatically less visible than Clinton was with fully 41% fewer stories about Bush on network TV, in newspaper section fronts, opinion pages and in one major newsweekly in the first two months in office.

As a whole, the press has depicted Bush as a skillful manager, more comfortable as an insider than a man of the people, who is stubbornly pursuing a sincere, conservative ideological agenda even if it is controversial.

By contrast, a much larger percentage of the coverage of Clinton depicted him as a politician of the people whose actions and policies were often highly calculated but also more popular.

Tone of Stories
for Bush and Clinton
Positive 22% 27%
Neutral 49 44
Negative 28 28
Satire 1 1
Total 100 100

These are a few of the findings of the new study, which examined 899 stories at four network television news stations, two major newspapers and one major newsweekly during the first 60 days of the Bush Administration and, by comparison, the Clinton Administration in 1993. The study included every odd day and all Sundays of the nightly newscasts of ABC, NBC, CBS and PBS, the section fronts and opinion pages of the New York Times and the Washington Post, and all issues of Newsweek magazine.

While overall the coverage of Bush’s early days is actually less positive than Clinton’s, many may sense the opposite because of the power of first impressions.

Bush had a far better first month than Clinton. Positive stories outweighed negative (27% to 23%), while for Clinton, it was more than reversed (32% negative, 22% positive).

The coverage of Bush has become more critical since then, as the focus turned from his basic competence to his policy and ideological agenda. In his second month, the coverage was twice as negative as positive (36% to 17%).

Tone of Bush Coverage
Positive 27% 17%
Neutral 49 47
Negative 23 36
Satire 1 0
Total 100 100

If one were to exclude editorial and opinion pages as well as Newsweek, which researches found to be a hybrid of news and opinion, and look only at hard news pages and broadcast news, Bush and Clinton received essentially similar percentages of positive stories (24% Bush versus 23% Clinton), while Clinton’s coverage was markedly more negative (18% Bush versus 28% Clinton). But given the growing amount of commentary in the media culture today—on TV, radio and print—it seems more appropriate to examine the coverage in total. Hard news may account for less and less of how people form their impressions of public figures.

Bush also may have benefited initially from the expectations game, the data suggests. After expressing clear doubts about Bush’s intelligence and competence during the 2000 campaign1, the press gave the new president high marks when the Administration managed a smooth transition, particularly during the cabinet appointment process.

That began to give way when Bush’s budget plans were released and more of his policy positions became clearer, including on such issues as global warming, water pollution, bankruptcy law and mining cleanup.

Clinton, in contrast, was hammered in his early days for missteps over gays in the military and botched appointments, which were all the more surprising for a candidate depicted as one of the most skillful politicians in generations. His coverage became more positive because his policy positions on the budget, free trade, health care and reinventing government were depicted as widely popular.

Among other findings in the study:

  • The press had a tendency to view Clinton’s policies as tactical and strategic. It tends to view Bush’s policy agenda as a more genuine expression of his worldview. While this has led to critical coverage at times, it could soon benefit the new president. If his policies prevail in Congress, he may be depicted as someone who stood on principle and won rather than someone who might have been paying off political debts or shoring up his base.
  • Coverage of Clinton was twice as likely to deal with his relationship to American citizens as Bush’s. Bush’s coverage has focused far more on his relationship with insiders in Congress. This was even truer on television, perhaps because Clinton staged events with citizens while Bush, when he does public events, tends to do them with political figures.
  • Bush has enjoyed much more success controlling his message than Clinton. All five of the major stories about Bush were those that he initiated or were part of the budget process he knew to plan for. By contrast, only two of the top five stories about Clinton’s early days-both budget related–were expected. The three others were all unanticipated problems, two of them self-inflicted.
  • There is a clear pattern to how the press has covered the last two new presidents. It starts by focusing on whether the man is up to the job. Then policy takes over, especially budget issues. Overall the basis upon which the media assessed the two administrations was strikingly similar. Six-out-of-ten stories assessed ideological agenda. Roughly a third focused on leadership qualities (more so at the start). Just 5% or less of stories assessed presidential character.
  • In print, Bush had a much harder time than Clinton on the opinion pages. Half of all editorials have been critical of him, while only 20% have been positive. While these results come from the New York Times and Washington Post, reputedly liberal papers, the problem was roughly the same on the op-ed pages, where four-in-ten stories were critical and only 16% positive.
  • Clinton fared much better. Only two-in-ten editorials were plainly negative while more than 40% were positive. His op-ed pieces were more evenly mixed, with negative stories slightly outweighing positive (35% to 30%).

Much was made in 1993 of the swift judgments that seemed implicit in the press coverage of Clinton. The notion of a presidential honeymoon period, some analysts suggested, might have become obsolete in the age of 24-hour news. Presidential aide turned journalist David Gergen joined the Clinton Administration after a few months and decried what he called the new “rush to judgment” in the press.

This study was designed to examine how the press was assessing the new president, to break down the basis of those assessments and to compare this early period with Clinton’s. What is it the press now focuses on? Is the presidential honeymoon really an artifact of the past? What does the coverage tell us about Bush versus Clinton?

To accomplish this, the study examined the following:

  1. How many stories were done?
  2. What was the basic topic of each story and where did it run?
  3. What underlying area of the presidency was the story assessing—was it the president’s leadership abilities, his ideology or his personal character?
  4. What was the tone of those assessments—was it neutral/balanced, demonstrably negative or demonstrably positive?
  5. What narrative technique was the story built around—conflict, explaining policy, explaining tactics, a reality check, etc?
  6. What political relationship did the story focus on—the president’s relationship to his staff, to members of Congress, to the office of the presidency, to interest groups, to citizens?

The study examined coverage over the first 60 days of the presidency beginning January 21, the day after the inauguration, through March 21. In all, the study examined 333 stories about Bush and 566 about Clinton. Princeton Survey Research Associates consulted on the project design and statistical analysis.

1 A Question of Character: How the Media Have Handled the Issue and How the Public Has Reacted, Project for Excellence in Journalism, July 27, 2000