John Leo
Media-watchers know that there are two main theories about press coverage of presidential campaigns. The cyclical theory holds that reporters tend to blow hot and cold on both candidates, always gang-tackling the one who is ahead and propping up the one behind, thus adding excitement to the race. In contrast, the liberal-bias theory holds that reporters "perhaps without even realizing it, tend to have worldviews that favor Democrats and this shows, sometimes not so subtly, in their coverage." This mild description of the bias theory comes from Mickey Kaus, the Internet commentator. The line "tend to have worldviews that favor Democrats" is polite understatement. A 1992 Roper poll of Washington reporters and bureau chiefs showed that 89 percent voted for Bill Clinton, 7 percent voted for George Bush. This is the kind of voting pattern we might expect among political reporters in Poland under the communists, or in Iraq today.

Here's how the cyclical theory would apply. During the primaries, Al Gore and George Bush both got unfavorable treatment from a press corps that much preferred Bill Bradley and John McCain. The monthlong drubbing that Bush took over the Confederate flag and Bob Jones University was naturally followed by a compensatory burst of good coverage. This rose to a glorifying peak in summer when polls had him way ahead. With no place to go but down, Bush had a predictably miserable September, ushered in by his crude remark about a reporter, the "rats" commercial, and several unsuccessful bouts with English syntax. Gore therefore entered his golden era, which lasted about six weeks, from the convention kiss to the first debate. Then the wheel turned again in Bush's direction.

Dead in the water. Remember, by mid-September the Bush campaign looked dead in the water. Several pundits announced that Bush was toast. But cyclical theorists knew what was coming. In The Washington Post of Sept. 21, staff reporter Dana Milbank wrote: "This just in. The Bush campaign is rebounding. ... Remember the stiff and programmed Gore, the earth-toned, faux-farm-working, pot-smoking, Fairfax-Hotel-living, slumlord Gore? Don't worry; he'll be back when the cycle turns again. We're due for a Bush recovery any day now."

John Leo

John Leo is editor of and a former contributing editor at U.S. News and World Report.

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