Election 2012: Media breach internationally recognized standards of fairness

As Jon Stewart made abundantly clear last night on “The Daily Show,” Republican Presidential candidate Ron Paul, despite coming in a close second in the weekend’s Iowa straw poll, is being thoroughly – and sometimes awkwardly – ignored by the mainstream media.

Ron Paul supporters have long complained that the media has treated their candidate unfairly, seemingly going out of its way to ignore him, even when he demonstrates more grassroots support than other candidates. Many have taken to the internet to vent their frustration over this apparent media bias.

“It’s absolutely horrendous and despicable the lack of media coverage Ron Paul is getting,”  tweeted @themitchellg. “We live in a democratic republic, where the votes of the people deserve to reported by the media, not editorialized into obscurity,” wrote Matthew H. Harder in an email to the New York Times.

A cursory examination reveals that, indeed, mainstream media coverage is heavily biased towards Ron Paul’s opponents in the Republican primaries, despite indicators of a strong Paul campaign. Not only did the 12-term Texas congressman come in a close second in the Iowa straw poll, but he is also leading most of his opponents in the vital social media sphere, with only Michele Bachmann and Mitt Romney boasting more Facebook fans:

Paul is also coming in second place when it comes to fundraising, traditionally considered by the media the strongest indication of being a “serious” candidate:

Yet, despite these advantages, the Paul campaign is lagging far behind it what may be the most important indicator of the chances for electoral success: access to the media. A quick Google News search on August 16 found that Rick Perry is leading in the media coverage sphere with 19,400 hits; followed by Michele Bachmann with 16,800; and Mitt Romney with 15,600. Ron Paul comes in a distant fourth with 10,700 hits.

The only logical explanation for the disparity in coverage is that a conscious decision has been made somewhere along the line to sideline the Ron Paul campaign. As Paul supporters argue, the reason for this is clear: with his unwavering opposition to U.S. military engagements, his strident opposition to the central banking system and the Federal Reserve, and uncompromising libertarian views on both economics and social policy, Ron Paul threatens the establishment, which is heavily vested in  the status quo.

While the media bias against their candidate angers Ron Paul supporters and hinders the possibility for holding a healthy democratic debate, it is also arguably a violation of international commitments on holding free and fair, democratic elections.

As a signatory to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s 1990 Copenhagen Document, the United States has agreed to certain commitments to ensure genuinely democratic elections, one of which being equal media access for election stakeholders. Specifically, OSCE countries must “provide that no legal or administrative obstacle stands in the way of unimpeded access to the media on a non-discriminatory basis for all political groupings and individuals wishing to participate in the electoral process.”

As the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (OSCE/ODIHR) explains in its handbook for election observation,

Equal conditions should be ensured for all participants in the election process so that they compete on a level playing field. … Candidates and political parties should have unimpeded access to the media on a non-discriminatory basis, and state or public media should meet their special responsibility for providing sufficient, balanced and impartial information to enable the electorate to make well-informed choices.

In order to ensure compliance with this commitment, a major component of international election observation is media monitoring, in order to promote equal media coverage of the various election stakeholders. For example, in its negative assessment of the December 2010 presidential election in Belarus, the OSCE/ODIHR underscored the vast discrepancy in media coverage that the incumbent, President Alexander Lukashenko, enjoyed:

All major TV stations with nationwide coverage demonstrated a clear bias in favour of the incumbent, devoting 89 per cent of primetime news coverage to his campaign activities and official duties. Even recognizing the advantage of incumbency, this is a high figure.  Other candidates tended to be mentioned collectively and only rarely individually. They were generally portrayed negatively.

State-funded TV ONT devoted 8 hours and 17 minutes (94 per cent) of news coverage to the president’s campaign and official activities. All other candidates received a combined total of 32 minutes. The tone of the incumbent’s coverage did not contain any negative reference, while the tone for other candidates was mostly negative. On an irregular basis, ONT newscasts featured a five-minute editorial,  Kak Est (How it is) that discredited opposition candidates. The coverage of the campaign on state-controlled  First Channel, STV and Radio 1  yielded similar results, with some 89 to 98 per cent of news coverage dedicated to the incumbent.

The OSCE unfortunately does not perform long-term media monitoring of U.S. elections, but in its assessment of the 2010 midterm elections, did offer some criticisms of the biased American media environment, particularly as it pertains to third party candidacies:

Media coverage of the 2010 elections was extensive, and provided voters with diverse information, views and opinions. Candidates were covered in a variety of programmes, including paid advertisements, debates and news. However, frequently the debates only took place between the candidates of the two main political parties, thus limiting access of third-party candidates.

According to the Center for Media and Public Affairs, the tone of the media campaign and the discussion between the main political forces was often negative and even aggressive. Comments about Democrats were 32 per cent positive and 68 per cent negative; comments about Republicans were 31 per cent positive and 69  per cent negative. The Tea Party candidates received 37 per cent of positive comments and 63 per cent negative.

With its early coverage of the Republican primaries, the American media is making clear that despite its relative freedom from government control, it is not living up to its responsibilities as an unbiased messenger of the news. Rather than objectively presenting the facts, the media apparently sees its role as shaping public opinion, specifically by establishing who is a “legitimate” presidential candidate, and who isn’t.

Not only does this tendency pervert the democratic process, it also demonstrates a disregard for international commitments the United States has made for ensuring free and fair elections.

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About The Compliance Campaign

Campaigning for a United States in compliance with its international obligations. Follow on Twitter here: https://twitter.com/compliancecamp Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/compliancecamp Comments, article submissions or news leads are welcome at compliancecampaign [at] gmail.com.

4 responses to “Election 2012: Media breach internationally recognized standards of fairness”

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