Is Ron Paul getting unfair media treatment?

Ron Paul
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On "The Daily Show" Monday night, Jon Stewart assailed the media for essentially ignoring Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul despite his second-place finish (and near victory) in the Iowa straw poll.

"He's the one guy in the field - agree with him or don't agree with him - who doesn't go out of his way to regurgitate talking points or change what he believes to fit the audience in front of, and [the media is] treating him like if this was Celebrity Apprentice, he'd be this guy," Stewart said, as the camera cut to video to actor Gary Busey making strange noises. (See below.)

As anyone who reads the CBSNews.com comments section well knows, this is a view Paul's passionate supporters have been expressing for a long time. Yesterday, I wrote a post that began this way: In the wake of the Iowa straw poll, there are three frontrunners for the Republican presidential nomination: Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, Texas governor Rick Perry and, to a lesser extent, Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann." 

Paul is mentioned in the second-to-last paragraph, where I wrote that he "lost the straw poll by just 152 votes" and added, "Paul's support, though passionate, seems to have a ceiling in the low double digits."

In comments, Paul backers accused me of bias or worse.

"[Y]ou have revealed yourself as an anti-democratic news source for not even mentioning that Ron Paul was in 2nd place here," wrote prisms88. "He beat Perry and he beat Romney. How much were you paid to ignore that. It's not working. The more you ignore him and dish out biased and disgusting "news" the more America is noticing. RON PAUL 2012!"

"How come cbs news never actually reports the news? I never see Ron Paul mentioned, even though he is one of the most liked in the polls," said AllAmericanxcd. "That's why I almost never come here for my news, they don't report facts, they just have an agenda."

Added danielbeatya: "If money from your advertisers doesnt rule who you advertise then explain where your coverage of Ron Paul is? He was very close (under 200) votes of winning the straw poll. All this shows me and others is that if Ron Paul scares you that bad then - he must gonna be real good for America."

Critics of the media coverage of Paul have a point. Because many reporters see the Texas congressman as having little chance of winning the nomination, he is often left out of the discussion - even as an establishment figure like Jon Huntsman, who badly trails Paul in the polls, is included.

Here's how political reporters see it: Paul is the only prominent candidate articulating a strong libertarian position. Though he is fairly well known, his support appears to top out at less than 20 percent. Ultimately, Republicans will likely coalesce around one of the other candidates, whose largely-similar positions represent more mainstream Republicanism. Paul's relatively strong standing in early polls, this argument goes, will fade as the field narrows around one or two more mainstream candidates.

That's almost certainly true. But here's the problem: Most reporters also don't expect Bachmann to win the nomination, either. Bachmann cannot compete with Romney or Perry in terms of fundraising, and she is widely seen as too far to the right to get nominated by a party where most voters' primary concern is finding someone who can beat President Obama. Yet while Paul was shut out of the Sunday news shows after his near-straw poll victory, Bachmann was invited into almost all of them - and is now being treated by the media as one of the three frontrunners for the nomination. 

Why? For starters, Bachmann has a better - though still slim - chance to take the nomination. But also, she's simply a better story - controversial, telegenic, and relatively new to the national scene. Paul, meanwhile, is on his third presidential run, and he's saying the same things he's been saying for decades - which is admirable, but not ideal in a media landscape where freshness is what gets attention.

Paul campaign manager Jesse Benton, who described the coverage in the wake of the straw poll as "very disappointing," told CBS News that the national media "have an obligation to present Dr. Paul fairly and robustly to the American people."

"I realize that he has been saying the same things to the inner circle of the journalist elite, that's not new, but it's very, very new to the American people," said Benton. While Paul has high name identification, he continued, "A lot of people still have not heard his message."

There's an irony here: Paul may not be offering up new ideas, but he is the only mainstream candidate articulating significantly different policy positions than his rivals. Paul's opposition to U.S. military intervention abroad has significant support within the GOP, and his live-and-let-live philosophy is the animating idea behind the Tea Party. Don't those ideas deserve to be part of the discussion? The media's focus on Bachmann and dismissal of Paul is a demoralizing illustration of the fact that members of the media - who, it should be noted, often make their coverage decisions based on audience demand - are often more interested in stylistic differences than substantive ones.

All this doesn't change the fact that Ron Paul is very unlikely to be the next president of the United States. Or that the straw poll itself is nearly meaningless - it's an Iowa Republican party fundraiser in which the candidates, Paul included, essentially buy their votes. But if reporters are going to focus so aggressively on Bachmann - and treat her straw poll win as meaningful - then Paul deserves, at the very least, not to be ignored.

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