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Outside Voices: Morgan Felchner On Media Coverage Of Lieberman-Lamont

(Campaigns & Elections)
Each week we invite someone from outside PE to weigh in with their thoughts about CBS News and the media at large. This week, Morgan E. Felchner, the editor of Campaigns & Elections, takes a look at the media's coverage of the Connecticut Democratic primary and finds differences in what the press and the voters cared about. As always, the opinions expressed and factual assertions made in "Outside Voices" are those of the author, not ours, and we seek a wide variety of voices. Here's Morgan:

When it comes to political coverage, those within the beltway search it out as if they need it to survive. So sitting in an office in Washington, D.C. can give you a skewed view of media coverage. In other parts of the country people aren't so eager to read about the latest poll showing U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman within six percentage points of Ned Lamont in the tight Connecticut Senate primary.

This race dominated headlines and dinner conversation within the beltway and political magazines, newspapers, Web sites and local news stations covered the race constantly. But less than 50 miles away in Baltimore, Md., people were paying attention to other news. And across the country casual news-watchers were able to regulate the amount of Lieberman-Lamont they watched.

The coverage seems like a lot to those of us who searched it out, but it was probably just enough for those around the country to understand what was going on. CBS and other national news stations devoted some coverage to the primary and its aftermath, but not excessively. For the overly eager though, the news was available.

One trip to CBSNews.com showed several separate stories about the race and on Wednesday no less than three separate video clips to watch. And unfiltered CBS "Raw" video offered site visitors a chance to see Lamont's acceptance speech, or Lieberman's concession speech through their own lenses, rather than a reporter's.

What CBS and other news outlets seemed to focus on were the national implications of the race: the impact on the Democratic Party or the Republican Party, the issue of the war in Iraq, and support for a president whose approval ratings are in the 30s. All of these issues came to a head in this race, and the media had no qualms about covering them and applying their interpretations broadly to races across the country.

In the days leading up to the primary and the days after, we had numerous opportunities to see the infamous kiss, when President Bush kissed Lieberman on the cheek on the way to the podium to give his 2005 State of the Union speech. We heard the phrase "partisan polarization" so much it made our ears hurt, and we were treated to a lot of pundits' musings about Lieberman's support for the war in Iraq. Some even called him "the first political casualty of the war in Iraq."

What we didn't see very much of was coverage of local issues, local implications of a Lieberman loss and the netroots that Lamont referred to in his acceptance speech. Nor did we hear much from actual voters; most of the coverage from CBS and other networks and newspapers was dominated by the national implications. We know voters feel that since they elected Lieberman he's become out of touch with the state, but we don't know other than the war what has offended them. So I called a voter in Connecticut, and he bemoaned the lack of coverage on issues other than the war. Voters like him who were concerned about local problems were left in the cold by the national and local press.

In another odd but somewhat appropriate absence, we don't know much about who is running as the Republican in the race (Alan Schlesinger.) One report on CBS even mentioned that they haven't addressed the Republican candidate because all experts believe he doesn't have a shot. Schlesinger will not be a major player in the race so it makes sense for the networks not to focus much attention on him, but in most cases his name wasn't even mentioned.

We gleaned a wee bit about how the campaigns were being run. Lamont is a millionaire who was able to spark his campaign with his own money ($1.5 million as of July) and pledged not to take any money from lobbyists. He is a graduate of the elite New England prep school, Phillips Exeter, and many of his classmates (also millionaires) donated to his campaign. Not Carter Eskew. One of Lieberman's lead strategists, Eskew was in Lamont's class at Exeter. The New York Times reported that although the perfect story would be some sort of high school rivalry over a stolen prom date, it turns out Lamont and Eskew were not enemies.

This article reveals the strong degree of loyalty that often exists in the political world. Lamont's classmates were unhappy at the level of vitriol in Lieberman's campaign ads, because they came from an Exeter alum and Lamont peer, not necessarily because they were negative.

That loyalty seems to not have been present on Lieberman's side. Democratic voters in Connecticut turned him out, and in the name of party loyalty rather than personal loyalty, friends and colleagues in the Senate have lined up behind Lamont. Anecdotes such as these are largely missing from the coverage.

The amount of stories across the country might vary, but the subject matter was largely national in scope. Pundits write and talk about the impact of being aligned with Bush and of supporting an unpopular war for candidates across the country. They use this race as the example of what will happen to Democrats and Republicans who associate themselves with Bush. The race is called a referendum on Bush, on the war in Iraq and on centrist Democrats. But to some Connecticut voters, we missed the boat. It was a race between two guys duking it out to represent their interests.