Bush's relative success in the news sections may also reflect a greater skill in managing the beat coverage of the Presidency than Clinton had.
In tracking the topics covered, the study identified the top five ongoing stories for each president.
Much of what the press has covered about Bush is the message he wanted to have them cover, the study found.16 Of the top five continuing Bush stories, three were his own creation: his education plan, his faith-based initiative, and his budget address to Congress. The other two were items he planned for—the budget process. All together these five Big Stories accounted for more than a third of his coverage.
Bush has also done a more competent job of managing to keep the most controversial actions of his presidency from becoming stories that spin out of control. Of those events—the nomination of John Ashcroft and his controversial environmental policies—none ignited into a major media conflagration. Ashcroft accounted for just 2% of the stories in our sample, and the environmental policies together—arsenic, global warming, mining cleanup and wildlife refuges—accounted for just 3%.
This carefully managed coverage also led to positive stories. In the two discretionary issues he rolled out first, education and his faith-based initiative, coverage was quite good. In fact, in education stories, it was twice as positive as negative and mostly neutral or balanced.
Where he ran into trouble was over his budget priorities. Stories assessing Bush's budget plans were strikingly critical—53% negative, compared with just 9% positive. While the Bush Administration knew the budget was coming, it had little success in selling it to journalists and the experts they quoted.
This criticism was also true of stories that considered the likelihood of the budget passing—which were 32% negative and only 11% positive.
Whether criticism of the policy led to doubts about passage or the other way around is impossible to know. In Washington, substantive criticism of an issue often rises when its political fortunes begin to be in question.
16. See "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 and "The Last Lap: How the Press Covered the Final Stages of the Campaign," Project for Excellence in Journalism, October 31, 2000