In 1992, Bill Clinton defeated George H.W. Bush to become President of the United States. Will another Clinton run against another Bush, 24 years later? If nothing else, it’s an easy story to write. (More)

Hillary v. Jeb, Part I: Takin’ It Easy

This week Morning Feature considers the media speculation about the possible 2016 match-up between Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush. Today we look at the media bias for familiar stories. Tomorrow we’ll examine the ease and fallacies of political horse race coverage. Saturday we’ll conclude with how we can better encourage our media to cover politics more productively.

“Man, you guys are crack addicts”

So said Jeb Bush Sunday on Meet the Press, in response to David Gregory’s question about whether the former Florida governor’s new book and first-ever six network Full Ginsburg are groundwork for a 2016 presidential run. As CNN’s Jon Avlon noted, Bush’s criticism of the media was not entirely off base:

The media does a great job covering campaigns but no so much when it comes to covering governing. In the process, we almost forget that governing is the main event – the prize that all those candidates strive for in the campaign.

There’s plenty of collusion. Jeb Bush isn’t innocent – he trotted out to every Sunday show to promote his new book with Clint Bolick on immigration, knowing that the widespread interest was driven by speculation about a 2016 presidential campaign. Moreover, with the merciless metrics of journalism in the Internet age, editors know that stories on the sequester don’t have the same clickability rate as sex scandals, murders and celebrity gossip.

It’s true that modern political journalism – with a few exceptions such as National Public Radio and ProPublica – relies on attention-grabbing stories for advertising revenues. Yet even NPR ‘Political Junkie’ writer Kevin Rudin described Bush’s book and Sunday morning news show appearances under the headline “How Jeb Bush Did In His 2016 Tryout.” It’s not entirely about page views.

“She has made no plans to run for office”

So said Clinton donor Angelo Tsakopoulos last month, in a response an article in The Atlantic that quoted him telling a private banquet that former President Bill Clinton assured him Hillary would run in 2016. Tsakopoulos quickly issued a correction:

During a recent discussion with a reporter, Mr. Tsakopoulos freely expressed his own sincere hope and personal opinion that Hillary Clinton would run for President because he believes she would make a great President. He had previously informed President Bill Clinton that if Secretary Clinton were to run for President, he wanted to be supportive. President Clinton responded that he would share that comment with her. That was the verbal exchange on the subject. Nonetheless, it is clear from Secretary Clinton’s statements that at this point she has made no plans to run for office.

The Atlantic framed this as “a reminder that the kabuki must be respected,” implying that Hillary Clinton will in fact run in 2016, but media etiquette precludes stating that as a fact until she makes an announcement. Media etiquette, and basic standards of factual accuracy.

Regardless, Quinnipiac University are already polling the 2016 race, and Hillary Clinton is the early favorite in Pennsylvania, with Gov. Chris Christie (NJ) polling highest among Republicans. 2016Electon.com‘s J.J. Ericsson also has Governor Christie a slight favorite at 7:1 over Florida Sen. Marco Rubio at 8:1 in the Republican horse race. Among possible Democrats, Ericsson favors Hillary Clinton at 5:1, followed by Vice President Joe Biden at 8:1.

Ericsson puts Jeb Bush all the way down at 18:1 among Republicans, tied with 2008 contender Mike Huckabee and below 2008 vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin (10:1), 2012 Romney running mate Paul Ryan (12:1), and libertarian darling Rand Paul (15:1). Yet the New York Times‘ Michael Shear says Bush would be the “prohibitive favorite” were he to enter the race, and quotes Republican consultant John Weaver saying GOP will need “an ‘A team'” to defeat Clinton, “and that begins with Jeb Bush.”

“Laziness and groupthink”

A Google search of {media bias Hillary Clinton 2016} turns up plenty of conservatives arguing that media stories on her possible run as proof of liberal media bias. Yet the so-called ‘liberal’ media largely ignored the successes – and parroted every GOP criticism – of the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, as Michael Grunwald noted in his book The New New Deal. In our interview last September, I asked Grunwald if that was the result of a negativity bias that favored Republicans:

That’s an interesting thought. I’d say the media’s main bias is towards laziness and groupthink; obviously there wasn’t a lot of negativity bias when President Bush did that Mission Accomplished thing in the flight suit. And I think it’s appropriate that the media should keep a skeptical eye on the government. But when it came to the stimulus the conventional wisdom that this thing was an $800 billion joke just seemed to overwhelm all sense of proportion and common sense. Washington political reporters in particular are deeply uninterested in public policy, which isn’t necessarily a partisan bias.

I agree with Grunwald’s diagnosis, and I think “laziness and group-think” – not liberal, conservative, or even insider bias – explains much of the fascination with a Clinton v. Bush race in 2016. Let’s face it, a showdown with Homeland Security Secretary Kathleen Sebelius or New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand facing South Dakota Sen. John Thune or Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell would require reporters to do more new reporting. While none of those four is unknown, none has yet received the kind of long-term, national reporting that builds a ready list of “sources close to the candidate.”

By comparison, Hillary vs. Jeb would be a Beltway reporter’s dream, with a library of ready-to-revisit rumors, gaffes, pop-psych analyses, and scandals. And any Beltway reporter worth his or her smartphone has a contact list with those coveted “sources close to the candidate,” eager to highlight or rebut those rumors, gaffes, pop-psych analyses, and scandals. And as a not-entirely-irrelevant point, another Clinton v. Bush race would preserve the tenure of Beltway media veterans who might otherwise be outworked by up-and-coming journalists who covered other contenders in smaller markets.

There’s no need to speculate about ideological bias, or a media preference for establishment insiders, to explain the buzz about Hillary vs. Jeb. Simple laziness will do just fine.

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Happy Pi Day!