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Does the local media overcover Michele Bachmann?

Last fall, Politico’s Daniel Libit noted that Sixth District Congresswoman Michele Bachmann had three press people on staff: one for national media, one for local media, and another for new media. Bachmann clearly loves the press, and the press loves her back — even the press that loathes her positions.

Like the chatty guest at the party, Bachmann seems to suck all the air out of a room. Right now, it seems like nary a day goes by without some story, in every outlet, about her advocacy or her antics. But just how much press does Bachmann get compared to more powerful local peers?

As it turns out, Michele doesn’t swamp the boat quite as much as I expected, or feared.

My goal was to see how many stories mentioned a given politician; eligibles included the state’s congressional delegation plus Al Franken and Gov. Pawlenty. For now, I’m only measuring quantity, not quality.

My methodology was crude but not baseless. For three local outlets — MinnPost, Minnesota Independent and City Pages — I  used Google. Within each website’s domain, I sought first mentions (first/last name plus common misspellings such as “Michelle Bachman”), filtering out duplicate stories. For the Star Tribune, I used the ProQuest database available through the Hennepin County libraries. (The PiPress hides their archive behind a pricey paywall.)

Because of the limits of Google’s advanced search, I’ve included the past year’s worth of coverage through April 30. Conveniently, each outlet had between 2,500 and 3,000 politician mentions. Still, the numbers shouldn’t be taken as gospel, just general trends.

Going in, I wondered if Bachmann would top everyone’s ranking, but that was stupid considering Recount Mania — which, like Michele herself, encourages gawker-like behavior.

The Recount Twins topped Bachmann on all four lists: The “Al+Norm factor” ranged from 43 percent of all mentions in the Strib to 66 percent at City Pages. MinnPost and MnIndy clocked in at about 52 percent.

But Michele’s potency became visible thereafter. In the pie charts at left, you can see how the various publications spread their coverage. (Apologies for the spotty labeling, a chart export problem; the slice colors are consistent.)

As you can see, CP has the biggest “Michele factor”: 19 percent of total mentions. Minnesota Independent is second (14 percent), followed by MinnPost (9 percent) and the Strib (5 percent).

Only two titles, the Strib and MinnPost, mentioned Gov. Pawlenty more than Bachmann. (The Strib mentioned Pawlenty most often, the only outlet to do so. I suspect the PiPress and MPR would also.)

At Minnesota Independent, Michele beat TPaw 425-387, and City Pages favored the taxophobic Congresswoman more than 2-to-1 over the taxophobic governor.

What about Bachmann versus Amy “The Lone Senator” Klobuchar?

The Strib favored the cautious woman over the incautious one 3:2. It was a dead heat at MinnPost, tilted to Bachmann at MnIndy, but was a 10-to-1 Michele walkover at City Pages.

I’m sure few will be surprised Bachmann topped her fellow House members (though for the record, Minnesota Independent was the only one that mentioned Keith Ellison more than Klobuchar).

I emailed Independent editor Paul Schmelzer and City Pages’ Kevin Hoffman to get their take on their coverage choices. Did Bachmann deserve all the attention? And did it divert from covering less glamorous but more important political matters?

Hoffman was typically blunt, embracing the “gotta-look” factor.

“For us, it’s like the old saying, “You write about the planes that crash, not the ones that land safely.’ Michele just happens to be a plane that crashes a lot — often more than once a week,” he wrote.

Schmelzer took the higher road, noting the congresswoman’s rising national profile. “Bachmann’s active (and plentiful) engagement with the media is a story in and of itself, as is scrutiny of the content of her media appearances.”

Both stressed that covering Bachmann isn’t necessarily labor intensive. They often “re-blog” others’ coverage (a la MinnPost’s Daily Glean) “so picking up someone else’s fact-check is both relatively easy and not very time consuming,” Schmelzer argued.

Hoffman agreed, noting CP’s Bachmann fixation was mostly confined to its “Blotter” news-aggregation blog, often penned by a single writer, Emily Kaiser.

“Bachmann’s utterances are ‘breaking news’ — which requires very little in the way of resources, and is usually a different group of reporters than those who are on investigative/enterprise beats,” he said.

Both denied that traffic considerations affected coverage choices.

It’s fairly well-known that anything Bachmann is page view gold. For example, on MinnPost last Friday, Cynthia Dizikes’ utterly substantive story about the congresswoman’s clash with House Financial Services chair Barney Frank was our top-ranked story by over 800 page views; My utterly frivolous one on Bachmann’s glancing mention in a Twitter spoof finished a strong third.

Schmelzer, who acknowledges Bachmann is also a balm for his traffic says, “It lifts our spirits to see more readers coming to the site — and I’d hope that those visitors would take a gander at our other non-Bachmann content — but we don’t cover Bachmann because of traffic. … The stories we’re most proud of don’t get lots of traffic, but we’re just as committed to producing them — moreso, really — as we are Bachmann stories.”

Am I buying all this? Well, mostly. Speaking personally, it’s hard to resist the siren song of page views even while providing substantive analysis. I’ve probably led Glean with recount stories a bit more often than might be objectively justified.

As I’ve written before, I wish City Pages covered politics more often, but they don’t, despite list-friendly covers on Pawlenty’s vetoes and lobbyists ranking legislators. I’m not sure they’d uncover, say, Collin Peterson’s nefarious deeds if Kaiser wasn’t rounding up the latest Bachmann outrage. My guess is there would be that many fewer political mentions overall.

As for Minnesota Independent, they are nothing if not politics-obsessed, and exist to report and critique the news from a progressive viewpoint. That puts anything Bachmann in their wheelhouse. They also do plenty of original work, even if they don’t share the Strib’s Pawlenty preference or MinnPost’s more generalized tilt.

In fact, if you’re of the Bachmann-as-Joe-McCarthy stripe, you can make a case that the Strib undercovers Bachmann, a criticism that might apply to MinnPost as well. But even if an individual media outlet’s choices aren’t what you want, it seems you have several different coverage philosophies to choose from.

Comments (17)

  1. Submitted by Chris Johnson on 05/04/2009 - 04:28 pm.

    Perhaps the downside of Bachmann coverage is that it does suck the air out of the room, pushing more deserving stories out of print. On the other hand, it’s hard to deny the bang for the buck of the two-fer one gets from it: entertainment and news in one story.

  2. Submitted by Russ Rogers on 05/04/2009 - 04:46 pm.

    I have trouble talking about Michele Bachmann without slipping into name calling. I think she’s a twit, a dweeb and a carbuncle on polite political rhetoric and discourse. She’s a political hack, repeating things that she hears other places without giving them much thought herself. I don’t even credit her with much original thinking!

    I find her views about who is Pro-America and who is Anti-America ironically very Anti-American! I think the irony escapes her. At least I realize my name calling is wrong. I’m sorry, I can’t help myself!

    I’m embarrassed to live in her Congressional District. And I’m ashamed that I didn’t do more, other than cast a vote for her rival Elwin Tinklenberg, to try to keep her from misrepresenting me. Obviously, I didn’t do enough.

    If Taxation Without Representation was bad; what is Taxation With Misguided, Inept, Awkward, Silly and Jingoist Representation? I’ll tell you what it is, a tiny bit of baby puke, just a really bad taste in my mouth nearly every time Michele Bachmann is quoted by the media. Blech!

  3. Submitted by Mitch Berg on 05/04/2009 - 04:49 pm.

    Is Bachmann over-covered?

    Two better questions:

    1) Why ask the Mindy? They are funded purely (as Steve Perry noted) to be an attack organ of the “CIM”. With all due respect to Paul Schmelzer, their purpose is to harangue endlessly on the enemies designated on the hit list; Bachmann topped that list for the past two years. Of course they over-covered her; it was on their masters’ agenda (as Perry noted!).

    2) Does the local lefty alt-media give too much credit – waaaay too much – to Bachmann’s more-deranged critics in the local lefty alt-media?

    If you fundamentally despise Bachmann and all she stands for (and I think that’s a fair guess with you, Brauer, judging by your first couple of grafs) then the answer might be “why, whatever are you talking about?”. For the rest of us?

    Worth asking.

  4. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 05/04/2009 - 05:04 pm.

    Why not just read your notes from the daily 8:45 Soros call?

    The only surprise for me was that the numbers from MinnPost and Mindy didn’t correlate 100%.

  5. Submitted by David Brauer on 05/04/2009 - 05:04 pm.

    Mitch – as to your questions.

    1. You answered the MnIndy question yourself. I *covered* the fiasco with MnIndy’s funders, but Paul S. (and Steve) has more of a spine and I will not burden them with the site’s funders’ sins.

    One purpose in mentioning them was *precisely* to look at how much attention a self-declared progblog pays to Bachmann.

    2. I think a fair reading of the first two grafs are much less pejorative than you think. The first one gives a fact and acknowledges the left media is part of the story’s analysis.

    The second graf may offend the thinnest-skinned partisans, but the analogy is meant as descriptive, not partisan. Mitch, are you *really* saying Michele isn’t attention-seeking and doesn’t engage in antics?

    The point of this story, to any fair-minded reader, is not to evaluate Bachmann’s policies, but to evaluate the media’s thinking in how they cover her. I don’t deny I disagree strongly with Bachmann, but that wasn’t the point of this post.

    Can’t stop other knees from jerking, however. Thomas, your surprise may stem from being wrong, at least about us. You might want to fix that particular fixation, though it ruins the script, I know.

  6. Submitted by Ross Williams on 05/04/2009 - 05:38 pm.

    Why does the Minnesota congressional representative with the least actual influence over government policy and activiry deserve the most coverage? The answer, as she well understands, is that she achieves that status through drama. It is really only entertaining because we suspend disbelief and pretend the stage-acting is real.

    In political theater, she is an actor who grabs attention by periodically bursting into song whether it has anything to do with the play or not. She knows the critics can’t ignore her, even if it is only to criticize her voice or point out she was off-key. That makes her a star. Meet Britney, meet Zsa Zsa etc.

  7. Submitted by Tamara Baker on 05/04/2009 - 05:44 pm.

    Actually, what this shows is how timid the Strib is when it comes to Bachmann. It was City Pages, not the Strib, that broke the story of her ties to Mac Hammond, and of her using his pulpit to sell her campaign.

    And it was Wonkette – an East Coast blogger! – that picked up a video (, via local blogger Dusty Trice, of Michele Bachmann saying the following: “We have seen an orgy! The government spent its wad!” during the course of the Great Tax Protest Tea Party featuring her and Pawlenty.

    Let’s look at that story a little more closely. The Strib, PiPress and the rest of the Traditional Media had to do some fancy editing to keep their viewers and readers from seeing what a ridiculous joke the prefabricated protest rally was. The guy carrying the sign calling Al Franken a fart-huffing freak somehow never made onto our local TV news shows. Neither did the male protesters holding up the professionally-done, expensively-done sign railing that the “Child Support Bureaucracy” was “Harmful to Our Children” and a “Fraud upon Taxpayers”. Nor did the Palin-Bachmann 2012 guy. Or the guy in the cardboard bus outfit with the mock bumpersticker “What Would Wellstone Do? Nothing! He’s Dead, Get Over It!” Yet these same journalistic enterprises have no problems zeroing in on the freakiest-looking people they can find at lefty gatherings.

  8. Submitted by Aubrey Immelman on 05/04/2009 - 06:14 pm.

    The headline caught my attention because, in my opinion, local media have tended to *undercover* Rep. Bachmann, at times publishing her press releases without proper vetting for truth and frequently failing to hold her accountable.

    In fact, earlier this year, I began a “Bachmann Watch” blog at the St. Cloud Times, “because Minnesota media don’t.”

    The recent uptick in local Bachmann coverage could be, in part, a result of her elevated national profile in the wake of her “anti-America” remarks on “Hardball” last October.

    However, as I wrote on my campaign blog yesterday, “the sheer weight and volume of Rep. Michele Bachmann’s assault on reason may have reached critical mass, crossing the tipping point beyond which Minnesota media could no longer tune out the insanity or avert their gaze from ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’ in embarrassed silence.

    In any case, thanks MinnPost for making the effort to compile empirical data on Bachmann’s media impact.

  9. Submitted by pam colby on 05/04/2009 - 07:00 pm.

    Bachmann has a talent for political theater and she will always perform well on cue. I thought your analysis of her press coverage was very interesting. I’d love to see the Kare 11, Fox 9, WCCO, etc. results.

  10. Submitted by Paul Schmelzer on 05/04/2009 - 07:48 pm.

    City Pages did a great cover piece on Mac Hammond, but it was Minnesota Independent (then Minnesota Monitor) that broke the story.

    As for Mitch, about this “due respect” you want to show me, either you think little is due or you’re willfully distorting what Steve said or what you know of our staff and our mission.


  11. Submitted by Eva Young on 05/04/2009 - 09:56 pm.

    Paul writes:

    “As for Mitch, about this “due respect” you want to show me, either you think little is due or you’re willfully distorting what Steve said or what you know of our staff and our mission. ”

    Berg willfully distorting? Say it isn’t so.

    Maybe Berg can enlighten on the funding mechanisms for Townhall, and NARN.

  12. Submitted by Eva Young on 05/04/2009 - 10:07 pm.

    Mitch Berg:

    Is Bachmann over-covered?

    Two better questions:

    2) Does the local lefty alt-media give too much credit – waaaay too much – to Bachmann’s more-deranged critics in the local lefty alt-media?

    If you fundamentally despise Bachmann and all she stands for (and I think that’s a fair guess with you, Brauer, judging by your first couple of grafs) then the answer might be “why, whatever are you talking about?”. For the rest of us?

    Worth asking.

    EY: A more rational explanation than the usual paranoid “liberal media” claims is this: the reason Michele Bachmann gets coverage (and she gets more coverage in the St Cloud Times than she gets in either Minn Post or the Strib), is because she makes good copy.

    Tom Hauser says as much when he interviews Dave Thompson and Cathy Hartnett on the “Face Off” segment in “At Issue.” Brauer correctly discusses this in his analysis.

    The question is how many Bachmann stories have been spiked by the Strib and Minn Post.

  13. Submitted by David Brauer on 05/04/2009 - 10:14 pm.

    Eva, speaking for myself, none.

  14. Submitted by Dan Hoxworth on 05/05/2009 - 11:47 am.

    It seems to me the key question is what is the coverage that Bachmann gets in her district. Certainly, the Star Tribune reaches there as do the Twin Cities television stations. City Pages is (unfortunately) not widespread reading in her district.

    So I agree, let’s see the analysis for the television stations. It would be great to see the local papers in Forest Lake, Stillwater, Anoka, and other regions of her district.

    Thank you for the analysis.

  15. Submitted by Nancy Gertner on 05/05/2009 - 12:32 pm.

    Does the national media under cover Congresswoman Bachmann?

    Daily Kos

    Chicago Tribune

    Huffington Post

    Why do I still see signs for El Tinklenberg along I-94?

    Where can a I buy the made-in-China by child labor and painted with toxic lead Michele Bachmann screeching voodoo doll for all my favorite people for Christmas gifts?

  16. Submitted by Karl Bremer on 05/05/2009 - 12:50 pm.

    Bachmann apologists Berg and Swift have always been more interested in yapping about the credibility of Bachmann’s “lefty critics” or the source of their funding than they have been in providing actual evidence that her critics are inaccurate in their coverage of her. They’ve been at it for years and have yet to punch a single hole in the original reporting on Michele Bachmann that has been done by local writers and bloggers, myself included.

    So put your money where your big mouths are, Berg and Swift, and let’s see where Bachmann’s critics have been factually wrong about her. Let’s have some specific examples instead of your baseless bloviations.

  17. Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 05/07/2009 - 04:03 pm.

    I enjoy the coverage mainly because just when you think she’s run out of crazy, she deploys yet another reserve tank.

    Hopefully, she and the rest of the crazy social conservatives will leave the GOP and form their own little play pen, leaving the more libertarian fiscal conservatives to try to rebuild the Republican party into something resembling relevance.

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