Political Coverage in West Virginia

Jonathan Bentz

West Virginia, once a shoo-in Democratic state for many years, became a battleground state in 2004.

According to PresidentElect.org http://www.presidentelect.org, only three Republicans had won West Virginia since 1960 before 2004. In 2000, George W. Bush was one of those three.

Pre-election polls pointed to President Bush again carrying the state. Although there was no state funded poll, analysts cautioned up to election day that West Virginia was still too close to call.

The notion that President Bush could have won a historically democratic state became an unpleasant challenge to the Democratic party. During the campaign season, both parties took no chances with the five electoral votes West Virginia held in the 2004 election.

There was a heavy competition for votes in this year’s election, as many states found themselves in a swing with less than a week until election day. President Bush and Senator John Kerry needed extra presence in West Virginia due to a lackluster governor’s race, according to Dr. Kevin Leyden, interim director of West Virginia University’s Institute for Public Affairs.

Leyden also noted that a big difference between this year’s election and the 2000 race is that both candidates competed for West Virginia’s votes.

“Al Gore forgot West Virginia [in 2000],” he said.

Leyden’s statements came as no secret to both parties. President Bush and Sen. Kerry found their campaign machines rolling up and down the hills of the Mountain State with unprecedented frequency. West Virginia hosted 27 tour stops from both camps between March and November. In addition, several visits were made by the candidates’ families and top supporters.

Commercial airtime was flooded with political messages, with more added daily in anticipation of Nov. 2. Campaign coverage in other forms of media increased as well. Political news writers raked in overtime hours, and many news outlets are sent four or five reporters to cover one hour-long campaign stop.

“This election was too important to worry about costs,” said Mike Myer, Executive Editor of the Wheeling News-Register. “You never knew when a lead guy may miss something.”

The candidates did not make it easy for reporters this campaign season. Although both campaigns had national reporters traveling with them everyday, local reporters were given much less access.

During Vice President Dick Cheney’s visit to a Charleston, W.Va., diner several weeks ago, Charleston Gazette reporter Tara Tuckwiller devoted a full workday to his lunch hour rally. Tuckwiller arrived to work early, received her assignment, and then spent the next two hours parking and checking in for the event.

After being searched by Secret Service members, Tuckwiller was led into a roped off waiting area specifically for the press. When Cheney did make his arrival, no questions were allowed to be directed from the press. Instead, Cheney fielded questions from starry-eyed supporters, re-affirming the Bush campaign’s plans for resuscitating the economy and continuing the fight against terrorism.

Cheney then bowed out of the diner, leaving all members of the press with a slew of photographs and a few one-liners. He did not, however, field a single question from any press members.

“Politicians are the ultimate pros of managing media,” said Myer. “They want the media there, but not to do their jobs. To them, the media is a place for a photo op and quotes.”

No one was permitted to leave the premises until Cheney and his extensive motorcade had pulled away.

By the time Tuckwiller returned to the Gazette’s offices, her story just made deadline, still including several unchecked facts.

Bush and Cheney’s major opponent, John Kerry, has also been very elusive when it comes to local media members. Associated Press reporter Vicki Smith was the only member of the West Virginia media to get a chance to speak with Kerry prior to election day. She was given access to board his campaign bus, but Smith was only permitted two questions before Kerry’s representatives abruptly ended her exclusive.

Campaign coverage was all over the place in 2004. In the papers, on the internet, on television – the media seemed to have every inch of the presidential race covered. By the time election day finally arrived, most of the voting public had become tired of hearing about both candidates.

Although it seemed the public was given more access to its candidates then ever before, reporters showed otherwise. Instead of unprecedented access, reporters were given an unprecedented amount of the same information, time and time again.

About The Author

Jonathan Bentz, Marketing Intern
Advanced Internet http://www.advancedtele.com
Public Relations Major at West Virginia University http://www.wvu.edu

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