If there has been one unquestioned assumption of the 2008 election, it is that the media love Barack Obama.
Rush Limbaugh declared that the media were following Obama with “their tongues dragging along the concrete to the floors.” “Lenin, Stalin never got this kind of coverage from their media,” Limbaugh claimed (7/22/08), which he blamed on the “chickification of our culture and the news business” (7/21/08).
Joseph McQuaid, publisher of the conservative New Hampshire Union Leader, wrote an editorial headlined “Obama Orgy” (7/21/08) that denounced “the outrageous imbalance in the major media’s coverage of the candidates.” Such proclamations bolstered a GOP offensive against what the McCain campaign (7/22/08) called media’s “bizarre fascination with Barack Obama. Some may even say it’s a love affair.” A Republican National Committee fundraising letter two days later (7/23/08) decried “the fawning, one-sided coverage Barack Obama and Democrat candidates receive from the mainstream media.”
But it’s not just conservatives complaining about Obama coverage; corporate media have likewise echoed the GOP’s talking points. Many pointed to Obama’s overseas trip in July as an example of this alleged bias. At the start of the trip, CBS Evening News (7/22/08) anchor Katie Couric spoke of the “Obamathon . . . the non-stop coverage this week [that] has stolen most of the limelight from his opponent” and asked, “Will this summer of love last?” “Obama was a media darling,” declared CBS reporter Thalia Assuras at the end of the trip (7/27/08).
CNN Headline News host Glenn Beck compared media coverage of Obama’s trip to a previous one by McCain (CNN.com, 7/24/08): “McCain made a trip to the Middle East in March and didn’t have to worry about finding seats for any network anchors, because none of them wanted to go.”
Reporter James Rainey wrote in the L.A. Times (7/19/08) that “by sending their biggest stars across the globe to interview Obama, ABC, CBS and NBC have reinforced the notion that the Democrat is getting an easy ride. It’s time for a mid-course correction, which should include more airtime for McCain, less for Obama, or both.”
How a myth is made
Unsurprisingly, the public has come to believe these repeated declarations of media bias. A Rasmussen poll (Rasmussen Reports, 7/19/08) found that 49 percent of respondents believe that reporters will try to help Obama win, while 14 percent believe most will try to help McCain. Strikingly, “45 percent say that most reporters would hide information if it hurt the candidate they wanted to win,” while only 30 percent disagree.
Such polls reveal the power of the right-wing media in America. The myth of the pro-Obama media is the same as the myth of the liberal press, and it has been created by a standard strategy: Right-wing pundits declare repeatedly and vociferously that the media are biased in favor of liberals; centrist media pundits, who generally prefer critiques from the right because they don’t make a structural challenge to their work, concede that they have a point; and progressive critics, excluded from both the pro-establishment and the right-wing talkshows that dominate the media, go unheard.
CNN’s July 20, 2008 Reliable Sources show was a typical example of this process in action. Host Howard Kurtz, also the Washington Post media critic, began by asking about the media coverage of Obama, “Is this another lovefest in the making?” David Frum of the right-wing National Review Online declared that pro-Obama bias was obvious and a product of “affirmative action.” Michael Crowley of the centrist New Republic refused to reject the tale of liberal bias, claiming only that Frum “overstates the ideological and partisan bias at work.” And ABC White House correspondent Martha Raddatz wouldn’t address the issue: “That decision is not made by me.” Kurtz, apparently satisfied that the point was settled, concluded by demanding: “How can that imbalance be fair?” (Perhaps the most prominent exponent of the pro-Obama media myth, Kurtz claimed in 2007 that the “walk-on-water coverage” of Obama “ranges from glowing to even gushing”—MSNBC’s Meet the Press, 2/11/07.)
The coverage gap
As with most myths, one part of the “Obama lovefest” story is true: There has been substantially more coverage of Obama than any other candidate. Numerous stories claiming proof of a pro-Obama media bias focused on studies of the network news broadcasts by the Tyndall Report (7/25/08), a news-monitoring service whose numbers reveal that in the first half of 2008, McCain received 52 percent as much network coverage as Obama (203 minutes vs. 389 minutes).
The amount of coverage for both candidates is unprecedented, but the advantage held by Obama in overall coverage is nothing unusual, as shown by figures compiled by the Tyndall Report (7/25/08). Measuring the first six months of each election year, Democratic challenger Michael Dukakis got only 32 percent of the coverage garnered by then-Vice President George H.W. Bush in 1988; incumbent Bill Clinton got only 28 percent of the coverage Republican challenger Bob Dole got in 1996. Incumbent George W. Bush got 85 percent as much coverage as Democratic Sen. John Kerry in 2004—the closest thing to parity in early campaign coverage since Tyndall has been keeping track.
In every year Tyndall studied except 1988, the candidate of the party that didn’t hold the White House has gotten more coverage. It’s logical for the media to give more coverage to a less familiar candidate; having a longer, contested primary campaign also helps. Considering that Obama’s nomination battle continued for a full four months after media commentators pronounced McCain’s primary victory, this year’s coverage gap is in fact surprising for how small it is.
The coverage gap might also reflect greater public interest in Obama. In an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll (7/18-23/08) asking “who are you focusing on?” 51 percent of respondents said Obama; only 27 percent said McCain. (Nor can that lesser interest in McCain be attributed to the lack of media coverage: While he got less coverage than Obama in the first six months of the year, he still got more coverage than any candidate from previous years in Tyndall’s study.) As conservative CNN Headline News host Glenn Beck wrote (CNN.com, 7/24/08), “‘The Media’ aren’t around for their health, they’re around to make money, and if Obama drives sales or ratings, then I can’t really blame them for continuing to tap that well until it runs dry.” Obama is on the cover of magazines because his face sells a lot more magazines than McCain’s picture. That’s a pro-profit bias, not a liberal bias.
Another study sometimes cited by media to prove pro-Obama bias (Project for Excellence in Journalism and Shorenstein Center, 10/29/07) found that in the first five months of 2007, Obama received 47 percent “positive” coverage and 16 percent “negative,” better than any other candidate. McCain, by contrast, had 12 percent “positive” coverage and 48 percent “negative.”
But such positive/negative studies are a flawed measure of media bias. Not only do they rely on researchers’ interpretations of what is positive and negative, they implicitly assume that reality is neutral, and that fair coverage will produce comparable numbers of “good news” and “bad news” stories.
The majority of the stories in that study (63 percent) were about the game of the campaign: who was winning, who was drawing crowds, who was raising money. For example, fully 15 percent of all stories about Obama focused on his fundraising (more than twice as many as all the other candidates), and, as his fundraising exceeded expectations, these stories were coded as positive.
By contrast, McCain’s fundraising and polling fell far short of expectations in early 2007, leading to much more “negative” horserace coverage—which had nothing to do with journalists’ personal or political leanings. Obama has received “positive” press coverage in the same way that a winning sports team gets “positive” coverage from sportswriters reporting on its victories; without an independent measure of how well a candidate is doing, calculating “positive” or “negative” coverage won’t tell you much about media bias.
Positive or negative?
New York Times columnist David Brooks proclaimed on the PBS News Hour (7/25/08) about the media, “Ninety-two percent of us vote for the Democrat year after year.” Even if that were true (and not even the right-wing Media Research Center makes that claim—see Media Research.org, 6/30/04), the alleged biases of journalists don’t seem to translate into the actual media coverage. Chris Matthews may have embarrassed himself with that “thrill going up my leg” at an Obama speech (MSNBC, 2/12/08), but the truth is no one in the press talks about McCain’s thrilling speeches because he’s a terrible speaker compared to Obama, not because of bias. And Matthews is fond of making oddball positive comments about candidates of both parties, whether it’s comparing John McCain to Martin Luther (Nation, 7/7/08) or pondering the “sex appeal” of Fred Thompson (MSNBC, 6/13/07): “Can you smell the English leather on this guy?”
Obama has gotten frankly positive coverage at times, especially from celebrity-driven media such as People magazine or Access Hollywood, where the young, tall and lean Obama fits the celebrity profile better than his heavy-jowled, septuagenarian opponent. And before he ran for president, Obama rarely encountered negative media. In his book The Audacity of Hope (p. 120), Obama noted that from 2003 to 2005, “I was the beneficiary of unusually—and at times undeservedly—positive press coverage.” But with each step closer to the White House, Obama received much more critical media scrutiny.
The generally upbeat coverage continued as media speculated in 2006 on a possible Obama candidacy, but as FAIR’s Peter Hart argued (Extra!, 3-4/07), it was primarily a reflection of pundits’ centrism and their desire to find a candidate who might “transcend” race and partisanship: “He makes pundits feel good about America—particularly their own overwhelmingly white slice of elite America—and his politics are moderate enough to avoid the type of crude caricature that other candidates might receive.” With each step closer to the White House, though, Obama received much more critical media scrutiny.
As Tom Rosenstiel of the Project for Excellence in Journalism noted (News-Hour, 7/25/08), “More exposure isn’t necessarily always a good thing,” since “not all of the coverage of Obama . . . is glowing.” Andrew Tyndall observed (Tyndall Report, 7/25/08): “Obama gets more positive coverage, more negative coverage and more trivial coverage. Who else has stories filed about them on how he shakes hands with his wife?” Even that particular “trivial” story was often portrayed negatively, such as the description of it as a “terrorist fist jab” on Fox News Channel (6/6/08).
What’s more, Obama’s negative coverage extends far beyond the network news that Tyndall analyzes. There is simply no left-wing equivalent to Rush Limbaugh’s three-hour assaults on Barack Obama every weekday. The few liberal outlets where McCain is critiqued systematically, such as Air America or MSNBC’s Countdown With Keith Olbermann, are vastly outnumbered in airtime and audience by Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Michael Savage, Glenn Beck, Laura Ingraham, Bill O’Reilly and many other right-wing talkshow hosts who use their platforms to launch regular attacks against Obama.
‘A bit of a problem’
One of the central themes in the extensive media coverage of Obama, in fact, has been the accusation of inexperience. “Here’s a 46-year-old African-American with a narrative that is very unusual and that few other Americans can relate to,” pollster Peter Hart told the International Herald Tribune (7/29/08). “Add to that the fact that he has had four years in the United States Senate and very little international experience. That’s a large leap for the American public to make.”
CNN senior political analyst Bill Schneider repeated the sentiment (6/4/08), suggesting that “Barack Obama is not an easy candidate to elect, and not primarily because of his race, but because a lot of people say he doesn’t have enough experience. He may be tough to elect.” Before Obama won the Democratic nomination, CNN anchor T.J. Holmes asked (5/16/08):
Doesn’t Obama have a bit of a problem as well? Because we know if he does become the eventual nominee . . . a lot of the general election campaign is going to be about his foreign policy credentials. And to bring this up now, kind of puts in the back of people’s minds, hey wait a minute, he doesn’t have that much experience when it comes to foreign policy. Do we really want to put this country and this war on terror in the hands of this inexperienced guy?
Much like the earlier media tropes about Al Gore (lied about inventing the Internet) or John Kerry (coward and traitor), it scarcely mattered whether the accusation of inexperience was true; the media has made it conventional wisdom by force of repetition. Journalists could just as easily have pointed out that Obama has more years of experience as an elected public official than Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, Rudy Giuliani, Fred Thompson or Mitt Romney, or that he has more foreign policy experience than four out of the last five presidents had when they were elected. Curiously, those aren’t popular arguments in the “pro-Obama” media.
Meanwhile, journalists seem to take on faith McCain’s “vast foreign policy expertise and credibility on national security,” as NBC anchor Brian Williams put it in a Democratic primary debate (2/26/07). Or as Newsweek’s Evan Thomas declared (PBS’s Charlie Rose, 2/8/08), McCain “can be pretty out there, using words like ‘surrender,’ because who is really going to question John McCain?” Extra! Update (4/08) cited “the media’s gentle treatment of McCain’s ludicrous claim” that Shiite Iran was backing the militant Sunni group Al-Qaeda in Iraq as an example of how the corporate press “seems eager to advance the idea that McCain’s Vietnam experience gives him sound judgment about foreign policy—never mind his actual record.”
In fact, a closer look at Obama’s supposed coverage advantage reveals a consistent media double standard on scrutiny of the candidates. Obama’s apparently innocuous connection to corrupt fundraiser Tony Rezko received extensive attention, while McCain’s lead role in the Keating Five savings and loan scandal is treated as old news and generally ignored by the press. The coverage of Obama’s former pastor Rev. Jeremiah Wright went on endlessly, while McCain’s embrace of controversial right-wing preacher John Hagee received far less media attention (Extra! Update, 4/08). Obama’s distant acquaintance with Bill Ayers (whose role in the 1960s’ Weather Underground Obama has condemned) became the basis of absurd accusations of “terrorist” connections, while the press ignored McCain’s trumpeting the endorsement of Oliver North, whose Iranian-financed Contra war killed far more innocents than ’60s radicals ever did.
Nor did many media figures—Chicago Tribune columnist Steve Chapman being a notable exception (5/4/08)—raise concerns about G. Gordon Liddy, a donor and fundraiser for McCain. On his radio talk-show (11/8/07), Liddy featured his “old friend” McCain, who declared: “I’m proud of you. . . . Congratulations on your continued success and adherence to the principles and philosophies that keep our nation great.” Liddy’s criminal past during Watergate never bothered McCain, nor did his 1994 comments (8/26/94; Extra! 7-8/95) that his radio listeners should murder federal agents: “Go for a head shot.”
The media denounced Obama’s “flip-flop” on public campaign financing almost in unison, while paying much less attention to McCain’s reneging on his legally binding promise to accept public financing for his primary campaign (FAIR Media Advisory, 7/3/08; Extra! Update, 8/08).
As noted by FAIR’s Peter Hart in Extra! (5-6/08) and Eric Alterman and George Zornick in the Nation (7/7/08), it is difficult to find even one subject where the press has truly held McCain’s feet to the fire while giving Obama a break from scrutiny. If corporate media are in love with Obama, they sure are picking a funny way of showing it.
John K. Wilson is the author of Patriotic Correctness: Academic Freedom and Its Enemies (collegefreedom.org) and Barack Obama: This Improbable Quest (obamapolitics.com).