Nov 4 2008

Pro-Obama Media?

What talk about media favoritism really means

Whether or not Barack Obama wins the election, there will be a substantial argument from conservatives–and even many centrist pundits and commentators–that the press was overwhelmingly biased in favor of the Democratic candidate and against John McCain (Extra!, 9-10/08). But the main evidence for this charge does not actually support the case.

Throughout the campaign, the Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ) has released reports on the quantity of media coverage of the election–which candidates received more airtime, and so on. Several PEJ studies have also discussed the tone of the coverage, in an attempt to reveal which candidates are being covered more positively or negatively. This analysis is based on the overall impression given in a report, based on quotes from pundits, sources or the candidates themselves.

According to PEJ’s October 22 study, the coverage of the campaign from the party conventions through the final debate has tilted in Obama’s favor (36/29 percent positive/negative vs. 14/57 percent positive/negative for McCain). The finding is not a surprising one; the candidate who seems to have “momentum”–improving his fundraising or standing in the polls, for example–is graded as getting “positive” coverage. The candidate who is not performing up to expectations is said to be receiving “negative” coverage. Also, running a negative campaign tends to be frowned upon in the media, resulting in more negative coverage for the candidate running more negative ads.

The easiest way to mislead readers or viewers, then, is to take these positive/negative scores and imply that they prove corporate media are unfairly skewing the news against McCain or are painting Obama in an unusually flattering light. As the report noted:

One question likely to be posed is whether these findings provide evidence that the news media are pro-Obama. Is there some element in these numbers that reflects a rooting by journalists for Obama and against McCain, unconscious or otherwise? The data do not provide conclusive answers. They do offer a strong suggestion that winning in politics begat winning coverage, thanks in part to the relentless tendency of the press to frame its coverage of national elections as running narratives about the relative position of the candidates in the polls and internal tactical maneuvering to alter those positions. Obama’s coverage was negative in tone when he was dropping in the polls, and became positive when he began to rise, and it was just so for McCain as well.

In other words, given that most election coverage is unfortunately focused on the horserace, the candidate doing better on that score will yield more “positive” media coverage. In general, studies that are based on assessing positive and negative coverage is subject to misinterpretation, because reality is not always 50 percent positive. But some of the chatter about the study took as a given that an unbiased press corps would have given equally favorable assessments to the Obama and McCain campaigns.

“It has been hard to deny for two years now that Barack Obama has gotten an easier ride in the media than any other presidential candidate,” announced CNN‘s Howard Kurtz (11/2/08). “And a new report this week makes clear that John McCain is getting hosed in the coverage.” Fox News Channel‘s Bill O’Reilly had made the same point days earlier (10/30/08), employing the same idiom: “It’s now certain that the American media has given Barack Obama an enormous advantage. According to a study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, John McCain’s getting hosed big time.”

On Fox News Sunday (10/26/08), NPR reporter Mara Liasson acknowledged that the horserace bias of the corporate media accounted for some of the tilt in coverage, but added:

But I do think it’s something more. I think Palin especially, because she burst on the scene as a celebrity and had no context for most people to judge her–for some reason, Joe Biden has been viewed against a context that has excused most of his inaccurate or false statements. The context is everything. “Oh, we know him for 29 years,” whereas Palin, “We don’t know her at all.” So every little thing gets kind of distorted or exaggerated. You know, she goes to a church where they speak in tongues, and that gets blown up without any kind of context.

In fact, the study found that very little of the “negative” coverage of Palin had anything to do with her personal or family life, which the study found was only 5 percent of the coverage of her.

There are obviously problems in assessing media “tone” this way; studies like this are easily misconstrued as evidence of a press that is biased against McCain, rather than evidence of a media system that does voters the great disservice of treating elections like they are sporting events.

This is not to suggest that coverage of Obama has not verged on the hyperbolic. After Obama’s closing speech at Democratic convention, MSNBC host Keith Olbermann declared (8/28/08): “Vote for him or do not, but take pride that this nation can produce men and speakers such as that. For 42 minutes, not a sour note and spellbinding throughout in a way usually reserved for the creations of fiction, an extraordinary political statement.”

Much of the media enthusiasm for Obama, though, has demonstrated less of a liberal bias than a centrist bias. Early in the campaign, pundits were enthralled by the idea of a “post-racial” America, with Obama embodying a literal transcendence of divisiveness and racism (Extra!, 3-4/07). While the campaigns were occasionally criticized in the press for various flip-flops, the press were often more forgiving if they believed Obama’s were part of a move away from the left and towards the media-preferred “center”–though on some issues, such as the Iraq War, the position the media favored for Obama would put him well to the right of the public (FAIR Media Advisory, 7/15/08).

For many in the press, Obama’s appeal is based on the notion that liberal “interest groups” will be sidelined; a New York Times editorial approvingly noted (8/29/08) that the Democratic convention saw “little display…of the placards of the teachers’ and service workers’ unions, of the National Abortion Rights Action League and the Sierra Club,” a sign of the “Obama campaign’s sound analysis that American voters mistrust interest groups.” The Washington Post‘s endorsement of Obama (10/17/08) ran through several areas where the candidate is perceived to be a refreshing break from Democratic orthodoxy, saying that he “has surrounded himself with top-notch, experienced, centrist economic advisers,” the paper noted–though they still would like him to move further to the right:

We also can only hope that the alarming anti-trade rhetoric we have heard from Mr. Obama during the campaign would give way to the understanding of the benefits of trade reflected in his writings. A silver lining of the financial crisis may be the flexibility it gives Mr. Obama to override some of the interest groups and members of Congress in his own party who oppose open trade, as well as to pursue the entitlement reform that he surely understands is needed.

At their core, corporate media are deeply suspicious of progressive movements, and when these look like they might gain enough power to threaten the interests of their owners, you begin to hear a lot of media talk about bipartisanship and centrism. An Obama election would provoke an abundance of this–and it’s already started. “America remains a center-right nation–a fact that a President Obama would forget at his peril,” Newsweek declared above an October 27 cover story by editor Jon Meacham (FAIR Blog, 10/27/08 ). The New York Times‘ Matt Bai (11/2/08) called on Obama to

install Republicans in a few more influential positions. He could also try to bridge the partisan divide by reaching past Washington to some of the Republican governors who backed McCain–working on environmental policy with Arnold Schwarzenegger, for example, or on immigration with Florida’s Charlie Crist. A lot of liberals would undoubtedly protest such overtures as unnecessarily conciliatory, given the likely dominance of Democrats in Washington. But Obama has promised nothing short of systemic change. Integrity demands he lead inclusively.

Note Bai equates “systemic change” with working with Republicans–the party in power for the last eight years. That’s integrity, corporate media style.