It’s hard pulling apart the tapestry of different factors that produce a winner in a presidential election. Exit polls present a dizzying area of demographic trends that mean either everything or nothing, and post-mortems about strategy can go on for years.
That’s true this year, although there may be one point of broad agreement about the campaign: the mainstream media has been in the tank for Barack Obama.
“[W]hen it came time for the general election, environmentalists, the mainstream media, and Hispanics all went solidly for Obama, joined by a sufficient number of swing Democrats,” wrote Fox News’ James Pinkerton.
The Weekly Standard’s Stephen Hayes—who CNN recently hired despite his discredited reporting on 9/11 and willingness to act as a shill for Vice President Dick Cheney by authoring his authorized biography—told his CNN colleague Jason Carroll that, “Reporters by and large are generally more sympathetic with the world view that Barack Obama has campaigned on in the campaign and less sympathetic than with that of John McCain.” Carroll agreed, saying, “A new report by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in journalism says, he may be right.”
Sean Hannity also informed Sarah Palin during an interview that, “there was a new poll that came out about the media coverage. And the negative coverage of Senator McCain is 57 percent, and there’s more favorable coverage of Senator Obama.” He asked, “What does that tell you, though, about journalism in America?”
These views are sadly not limited to the Hannity set, however—by a margin of 70 percent to 9 percent, Americans said most journalists wanted to see Obama, not John McCain, win on November 4.
This is the same old complaint—and we mean old. Dwight Eisenhower got one of the biggest ovations of his life when, speaking to the 1964 Republican convention, he derided the “sensation-seeking columnists and commentators” who sought to undermine the party. During the 1992 presidential race, then Chair of the Republican Party Rich Bond claimed, “I think we know who the media want to win this election—and I don’t think it’s George Bush.”
Right up through the Hannitys and Bernie Goldbergs of today, we have heard that the mainstream media is too liberal. But once again, we’re left asking: what liberal media? The evidence used to support the “Obamedia” meme is just as weak as it was when Goldberg published Bias, a book that only considered the evening news broadcasts, and only social issues—not political ones. Goldberg said that he didn’t want the book “to be written from a social scientist point of view.”
So, let’s get back to that study from the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism that Hannity and many others have cited. It found that “media coverage of the race for president [did] not so much cast Barack Obama in a favorable light as it has portrayed John McCain in a substantially negative one…. For Obama… just over a third of the stories were clearly positive in tone (36 percent), while a similar number (35 percent) were neutral or mixed. A smaller number (29 percent) were negative. For McCain, by comparison, nearly six-in-ten stories studied were decidedly negative in nature (57 percent), while fewer than two-in-ten (14 percent) were positive.”
Sure, it sounds damning, but even a cursory look at the specific findings reveals serious weaknesses in the argument that the mainstream media favored Obama—and it’s clear that’s not what Pew was asserting. The mainstream press did produce an even mix of positive, negative, and neutral stories about Obama. Ah, but there were more “negative” stories about McCain, right? Right. But just what is a “negative” story?
Any story about McCain’s position in the polls—which was lagging for almost the entire period the stud was conducted—counted as negative. Stories about the public’s reaction to the presidential debates—they thought Obama won—were counted as negative. Race-horse coverage regarding campaign dynamics often fell into the negative category too, and with good reason. Stories were necessarily negative after John McCain “suspended” his campaign to help broker a financial bailout, but then didn’t actually suspend the campaign and didn’t help produce a bailout. For example, Pew counted as negative a Sept. 26 CNN.com piece stating that, “some fellow lawmakers said McCain hadn’t contributed much to the financial debate, and senior campaign advisors told CNN they believed it was politically crucial that McCain show up in Oxford, Mississippi.”
In short, it’s utterly unsurprising that a candidate who trailed in the polls, lost the debates (according to public polling), and made strategy decisions that were widely viewed as mistakes would garner a larger share of “negative” coverage. It’s very important to note that Pew was not attempting to prove definitive liberal bias, but rather illustrating in detail how campaign dynamics were reflected in the mainstream media’s coverage. To call this kind of reporting “negative” is to do damage to the very idea of social science. It’s as if conservatives are whining about “negative” weather coverage because a weatherman mentions “rain.”
Tobe Berkovitz, associate dean of Boston University’s College of Communication predicted, “If the mainstream media are wrong about Obama and the voters pull a Truman, that is going to be the end of whatever shred of credibility they have left.” Yes, but voters did not “pull a Truman” and so the coverage predicting an Obama victory was entirely accurate. Does that mean Mr. Berkovitz will now apologize for implying bias for reporting reality?
Aside from misunderstanding the Pew study’s findings, there are several other fundamental problems with the “Obamedia” theory. It ignores the substantively favorable relationship John McCain had cultivated with the mainstream press—something demonstrated in detail in our lengthy article, “Loving John McCain.”
Media Matters added another analysis that shows that the relationship was favorable to McCain deep into the election. It found “the media’s coverage of two stories negatively affecting or reflecting on Sen. Barack Obama—his ties to Bill Ayers and Antoin Rezko—and two stories negatively affecting or reflecting on Sen. John McCain—his reported facilitation of land deals that benefited donors and his association with G. Gordon Liddy—found that, while the five major newspapers frequently mentioned Obama’s ties to Ayers and Rezko throughout the 2008 election cycle, they rarely mentioned McCain’s reported facilitation of land deals that benefited donors, and they almost completely ignored McCain’s association with Liddy.” Also, “the three evening network news broadcasts mentioned Obama’s ties to Ayers and Rezko several times, but never reported on McCain’s reported facilitation of land deals that benefited donors or his association with Liddy.”
This is an example of seriously skewed coverage—stories about Ayers and Rezko are truly negative stories, as opposed to say, descriptions of poll numbers.
Consider also the coverage of Joe Biden. The very same Pew study cited by conservatives of definitive proof of bias found that, “Biden’s coverage was among the most negative of any candidate studied, more so than Palin’s and close to [Sen. John] McCain’s. Excluding the week of the vice presidential debate, 48 percent of Biden stories carried a clear negative tone. Another 35 percent were neutral or mixed. Just 17 percent were positive.” Eric Boehlert examined Biden’s coverage in detail and concluded that, “[the] only thing that explained the nasty tone of his coverage was that reporters and pundits chose to make it overwhelmingly negative; they chose to push the trivial ‘gaffe machine’ line.”
Complaints about the Obama-loving media are emptier than the Biltmore ballroom at midnight Tuesday night. But it’s no surprise they’re being raised. As the aforementioned Rich Bond also said, “[t]here is some strategy to it [bashing the ‘liberal’ media]. If you watch any great coach, what they try to do is ‘work the refs.’ Maybe the ref will cut you a little slack on the next one.”
Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College, and a professor of journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. His blog, “Altercation,” appears at http://www.mediamatters.org/altercation. His seventh book, Why We’re Liberals: A Political Handbook for Post-Bush America, was recently published by Viking.
George Zornick is a freelance writer in New York.