Quite a few people have been crowing about the recent Pew Study that found that coverage of John McCain has been more negative than coverage of Barack Obama. Following that was a Pew Research poll that showed that most voters believe that journalists want to see Barack Obama elected.
So is this the final proof of the Great Liberal Media Conspiracy?
It would be quite convenient if it was, as we Liberals could quit worrying about the press being on our side, and Conservatives would have a new windmill to tilt at, but no. A recent article from Politico.com helps explain why.
Politico does a great job a laying the problem out:
The Project for Excellence in Journalism’s researchers found that John McCain, over the six weeks since the Republican convention, got four times as many negative stories as positive ones. The study found six out of 10 McCain stories were negative.
What’s more, Obama had more than twice as many positive stories (36 percent) as McCain — and just half the percentage of negative (29 percent).
You call that balanced?
And they are right. That isn’t balanced, not by a long shot. You don’t even need to see those numbers to get that impression from the daily press. Politico continues:
There have been moments in the general election when the one-sidedness of our site — when nearly every story was some variation on how poorly McCain was doing or how well Barack Obama was faring — has made us cringe.
As it happens, McCain’s campaign is going quite poorly and Obama’s is going well. Imposing artificial balance on this reality would be a bias of its own.
So this pretty well details out the first problem with looking for balance in coverage, most news isn’t actually balanced. Especially when you are really looking at only covering two people, and every detail of what they do, there isn’t always accurate balance in the positive and negative between them. But can’t we just assume that liberal media is working on the side of the Democrats to amplify this? If so we should see that in the numbers, which the Pew study gives us:
In all, 36% of stories about Obama have been positive, vs. 35% that have been neutral. And 29% have been negative.
What are we to make of these numbers?
One metric is how they compare with past studies, both those earlier in this race and from other years.
Obama’s are similar to those recorded by the Project four years ago during a two-week period dominated by debates between John Kerry and George Bush. That year, 34% of Kerry stories were positive, while 25% were negative and 41% neutral. In 2000, when George Bush enjoyed more positive coverage than Al Gore, the depiction of him in the press was less flattering (24% positive, 27% neutral and 49% negative).
With these numbers we can see that Al Gore’s numbers look a whole lot more like McCain’s, and less like Obama’s. (Some Liberal press they are, aren’t they cashing Soros’ checks?)
No actually, they are not cashing checks from George Soros, they are cashing checks from their respective Media organizations, with the goal of Selling Media (papers, airtime, clicks, etc). And this is the important point. Reporters and Journalists generally don’t get paid to do amazing investigative work, they get paid when something is exciting and sells papers. Self-reinforcing memes and backstabbing sources only make this easier. The article in Politico states it this way:
A candidate who is perceived to be doing well tends to get even more positive coverage (about his or her big crowds or the latest favorable polls or whatever). And a candidate who is perceived to be doing poorly tends to have all events viewed through this prism.
Not coincidentally, this is a bias shared by most of our sources. This is why the bulk of negative stories about McCain are not about his ideology or policy plans — they are about intrigue and turmoil. Think back to the past week of coverage on Politico and elsewhere: Coverage has been dominated by Sarah Palin’s $150,000 handbags and glad rags, by finger-pointing in the McCain camp, and by apparent tensions between the candidate and his running mate.
These stories are driven by the flood of Republicans inside and out of the campaign eager to make themselves look good or others look bad. This always happens when a campaign starts to tank. Indeed, there was a spate of such stories when Obama’s campaign hit turmoil after the GOP convention and the Palin surge.
This bias towards exciting (and easy to write) stories rewards candidates with really good message discipline (like Barack Obama and George W. Bush) and punishes those with bad discipline (like Al Gore and John McCain).
McCain is getting hit even harder because he changed his campaign from one that used to be really open to the press, holding BBQ’s and long informal talk sessions, to a campaign that is kicking reporters off of the planes and busses. Politico referred to this as "McCain Backlash":
The Republican once was the best evidence of how little ideology matters. Even during his “maverick” days, McCain was a consistent social conservative, with views on abortion and other cultural issues that would have been odds with those of most reporters we know. Yet he won swooning coverage for a decade from reporters who liked his accessibility and iconoclasm and supposed commitment to clean politics.
Now he is paying. McCain’s decision to limit media access and align himself with the GOP conservative base was an entirely routine, strategic move for a presidential candidate. But much of the coverage has portrayed this as though it were an unconscionable sellout.
Since then the media often presumes bad faith on McCain’s part.
This, combined with daily little scandals, a changing story, and dropping polls give the reason for McCain’s negative coverage, not liberal political bias.