In the Tank

Did the press help elect Barack Obama?

First, allow me to confess my sins. For the last eleven years, I have made my living practicing the dark art of journalism, and while perhaps not a full-fledged member of that nefarious institution known as the msm, my byline has on occasion been spotted on the pages of such well-known offenders as The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Slate.  I’ve even been known to pal around with members of those organizations. To make matters worse, somewhere in my closet is a sheepskin from an Ivy League university, and while I do not patronize Starbucks, I did for some years own a Volvo and reside within the boundaries of the District of Columbia. In short, I could loosely be labeled a member of the liberal media elite. In mitigation, I can offer that I currently live south of the Mason-Dixon line and own a handgun—though it was made by a Communist government.

Nevertheless, many of you have no doubt already guessed the ugly truth: on the morning of Tuesday, November 4, 2008, I stepped behind a closed curtain and cast my vote for Barack Hussein Obama. While that may not seem like much of a transgression to some, in conservative political circles, the perceived widespread support for Obama among journalists was one of the defining aspects of the Illinois senator’s historic run for the White House. In part, this is nothing new. The right has been complaining about liberal bias in the media since at least the early 1960s, when Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater made press-bashing a central part of his campaign. These days, railing against the liberal media is a mandatory applause line at any conservative rally.

To be sure, liberal partisans have their own concerns about an increasingly corporate media, but surveys of journalists consistently show that those involved in gathering and editing the news are somewhat more liberal, at least on social issues, than their fellow citizens. For example, a 2004 survey of 547 journalists commissioned by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center for The People and The Press found that only about 7 percent of journalists identified themselves as conservative. By contrast, in a Gallup poll that same year, about 20 percent of the public identified themselves as liberal, as compared to about a third of the press corps. Obviously, such numbers shift with the political winds and generalized labels are of limited utility, but it seems ridiculous to deny that those who choose journalism as a career skew more liberal than the population as a whole, just as those who get an MBA or enlist in the military skew a bit more conservative.

The real issue is how and whether that political inclination translates into biased coverage. Traditionally, the dominant “ism” of the trade wasn’t liberalism or conservatism, but skepticism. In the 2008 presidential race, however, there was no doubt among conservatives that journalists abandoned any semblance of skeptical detachment. Mark Salter, an aide to Republican nominee John McCain, conceded that his candidate faced an uphill climb, but told Time magazine after the election, “I do believe, and will never be dissuaded otherwise, that the media had their thumb on the scale. Maybe if the media had been fair, we still would have lost. But there were two different standards of scrutiny for us and Obama.” Other conservatives were less restrained. Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly stated that the standards of the news media were “collapsing” in an effort to support Obama and called the press bias the worst “ever in the history of broadcasting in this country.”

But it wasn’t just conservative talking heads or GOP operatives bashing the coverage. Mark Halperin of Time magazine decried the “extreme pro-Obama coverage,” calling it “the most disgusting failure of people in our business since the Iraq war.” Washington Post ombudsman Deborah Howell said she agreed with readers that the paper had demonstrated a tilt toward Obama. Howard Kurtz, the Post’s veteran media critic, scolded “hyperventilating” in the press over Obama’s win and looked forward to seeing reporters “wade back into reality” after the inauguration day. Not everyone shared this view, of course. Jack Shafer, the media critic at Slate who rarely spares the rod when he catches scribes peddling hokum, isn’t buying the media-conspiracy talk. “I just don’t see it. Certainly the reporters that I’ve talked to who cover Obama don’t give me the sense that they are in love with him,” he told me.

As these dueling viewpoints illustrate, when discussing something as inherently subjective as bias there is a depressing lack of objective measuring sticks. However, that didn’t stop the Project for Excellence in Journalism from giving it a go. Researchers analyzed 2,412 campaign stories from forty-eight news outlets published in the six weeks between the Republican convention in early September and the last presidential debate in October. The analysis showed not so much a bias in favor of Obama as pervasively negative coverage of John McCain. While Obama stories were about evenly distributed among positive (36 percent), negative (29 percent), and neutral (35 percent), McCain stories ran 57 percent negative and only 14 percent positive. 

So, case closed? Not quite. The study included some telling points. For example, McCain’s coverage in the week coming out of the Republican convention was very positive—much more positive than Obama’s coverage. That turned sharply the following week, when the financial crisis blew up and McCain reaped the whirlwind by proclaiming that “the fundamentals of the economy” were strong. He followed that up by announcing later in the week that he was suspending his campaign to help Congress address the crisis, and might not attend the first presidential debate. The result? Both his poll numbers and his press coverage took a nosedive. Obama, by contrast, kept a lower profile, and his coverage remained a mix of good, bad, and indifferent. 

Another point in the PEJ study worth chewing over was that, contrary to received wisdom, McCain’s attacks on Obama on issues like his association with former sixties radical Bill Ayers did succeed in driving up the negative coverage of Obama—they just drove up McCain’s negative coverage even more. In the end, the PEJ study could not provide a conclusive answer to the question of whether the press had a rooting interest in electing Obama. But the findings do make one thing clear: campaign coverage is largely momentum driven. As horse-race stories about who is up and why predominate, the better you poll, the better your coverage, a virtuous cycle likely only to be broken by a dramatic event. The inverse, of course, is also true.

And that’s what is so baffling about much of the carping in conservative circles. Commentators like Bill O’Reilly and Joe Scarborough talked repeatedly about what a rotten campaign John McCain ran and what a great campaign Obama ran; but in the next breath they griped about how differently the press treated the candidates, without ever seeming to make the obvious connection between the two points. 

Though it is beyond me to bridge the gulf between conservatives and the MSM on the bias question, I will offer a few ideas for how to approach this issue when it arises—as it surely will—in future elections:

Check Your Sources If the MSM didn’t say it, don’t reflexively blame them for spraying it. For example, conservatives complained bitterly about the unfair treatment Sarah Palin received in the press, but they usually weren’t referring to pesky questions about the Bridge to Nowhere or “troopergate,” but rather to Internet speculation about her family or wicked depictions of Palin by Tina Fey on Saturday Night Live. No doubt these things helped shape the public’s impression of Palin, but you can’t lay them at the feet of the working press. If anything, as post-election reports by Fox News’s Carl Cameron revealed, the press actually refrained from reporting damaging stories about Palin coming from inside McCain’s own campaign.

Look Who’s Talking An interesting note buried inside the PEJ study was that researchers excluded talk radio in their assessment of the tone of coverage. One can only hazard a guess at how many hours of Obama-bashing were beamed out to the millions of listeners of Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and the other conservative yakkers who dominate the dial. Ditto with their cable-TV counterparts, such as Lou Dobbs and Glenn Beck. Surely, MSNBC can’t balance them all out.

The New News Game Many of the bias complaints were actually thinly disguised laments about the lack of “standards” in modern journalism. This was often expressed as a nostalgic desire for some golden era when the front page was comprised exclusively of inverted pyramids and just-the-facts news writing. But as the Internet has taken over information-dispersal, newspapers and newsweeklies have necessarily become more like feature-driven magazines. That’s not due to the personal predilections of a cabal of lefty editors; it’s the marketplace that’s driving them to redefine their role in an effort to remain relevant and survive.

Absence of Evidence Can Be Evidence of Absence Another frequent conservative complaint was that the press was not letting the public in on the “real” Obama. Where was the blockbuster photo of Obama and Bill Ayers in a Hyde Park hot tub? How about a smoking-gun canceled check from Tony Rezko buried in the Cook County conveyance records? Surely, the conservative critics seemed to be suggesting, this type of damning evidence must be out there. In fact, Ayers, Rezko, and other potential Obama campaign detonators (Reverend Wright?) got plenty of page-one coverage—it just didn’t change the public’s perception of Obama or the trajectory of the campaign, much as the revelation of George W. Bush’s DUI arrest didn’t change the 2000 campaign. As a friend of mine in politics used to say, sometimes where there is smoke, there is fire, and sometimes there’s just a smoke machine.

Open Your Ears, Your Mind Will Follow This is equal-opportunity advice for liberals and conservatives. One of the less-savory aspects of media proliferation is that, if we choose, we can get our news exclusively from outlets that reflect our own views back at us. This should be resisted. As a center-lefty, I nonetheless spent a lot of time during the campaign watching Fox News, browsing The National Review Online, and grazing daily at The Drudge Report. Sure, it was tedious at times to sit through Sean Hannity’s nightly “a noun, a verb, and Bill Ayers” routine, but more often than not, plugging into the conservative media reminded me that facts, in addition to being stubborn things, are unpredictable in their associations and sometimes even wind up housed in the pie hole of a beefy Irish blowhard.

The urge to dismiss news simply because it originates in a hostile precinct may be human but it’s also shortsighted—and it leads to a kind of informational provincialism in which anyone not from your ideological tribe is viewed as irredeemably untrustworthy. In a country founded on shared ideas, not a shared identity, I can’t think of a bias more un-American than that. 

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Douglas McCollam is a contributing editor to CJR.