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: