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.