The Horse Race Ascends

Three news outlets, the Washington Post, Boston Globe, and Editor & Publisher, take a look this morning at a new study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism that tracked political stories published or aired between Oct. 1 and Oct. 14 by four newspapers, three network shows, three cable newscasts, and five web sites.

The study found that 59 percent of stories about President Bush during the two-week debate season were negative, in that they contained at least twice as many statements critical of the president as statements that were positive about him. By contrast, just 25 percent of stories about John Kerry were deemed negative. Over the same period, more than one-third of stories about Kerry were clearly positive, while only 14 percent of stories about Bush were scored as positive.

More important, from our point of view, is that just eight percent of the stories were about policy differences or their impact on citizens, while nearly 80 percent of the stories focused on politics and performance. Tom Rosenstiel, the project’s director, told Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post, “We’re so focused on who won and who lost, and if someone is perceived to have lost, what the implications are for their campaign. All that ‘winning’ and ‘losing’ doesn’t help people figure out who would be a better president.”

Does the survey indicate that conservatives are correct in their all-but universal conviction that campaign coverage is slanted by a press corps harboring liberal bias? Rosenstiel doesn’t think so, and neither do we. In truth, the stories reflect poll results that show that most viewers thought Bush turned in a weaker performance than Kerry over the course of the debates.

Some other tidbits:

— The study was selective, examining only the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Miami Herald and the Columbus Dispatch, along with the Big Three network newscasts, PBS’ “News Hour”, CNN’s Aaron Brown-hosted newscast, Fox’s Brit Hume-anchored newscast, and five blogs.

— Altogether, the study examined 817 stories, and, as Kurtz puts its, “[m]edia coverage is all about interpretation these days. Only 14 percent of the stories examined were straight news accounts of events. Of the remaining stories that had a clear theme, 38 percent were clearly negative and 26 percent clearly positive.”

— The only outlet that was a picture of “balance” was Jim Lehrer’s “News Hour,” with 59 percent of its coverage ranking as neutral, and the remainder evenly split between negative and positive. As one might guess, “the bulk of Fox’s stories favored Bush and their negative stories concerned Kerry,” the study said. Brown’s “Newsnight” on CNN was “mostly neutral” in tone, but “not a single CNN story was both dominated by and positive for Bush.”

As for bloggers, the study looked at two liberal sites (Josh Marshall’s Talking Points Memo and Atrios’ Eschaton), two conservative sites (Andrew Sullivan and Glenn Reynolds) and ABC’s The Note (not exactly a blog, but a “boffo must-read” nonetheless). In terms of covering policy statements and differences, the bloggers were no better than the mainstream press. Half their postings were about politics, 15 percent about policy, 13 percent about candidate fitness for office and 11 percent critiques of the media.

PEJ — which tends to be harder on bloggers than even Campaign Desk — concludes: “If the mainstream press is criticized for being too obsessed with inside baseball tactics, theater criticism and not particularly focused on the ideas of candidates, the top bloggers don’t distinguish themselves as a new kind of media in that regard. They play the game as often as most mainstream outlets.”

We sort of knew that, but it’s both affirming and depressing to see it backed up by an actual count.

Steve Lovelady

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Steve Lovelady was editor of CJR Daily.