McCain and the Press Coverage

>> Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Politico has a story up on the press coverage of the election. Specifically they are addressing the issue of bias in media coverage. The entire post is very interesting and worth a read. Look particularly at the premise of the piece contained in the first line, "thats not balanced". This is a major signal that one group is upset that the stories run are not perfectly equal in tone and tenor. Here is happens to be coming from the McCain campaign.

The McCain campaign would very much like for the stories about the election to be "balanced". Balance is a term of art that means every time you mention a negative thing about mccain you have to cancel it out with one about obama. This of course fails to take into account a situation where one candidate, mccain, is far more negative than the other. McCain has been almost exclusively negative personal attacks since the convention. The only exception might be this socialism stuff he is floating although that is so dubious and lacking in support it really is a personal pejorative. The McCain people are upset because the stories actually reflect reality,

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?

No, i call it the truth. The truth is that mccain has been more negative and more personal this election cycle. his attacks have not only lacked effect the have lacked merit. Having been informed of both of these issues McCain has not opted to go the traditional route of apologizing or defending and pulling the ad. Instead what he has done is push on with discredited ads in the face of press opposition. The politico crew call this, the mccain backlash.

One is 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. The best evidence of this has been the intense focus on the negative nature of his ads, when it is clear Obama has been similarly negative in spots he airs on radio and in swing states.

Now you can certainly take issue with he idea that Obama's ads have been as dirty and untrue as mccain's ads have been. Obama has stayed on policy, attacking mccain relentlessly on policy and on his policy reactions in the campaign. The part about the media assuming bad faith on McCain's part is certainly true. I dont want to give the politico crew too much credit because they really do try and carry mccain water in a couple places,

It is not our impression that many reporters are rooting for Obama personally. To the contrary, most colleagues on the trail we’ve spoken with seem to find him a distant and undefined figure. But he has benefited from the idea that negative attacks that in a normal campaign would be commonplace in this year would carry an out-of-bounds racial subtext. That’s why Obama’s long association with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright was basically a nonissue in the general election.

Journalists’ hair-trigger racial sensitivity may have been misplaced, but it was not driven by an ideological tilt.

Rev Wright was a nonissue because it was not an issue. It became an issue because of race. Politico is making the assertion that had it been a white pastor and a white candidate we would be seeing all wright all the time and we know thats not true. See sarah palin and her witch hunting pastor. The truth is that many of the attacks were raced based. anything having to do with his middle name is a racial thing.

Politico finishes the piece with a look at the systemic biases institutionalized in the media and i think this is possibly the most important section.

Beyond the particular circumstances of McCain v. Obama, there are other factors in any race that almost always matter more than the personal views of reporters.

The strongest of these is the bias in favor of momentum. 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.

For better or worse, the most common media instincts all have countervailing pressures. Countering the bias in favor of momentum is the bias against boredom. We’ve seen that several times this cycle — an outlying poll number being pumped to suggest big changes in a race that is basically unchanged. There’s a good chance you’ll see this phenomenon more in the next week.

Then there is the bend-over-backward bias. This is when journalists try so hard to avoid accusations of favoritism that it clouds critical judgment. A good example were stories suggesting Palin held her own or even won her debate against Joe Biden when it seemed obvious she was simply invoking whatever talking points she had at hand, hanging on for dear life.

Finally, one of the biases of journalists is the same one that is potent for almost all people: the one in favor of self-defensiveness. That’s why, even though we think ideological bias is pretty low on the list of journalistic maladies in this election, it is not viable for reporters to dismiss criticism out of hand.

I am loathe to run through each of these things one at a time. It suffices to say this stuff is true. it is one of the times that media people actually tell you what they think and why they run a story. They admit here to cherry picked polls to try and create artificial news. They admit to relying on the gossip and process stuff instead of focusing on policy. Everything the press is routinely criticized for is in this last section.

Politico seems to be hanging their hat on the simple proposition that reality says one campaign is winning and the other is losing. They luck out here in a way because even if mccain was actually winning with these tactics he would deserve just as much scrutiny. Sure we might see fewer process stories but i doubt it. Reporters just love that stuff too much. instead of negative wardrobe stories we might being seeing stories on how palins look was helping mccain. his ads however would still be 100% negative. if the presss covered the negativity different because he was winning that would not be right. The entire talk of balancing stories is something that needs to go away. Politico crew sums it up best when they say,

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.


O-le,O-le, O-le, O-le! O-le, O-le!

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