Thursday, July 31, 2008


Political Mayhem Thursday: The Media

A few months ago, I became aware of charges that the media was covering Obama more closely than McCain. I started keeping track of the way that the New York Times was reporting the race, and over time some trends became apparent. First, there seemed to be about an equal number of articles about both candidates. Second, the articles about Obama were sometimes placed more prominently (especially during his European tour). Third, the articles about Obama were just more interesting-- they seemed to depict a more vibrant and intriguing person (which may just be true, but the point can be debated).

So, it would seem that some news sources are not entirely even in how they cover candidates. My question is-- should they be? Is there a duty for journalists to ensure that two candidates receive nearly identical coverage in all respects?

I would imagine trying to write interesting articles about McCain is like being a food critic assigned to Denny's.
Dan is right. Media entities are, ultimately, businesses, and part of that is trying to sell the most product. However you feel about his politics, Obama is young, vibrant, and very popular, whereas McCain is old, kind of curmudgeony, and not really that exciting. News organizations don't sell more covering McCain, so it's only expected that they would cover Obama. I'd even say that it's probably better that they shy away from McCain, as he makes so many gaffes and slip-ups that increased exposure would probably hurt him more than helping. Plus, when it comes down to it, Obama is easier to look at on a big flat-screen tv than McCain is. Those jowls.. yeesh.
A Newsweek article by Jonathan Alter recently highlighted the reason for the apparent one-sidedness, and it is just what Justin mentions:

"History drives everything, including the disparity in media coverage, with Obama (even before this week) drawing many more reporters to his plane than McCain. The grinding of economic and technological forces has disabled the traditional business models of news organizations. To the shock of political veterans, NBC News is the only network with on-air correspondents and NEWSWEEK the only news magazine with reporters assigned to cover both candidates full time. Ailing regional newspapers show up only occasionally, which thins the herd. With traveling costs "inside the bubble" of more than $4,000 per reporter a week, news outlets often have to choose which candidate to cover. That's usually Obama, not because everyone assumes he should win or will win, but because he is the bigger story, historically speaking."
Actually, I think that the McCain story is pretty interesting, too-- not just his life history, but what is happening now, especially the changes as he becomes the mainstream candidate of his party instead of the maverick. He can be an excellent speaker in town-hall type formats, as well, and says some very unusual things in reaction to questions.
I like these arguments, "of course they cover Obama more and more favorably, he is cooler and more important and right about stuff!!". Or basically, yes the media is biased, just like it should be!!

If this is how you think then why does everyone have such a problem with FoxNews? If bias is not only to be expected but to be encouraged then what's the problem?

I have trial today, so I may not respond much, but the first three comments made me laugh so hard I had to get in here.
Eight years ago McCain was a Media Darling. As he was back in January and February when he emerged from the ashes to become the GOP presumptive nominee. But last year he was dirt.

It all goes in cycles.

He's a fascinating guy. Read "Song of the Nightingale," which is a story about him and four other Annapolis grads and their experiences in Vietnam and in politics. The other 4 are Oliver North, Bud McFarlane, John Poindexter and Jim Webb. McCain and Webb look good, but the others look like fools or a nut (North).

If you want to have your hair stand on end, read about McCain's brush with death on the USS Forrestal in a fire that killed scores of people. And his Prison Camp experiences will make your skin crawl.

Having said that, however, I don't think the media has any such "duty." Art Buchwald supposedly used to quiz young journalists on the "job" of a newspaper. They'd answer "to inform," "to educate," etc.

No, he'd say, "the job of a newspaper [or a television network or a website that is more than a hobby] is to MAKE MONEY."
I do think they have a duty to be as equal in their coverage as possible, because media coverage is so vital to the whole process.

What annoys me is also something that's good about US media: its ability to criticize itself (the good thing) but well after the fact (the annoying and troubling thing). They--columnists as well as TV commentators and presenters--get into the habit of jumping all over a particular concept or phrase of someone's and running with it, as if they're too tired to keep thinking of their own . . . i.e. David Brooks' contention that those who voted for Hilary were blue collar, and those who voted for Barack were more highly-educated, yuppie types.

There is perhaps truth to this--certainly in some of the primaries--but not as a blanket statement, yet once he said it, all the press ran with it.

I wish they would keep a tighter vigilance on themselves while the election's going on.

On a somewhat tangential point, something I'd love to hear from IPLG: I've noticed that Cindy McCain is almost ALWAYS seen on tv appearances at McCain's side. This strikes me as highly unusual in a campaign, that the wife is always, always at her husband's side. I don't remember ever seeing it to such a degree before.

I have my own theories, but I've never read or heard any media analysis of this. Any thoughts?
I do not believe journalists should be unbiased. When we look back in history, do we believe that Thomas Payne should have spent equal time writing about King George's political stance and life history after writing The Rights of Men? If one group of journalists prefer to write about Obama, so be it. It behooves those who prefer McCain to match his opponent's supporters.
Coverage does not need to be equal. Just honest and accurate and without malice.

That's where Fox News fails.
It depends on who you ask. American media have, for many decades, held to "fair and balanced" as a key tenet of practice. Of course, this isn't actually possible inasmuch as there is limited time and space, financial concerns, the involvement of humans in the gathering and reporting of news, etc. But journalists are trained to be equltable and they try. Really.

In many other countries, this is not expected from the media, regardless of whether the press is government-controlled.

Interestingly, the introduction of the citizen journalists - bloggers, iReports and the like - has started to shift this ideal in the American press as well.

One well-known phenomenon is that the media like to cover close races because it gives something to write about. As we get closer to the elections, you can look for shifts in the amount and content of coverage of the candidates, as the media prop up the weak guy in order to make the race closer. Watch for it.
I'm with AZ Public Defender. Newspapers and networks are private entities and are entitled to express their opinions. That's the great thing about the First Amendment.

If people have a problem with the journalists' political agenda, they have a duty to speak up.
I agree IPLawguy, media does not have a "duty" or "obligation" to be fair and balanced. I think that is what that whole freedom of the press thing is about in the pesky little constitution of ours.

That is of course one of the reasons I think the Democrats in congress that are attempting to reinstate the "fairness doctrine" are such morons.

On the press coverage of Cindy McCain, let me first make something ABUNDANTLY CLEAR: I have NO OFFICIAL ROLE in the campaign-- I am a minor foot soldier. I was last a paid McCain staffer over 20 years ago.

So anything I say here or anywhere is is my opinion only.

Cindy is a Great person and very likeable. She's smart and apparently a great Mom -- she's raised 4 great and successful kids mostly on her own, as her husband spent his weekdays in DC and then would be travelling or campaigning or conferring when Congress was not in session.

One thing she never aspired to be was a public person. I think she'd have been perfectly happy to be the Chair of a fundraising committee at the local Red Cross or some other charity. She tried to live here in DC, but didn't like it and they decided to make Arizona their home instead.

So if you're looking for a Hillary Clinton type First Lady, its not her. And she has no desire for the spotlight like Nancy Reagan, nor will she deliver tart quotes like Barbara Bush. She's MUCH prettier in person than on TV too.

I'd say her most important and best quality is that she is fiercely loyal and protective of her family. She and John McCain have a strong relationship and she's his number one fan and protector and will make sure he wears his sunblock, eats right and gets his rest. And she will keep the press out of her kids' lives.

Their third son is a Marine and recently ended a tour of duty in Iraq. The McCains NEVER talk about this because they don't want their son to become a campaign prop. One daughter is adopted from Bangladesh. Again, RARELY do you hear about this. That's the way Cindy and John want it. And she's the one that enforces that rule.

--And again, I speak ONLY for me. I cannot emphasize enough that I have NO authority to speak for the Campaign!!!

I she went drinking with the Capitol Hill Staff before her first kid one time in 1983 or 1984 and we all had a great time -- she tried to pay for the beer [Anheuser Busch products only-- her Dad owned the Arizona Distributorship] and we wouldn't let her.
IPLG . . . I didn't mean my comment negatively about Cindy McCain. From what you've said and from what I've read about her, I admire her very much. Anybody who can get over her fear of flying in small planes by actualy learning to fly one is a star in my book!

I was wondering about her constant presence at his side, in front of the press, simply as an unusual campaign phenomenon . . . I would think it unusual if it were Obama's wife too.

For Hilary there were obvious reasons why Bill should be nowhere near her . . .

I think she's just more comfortable with him. She doesn't want to go out and be a spokesperson on her own... and she wants to take care of him.

That's JUST my impression. I did tell her a joke in New Hampshire and told her I still had a beer mug they gave me from Christmas when I worked for John McCain, but I certainly have not had a serious conversation with either of them in many years.
The media would really have to dig down deep and work really hard to find something new to cover about McCain (obviously, that means all Obama news for Yahoo).
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