November 6, 2008 / 6:33 PM / 9 years ago

Media bias largely unseen in US presidential race

6 Min Read

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - At times during this year's U.S. presidential race, it seemed that supporters of Republican John McCain bashed journalists covering his campaign almost as hard as they did his Democratic rival, Barack Obama.

McCain's running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, famously stoked anti-media catcalls and boos by Republican delegates at the party's national convention.

And as recently as this past weekend, a crowd of McCain backers at a rally in Virginia turned to the press stand and chanted: "Tell the truth! Tell the Truth!"

McCain partisans were roused to anger by a perception that mainstream news organizations routinely gave Obama preferential treatment en route to his election as the first black U.S. president.

But media scholars, including a former top aide to McCain, disagree. They said campaign coverage often did lean in Obama's favor, though not -- as many conservatives have suggested -- because of a hidden liberal agenda on the part of the media.

Instead, academic experts said, Obama benefited largely from the dynamics of the campaign itself and the media's tendency to focus on the "horse race," emphasizing ups and downs in the polls and political tactics.

As Obama's poll numbers rose in response to events, so did favorable press coverage for him, not the other way round.

"Winning begets winning coverage," said Mark Jurkowitz, an author of a study by the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism that tracked campaign coverage.

Dan Schnur, communications director for McCain's 2000 presidential bid and now head of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California, agreed.

"I don't think there's partisan or ideological bias because the mainstream media tries not to take sides in policy disagreements," he said. "Favorable news coverage is ... more a function of favorable poll numbers."

Financial Crisis Boosts Obama

Some scholars acknowledge that Obama also generated good press by virtue of his charisma, and his place in history as the first black presidential candidate of a major political party.

"He was fresh-faced, his candidacy was historic and he had a campaign that seemed to transcend politics," said Robert Lichter, head of the Center for Media and Public Affairs at George Mason University. "Reporters are suckers for candidates who don't seem like ordinary politicians."

But Kelly McBride, who teaches at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, said journalists should not be labeled as star-struck for reporting on the "mania" surrounding Obama.

"When you have a very attractive candidate, and you have people swooning for him, the reporters then report on the fact that people are swooning," she said.

The Pew study, which examined over 2,400 campaign stories from 48 news outlets, found negative McCain stories outnumbered positive ones, 57 percent to 14 percent, in the six weeks from the end of the conventions to the last presidential debate on October 7. Press treatment of Obama was more positive than negative -- 36 percent favorable to 29 percent unfavorable.

Pew researchers and others concluded Obama's media advantage was amplified by the financial crisis that struck in mid-September.

The credit crunch, stock market plunge and worsening economic outlook transformed the race by providing a narrative that played to Obama's message and helped deflect character attacks from McCain and his supporters, experts said.

After getting less attention than Obama in the run-up to the conventions, McCain actually caught up to his rival by late August in terms of overall media exposure. He even pulled ahead amid an initial burst of enthusiasm for Palin.

But McCain's coverage soured as the financial crisis unfolded and he suspended his campaign to deal with it, a move widely perceived as a misstep.

"The financial crisis and particularly Obama's steadier reaction to it in relation to McCain's were clearly a turning point," the Pew study said. "That more positive coverage was then reflected in the polls, which in turn were reinforced in the horse race coverage that played off those polls."

USC communications professor Thomas Hollihan said political reporters are drawn to stories of internal conflict and disarray, another factor that worked against McCain.

Hollihan, author of the book "Uncivil Wars: Political Campaigns in a Media Age," cited tensions between McCain and Palin supporters and the wave of high-profile Republicans who defected to endorse Obama.

Hollihan and other experts also pointed to McCain's choice of Palin as a decision that ultimately cost him in the media.

"The message that preceded the selection of Sarah Palin was all about readiness to lead, and that narrative essentially gets abandoned after he picks someone so untested," he said.

The Pew study found that Palin coverage overall was more negative than positive, though contrary to what many suggested, little of it dealt with her personal life.

Instead, "the most negative element in the press treatment of Palin came from reporters examining her record in office in Alaska and matching that record to her rhetoric as an ethics and financial reformer," the study said.

Editing by Mary Milliken and Jackie Frank

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