In the Tank… for Whom?

November 26th, 2008

The liberal bloggers are buzzing about a rather sensationalist claim being made by TIME Magazine’s Mark Halperin about the election:

“It’s the most disgusting failure of people in our business since the Iraq war. It was extreme bias, extreme pro-Obama coverage.”

When asked for examples of this bias, he pointed to two pieces on the wives of the candidates, citing one piece blasting Cindy McCain and another piece admiring Michelle Obama. (Just a note as a writer–if you make a charge, best to back it up with direct evidence–stories about wives is about as weak as you can get in this case.) When asked why the media was so biased, he replied that they wanted to see Obama simultaneously “etched in glass” and “on Mount Rushmore.” Uh huh.

Now, E&P did a pretty good job pointing out multiple pieces of direct evidence that Halperin has been pretty right-wing this election, and normally I would simply let this kind of thing pass. But that’s what I thought about the whole “center-right” thing, and yet it seems that the media–er, the “Liberal Media™”–is picking up the meme and running with it. It’s certainly a natural theme for right-wingers to try to inflate for the next four to eight years; it has worked very well for them for the past fifteen or so years, they might as well pump it up even more, now that the Democrats will be in charge.

The basic idea, of course, is to “work the refs.” If you complain that the media is too leftist, this benefits you in at least two ways. First, the media, wishing to avoid the appearance of favoring the left, will create false equivalencies–in effect, creating positive news for the right if the news is good for the left, or negative news for the left if the news for the right is bad. They do not do this in reverse, as they do not fear being labeled a ‘conservative media.’ As a result, in general, media coverage favors the right, even with news organizations that are not overtly right-wing.

The second benefit is to create the impression among the public that whatever they see in the media is tilted to the left. Combined with the first benefit, this creates an enhanced effect: the public gets news that leans to the right, but believes that it leans too far to the left, and so has the impression that the truth is even farther to the right.

But what about the basic charge? Is it possible, in fact, that Obama got better coverage? Halperin is not alone; Deborah Howell wrote such a story in the WaPo a few weeks back claiming bias in favor of Obama; the right-wing blogs jumped all over that one. E&P again, however, competently debunks the claims Howell made.

One basis for the general claims of a tilt toward Obama is the fact that there were more headlines about Obama than there were about McCain. A few problems there. First, many of these tallies start long before Obama’s protracted fight with Hillary Clinton ended, so of course there was more coverage of Obama. Second, more news is not necessarily good news: a lot of those stories about Obama were on topics like Jeremiah Wright or William Ayers; the press did not similarly focus as much on McCain’s negative associations. In fact, studies found that the media ran more negative stories about Obama in terms of percentages–which means that more coverage about Obama meant even more media coverage showing him in a bad light. Finally, there was the source of the focus itself. A study found that while the most common word used on Obama’s web site was “Obama,” it also found that the most common word used on McCain’s site was… “Obama.” The media covered Obama more in part because McCain directed them to; while Obama was focusing more on the issues, McCain was focusing far more on Obama. You can’t call the media biased for Obama if they are following McCain’s lead and focusing more on Obama’s negatives.

Then we get to the fact that there was a lot more negative material about McCain out there than there was about Obama–and yet the media covered most of Obama’s and very little of McCain’s. A few examples: first, campaign financing. Early in the year, McCain clearly violated campaign finance law by using public financing as collateral on a loan, using the loaned money, then claiming they were no longer participating in public financing, exceeding legal limits on spending. Even the Republican FEC chief balked at that–and was rewarded with a pink slip, as a more pliant FEC head was appointed by Bush before the FEC could take any action. This was one of the big under-reported stories of the year: a candidate who touted himself as a campaign finance champion committing a federal felony with campaign finance evasions. And there was virtually zero coverage in the news. In contrast, when Obama, who had promised only to discuss public financing, decided to take the wholly legal route of private financing, there was an avalanche of bad press about him for a while.

Another example was religious connections. While Obama’s relation to Jeremiah Wright was front-and-center for months, McCain’s association with right-wing religious figures, people he pursued for their endorsements, were not covered except briefly when they made similarly outrageous comments. There was even video of Sarah Palin herself being blessed by a priest who talked of witchcraft, and had persecuted innocent women in Africa as witches. That got almost no coverage as well.

Yet another example is flip-flops; McCain had significantly altered or even reversed his stands on almost every single issue of importance, and yet not only did the media ignore this, it often claimed that he did not flip-flop on the issues. Even though McCain changed from “more drilling won’t help” to “drilling is absolutely vital” within just a few months, with video to mark both the flip and the flop–the media virtually ignored it. Contrast that with Obama reiterating his Iraq policy–with no changes or reversals–leading to a week of media coverage on how he was flip-flopping.

And one more example was McCain’s being neck-deep in lobbyists. Whenever some big story broke, it had links to lobbyists on McCain’s campaign staff, usually people high up. When the whole Georgia crisis erupted, it was learned that McCain’s foreign policy advisor was still being paid to lobby for Georgia. When the Freddie Mac and Fanny Mae scandal broke, it was learned that McCain’s campaign manager was still receiving lobbyist paychecks from both firms. And yet somehow, the media never picked up on this story–they instead created false equivalencies, saying that “both” campaigns had lobbyist ties, as if that meant both were equally corrupt.

So the media was often absent when McCain had bad news surrounding him, but almost never passed up a chance to report on bad news about Obama. In fact, there was that one time when CNN had video of McCain making a rather notable gaffe–and they re-edited the video to cover up the gaffe. They later claimed it was a “mistake,” as if it were accidental–I mean, what, did they trip over something?

Similarly, the media took very seriously the idea that one could not criticize McCain on a variety of issues because he was a veteran and a former POW. Bob Schieffer, on more than one occasion, became visibly angry when people suggested that McCain might not be presidential material; Tom Brokaw had similar man-crush moments regarding McCain.

Then there is the fact that all too often, there simply was no equivalent news to be covered. Take the day when Obama was delivering a stirring speech to 200,000 Germans in Europe, while McCain was giving a lame photo op outside the “Fudge Haus.” The media cannot be blamed for covering grand events as grand events and lame ones as lame ones. If Obama drew crowds of tens of thousands and McCain couldn’t fill a medium-sized room, if Obama gave brilliant oratory and McCain laughed with hideous awkwardness in front of an appalling green screen… there is no media bias if they simply cover what happened.

And finally, there were McCain’s atrocious decisions and performance. It was bad enough early on, but Sarah Palin was the turning point. Choosing someone who was so clearly unqualified and even disastrously unprepared after having gone on for months about Obama not being “experienced” enough, choosing such a blatantly political running mate who only jeopardized the nation’s future leadership while running under a “country first” banner, going before reporters and claiming himself that living near the outer reaches of Russia’s tundra really did qualify Palin in terms of foreign affairs and national security… these were not just gaffes, these were intended actions which demonstrated catastrophically bad judgment.

Add to that the fact that McCain refused to allow media access to Palin, held back medical records and other documents considered necessary for public review, and kept pulling badly managed and even bizarre publicity stunts, and you begin to realize that, if anything, the media’s coverage of McCain in the final month of the election was actually far better than McCain deserved from an objective standpoint.

Not only was there not a media bias for Obama, there was a demonstrable and sharply noticeable media bias in favor of McCain. And if you hear anyone say differently, shut them down. There’s a wealth of examples, only a few of which I have outlined above, to prove the case beyond any doubt. Let’s not let this meme go unchallenged.

  1. Paul
    November 27th, 2008 at 09:07 | #1

    I swear, Luis, many (if not most) of your political analysis posts could easily make the rec list on DailyKos if you posted them there.

    Your writing and points are good enough that sooner or later, folks would be giving your posts recs. You should cross-post to an account on DKos all the time.

  2. Luis
    November 27th, 2008 at 11:22 | #2

    Paul: thanks! And I tried that, but most stories I submitted were lost in the large stream of articles; unless you learn the tricks of how and when to post, nobody even notices your story as it quickly runs too far downstream for them to see. Also, it takes a bit of work to post using their system and alter the story for the slightly different venue & context. It was just too much effort for too little return. But again, thanks for the vote of confidence.

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