“The Biblical term for it is ‘Deliverance,’” said MSNBC’s Chris Matthews in commenting on the Obama campaign. “We are being picked up and taken where we want to go…”
While Matthews is among the most dreamy-eyed of journalists in his thrilled obsession with Obama, there are many other journalists claiming a widespread pro-Obama sentiment in the media. Consider the following sampling of journalists commenting on the “Obama-love” of their peers:
“The media’s love affair with Barack Obama is all consuming…” — Joe Scarborough
“The feeling most people get when hearing a Barack Obama speech is…I get this thrill going up my leg, I don’t have that too often…” — Chris Matthews
“I must confess my knees quaked a bit…” Lee Cowan
“Its more than love, it’s the kind of love that anybody whose been a ninth grade boy understands this species of love. I think about you when I go to bed, too embarrassed to stand up, its sealed with a kiss love” –Tucker Carlson
Following in the steps of a famous Saturday Night live spoof of the media’s pro-Obama bias, the McCain camp has recently released its own humorous montage of “Obama-moments” in the starry-eyed media. Enjoy them both…
Saturday Night Clip
McCain Camp “The Media Loves Obama” video
Is the hype real? Are media commentators and reporters truly obsessed with covering Obama, and is their coverage slanted in favor of Obama? What do the answers to these questions teach about how the media covers elections?
Evidence of Obamania in the Media
There is good evidence that stories focusing on Obama have received more air and print time throughout the election than stories focusing on McCain. The non-partisan Project for Excellence in Journalism tracks a wide range of media stories in its “Campaign Coverage Index,” and in every week since the race has narrowed to McCain and Obama, they have found substantially more stories focused on Obama than on McCain. In mid-July, they offered the following coverage chart, and reported that
“Obama was at least a significant presence in fully 77% of the campaign stories studied, compared with 48% for McCain. Obama has led in coverage in all five weeks since the race narrowed to two presumptive nominees. A week earlier, that gap narrowed to 11 points and offered the prospect that the coverage might equalize, but last week suggested that might not be the case.”
Another study, by the Tyndall center reporting the same kinds of findings—discovering three times as many broadcast minutes dedicated to Obama than to McCain stories in the weeks after the primary season ended.
Is More Coverage Better Coverage?
Obama receives the lion-share of media attention, it’s true—but is that necessarily good? The media is known for their penchant for scandal, for their obsession in discovering flaws, conflicts, and contradictions, and then exposing them to maximizing drama and attract viewers. Perhaps much of the coverage on Obama is actually negative—obsessing with such things as Obama’s alleged radicalism, his race, rumors of his Muslim/Madrassa background, and his political inexperience?
There is a sense out there that the media is slavishly pro-obama in their bias. Rush Limbaugh, for example, makes it part of his daily fodder to berate the Obama-love in the air—though relying on Limbaugh as an expert in media balance is a bit like consulting the Flat Earth Society for directions on your upcoming “round-the-world” cruise.
“The Soviet leaders from Lenin and Stalin all the way up to Brezhnev and Gorbachev, they never got this kind of fawning press from Pravda and they owned it. I mean, they wrote their own press and they didn’t get this kind of good coverage. The Beatles never got this. Princess Di never got this…The Drive Bys have arrested development. They are just a bunch of teenagers here. The only thing they haven’t done is throw their underwear and bras at the guy when he’s up there on stage, yet.” –Rush Limbaugh, on Obama’s favorable press coverage
It’s early in the game, and beyond these kinds of general impressions, there is very little way in the serious scholarship proving whether the media coverage, overall, is biased towards or against Obama. What scholarship there is actually suggests that Obama has perhaps received more negative, rather than positive, coverage from the press.
Here’s an L.A. Times story, summarizing recent findings from a well-respected university media-research center.
“The Center for Media and Public Affairs at George Mason University, where researchers have tracked network news content for two decades, found that ABC, NBC and CBS were tougher on Obama than on Republican John McCain during the first six weeks of the general-election campaign.
You read it right: tougher on the Democrat.
During the evening news, the majority of statements from reporters and anchors on all three networks are neutral, the center found. And when network news people ventured opinions in recent weeks, 28% of the statements were positive for Obama and 72% negative.
Network reporting also tilted against McCain, but far less dramatically, with 43% of the statements positive and 57% negative, according to the Washington based media center.”
And what about that data from the Project for Excellence in Journalism which showed that Barack Obama received substantially more attention from the media than did McCain? Well, it turns out much of that attention might actually not be so great for his campaign. The Project for Excellence in Journalism points out that most of those Obama stories were centered on an obscene Jesse Jackson quote criticizing Obama for “talking down to Obama,” and threatening bodily harm. Two other topics taking up a lot of Obama air-time were documentation of Obama’s evolving/changing positions as he moved to the “center” in order to win the presidential election, and stories focusing on the Clinton/Obama divide in the party. Issue coverage of the economy and Iraq also made an appearance, but they did NOT drive the coverage. It’s not at all clear that obsessive coverage of issues like campaign gaffes, party division, and issue “flip-flopping” helps the Obama campaign. Remember the media pack journalism frenzy over the Reverend Wright comments damning America? Surely, Obama wished the media did not focus so heavily on him and his reverend during those days.
But all of these studies are early, and there is no denying the sense out there that the media coverage is indeed pro-Obama. The American public certainly thinks such a bias exists. In a Rasmussen poll, 49 percent of respondents believed reporters would favor Obama in their coverage this fall, compared with just 14 percent who expected them to boost Sen. John McCain. So let’s just assume that there is a love affair with Obama among the nation’s journalists, and that they are delivering obsessive and pro-Obama slanted coverage this summer.
What might account for such a result?
Answer 1: Liberal Bias
One of the most common answers, certainly the answer given by conservative journalists like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, is that the media is “liberal” and is biased in favor of Democrats. Political Science textbooks will tell you that allegations of liberal media bias have become staple fare among conservatives, ever since the 1960s. But are the allegations true?
Here are some relevant facts (found in Government in America by George Edwards, et. al., and The New American Democracy, by Morris Fiorina, et. al.)
- A L.A. times study in the 1980s found that reporters were twice as likely to identify as liberal than were members of the general public.
- A 2002 survey of 1,149 journalists found that 37% identified as Democrats—only 19% said they were Republicans.
- Opinion polls show that journalists are substantially to the left of the general public on social and cultural issues—and they are far more likely to take the “Democratic” position on such issues as abortion, gay rights, gun control, religion in public life, and drug laws.
- Since 1964, more than 80% of the nation’s journalists have voted for the Democratic nominee in every presidential contest (including Republican blowouts like Nixon over McGovern in 1972 and Reagan over Mondale in 1984).
It is undeniable that the nation’s journalists tend to be more liberal/Democratic than the populace at large. But does that influence how they present the news? Does a Democratic reporter necessarily have to produce pro-Obama coverage? Here’s how a set of leading political scientists address that question.
“The vast majority of social science studies have found that reporting is not systematically biased toward a particular ideology or party. Most stories are presented in a ‘point/counterpoint’ format in which two opposing points of view (such as liberal versus conservative) are presented, and the audience is left to draw its own conclusions.” — George Edwards, et. al., Government in America, p. 231
Regardless of this evidence, not everyone agrees that the biased background of reporters doesn’t matter. CBS news reporter Bernard Goldberg claims that overall reporting topics and framing of issues is undeniably slanted by the cosmopolitan big-city environment in which most reporters live. He asks: “Do we really think that if the media elites worked out of Nebraska instead of New York; and if they were overwhelmingly social conservatives instead of liberals…do we really think that would make no difference?” (George Edwards, et. al. Government in America, p. 232).
Before a final word can be given on whether today’s media is pro-Obama obsessed or not, we will need more campaigning, more coverage and more serious scholarship. The bottom line is informed opinion is divided on whether the media is pro-Obama or not, and on whether it matters.
Answer 2: The Kennedy Factor
Another commonly cited reason for the media’s (alleged) pro-Obama slant is “the Kennedy Factor.” Many media pundits long for the charisma, the romance, and the wordly charm of the old Kennedy days—and in Obama, they see today’s young Kennedy rising again. Consider the following example, posted on various website, including the media research center and newsbull.com
To mark the 40th anniversary of Senator Robert F. Kennedy’s death, Good Morning America’s Claire Shipman filed a fawning report on Thursday in which she compared Barack Obama to RFK. Splicing together footage of Kennedy and Obama, Shipman noted the “similarities” and nostalgically declared: “The search to shift that mantle, futile of course. But also a quintessentially American desire for, if not a happy ending, some sense of completion.”
At the top of the segment, Shipman cooed: “Even 40 years later, most Democrats can’t utter the name ‘Bobby’ without a wistful, ‘what if’ sort of reverence.” A true enough statement, but considering that the rest of the piece was all about Kennedy’s greatness, what does that say about the people who produced the segment? An ABC graphic cheered, “The Vision of RFK: Honoring an American Legend.” Shipman then proceeded to make her comparison clear:
SHIPMAN: Landmark crowds, striking charisma, a focus on healing the divide. [Video of Obama and RFK cut together.]
SENATOR BARACK OBAMA: We are the hope of the future, the answer to the cynics who tell us, our house must stand divided.
BOBBY KENNEDY: This election will mean nothing if it leaves us, after it is all over, as divided as we were before it we began.
Along this vein, Any Youtube search will turn up dozens of clips of Obama himself referring to his desire to take up the Kennedy mantle. Those clips even include one featuring Caroline Kennedy (JFK’s son) and Ted Kennedy (JFK and Bobby Kennedy’s brother) claiming that Barack Obama is the candidate to help people:
“Over the years I have been deeply moved by the people who have told me that they wish they could feel inspired and hopeful about America the way they did when my father was president….hopefully there is one candidate who offers that same hope and inspiration…” — Caroline Kennedy, President John Kennedy’s daughter, endorsing Barack Obama for President
“Every time I have been asked over the past year who I would support in the Democratic primary, my answer has always been the same…I’ll support the candidate who inspires me, who inspires all of us, who can lift our vision and summon our hopes and renew our belief that our countries best days are still to come. I have found that candidate….It is time now for a new generation of leadership. It is time now for Barack Obama.” –Senator Ted Kennedy, President John Kennedy and
Senator Robert Kennedy’s brother, endorsing Barack Obama for President
Answer 3: Covering the Real News
A third reason for the tilt towards Obama in the media coverage (though not a reason for the alleged pro-Obama slant in that coverage) is that media outlets are simply covering the news. It is a fact that the Obama campaign is a ground-breaking, historic campaign. This is the first time a black man has won the nomination of a major party, his candidacy was an unpredicted underdog victory over the establishment candidate Hilary Clinton (who herself represented historic change, which could only double the interest in the Clinton/Obama contest and its eventual outcome), and his campaign has fueled a record-shattering surge of new and young voters across the nation. The fact is that the Obama campaign is NEWS, and it is no surprise that the media outlets cover it.
For his part, McCain has been on the public stage for decades—he simply cannot represent fundamental change or news in the same way the newcomer Barack Obama can, and especially since McCain is generally running to continue much of the legacy of the incumbent. Newcomers and challengers commonly receive more attention than old-timers and incumbents—the news, after all, tends to cover what is new.
When we are faced with the historic nature of the Obama campaign, and with truly newsworthy events by the candidate such as a trip to meet various world-leaders, while the McCain camp tours small towns in America, it is natural that Obama receives more coverage, says Bob Friedman senior vice-president of ABC news.”what are we supposed to do, go gin up some story about McCain to get some rough equality of airtime?” he said. “I don’t think so.”
NBC news president Steve Capus agreed. “We’re just trying to do our jobs. There’s no question that there’s great news value in Sen. Obama’s trip overseas. That’s why we are doing this.”
Other respected news figures such as Jim Lehrer of the PBS Newshour reiterates this opinion that the coverage of Obama is driven more by the newsworthy events that the Obama campaign is involved in (such as foreign trips and policy announcements) and the newsworthiness of Obama himself, than by some kind of inappropriate bias on the part of the media.
Public Desires and Pack Journalism
A final answer to “why all the coverage of Obama” relates to the phenomenon known as pack journalism. The fact is that the media is a business, with different operations like CNN, FOX, ABC, CBS, NBC and all manner of smaller outlets driven by the profit-motive to cover the kind of news people like to see. Competitive pressures to drive up ratings and secure viewers relates to the phenomenon known as “pack journalism”—which simply means that media outlets tend to obsess on the same or very similar stories day after day—stories that are proven winners in bringing in viewers and readers.
If stories about Obama gain more viewers—than journalists will “pack” around those stories, knowing that this is the only way to remain competitive in the race for ratings, advertising dollars, and (ultimately) survival as a media outlet.
The media wolves pack around popular stories, and the numbers don’t lie: Barack Obama is a popular story. The Rolling Stones March 2008 Obama cover was the magazine’s best seller of 2008, selling 40,000 more copies than usual for a month (about 25% more than normal). Some sales figures are mixed, and an Obama cover story is not always a ticket to rising sales, but more often than not, a focus on Obama results in a popular monthly magazine. Here’s how Conde Nast reporter Jeff Bercovici describes the numbers:
The Atlantic also scored big with its December issue, whose cover story was an Andrew Sullivan essay on “Why Obama Matters.” That issue, which sold 73,500 copies, was The Atlantic‘s best seller of the year, performing 28 percent better than average.
Three men’s magazines have put Obama on the cover so far. Men’s Vogue saw the biggest lift. Its Sept. 2006 issue sold 129,582 copies, the second-highest total for any issue so far, after only the debut issue, which was on newsstands considerably longer. GQ‘s Sept. 2007 issue sold a little better than its average for the period, at 245,105 copies, but 12 percent less than the year-earlier issue, which featured Clive Owen.
Newsweek‘s July 16, 2007 issue sold 124,290 copies, putting it among the top-selling single-week issues of the year. And Time‘s Oct. 23, 2006 cover, “Why Barack Obama Could Be the Next President,” was the title’s second-best selling issue of the year, with 206,000 copies.
If it’s true that the media’s Obama obsession stems first and foremost from the public’s media obsession, it should fundamentally change the nature of the critique. In a free market economy, its hard to blame businesses for giving the consumers what they seem to want. When the public’s appetite for Obama coverage wanes, we can expect that media outlets (which are well attuned to which stories win the most viewers) will tilt their coverage elsewhere.
Obama versus Obama
Does any of it matter? Does it matter if Obama receives more media attention than McCain—and does it matter if that coverage is positive or negative? There have been many studies on the abilty of media coverage to influence or determine the mood or votes of the public—and the scholarly consensus is fairly strong. Scholars tend to pool around what is called a “minimal effects” school of thought when it comes to evaluating whether the media can shape public opinion. Media coverage cannot fundamentally change people’s opinion about issues, and the tone of coverage cannot determine nor much influence how people are going to vote. There are much stronger influences on people’s voting patterns, including the actual issues themselves, the strength of the candidates, and party identification. Media coverage is WAY down the list of factors influencing how someone is going to vote.
Still, scholars have found that although media coverage cannot fundamentally change how people think about things, media coverage does tend to have an effect in helping voters determine which issues are most important in their vote (in other words, which issues are most “salient”), and in helping voters decide how to “frame” the issues and their vote. In other words, the media coverage is unlikely to fundamentally turn a conservative voter in to a liberal, but unrelenting media coverage of Obama and his health care plan could help determine that most voters were highly focused on whether then liked or disliked Obama and his health care plan when they actually voted. Media coverage can help determine whether an election is mostly about McCain and his war record, threats of Middle East terrorism, or Obama’s Iraq plan—though the coverage can’t tell voters how to think about each of these issues.
To that extent, the media’s undeniable bias towards covering Obama might mean that this election will ultimately come down to a referendum on Obama, more than being a “choice” between Obama and McCain. When they pull those levers, voters might more than anything else be thinking about whether they are excited or terrified by the idea of an Obama presidency, and the answer to that question is likely to shape the results of the election. But again, it should be pointed out that the media reporters and executives didn’t force this Obama referendum on the American people—voters themselves, through what they read and what they are talking about, seem to have declared that 2008, more than anything else, is about how they feel about Barack Obama.
Yes We can? Or No We Can’t?