Did the media decide this election?

PHOTO: CNN Election Express Bus parked in Philadephia

On Friday, Jazz Shaw of TMV asked if Barack Obama was the story the media wanted to tell and did they inject themselves into the plot to keep the story on script?

I think that answer to that question is an unequivocal “no.”

I’ve said before that removing bias or unfairness from news is an impossible task. I can never quite decide if it’s worth the effort, because often, attempts at being unbiased introduce a bias all their own.

As CNN’s Campbell Brown is fond of saying lately, if politician A tells you it’s raining outside, and politician B tells you it’s dry and sunny, you can’t just report both statements and wash your hands of it.

Journalists can and should provide context and fact-checking for the claims made by the people they report on, otherwise we might as well dismantle news organizations and just get our news directly from campaign press releases.

This election has been different

I came into the general election season with the worry that the coverage would be incredibly biased against Obama as it had been against Al Gore and John Kerry. Whether that cost them elections in 2000 or 2004 is hard to say, but it couldn’t have helped. I don’t think it’s controversial to say the media has a penchant for petty personality based attacks which are a key part of the Republican playbook. Republicans need something to divert the attention away from their unpopular and disastrous policies.

Well, I think Obama has received far better coverage than Gore or Kerry could have dreamed of. That could be for any number of reasons, the historic nature of his candidacy, his charisma, the level of enthusiasm he’s created in the country, disaffection with Bush and the Republican party.

While it’s true that most reporters would self identify as liberal, I don’t think this favorable coverage comes down to simple liberal bias. We have roughly the same press we had in 2004 and 2000, and yet the coverage in those elections were incredibly hostile to the so-called “liberal” candidates.

McCain digging his own grave

I know I see McCain’s campaign through my own biased lens, but I think there have been a number of simply absurd moves on his part that can’t simply be spun away by media attempts to be even-handed.

  • The non-suspension suspension of the campaign to go fix the economy
  • Picking Sarah Palin
  • Joe the Plumber business
  • Calling Obama a socialist while simultaneously supporting a massive buyout of failed mortgages and banks

There’s also the hypocrisy of the Ayers-Khalidi guilt by association attacks, his dreadful debate performances, his lack of message discipline, etc.

The campaigns could hardly be more different, so it makes sense that they’d evaluated differently. That’s not a sign of bias, it’s actually a move in the right direction for a media in desperate need of rehabilition.

Flickr photo by Vincent J. Brown


  1. Ian

    We’ve talked about media bias before, with me being strongly in the “strive for no bias” camp. I think that the media was pretty biased towards Obama against Hillary. Granted, Hillary said a lot of stupid things and her campaign was pretty nasty (nothing compared to McCain’s, though). I felt like Obama wasn’t facing quite the same media scrutiny she was and really the only one testing him through the primaries were his fellow Democrats.

    When it comes to the general election, I don’t know if I can really say how biased the media is. The only news I’ve seen has been MSNBC which is pretty clearly biased towards Obama, during primetime anyways. I know that Fox News is equally biased the other direction. CNN seems to be relatively in the middle, from what I have seen. They give McCain a lot of face time. They show his speeches live and often in full.

    Did the media decide this election? Yes, I think they absolutely did, but I don’t think it was necessarily deliberate. The Republicans were leading in polls after their convention. It was Katie Couric and SNL that tore down Palin. I think that Couric’s interview was probably fair, but the editing of it was definitely done with the intention of bringing Palin’s image down a notch. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. When someone is so obviously unqualified, the media has a responsibility to expose this. They should’ve expected a thorough vetting of Palin by the media, for better or worse. The media showed a lot of McCain supporters shouting awful things about Obama which was a pretty distasteful thing to have associated with your campaign, but McCain willingly brought that upon himself when he chose to go with the “Obama pals with terrorists” rhetoric, which I honestly do not think was met with enough scrutiny in the media. That claim should have been roundly denounced by everyone in the media and this country, as should the socialist claim. In my ming, nothing beats that old woman at a campaign rally telling McCain that “Obama is an Arab”. Its obvious that the McCain campaign is both relying on and fostering ignorance and bigotry.

    McCain also chose the wrong path I think by alienating the media. He called the NYT, the largest paper in the country, “too liberal”. After what they deemed a harsh interview for a member of his campaign staff by CNN, McCain refused to be on Larry King and only recently pulled back. Then there was the Letterman debacle. After the Couric interview, McCain now appears at Palin’s side whenever she’s interviewed to ensure the media isn’t too mean or something. Had he been nice to the media, granted them more access to himself and Palin, they might have received a more favorable portrayal.

  2. Chris

    Well, you say the media decided the election, and then go on to basically agree with me. Sure, the media pushes a narrative, but that’s only a problem if the narrative is false or misleading, and I don’t think either us believe this years narrative was forced one way or the other.

    Or maybe I’m reading you wrong?

  3. Ian

    No I agree with you. I’m saying the media did not decide the election in the sense that they said “Oh we want Obama to win so let’s portray McCain poorly.” I’m saying the media did decide the election by showing McCain and Palin as they are. Had the media left it at a superficial level and not vetted Palin, we might be looking at very different poll numbers right now. To sum it up, the media left the facial hair on their portrayal of Palin.

  4. Diane

    I think for once the media was more then fair.
    The McCain campaign sunk itself.
    There was no substance to it. Palin could not/was not allowed on the Sunday talk shows. When she did go solo she was horrible, all she did was attack with vile and negative remarks.
    John Mccain looked and spoke like and old man that did not have a grasp of the issues at times.
    His stunt about the economic crisis was given fair coverage.

    I think both parties were given fair coverage, McCain’s just looked like a train wreck.