Barack Obama has not received better media coverage than Hillary Clinton, according to a new study by the research team at Pew/Harvard, the gold standard in nonpartisan media analysis. After reviewing coverage from January to March, when the majority of states voted, researchers determined that Obama simply did not fare better than Clinton. In fact, reporters "began to turn against Obama [even] before questions surfaced about his pastor Jeremiah Wright," the study found. And Clinton's "Saturday Night Live" gambit - when she chided the moderators of a February debate, "maybe we should ask Barack if he's comfortable and needs another pillow" - apparently worked:
Shortly after Clinton criticized the media for being soft on Obama during a debate, the narrative about him began to turn more skeptical--and indeed became more negative than the coverage of Clinton herself.
In March, The Times reported that Clinton Campaign "practically browbeat" reporters with the SNL skit as evidence that Obama was treated "more gently." The article cited data suggesting the tactic swiftly shifted the "tone" of campaign coverage against Obama. But it's not only reporters worrying that the press is too rough on Clinton.
More voters think the media has been "too hard" on Clinton than on Obama or McCain, according to a Gallup poll released last week:
It's also an article of faith among Clinton supporters -- 56 percent say the media has been too hard on her, while only 29 percent of Obama supporters carry that grievance for their candidate. How did so many voters and reporters end up thinking the Clinton coverage was harsher than it actually was, according to the cumulative data? Here are three related reasons:
1) Media-bashing works. The Clinton Campaign has loudly complained about the media, and it obviously worked.
2) The loser dynamic. Clinton has been steadily losing the race since Super Tuesday, so the loser dynamic has been percolating. Supporters of losing candidates often blame the media, and reporters start second guessing their work as the post-mortem assignments roll in. The Gallup poll, however, only compares public opinion of Clinton's coverage to the presumptive nominees; comparing winners and losers is like apples and oranges. Add in Huckabee or Edwards -- or Ron Paul! -- and complaints about the media would likely spike. Or if Obama were losing, his supporters would be doing more media griping.
3) Offensive Clinton-bashing. The overall data does not capture the intensity of individual incidents of nasty Clinton-bashing. So while the cumulative coverage of Obama and Clinton was clearly similar, a small number of offensive media incidents can still damage a candidate and outrage voters, whether they support her or not. When CNN host Glenn Beck labeled Clinton a "stereotypical b----," for example, or the Washington Post ran an entire article about the senator's "cleavage," (under the absurd headline "Hillary Clinton's Tentative Dip Into New Neckline Territory"), many people saw her being mistreated and rightly denounced it. The empirical question, for voters and reporters, is how many outrageous incidents are required to conclude that the entire "media" was unfair to her.
If you combine this new data with the infamous incidents of Clinton-bashing, the conventional wisdom about campaign media coverage collapses. Obama did not receive special treatment; Clinton was not generally covered too harshly; but some high-impact, inappropriate media coverage did hurt Clinton and understandably outrage voters. In the end, the candidates still drew better media coverage than actual public policy, which drew only seven percent of all campaign stories.