This past Sunday, with the race for the White House finally over, Deborah Howell, the Washington Post ombudsman, examined the results of her paper's study of the fairness of its own election coverage in the past year. Soon articles, or links, relating to her piece were carrying headlines suggesting that the study had found that the Post had clearly "tilted" to Obama (this was Howell's, and HuffPost's, headline) or even showed a "major tilt" to Obama (that's how Mark Halperin at his "The Page" blog at Time.com had it, as did many others, especially conservative outlets).
On top of the widely-publicized results of the recent Project for Excellence in Journalism news coverage survey, this seemed to amount to a slam dunk proving press bias against McCain.
But is that really what these studies show? It's an important question because once any conventional wisdom is set, it is almost impossible to dislodge it.
It may yet turn out that major, exhaustive studies will prove that the media were grossly unfair to John McCain. Bring them on. But the current studies don't do that.
Since it's the latest, let me stick close to Howell's report here.
First, like the PEJ survey, the numbers are thrown off by the fact that both studies found that "horse race" angles (including polling) thoroughly dominated the overall coverage in their samples -- 57% of the stories in the PEJ and much higher than that in the Post's study (1,295 horse-race stories and only 594 "issues" stories).
This disgraceful proportion is worth its own critique about the media's priorities, but the fact is: Except for a week after the end of the GOP convention, before Palin-mania collapsed, Obama was ahead in the polls, eventually by a lot, and he always led in the fundraising (overwhelmingly), in the size of his crowds (ditto), and in putting more states in play. He couldn't help but lead in favorable coverage -- if that coverage was thoroughly dominated by "horse race" angles (and it was). And McCain had to gain mainly "unfavorable" coverage.
My complaint about the Post and PEJ handling of their own results is not that they ignored this but that they did not make that key aspect clear at the very top of their analysis, not a few paragraphs down and without (in my view) enough emphasis. It is unquestionably the single leading factor affecting both studies.
So we will be reading for years about the strong media "bias" against McCain -- look at all those "unfavorable" stories about him -- when it was mainly (although perhaps not completely) a matter of Obama leading the horse race and getting credit for that by reporters who were, surprise, not deaf, dumb and blind. Does anyone doubt that if McCain had roared to the lead in October and stayed ahead until the end that the results of the studies would have been completely different?
Yes, the press is biased -- in favor of recognizing who is winning and stating that (perhaps too often).
Also: Can the media be faulted if one candidate is committing the major share of gaffes or (in this age of fact-check sites) making the most inaccurate statements in speeches and in ads? Is it "bias" to recognize that? Or to vet a candidate for vice president who (we now know) had not been vetted by anyone else?
The Washington Post study did find an editorial/op-ed tilt to Obama, but opinion sections or TV programs (Fox's or MSNBC's primetime lineups) are inherently biased and should be disregarded in judging day-to-day news coverage -- plus, as Howell pointed out, part of the reason for the Post's imbalance was that a number of conservative writers for the paper grew critical of McCain. You can't make pundits who generally support one party back a candidate from that party they think is weak.
Then there's this. Howell dryly relates one seemingly significant gap in the number of news stories on each candidate, going back to last November: 946 stories about Obama compared with McCain's 786. But this can be easily explained by the fact that McCain's primary race ended almost four months before Obama's! Of course, there were more stories about Obama from March to June -- thanks to Hillary Clinton's spirited fight.
Howell does point this out, but buries this crucial explanation. Actually, it's amazing that the gap between Obama and McCain in this one-year period was not far wider.
What about from June 4 (when Obama clinched the nomination) to Election Day? Howell reveals, "the tally was Obama, 626 stories, and McCain, 584. Obama was on the front page 176 times, McCain, 144 times; 41 stories featured both." A "major" tilt?
And more counting: "Obama was in 311 Post photos and McCain in 282... Obama led 133 to 121 in pictures more than three columns wide, 178 to 161 in smaller pictures, and 164 to 133 in color photos. In black and white photos, the nominees were about even, with McCain at 149 and Obama at 147. On Page 1, they were even at 26 each." Again: This is a "major tilt"?
Then there's this example. The New York Times carried a top of the front page piece on Obama one morning in October. A good thing, right? Not exactly. The lengthy story resurrected his Bill Ayers connection. That issue, dormant for months, suddenly revived and, in fact, became a focus of the McCain-Palin campaign for weeks -- with the Times (normally hated by the GOP) cited as the authoritative source. So: a prominent story about a candidate might look swell in some of the tallies but is not necessarily a good thing in reality.
Finally: When one talks about "the media" being "in the tank" for one candidate, what is the definition of "media"? Consider that tens of millions of Americans claim they get virtually all of their news from talk radio. Others rely mainly on Web sites with clear political leanings, or The Daily Show, or SNL. Is this all "media" or does only "elite media" count?
PEJ and the Post can claim that they can only put the tallies out there, they can't control how pundits and reporters interpret or spin them or what they write in their headlines. True enough. But those who produce the findings need to explain clearly, and right at the top, what exactly was tallied, the "horse race" context, and other crucial factors, such as providing a list of which articles were viewed as favorable or unfavorable for a candidate so others can judge their standards.
Strong bias in news coverage of the 2008 campaign may yet be shown -- but it's not proven so far.
Greg Mitchell is editor of Editor & Publisher and its hot new blog. His latest book on Iraq and the media is "So Wrong for So Long." His next book, on the 2008 campaign, will be published in January.