Thursday, May 29, 2008


The Project for Excellence in Journalism has released a new study of campaign media coverage, and the Internet right is being predictably self-righteous. NewsBusters says:

Left-leaning Journalism Group Admits McCain Gets Worse Media Treatment

Ed Morrissey of Hot Air says,

Study shows media treats McCain negatively, Obama and Clinton kindly

That's true -- with some big caveats.

From January 1, just before the Iowa caucuses, through March 9, following the Texas and Ohio contests, the height of the primary season, the dominant personal narratives in the media about Obama and Clinton were almost identical in tone, and were both twice as positive as negative...

On the Republican side, John McCain, the candidate who quickly clinched his party’s nomination, has had a harder time controlling his message in the press. Fully 57% of the narratives studied about him were critical in nature, though a look back through 2007 reveals the storyline about the Republican nominee has steadily improved with time.

As an explanation for the positive coverage of Democrats, the first thing to notice is the cutoff date of the survey -- March 9. Things had only begun getting really ugly on the Democratic side by then; as we're told in the survey, the press mostly took its cue from the campaigns themselves. When the Democratic race started to feature more attacks, Obama's coverage became more negative:

The year started off with pro-Obama assertions representing 77% of the narratives studied about him. But by early March that figure had dropped to 53%, a 24-point decline.

As for McCain, what was the basic message of the negative coverage he received? That he wasn't conservative enough -- a message that "liberal media" bashers like Morrissey and NewsBusters don't want to admit came from the right itself.

Overall, from January 1 through March 9, 2008, the coverage of [McCain's] master narrative was 57% negative versus 43% positive.

Within that battle, one criticism has proved particularly persistent. Claims that he is not a reliable conservative and may alienate the conservative core of the party accounted for fully half of all threads studied during this time (and 88% of the all negative threads).

Basically, the negative stories about McCain tracked the Limbaughnista right's increasing hysteria about McCain in an almost linear fashion, peaking just at the time when they were shrieking and howling the loudest that a McCain primary victory would be the end of the GOP (and thus civilization) as we know it:

Through mid-February, McCain continued to lose control of the personal narrative, despite his electoral success. During this period, negative messages reached the highest level of any candidate during this study (65% negative). Despite strong wins on Super Tuesday, which cemented his lead and led to a Romney withdraw (February 7), the battle for positive personal coverage proved elusive.

Questions about McCain’s conservative credentials shot to nearly two-thirds (62%) of the personal assertions about the GOP candidate during this time.

McCain supporters amped up their defense and managed to double the presence of rebuttals to this charge (12% versus 6% in the previous time period). That still meant that doubts about McCain’s conservatism outweighed defenses of it by roughly five to one.

Nevertheless, McCain had "a roughly 50-50 split between positive and negative personal narratives from February 18 -- March 9." That's when Obama's positive coverage dropped to 53%.

Not a huge difference.

So once the other GOP candidates started dropping out of the race and the Republican Party started to focus on winning the general election, the press started being nicer to McCain -- roughly as nice as it was being to Barack Obama.

And now that the right's grumbling about McCain has effectively stopped, I suspect the numbers for the rest of March, April, and May -- not to mention the rest of the year -- are going to look very, very different.

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