By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

A closer look at Obama and the media

No doubt you’ve noticed that the media are giving Barack Obama far more coverage than John McCain. According to the Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ), Obama’s trip to the Middle East and Europe last week ate up 51 percent of all campaign coverage. The PEJ adds:

The trip also helped Obama, for the seventh consecutive week, dominate John McCain in the contest for media exposure. The Democrat was a significant or dominant factor in 81% of the campaign stories studied compared with 53% for McCain. Interestingly, even with all the attention to Obama’s trip, those numbers dovetail closely with the weekly coverage averages since the general election campaign began in June. In that period, Obama has factored in 79% of the coverage with McCain at 52%.

(PEJ director Tom Rosenstiel discusses the findings on this week’s “On the Media.”)

It’s no wonder that the McCain campaign has taken to making videos that mock the media’s supposed love of Obama.

But hold on. More coverage doesn’t necessarily translate into favorable coverage. As it turns out, a new study by the Center for Media and Public Affairs (CMPA), at George Mason University, shows that coverage of both Obama and McCain has been more negative than positive — but that Obama has clearly gotten the worst of it. (“Media Bash Barack — Not a Typo” is the headline of the center’s press release, reproduced in full below.)

The study’s findings, reported by James Rainey of the Los Angeles Times, show that of 249 campaign stories airing on the three network nightly newscasts and the first half-hour of Fox News’ “Special Report with Brit Hume,” Obama’s coverage has been 72 percent negative and 28 percent positive, whereas McCain’s has been 57 percent negative and 43 percent positive.

The Fox effect does not appear to be too pronounced, as the study finds that “Special Report” was only slightly more negative to both candidates than the three broadcast networks.

How can this be? Well, think about the tone of the coverage in recent weeks. Obama has regularly been criticized for “presumptiveness” and “arrogance” because he has acted as though he might actually be elected president this November.

And think about how many times Obama has been asked if he was wrong about the surge in Iraq. In fact, it appears that he was wrong — but not nearly as wrong as McCain was about the war, which has now resulted in the deaths of more than 4,000 Americans and nearly 100,000 Iraqi civilians. Yet it is rare when McCain is grilled about the single most important issue of the campaign.

All this is having an effect. According to the latest USA Today/Gallup poll, McCain now leads Obama among likely voters by a margin of 49 percent to 45 percent, a swing of nine points over the past month.

McCain is not Hillary Clinton, who, along with her husband, have been despised by the media for years. Rather, McCain has been a media favorite for the past decade-plus. Remember, he once half-jokingly referred to the press as his “base.”

The CMPA study is not yet on the organization’s Web site. Here is the full text of its press release:

Study Finds Obama Faring Worse On TV News Than McCain

Barack Obama is getting more negative coverage than John McCain on TV network evening news shows, reversing Obama’s lead in good press during the primaries, according to a new study by Center for Media and Public Affairs (CMPA). The study also finds that a majority of both candidates’ coverage is unfavorable for the first time this year. According to CMPA President Dr. S. Robert Lichter, “Obama replaced McCain as the media’s favorite candidate after New Hampshire. But now the networks are voting no on both candidates.”

These results are from the Center for Media and Public Affairs (CMPA) 2008 Election News Watch Project. They are based on a scientific content analysis of 249 election news stories (7 hours 38 minutes of airtime) that aired on ABC World News Tonight, CBS Evening News, NBC Nightly News, and Fox Special Report (first half hour) from June 8, 2008 to July 21, 2008. Previously we analyzed 2144 stories (43 hrs 30 min airtime) during the primary campaign from December 16, 2007 through June 7, 2008. We report on all on-air evaluations of the candidates by sources and reporters, after excluding comments by the campaigns about each other.


Since the primaries ended, on-air evaluations of Barack Obama have been 72% negative (vs. 28% positive). That’s worse than John McCain’s coverage, which has been 57% negative (vs. 43% positive) during the same time period.

This is a major turnaround since McCain and Obama emerged as front-runners in the early primaries. From the New Hampshire primary on January 8 until Hillary Clinton dropped out on June 7, Obama’s coverage was 62% positive (v. 38% negative) on the broadcast networks; by contrast, McCain’s coverage during this period was only 34% positive (v. 66% negative).

Obama ran even farther behind McCain on Fox News Channel’s Special Report with 79% negative comments (v. 21% positive), compared to 61% negative comments (v. 39% positive) for McCain since June 8. During the primaries Obama had a slight lead in good press on Fox, with 52% favorable comments (v. 48 % unfavorable), compared to 48% favorable (v. 52% unfavorable) for McCain.

Obama’s bad press has come at a time when he was much more visible than McCain. Since June 8, he has been the subject of 120 stories on the three network evening news shows, 50% more than John McCain’s 80 stories.

Examples of Obama’s evaluations:

Positive: “Obama came to Baghdad and he brought his star power with him … hundreds of U.S. troops and State Department personnel mobbed Obama at the embassy here.” — Terry Moran, ABC

Negative: “You raised a lot of eyebrows on this trip saying, even knowing what you know now, you still would not have supported the surge. People may be scratching their heads and saying, ‘why’?” — Katie Couric, CBS

Negative: “Far more Americans say John McCain would be a good commander in chief than Obama.” — Jake Tapper, ABC

CMPA has monitored every presidential election since 1988 using the same methodology, in which trained coders tally all mentions of candidates and issues and all evaluations of candidates. For previous CMPA findings on the 2008 elections:

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  1. mike_b1

    Call me confused. CNN’s poll, also by Gallup, has Obama 9 points up.

  2. Dan Kennedy

    Mike: You’re looking at a tracking poll; the one I cited is supposed to be more accurate. Even there, though, McCain is ahead among likely voters but Obama is ahead among registered voters. None of this means anything in late July, of course, except that the negative press Obama has gotten may be having an effect.

  3. Steve

    FYI – Here’s’s take. (shorter 538: They claim it’s the difference between likely voters and registered voters, but that claim is dubious.)

  4. Rick

    The Star-Bulletin: When Obama walked on stage at the McCormick Center, many journalists in the audience leapt to their feet and applauded enthusiastically after being told not to do so. During a two-minute break halfway through the event, which was broadcast live on CNN, journalists ran to the stage to snap photos of Obama. . . .Obama, who acknowledged that he needed a nap, stood up to say farewell to the audience of journalists, many of whom gave him another standing ovation.__________________________________ That’s what most people see. Regardless of what the PEJ study finds.

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