By Howard Kurtz
Media coverage of John McCain has been heavily unfavorable since the political conventions, more than three times as negative as the portrayal of Barack Obama, a new study says.
Fifty-seven percent of the print and broadcast stories about the Republican nominee were decidedly negative, the Project for Excellence in Journalism says in a report out today, while 14 percent were positive. The McCain campaign has repeatedly complained that the mainstream media are biased toward the senator from Illinois.
Obama's coverage was more balanced during the six-week period from Sept. 8 through last Thursday, with 36 percent of the stories clearly positive, 35 percent neutral or mixed and 29 percent negative.
McCain has struggled during this period and slipped in the polls, which is one of the reasons for the more negative assessments by the 48 news outlets studied by the Washington-based group. But the imbalance is striking nonetheless.
Sarah Palin's coverage ricocheted from quite positive to very negative to more mixed, the study says. Overall, 39 percent of the Palin stories were negative, 28 percent were positive and 33 percent neutral. Only 5 percent of the coverage was about her personal life. But McCain's running mate remains a media magnet, drawing three times as much coverage as the Democrats' VP nominee, Joe Biden. He was "nearly the invisible man," the group says, and his coverage was far more negative than Palin's. That may be because Biden tends to make news primarily when he commits gaffes.
The project says McCain's coverage started out positive after the GOP convention but nosedived with his frequently changing reaction to the financial crisis. McCain's character attacks against Obama hurt the Democrat but yielded even more negative coverage for the senator from Arizona.
Obama's coverage since the conventions represents a fall to earth from the early primaries of 2008, when the project found that, horse-race stories aside, positive narratives about Obama were twice as frequent as negative ones, 69 percent to 31 percent.
The Wall Street meltdown appears to have been a turning point for both candidates. Thirty-four percent of the stories about Obama's reaction to the crisis were positive, while 18 percent were negative. McCain's coverage, though, went into a free fall after he initially declared that "the fundamentals of our economy are strong." By the following week, more than half the stories about McCain were negative and only 11 percent positive, just as Obama's coverage was turning positive by a margin of more than 5 to 1.
The most negative element of the Palin coverage involved scrutiny of her record as Alaska governor, with 64 percent of the stories carrying a negative tone and just 7 percent positive. The coverage of her interview with ABC's Charlie Gibson was a wash, but stories about her subsequent sitdown with CBS's Katie Couric were 57 percent negative and 14 percent positive.
While some will seize on these findings as evidence that the media are pro-Obama, the study says they actually contain "a strong suggestion that winning in politics begets winning coverage, thanks in part to the relentless tendency of the press to frame its coverage of national elections as running narratives about the relative position of the candidates in the polls ... Obama's numbers are similar to what we saw for John Kerry four years ago, and McCain's numbers are almost identical to what we saw eight years ago for Democrat Al Gore."