Election 2008

Carolyn Kaster/AP

Negative Press Coverage Takes Toll on McCain Camp

October 24, 2008 07:51 AM
by Christopher Coats
A Pew study shows that John McCain’s complaints about the coverage of his campaign by the national media may have footing in reality, and in the polls.

Exploring Media Bias

A study conducted by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism found that McCain’s protests over the media’s excessive praise of Obama are not supported by evidence, whereas worries about his own negative coverage are.

Barack Obama’s percentage of positive, negative and neutral stories all hovered around 30 percent for the last six weeks of the election, while the Arizona senator’s numbers leaned heavily toward negative coverage, with positive stories making up just 14 percent of his total.

Covering the last six weeks of the election, the study found that while McCain had erased the sizable lead in overall coverage that Obama maintained until the Democratic National Convention, his increased attention tended to be negative in tone.

The period of study coincided with a sharp drop in McCain’s favorability numbers, dipping seven points to 52 percent in the middle of October, though the study does not connect the two.

Although recent polls have pointed to McCain’s pick of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as being the biggest drag to his campaign, the senator’s handling of the country’s financial crisis appeared to be the turning point.

McCain’s suspension of his campaign and pledge not to participate in a presidential debate until the crisis was solved, though initially beneficial, appeared not to end in his favor, as media coverage soon took a dive.

Palin’s coverage was also found to be more negative than positive, though allegations of excessive attention on her private life proved to be unfounded, making up just 5 percent.

Meanwhile, Democratic vice presidential nominee Joe Biden was almost invisible from media coverage.

The study concluded that although coverage was clearly skewed in favor of Obama, the disparity had more to do with his advantage in the polls than a clear bias.

Noting that Obama’s coverage was increasingly negative as he dropped in the polls and reversed when he rebounded, the study suggested that “winning in politics begat winning coverage.”

Reactions: McCain’s fall from favor

Once a media favorite, McCain has recently found himself at odds with the national press, leaving some advisors wondering what happened to a relationship that once saw reporters traveling and socializing with the senator.

“I think the media is driven by a need to see this history happen and I think they’ve rationalized it, they think they’re on the level with McCain, that he’s not the old McCain,” McCain advisor Mark Salter told The Atlantic. “But he is the old McCain. He just doesn’t know what happened to the old press corps.”

While Salter’s remarks were made recently, they appear to reflect a common theme of criticism and disappointment from within the McCain camp.

In early September, McCain strategist Rick Davis took the media on directly, accusing them of being “on a mission to destroy” Sarah Palin, following her selection as McCain’s running mate.

Since then, Palin and McCain have both become vocal critics of the national press, with the senator calling coverage, “gotcha journalism,” and Palin openly expressing disdain for the traveling media during speeches and during interviews with Hugh Hewitt.

For his part, Barack Obama has also lodged complaints against media coverage, targeting Fox News for their coverage that he saw as tilted against the Democratic nominee.

“I am convinced that if there were no Fox News, I might be two or three points higher in the polls,” Obama told Matt Bai of The New York Times. “If I were watching Fox News, I wouldn’t vote for me, right.”

Background: ‘Nabobs of negativism’

While both campaigns have offered strong opinions on their respective coverage, basing too much emphasis on the criticism of the media offers its own set of challenges. Hardly a new tactic, seen as early as Spiro Agnew’s attacks on the “nattering nabobs of negativism,” campaigning against the media presents the danger of backfiring.

As the phrase goes, “Never pick a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel.”

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