The Media Coverage of Obama

05/25/2011 12:15 pm ET

The following piece was produced by the Huffington Post's OffTheBus.

Is Barack Obama the beneficiary of a biased media working on his behalf? That's the claim implied in a new study released October 31 by the Project for Excellence in Journalism and the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy. According to the study called "The Invisible Primary-Invisible No Longer," during the first five months of 2007, Obama received by far the most positive coverage of any presidential candidate.

This new study follows a long line of media complaints that Obama has received reverential coverage from the press. Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz has claimed that the "walk on water coverage" of Obama "ranges from glowing to gushing,"'s Timothy Noah even started a feature titled "The Obama Messiah Watch."

Mike Allen of the Politico declared on the day of Obama's presidential campaign announcement that "Barack Obama's free ride is ending" and hard questions would be asked of him such as, "Why has he sometimes said his first name is Arabic, and other times Swahili?" Faux talk show host Stephen Colbert commented about this media attack: "Why has he sometimes said his name was Arabic and other times Swahili? Just because, in fact, it is both? Oh, the truth is so convenient." As Colbert concluded (summarizing the media coverage of Obama's life), "Obama's a liar, pass it on."

Obama has complained about the superficial and inaccurate media coverage: "The problem is not that the information`s not out there, the problem is that`s not what you guys have been reporting on. You`ve been reporting on how I look in a swimsuit." This prompted more attacks from the media. Morton Kondrake complained on Fox News Channel, "Obama just went off on the press sort of gratuitously, saying 'you're not paying enough attention to what I'm saying...'"

Far from being supportive of the Obama candidacy, the press coverage has hurt his campaign by refusing to focus on substance and confirming false charges of inexperience against him.

Editor & Publisher
reported that the new study "found that news outlets gave Barack Obama the most favorable treatment." But there's a fundamental difference between positive stories and "favorable treatement."

Hillary Clinton led the way with 17% of the media coverage, followed by Obama at 14%. According to the study, "Obama enjoyed the best run of coverage in the early campaign, though the trajectory over time was gradually downward.." Obama's coverage was 46.7% positive and only 15.8% negative, compared to Clinton's coverage that was 26.9% positive and 37.8% negative.

However, these numbers don't tell the full story. Nearly 20% of the Clinton stories were aired on conservative talk radio, and 86% of these were negative (compared to only 2% positive). As a result, if you exclude conservative talk radio from the study, the proportion of Clinton's negative stories drop from 37.8% to 27.9%, almost the same as her positive stories. Obviously, these "negative" stories don't hurt Clinton, since they appear on programs with overwhelmingly Republican audiences, and being criticized by Rush Limbaugh actually helps Clinton with primary voters.

In the first five months of the campaign, Obama got mostly positive coverage because he was generating positive events: rising in the polls, raising huge amounts of money, and holding events with enormous crowds. By contrast, Hillary Clinton's campaign was being questioned in the press for falling short of the expectations of her coronation.

The majority of the stories about Obama (58.6%) were primarily about the "game" of the campaign: who is winning, who is drawing crowds, who is raising money. For example, fully 15% of all stories about Obama focused on his fundraising (more than twice as much as all the other candidates), and these stories were overwhelmingly positive because his fundraising was extraordinary. But voters don't pick a candidate because of the money totals.

And 24.3% of the stories about Obama dealt with personal issues, where again Obama had a strong advantage since nothing about his background is negative. Only 14.5% of the stories dealt with policy or the public record.

A major part of the positive coverage was simply descriptive journalism. Because Obama has a positive story, merely describing his background is going to count as a positive mention. On contrast to Hillary Clinton and other well-known candidates, Obama's personal background was more likely to be described in the media accounts about him.

Proof that there isn't a liberal or pro-Obama bias in the media can be found by looking at John McCain, who received the most negative coverage of any candidate in either party during this survey. Yet conservatives like Rush Limbaugh often complain that McCain is beloved by the press because of his maverick positions that sometimes challenge right-wing dogma on torture or campaign finance reform. Why was McCain getting so much negative coverage? Because his campaign was tanking, not because of any media bias itself.

Most of all, these numbers don't tell the true story about the media coverage. It's the nature of the negative coverage that matters most, not the amount of it. For Clinton, the negative media stories mostly focused on her failure to wrap up the nomination and questions about her likeability. Once she appeared in the media and seemed likeable, that false impression disappeared.

By contrast, one of the biggest negatives about Obama was the accusation of inexperience. And media stories in the format of "on the one hand, on the other hand" didn't count as negative in this study, since they're equally balanced. According to the study's authors, "In order to fall into the positive or negative category, two-thirds or more of the assertions in a story had to fall clearly on one side of that line or the other." So many stories might point out a meaningless positive (Obama is popular) and balance it with a devastating negative attack (Obama is inexperienced).

Much like the earlier media tropes about Al Gore (lied about inventing the Internet) or John Kerry (coward and traitor), the idea of Obama as inexperienced was not merely unproven but the opposite of the truth. It scarcely mattered that the accusation of inexperience was untrue; the media made it true by force of repetition. You'll look in vain for any press who pointed out the fact that Obama has more years of experience as an elected public official than Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, Rudy Giuliani, Fred Thompson, or Mitt Romney. It's almost impossible to find any media reporting the fact that Obama has far more foreign policy experience than four out of the last five presidents when they were elected.

In this way, Obama was tarred by the media with a false charge of inexperience, a charge that was almost impossible to overcome. Unlike Clinton, who could overcome her negative coverage simply by being friendly, Obama had no way he could prove "experience" with a soundbite. Rather than being a media darling, Obama has seen his campaign weighted down by press accusations of inexperience.