Once again, the right is up in arms, yelling that the Liberal Media is conspiring to distort coverage and silence opposing views so that their chosen candidate might claim the White House. Several specific developments account for the current clamoring.
One is the presidential-level press coverage of Barack Obama’s trip to Afghanistan and the Middle East, where he’s been accompanied by all three network news anchors and many of the most prominent television and print correspondents. John McCain, meanwhile, has taken many similar excursions but never received remotely comparable coverage. And this week in particular, McCain seems sort of like Macaulay Culkin in Home Alone – left by himself while everyone else heads overseas.
Then there’s the more general imbalance in the volume and tone of the media’s coverage of both candidates. Since early June, the Big Three network newscasts have devoted 114 minutes of coverage to Obama and just 48 to McCain. And for months now, it seems, no one has been able to get through a supermarket checkout line without being greeted by the beaming, confident visage of Obama (and sometimes his wife) on the cover of some major magazine, whether a news weekly or a celebrity gossip sheet. John and Cindy, meanwhile, are still waiting for their Us cover shoot.
And if that wasn’t enough, Monday provided the proverbial straw to break the camel’s back when the McCain campaign went to the Drudge Report with charges that The New York Times had refused to run an Op-Ed piece from McCain on the Iraq war – a week after running Obama’s own Op-Ed on the subject, one that offered pointed criticism of McCain.
All of this comes against the backdrop of the right’s long-standing conviction that the media always favors the Democrats, after a primary season in which Hillary Clinton’s partisans exhausted themselves shouting about the media’s pro-Obama bent.
“It is a propaganda blitz that would make the Kremlin blush,” the arch-conservative New Hampshire Union-Leader thundered in an editorial on Tuesday.
“By election day, we fully expect John McCain to be vilified as a Vietnam-era war criminal and worse. But that is only if the networks and other major media can tear themselves away from their Obama orgy.”
The McCain campaign itself got into the act too, launching a new feature on its Web site on Tuesday – under the banner “The media is in LOVE with Barack Obama” – that asks users to choose a song that best expresses the media’s Obama “devotion.”
It’s pretty silly stuff. The differences between the media’s coverage of Obama and McCain that conservatives have noted are quite real. But to suggest that this is all explained by the media’s desire to help Obama win the presidency is a combination of disingenuous and foolish. Like just about every conspiracy theory, the right’s media paranoia can seem superficially valid – by God, the press really is paying more attention to Obama than to McCain! But when you examine each claim closely, the conspiracy theory unravels quickly and completely.
Start with the media’s blanket coverage of Obama’s trip overseas, a courtesy that hasn’t been extended to McCain on his many war-zone expeditions.
As McCain himself has (derisively) noted, Obama, prior to this week, had never been to Afghanistan and had yet to go to Iraq as a presidential candidate. Since he jumped into the presidential race, Obama’s foes – whether Clinton in the primary or McCain now – have repeatedly sought to raise voters’ concerns that he lacks the experience and seasoning to handle matters of national security and statesmanship – that he doesn’t pass “the commander in chief test,” as Clinton declared a few months ago.
The nation is now involved in two wars and Obama was a member of the Illinois State Legislature four years ago at this time, so this commander in chief question is no small concern to the public. Polls show it: Last week, a survey showed that McCain enjoys a gaping 24-point advantage over Obama on the question of whether voters feel he’d make a good commander in chief. There are also many analysts who believe Obama lost the Texas primary in March because of Hillary Clinton’s last-minute “3 a.m. phone call” ad, which tested voters’ gut-level confidence in the idea of Obama handling an international crisis.
So of course Obama’s war zone travels are attracting saturation coverage. McCain himself has worked hard to make Obama’s national security credentials the top issue in this campaign. In some ways, the trip represents Obama’s chief public test – alongside his convention speech and the fall debates – between now and November. By comparison, McCain’s trips don’t come close to this standard. And he should be happy about it: In most voters’ minds (and in the media’s), he’s already passed the commander in chief test.
This is nothing new. Voters resisted lining up behind Ronald Reagan until the very end of the 1980 race, mostly because of fears that he was too trigger-happy when it came to national security. Rest assured, a Reagan visit to the Soviet Union at the height of the ’80 campaign would have attracted interest very similar to Obama’s trip this week.
And there’s a flip side to this level of attention. Any gaffes Obama commits abroad will be amplified, since they’d reinforce the doubts that McCain has been raising about his foreign policy résumé. (McCain, in comparison, mostly got a pass on Monday when he mistakenly suggested that Iraq and Pakistan share a border.) And incidents beyond Obama’s control could haunt him. What kind of signs and displays will his German fans bring to Obama’s speech there? If the messages seem anti-American – an effigy of George W. Bush? – the effect could be catastrophic back home. McCain, who campaigned in Rochester, N.H., on Tuesday, faces no comparable risk at his town hall meetings.
The right’s other gripes don’t add up to a conspiracy either.
The 114-minute/48-minute imbalance in the networks’ news coverage, for example, is probably representative of the overall coverage imbalance that has prevailed on cable news and in print since June. But, again, it makes sense: The Democratic race generated historic interest and record voter participation. The last primaries were on June 3, but the story hardly ended there, and much of the month was given over to coverage of the potential fallout from and implications of such a once-in-a-lifetime struggle. The Republican race basically ended in February – and while it was interesting enough, it hardly generated the kind of voter participation that the Democratic contest did.
The furor over The Times’ Op-Ed decision is misplaced, too. There are also more than enough inconvenient facts to douse claims that the paper is simply trying to sabotage McCain – who, by the way, it endorsed during the primaries (along with Clinton – and not Obama). This is also the same newspaper that gives over space on its Op-Ed page three days a week to two of McCain’s biggest media admirers – David Brooks and Bill Kristol – and also runs a regular column from a liberal, Paul Krugman, who is regularly critical of Obama. It’s also the same newspaper that saw fit to run an inflammatory Op-Ed piece in May that suggested Obama’s Muslim roots would make him an assassination target as President – hardly a favor to the Obama campaign.
There’s also the simple fact that The Times didn’t actually refuse McCain. He was told that an Op-Ed from him would be welcomed but that he would need to address certain specific subjects. This may seem meddlesome, but that’s how Op-Ed pages work. And actually, The Times did McCain a favor: By allowing him to play victim, he rallied his party’s Times-hating base and won a wider audience for his Op-Ed than it ever would have received if the paper had simply run it.
Broadly speaking, it is true that there’s a fascination with Obama in the media that simply doesn’t exist with McCain. That’s to be expected, and it mirrors the general public’s attitude toward both men. Obama is a new and potentially historic phenomenon. McCain is the familiar and durable figure. Glossy magazines will always choose the fresh face over the old one for the covers – because that’s what people are going to buy.
This can’t possibly be news to McCain. His own advisers have told reporters that their only hope of winning is to make the election a referendum on Obama. Thanks to the press, that’s exactly what they’re going to get.