Not surprisingly, a column in Sunday’s Washington Post by Deborah Howell, in which the paper’s ombudsman (ombudswoman?) wrote of the considerable disparity in the volume of her paper’s coverage of Barack Obama and John McCain, is causing a stir on the right.
Conservative media watchdog groups like the Media Research Center and NewsBusters have hyped Ms. Howell’s column, particularly her conclusion that the disparity in The Post’s coverage of both candidates “is so wide that it doesn’t look good,” as have numerous conservative cable and talk-radio shows. It’s all further proof, in their minds, that the liberal media is in the tank for Mr. Obama and intent on securing his election as president.
From the Republicans’ standpoint, this kind of talk is good for arousing the party base, which never seems to tire of media-bashing. But something more complicated –- and, on the whole, pretty good for the G.O.P. in general and for Mr. McCain in particular — is actually playing out here.
It’s absolutely true that Mr. Obama is soaking up a disproportionate share of the media’s attention. Ms. Howell’s column noted that, since the Democratic race ended on June 3, Mr. Obama has been the subject of three times as many front-page stories in The Post. The ratios may not be exactly the same, but it’s the same story at other major newspapers and on broadcast and cable news: Mr. Obama is receiving much more attention than Mr. McCain. But this helps Mr. McCain.
The reason is simple: The media’s intense focus on Mr. Obama, whether through hard-hitting investigative reporting or cream-puff photo shoots for glossy magazine covers, has fundamentally changed the nature of the general-election campaign. It was supposed to be a referendum on George W. Bush and the Republican Party, but it has become –- at least for the time being -– a referendum on Mr. Obama.
Mr. McCain’s campaign has always wanted this –- his aides have not been shy about saying this to reporters off the record. Mr. McCain’s advantage is the very fact that he is not receiving the same saturation coverage. He is a widely known, fairly well-liked and utterly familiar public figure. No one is that curious about him. This makes him seem safe and reassuring to most voters, even if his smiling face isn’t splashed on the cover of Us Weekly.
By contrast, the microscopic coverage of Mr. Obama, by its very nature, makes him seem like a risky option to voters, with his every word and action probed for its possible meanings and implications. Plus, the volume of the coverage isn’t lost on consumers –- instead, it plays directly into the McCain campaign’s effort to paint Obama as a lightweight creation of the media.
To its strategic credit, the McCain campaign clearly recognizes and has aggressively sought to keep the focus on Mr. Obama with a series of negative attacks (even while decrying out of the other side of their mouths the imbalance in coverage). Now, finally, there are signs that the Obama campaign grasps and is ready to respond to the changed nature of the race. Back from Hawaii, Mr. Obama is stepping up his effort to link Mr. McCain and Mr. Bush, seeking to reestablish the president as a central player in the 2008 election. Ironically, for this to succeed, Mr. Obama needs the media to pay less attention to him, and more to Mr. McCain.
Mr. McCain can’t win a race that’s a referendum on his party and its president. But he can win one that’s a referendum on Mr. Obama. So far, the media has been more helpful to him in this regard than he and most of his supporters will ever admit.