There’s been a lot of whining about the press coverage this election. Both sides are complaining that the press is being unfairly soft on the other candidate. The McCain campaign complains about the press almost daily, while liberal pro-Obama blogs do the same from the other direction (Obama himself has been quieter on this front).
Sure, some of this complaining is simply working the refs, but I also think it’s a sincerely-held grievance on both sides. So they can’t both be right, can they? If both sides think the press is in the tank for other side, someone must be wrong, right? Not necessarily.
When people talk about press “bias,” they’re really talking about two different things. There’s not some uniform bias (“incompetence” is a better word) — instead, the press has been bad in different and distinct ways with respect to the two candidates. I don’t think the incompetence has been perfectly equal — sorry David Broder. But both candidates have some legitimate gripes.
I think that McCain’s most legitimate gripe is just that the press seems to cover Obama more. It’s not so much they praise him — they just cover him a lot. It’s understandable — Obama’s the new guy and he’s an intriguing story. That said, Obama's also better at generating “free media” attention through compelling events, powerful images, etc. Commanding press attention is, after all, one of the skill sets presidential candidates need.
The press has been too soft on McCain, by contrast, in a completely different way — specifically, they don’t hold him accountable for his gaffes and policy positions. It’s not that they never criticize him. To be more precise, they don’t hold him accountable to the level that his gaffes deserve. McCain operates in a consequence-free bubble that allows him to say whatever he wants — e.g., denying he said “timetable,” calling Social Security payments a “disgrace”, and so on.
Obama, by contrast, has to walk on eggshells 24-7. It’s a completely different standard. For instance, a few weeks ago, the press went into full mob mentality over “refine” even though it merely affirmed the positions he’s had for virtually his entire campaign.
If Obama had made just the slightest little misstatement on the overseas trip, it would have dominated coverage. Hell, every description of his trip was premised with “but he’ll have to be careful not to screw up.” They were ready to pounce (in part because of guilt for covering, I suppose), but Obama didn’t oblige.
McCain, by contrast, attacks timetables for years and then endorses one and then denies he ever used the word. It’s quite literally a universe away from “refine.”
Plus, McCain’s campaign has been relentlessly negative. All he does every day is attack, attack, attack — and in increasingly vitriolic and Grandpa Simpson-esque terms. But with the exception of Joe Klein, no one in the press seems all that bothered. In short, I think the press has been more than generous to McCain considering his actions and behavior on the campaign trail.
Looking ahead, my fear is that the press feels like it needs to do penance for the Obama European coverage. Thus, expect Obama’s next gaffe or misstatement to be amplified about 100 times more than it should.
UPDATE: I should have linked to this LAT piece providing some empirical support for these claims. (Thanks to commenters).