Washington Post: We Were Biased for Obama
Deborah Howell, the ombudsman for the Washington Post, wrote a column in Sunday’s paper stating that the Post’s coverage of the presidential campaign was lopsided in favor of president elect-Sen. Barack Obama.
My assistant, Jean Hwang, and I have been examining Post coverage since Nov. 11 of last year on issues, voters, fundraising, the candidates’ backgrounds and horse-race stories on tactics, strategy and consultants. We also have looked at photos and Page 1 stories since Obama captured the nomination June 4.
The count was lopsided, with 1,295 horse-race stories and 594 issues stories. The Post was deficient in stories that reported more than the two candidates trading jabs; readers needed articles, going back to the primaries, comparing their positions with outside experts’ views. There were no broad stories on energy or science policy, and there were few on religion issues.
Bill Hamilton, assistant managing editor for politics, said, “There are a lot of things I wish we’d been able to do in covering this campaign, but we had to make choices about what we felt we were uniquely able to provide our audiences both in Washington and on the Web. I don’t at all discount the importance of issues, but we had a larger purpose, to convey and explain a campaign that our own David Broder described as the most exciting he has ever covered, a narrative that unfolded until the very end. I think our staff rose to the occasion.”
The op-ed page ran far more laudatory opinion pieces on Obama, 32, than on Sen. John McCain, 13. There were far more negative pieces about McCain, 58, than there were about Obama, 32, and Obama got the editorial board’s endorsement. The Post has several conservative columnists, but not all were gung-ho about McCain.
Stories and photos about Obama in the news pages outnumbered those devoted to McCain. Reporters, photographers and editors found the candidacy of Obama, the first African American major-party nominee, more newsworthy and historic. Journalists love the new; McCain, 25 years older than Obama, was already well known and had more scars from his longer career in politics.
She also noted that it didn’t stop there. The coverage of Gov. Sarah Palin was exhaustive, while vice president elect-Sen. Joe Biden was virtually ignored.
One gaping hole in coverage involved Joe Biden, Obama’s running mate. When Gov. Sarah Palin was nominated for vice president, reporters were booking the next flight to Alaska. Some readers thought The Post went over Palin with a fine-tooth comb and neglected Biden. They are right; it was a serious omission. However, I do not agree with those readers who thought The Post did only hatchet jobs on her. There were several good stories on her, the best on page 1 by Sally Jenkins on how Palin grew up in Alaska.
It’s a tough and honest self-assessment of one of the most influential newspapers on the planet. It’s also indicative of the most papers in America. As noted before, press treatment of Obama has been somewhat more positive than negative, but not markedly so. But coverage of McCain has been heavily unfavorable, and has become more so over time. In the six weeks following the conventions through the final debate, unfavorable stories about McCain outweighed favorable ones by a factor of more than three to one—the most unfavorable of all four candidates, according to the study by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism.
How much impact the media had on Obama’s election is anyone’s guess. Would McCain had won if the media was more balanced in its reporting? How would have Obama been perceived by the public had the media portrayed McCain as a solid leader with years of experience and Obama as a newcomer with limited exposure on the national stage? No one knows.
But what the media can do from this point on is be a fair watchdog of the Obama administration. Some commentators have already professed their loyalty to Obama, which is a mistake for anyone in journalism. After the run-up to the Iraq war, the media was rightly criticized for not being aggressive enough in questioning President Bush’s plan. The same is true now. Given the fact that there will be virtually no congressional opposition to the White House in this era of endless buyouts and foreign threats, it’s up to the media to examine President Obama’s proposals in the coming years. A Democrat-controlled Congress will not shine the light on any Obama proposal, so the media must. The public deserves no less.