AJR  Columns
From AJR,   December/January 2009

In the Tank?   

John McCain more than earned his negative coverage.

By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.     

So are the all-powerful liberal media responsible for the election of Barack Obama?

I'm with Shepard Smith on this one.

The Fox News Channel anchor was listening to a comedian named Nick DiPaolo start to go off on the dreaded Fourth Estate and how it was all "in the tank" for That One when Smith went off a little himself.

"Oh, please," he interjected. "The mainstream media reflected what was happening in this nation. It did not drive it. The blogs didn't drive this movement. The media didn't drive this movement."

That the media were in the tank for Obama was an article of faith, first for supporters of Hillary Clinton, then for advocates of John McCain. They argued that journalists were so smitten by Obamamania that they blindly worshipped the candidate one ardent Hillary backer refers to acidly as "Swoonman" while giving no love to his rivals.

Said top McCain aide Mark Salter, "Every Obama attack they carry. Every McCain criticism of Obama they rush to blunt even before Obama does." Who ever thought that longtime media darling McCain would end up running against the press?

There also were people with less partisan leanings in the "media (heart) Obama" camp.

There's no doubt Obama got plenty of positive publicity -- much of it for good reason.

Did the media get carried away at times by the paroxysms of excitement over Obama's candidacy, the staggering crowds, the enthusiasm of his supporters, the stunning Internet fundraising? Of course, and it wasn't just high-decibel MSNBC pundit Chris Matthews and his tingling leg. If there wasn't some of Alan Greenspan's famous "irrational exuberance," there certainly was plenty of exuberant exuberance.

But much of that was because the media were covering an extraordinary political phenomenon.

Not that Obama got a pass. It's hard to remember, but for months no one gave him a shot; the media consensus was that Hillary was a slam dunk for the nomination. At one point during the primary season, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright got so much time on cable you'd have thought he was a missing blonde in Aruba. When Clinton was cleaning Obama's clock in the second half of the primary season, much was written about Obama's inability to "close the deal" and his difficulty winning votes in blue-collar America.

And after the Republican National Convention, at the height of Sarahmania -- speaking of the swooning media -- the narrative was that the selection of Sarah Palin was a stroke of genius and that Obama had lost the Big Mo.

Until the election and beyond, the nonbelievers kept complaining that they didn't "know" Barack Obama and muttered darkly about Bill Ayers and Tony Rezko. Yet Clark Hoyt, public editor at the New York Times -- and you can't get much more MSM than that -- wrote on October 4 that the paper had done 20 "tough" pieces on Obama compared with 13 on McCain.

The paper laid out the Ayers saga on page one. Beyond the GOP base, nobody cared.

A study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism found that the media cast McCain in a much more negative light than it did Obama. But that hardly means the press was unfair to the Arizonan. Covering the candidates equally would be a false equivalence if one campaign were performing far better than the other one.

"Citizen Kane" no doubt got much more positive coverage than "Beverly Hills Chihuahua." My beloved Phillies got plenty of good ink when they won the World Series this year. All the years they failed to qualify for the playoffs, not so much.

The truth is, the Obama campaign was well-organized, disciplined, virtually error-free. Obama was an inspiring candidate to many, a dazzling public speaker with an inspiring storyline.

The McCain campaign, in contrast, was a train wreck, lurching from message to message. And McCain, who can be an immensely appealing figure, seemed angry and unfocused.

While Obama often appealed to our better instincts, McCain halfheartedly clung to the outdated Karl Rove playbook. And all of this was playing out after eight dreadful years of Republican rule, with an economy in crisis and two unfinished wars. It would have taken a near-perfect campaign for a Republican to win, and McCain's fell far short.

Two key moments in the homestretch crystallized the contest and sealed McCain's fate. On September 15, with the Wall Street meltdown well under way and the banking crisis clear to pretty much everyone else, the GOP standard-bearer repeated his soon-to-be-inoperative mantra that the "fundamentals of our economy are strong." Then, he briefly "suspended" his campaign, threatened to skip the next debate with Obama, and returned to Washington to do not much as Congress took up the bailout. It was a transparent gimmick. The contrast between his behavior and Obama's preternatural steadiness couldn't have been starker.

McCain got his negative publicity the old-fashioned way. He earned it.