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Washington Post Says They Were Biased For Obama Campaign

obama l1.jpgThe following article written by Deborah Howell appears in today’s Washongton Post: 

The Post provided a lot of good campaign coverage, but readers have been consistently critical of the lack of probing issues coverage and what they saw as a tilt toward Democrat Barack Obama. My surveys, which ended on Election Day, show that they are right on both counts.

My assistant, Jean Hwang, and I have been examining Post coverage since Nov. 11 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. Numbers don’t tell you everything, but they give you a sense of The Post’s priorities.

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 (58) about McCain 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. Post reporters, photographers and editors — like most of the national news media — 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.

The number of Obama stories since Nov. 11 was 946, compared with McCain’s 786. Both had hard-fought primary campaigns, but Obama’s battle with Hillary Rodham Clinton was longer, and the numbers reflect that.

McCain clinched the GOP nomination on March 4, and Obama won his on June 4. From then to Election Day, the tally was Obama, 626 stories, and McCain, 584. Obama was on the front page 176 times, McCain, 144 times; 41 stories featured both.

Our survey results are comparable to figures for the national news media from a study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism. It found that from June 9, when Clinton dropped out of the race, until Nov. 2, 66 percent of the campaign stories were about Obama compared with 53 percent for McCain; some stories featured both. The project also calculated that in that time, 57 percent of the stories were about the horse race and 13 percent were about issues.

Counting from June 4, Obama was in 311 Post photos and McCain in 282. Obama led in most categories. Obama led 133 to 121 in pictures more than three columns wide, 178 to 161 in smaller pictures, and 164 to 133 in color photos. In black and white photos, the nominees were about even, with McCain at 149 and Obama at 147. On Page 1, they were even at 26 each. Post photo and news editors were surprised by my first count on Aug. 3, which showed a much wider disparity, and made a more conscious effort at balance afterward.

Some readers complain that coverage is too poll-driven. They’re right, but it’s not going to change. The Post’s polling was on the mark, and in some cases ahead of the curve, in focusing on independent voters, racial attitudes, low-wage voters, the shift of African Americans’ support from Clinton to Obama and the rising importance of economic issues. The Post and its polling partner ABC News include 50 to 60 issues questions in every survey instead of just horse-race questions, so public attitudes were plumbed as well.

The Post had a hard-working team on the campaign. Special praise goes to Dan Balz, the best, most level-headed, incisive political reporter and analyst in newspapers. His stories and “Dan Balz’s Take” on were fair, penetrating and on the mark. His mentor, David S. Broder, was as sharp as ever.

Michael Dobbs, the Fact Checker, also deserves praise for parsing campaign rhetoric for the overblown or just flat wrong. Howard Kurtz’s Ad Watch was a sharp reality check.

The Post’s biographical pieces, especially the first ones — McCain by Michael Leahy and Obama by David Maraniss — were compelling. Maraniss demystified Obama’s growing-up years; the piece on his mother and grandparents was a great read. Leahy’s first piece on McCain’s father and grandfather, both admirals, told me where McCain got his maverick ways as a kid — right from the two old men.

But Obama deserved tougher scrutiny than he got, especially of his undergraduate years, his start in Chicago and his relationship with Antoin “Tony” Rezko, who was convicted this year of influence-peddling in Chicago. The Post did nothing on Obama’s acknowledged drug use as a teenager.

The Post had good coverage of voters, mainly by Krissah Williams Thompson and Kevin Merida. Anne Hull’s stories from Florida, Michigan and Liberty University, and Wil Haygood’s story from central Montana brought readers into voters’ lives. Jose Antonio Vargas’s pieces about campaigns and the Internet were standouts.

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.

In early coverage, I wasn’t a big fan of the long-running series called “The Gurus” on consultants and important people in the campaigns. The Post has always prided itself on its political coverage, and profiles of the top dogs were probably well read by political junkies. But I thought the series was of no practical use to readers. While there were some interesting pieces in The Frontrunners series, none of them told me anything about where the candidates stood on any issue.

23 Responses

  1. =inserting tongue in cheek=

    The Washington Post is biased?

    I am shocked – shocked, I tell you!!

    What is this world coming to, when one of our most venerated, unbiased, fair, and accurate newspapers admits to this??

    =removing tongue from cheek=

  2. How convenient? The Washington Compost comments on their coverage after the election and before the passage of the fairness doctrine.

  3. To #1 and #2 I agree with you both wholeheartedly. However, you have to give the Washington Post a shtickel credit.

    At lease they were modeh al ha’emes

    Now when are we going to hear the same admission from TIME NEWSWEEK CNN MSNBC CBS ABC NBC.

    (Please don’t hold your breath)

    What a disgrace of the so called independent media.

    BTW they still have the chutzpah to call Fox news slanted.

    Hey TIME NEWSWEEK CNN MSNBC CBS ABC NBC please look in the mirror before you call Fox news biased.

  4. So the obvious question is why are they admitting thier bias? I would suggest it has to do with the fact that they see the USA is still in trouble, that “the messiah” hasnt helped, that he still comes across as a bumbling idiot, so they are trying to distance themselves from him.

    I’ll bet, this is going to be a trend in the drive by media because they have to move to the other side (or more to the middle) so they could start bashing Obama when things “come out” about him that “we didnt know before” the election.

  5. Whats the news here?

    All the major papers and networks were in the tank for Obama, and it was clear and obvious to everyone.

  6. You know what the say “Dont pray for it, you might get it” President Obama is pretty shocked about winning. I hope he knows what to do next.

  7. If the conservatives/Republicans want to survive and save us from even deeper doo-doo, they should adopt the Saul Alinsky method: never compromise, even a tiny bit. Dig in their heels; force the radical left (Bama, Pelos, Reid, Frank) to yield on every issue, no matter how trivial.
    Paint the radical Left for what they are: economic terrorists who simply and solely want ▶ power (ever hear of Communism?) to to whatever they want, and to become “obnoxious”, but always have a clear, brief and hard-hitting press release for every news outlet and let the public see what they oppose and why.

  8. The Washington Post admitted nothing; this is basically an opinion piece.

    The title of this article is not only biased, but wrong.

  9. 13,

    Its not a bias if you look at the matter intelligently based on the facts being presented and come up with an intellectual choice. The papers you mentioned had plenty of news on Obama (ad even Hillary when she was running) which is why they endorsed McCain.

    Welcome to 2008, the year the press died.

  10. #17, if it was just the Washington Post maybe, but having just about the entire media campaign for a candidate is a pretty big deal. as #18 so accurately put it, welcome to 2008, the year (neutrality of) the press died.

  11. 19,

    Did it ever dawn on you that these were our thoughts before we even turned on a radio?

    Did it ever dawn on you that we listed to people like Alan B. Colmes, Larry ‘Frogman’ King, etc., wondering what in heaven’s name they were thinking?

    Thats what happened to me until one day I heard Bob Grant on the radio and Ronaldus Magnus aka Ronald Reagan giving a speech. I realized there were people out there who said the same things I did and, politicly anyway, felt the same way that I did.


  12. Assuming arguendo that the Washington Post’s reporting was biased . . .

    I suppose it was merely emesdik if the Jewish Press was biased towards McCain. Is it that you guys have a principled stand against bias in the press, or just that you’ll criticize papers with an editorial bias for the other guy?

    By thev way, Shabbos night leaving shul I had an interesting encounter with an older, well known yeshiva rebbe – he does not read general newspapers, but did listen to Obama’s press conference last week. As best as I can remember his exact words were:

    “…I had no idea he is such a substantive person – one could not have believed such a thing with all that was being said about him…”

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