Some of the most memorable moments of this primary season came courtesy of the mock Democratic debates on Saturday Night Live that poked fun at the media's treatment of the presidential candidates. There, "Barack Obama" was offered this taxing question from a commentator with a crush: "Are you mad at me?" And a faux Tim Russert referred to Obama's eloquence four times in a question posed to comedian Amy Poehler's version of Hillary Clinton, and then exposed her to grilling from Law & Order's Vincent D'Onofrio on her NAFTA stance.
What these skits mocked was the sense that Senator Obama was getting easy, almost adoring, treatment from the media compared with rival Democratic Senator Clinton. In real life, Clinton agreed that Obama was getting preferential treatment from the media, even bringing up the fawning during a debate in February. But a new study has found that the media depicted Clinton's and Obama's characteristics in about equally positive light in detailing their personal narratives, which include their history, character, leadership, and appeal, from just before the Iowa caucuses until the aftermath of the primaries in Texas and Ohio on March 4.
Instead of focusing on coverage detailing the day-to-day wins and losses, the study looked at "master narratives," essentially the personal themes that develop throughout the campaign season such as Clinton is "ready to lead," Obama represents "hope and change," McCain is "admirable," etc.
Sixty-nine percent of Obama's coverage was positive, while 67 percent of Clinton's coverage was also positive. Much of Obama's positive coverage detailed his representation of "hope and change" and the candidate's charisma. Negative coverage discussed his inexperience. For Clinton, positive coverage included the assertion that she was "ready to lead" the country but negative coverage said she represented the past. Compared with the Democrats, it was Republican John McCain who faired worse, getting 43 percent positive coverage of his personal narrative, according to the study released recently by the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism and the Joan Shorenstein Center on Press, Politics, and Public Policy at Harvard.
"What this finds is that indeed when it came to the personal campaign narrative about these [candidates], Barack Obama did not get more positive coverage than Hillary Clinton," says Amy Mitchell, deputy director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism. In fact, Obama's positive coverage steadily diminished. Shortly after Clinton criticized members of the media for being softies on the freshman senator from Illinois, they stopped being so soft and coverage of Obama turned more skeptical.
Additionally bad for Obama was that the No. 1 most covered story of the primary campaign season dealt with his inflammatory ex-pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, who dominated news coverage twice—first when YouTube videos circulated of the reverend's fiery sermons and again when Wright gave several controversial speeches.
Good for Clinton was that her coverage remained pretty consistently positive throughout the first two months of primary contests, when the study was conducted. Clinton had to fight off the perception that she was unlikable, a character trait first assigned to her during her husband's campaign in 1992. The media helped her shake this perception. After she showed a touch of emotion at a campaign stop in New Hampshire, coverage changed. The press was then more likely to rebut the characterization of Clinton being cold or distant.
"[It was]when she showed strong emotions in a press conference the press sort of came back and said that this shows that she dose have emotions, she does care, she is a woman," says Mitchell.
McCain's positive personal narratives were drowned out by the ever plaguing question of whether the Maverick is a "true conservative." This theme was covered early on and continued to dog the senator from Arizona even after he had clinched the Republican nomination. "Even among Republican and likely Republican voters there is clearly some uncertainty whether McCain is a true conservative or not," says Mitchell. Despite the coverage questioning McCain's conservatism, members of the media were also responsible for touting positive narratives about McCain's POW past, his heroism, and his ability to attract independent voters.
Now looking toward the summer and to a likely McCain-Obama matchup, McCain will continue to have to fight the battle over his conservatism. And Obama, who can no longer rely solely on the rhetoric of hope and change, will have to learn to better control his message so it doesn't get drowned out by more negative themes.