Press Bias and Campaign 2008
Kevin Drum cites several instances of John McCain acting in ways inconsistent with his maverick image and yet surviving with the image more-or-less intact, a situation he ascribes to a fawning press corps. He asks, “And what window do Democrats go to to get the same treatment the press gives McCain?”
In reality, all of the remaining major candidates have benefited from this treatment and most of the also-rans did not. The press has the same tendency as the rest of us to filter incoming information through our preconceptions, a phenomenon social scientists call “expectancy bias.”
Hillary Clinton is the smartest person in the room and has loads of experience. Barack Obama is a post-racial uniter who will heal our wounds. John McCain is a straight-talking maverick who’s not at all like other Republicans. Those are simply facts and any evidence which might controvert them must therefore be aberrations to be explained away.
The Sunday New York Times had a long feature which demonstrated, rather clearly, that Clinton had grossly exaggerated her involvement in her husband’s foreign policy achievements. The headline? “Clinton’s Schedules Offer Chance to Test Assertions.” Readers could have been forgiven for skimming past that story.
To be sure, there have been several stories on the controversy. But the pre-existing framing — that Clinton is very, very experienced in foreign policy — survives intact.
Will Bunch describes a visit yesterday by Clinton to the NY Daily News offices which produces the excited blog post “Exclusive: Clinton acknowledges a ‘misstatement’ on Bosnia sniper fire.” Yet, if one looks at the front page of the paper’s website, the exclusive is nowhere to be found. It’s buried somewhere inside (the Web edition doesn’t include pagination).
This isn’t a homer paper in the bag for Clinton. It’s just not considered big news because, obviously, Clinton has tremendous experience and she can be forgiven for having gotten all the times she’s been in danger whilst representing the United States abroad confused.
Absent the videographic evidence, though, we simply would never have known. Reporters have known about Jeremiah Wright and the Trinity United Church of Christ for years. Christopher Hitchens had a piece in Slate weeks before the story broke mentioning the “substandard and shade-oriented” nature of the place as almost an afterthought. The controversy only erupted because the church was so proud of its pastor’s sermons that it put a few out on video. Because of his association with Obama, some of the most colorful found their way to YouTube and all hell broke lose.
Even so, the mainstream press is framing the story in terms of how it will affect the horse race, what it reveals about our history of race relations, and the like. There’s no suggestion outside the commentary pages that the association reflects poorly on Obama, let alone that he might be less post-racial than previously believed. That’s inconceivable.
It’s worth noting, as a brief aside, that the other candidates in the race also had to contend with framing issues. Mike Huckabee was a lovable religious nut. Ron Paul was just a plain nut. Mitt Romney was a robot with keen executive skills. Fred Thompson was kind of lazy. Joe Biden was a loose cannon. Sam Brownback, Duncan Hunter, Mike Gravel, and others were vanity candidates not to be taken seriously as contenders. None ever broke out of those boxes.
While media is decidedly plural, there’s nonetheless a herd mentality. There’s a healthy dose of cognitive dissonance which allows well-established memes to survive repeated collisions with counervailing facts.