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.

FILED UNDER: 2008 Election, Media, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Dave Schuler says:

    I’m not sure its bias so much as sloth.

    I’ve also noticed that the definition of bias doesn’t seem to be settled. For some “bias” means slanting the coverage unfairly and unevenly. For some it means not slanting it enough.

  2. Iris says:

    If Hillary is the smartest person in the room, why does she have to exaggerate, spin, and misrepresent her experience? She’s smart enough for Day 1, as she says, to attend balls and shake hands. She has lots of experience with social events. After that, I’ll take Obama, who was at the top of his law class, knows what wars to avoid, is more courageous about taking on hard issues, and writes better books (without ghost writers).

    PS. On second thought, the nation would be better off with an Inauguration Speech from Obama. Day One is a day when words matter a lot. If Hillary was so smart, she’d know that.

  3. rodney dill says:

    Everybody already knows that Hillary Rodham Clinton is a pathological liar. The Bosnia sniper fire LIE is her Dukakis tank helmet or Kerry ‘baby blue clean suit’ moment.

  4. Garrison says:

    I still don’t get how Ron Paul is a nut. Because he opposes senseless wars? Because he wants to fix the economy? Because he wants to put more money in the taxpayer’s pocket? Because he wants to run the country the way the constitution says we should?

    I’d say that the only nuts in this race are the media.

  5. John Huckans says:

    It is easy to mischaracterize Ron Paul as a “nut” because he is spontaneous and rarely self-censors. What you hear coming out of his mouth is usually the unfiltered reflection of his mind at that moment. This is unlike the communication style of most politicians whose messages are focus-grouped, crafted, polished, and practiced in front of a mirror.


    John H. Huckans

  6. yetanotherjohn says:

    Is it stupidity, lack of intellectual curiosity, bias, out right lying? Here is an example where it wasn’t just a slant, but an outright lie.

    On Wednesday the BBC reported the speech under the headline ‘Bush speech hails Iraq “victory”‘. The headline was supported by the following sentence in the story:

    He said recent troop reinforcements had brought about “a major strategic victory in the broader war on terror”.

    However, this isn’t what Bush said. What he said was:

    The surge has done more than turn the situation in Iraq around — it has opened the door to a major strategic victory in the broader war on terror.

    and the impact is real.

    By this time the dishonestly headlined, mendaciously edited BBC story had been displayed prominently on the website for two days. With the site attracting around 13 million unique viewers per week, we can safely assume that several million people around the world saw the report of President Bush ‘claiming victory’ in Iraq.

    As I noted in my second post (linked by Pajamas Media) the BBC’s ‘Have Your Say’ thread on the story was filled with comments hostile to President Bush and the US, with many commenters citing and ridiculing the ‘victory claim’ which Bush never made. At least two commenters called for Bush and Tony Blair to be hanged, and this in a ‘fully moderated’ thread.

    Even as I write this post, the Middle East page of the BBC site still features a link to the Have Your Say thread (comments are now closed) which takes the form of a quote from one of the comments, accusing Bush of ‘arrogance’ for declaring victory:

    It’s inconceivable that the headline and sentence which created such a misleading impression of Bush’s speech were simply ‘editing errors’. I used to work as a sub-editor on a daily newspaper in the UK, and a story as important as this would one have been seen by perhaps six different journalists before the paper went to press.

    I’ve no doubt that at least as many BBC journalists would have been involved in putting together the Bush story, and senior ones too. The BBC is fat with British taxpayers’ money, and its news-gathering operation is probably the best-resourced and most over-manned in the world; they wouldn’t have farmed this job out to the intern.

    What is missing (which you can see at the link) is the comments coming out of the Mideast such as “Bush’s arrogance is astonishing in declaring victorious a war which he lost. Ahmed, Tripoli”

    Add to this the general ‘Name that party’ lapses, Rathergate, etc. and you see that something is causing the MSM to not just have problems with shading, but with missing or misstating important facts. In short, if you are trusting what the MSM is telling you all the time, then you are feeding on lies at least some of the time.

  7. Michael says:

    What is missing (which you can see at the link) …

    There was a link?

    Seriously, it’s annoying and I’m surprised you’re not getting caught by the spam filter.

  8. I submitted this post to NewsTrust. Here is the link, in case your readers want to write a review of this or other stories or submit an example of quality journalism…