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Narratives and the Press
Posted by: McQ on Thursday, May 29, 2008

The Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ) has looked at press coverage of John McCain, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton and found some interesting things.

First, a nice little chart to give you an idea of what they found when they looked at how the press coverage of the three candidates as it relates to "positive narratives":

Anyone who has followed press coverage to date can't be particularly surprised by what, I'm sure, most realized was happening. Now whether you want to chalk that up to bias, a feverent desire by some in the press to see the Republicans out of office (aka bias) or infatuation with the candidates (hmmm, more bias?), it is clear the chart shows a much kinder press for the Dems than the Rep in the race.

Fine. As PEJ says:
From January 1, just before the Iowa caucuses, through March 9, following the Texas and Ohio contests, the height of the primary season, the dominant personal narratives in the media about Obama and Clinton were almost identical in tone, and were both twice as positive as negative, according to the study, which examined the coverage of the candidates’ character, history, leadership and appeal—apart from the electoral results and the tactics of their campaigns.
But here is where it begins to get interesting.

First, Hillary Clinton:
With Hillary Clinton, however, the public seemed to have developed opinions about her that ran counter to the media coverage, perhaps based on a pre-existing negative disposition to her that unfolded over the course of the campaign.
I found that to be pretty encouraging. No matter how hard the media tried to sell Clinton, most Americans had pretty much formed an opinion about her the media wasn't able to sway.

John McCain:
On the Republican side, John McCain, the candidate who quickly clinched his party’s nomination, has had a harder time controlling his message in the press. Fully 57% of the narratives studied about him were critical in nature, though a look back through 2007 reveals the storyline about the Republican nominee has steadily improved with time.

Public perceptions of McCain and Obama, a companion survey shows, largely tracked with the tenor of the press coverage’s major narrative themes.
McCain, otoh, had a to battle a narrative which was mostly critical of him from the beginning. It may from that treatment that helps explain this from a recent Pew Research Center Study (btw, PEJ is associated with Pew):
McCain's personal image among voters also has become more negative since February. Currently, 48% express a favorable view of the Arizona senator while nearly as many (45%) have a negative opinion. In late February, the balance of opinion about McCain was more positive (50% favorable vs. 39% unfavorable). Unlike Obama, however, an overwhelming majority of those who express unfavorable views of McCain cite his political beliefs as the reason they do not like him, rather the kind of person he is. Fully 73% of those with a negative opinion of McCain cite his political beliefs while just 18% cite personal factors.
The "political beliefs" from which he suffers, of course, are linked with those of George W Bush. That's been the association most mentioned as I remember it. PEJ claims the predominant negative theme was he isn't a true and reliable conservative. That would fit perfectly with the link to Bush who has never really been viewed as such either.

But the bottom line, per PEJ is that McCain has had more negative stories that positive written about him and that narrative has cost him in his unfavorable ratings which are predominantly about his political beliefs. In one way it explains why he seems to be more inclined to adopt positions most on the right find troubling, such as his positions on global warming and immigration.

Barack Obama:
The trajectory of the coverage, however, began to turn against Obama, and did so well before questions surfaced about his pastor Jeremiah Wright. Shortly after Clinton criticized the media for being soft on Obama during a debate, the narrative about him began to turn more skeptical—and indeed became more negative than the coverage of Clinton herself. What’s more, an additional analysis of more general campaign topics suggests the Obama narrative became even more negative later in March, April and May.

For the most part I agree with this assessment. However I would note that any discussion of the Obama narrative becoming "even more negative" is relative at best. Given my recollection of almost fawning coverage in the beginning of his primary run, almost anything following that could be considered "more negative".

And, as I've stated before, despite Democrat denial that the Reverend Wright controversy didn't hurt him and he handled it brilliantly, it just doesn't seem to be bearing out in the numbers. From the Pew study:
Obama's favorable rating among voters has slipped eight points since late February, from 59% to 51% in the current survey. When those who express an unfavorable opinion are asked what they do not like about Obama, most (54%) cite his political beliefs. But nearly a third (32%) either mention the kind of person Obama is, or say their unfavorable views are influenced both by the kind of person he is and his political beliefs. White working class voters are among the most likely to mention the kind of person Obama is as a reason for their unfavorable opinion of him.
The percentage that are negative about Obama because of "the kind of person he is" aren't, I don't think, talking about race. Like myself, they have difficulty accepting as credible, a claim that he was unaware of Rev. Wright's anti-Americanism while spending 20+ years in his church and calling the man his "spiritual mentor" and likening him to a member of his family. His continued denial of knowing his Reverend's mind after two decades of exposure just doesn't pass the smell test. Couple that with his obvious attempt to avoid directly answering questions concerning that, and you have, whether the Democrats like it or not, a real bona fide character question.

Per PEJ, the dominant negative theme about Obama, in what little negative coverage he's suffered, is his inexperience.

As I mentioned previously, this should be the major avenue of attack for the McCain campaign.

If you're wondering what avenue of attack the Obama campaign will be using, one look at an Obama fund raising email I got today should suffice:

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Previous Comments to this Post 

Yeah yeah, the press hates McCain. Keep peddling that line, maybe you’ll find somebody who’s been asleep for the past decade to buy it.
Written By: Retief
URL: http://
Yeah yeah, the press hates McCain.
Nice strawman, Retief. Where was it suggested the press "hated" McCain?
Written By: McQ
Yeah yeah, the press hates McCain. Keep peddling that line, maybe you’ll find somebody who’s been asleep for the past decade to buy it.
They liked him as a "maverick" Republican . . . but now he’s running a campaign against two Democrats . . .
Written By: Don
URL: http://
It would appear that we must remind them daily that Bush isn’t actually running for reelection this cycle...
Written By: Scott Jacobs
URL: http://

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