Sunday, August 31, 2008

Intellectual honesty in campaign news coverage

While I shouldn't be surprised, the main stream media (lame stream as a fellow blogger called it) exposes their bias in the way the selection of running mates for this presidential election are covered.

After Sen. Barack Obama selected fellow Sen. Joe Biden, the media was aglow with praise for the wise selection, chronicling Biden's career and 'extensive' foreign policy experience. (Now, I've never really understood how serving on senate committee on foreign relations actually gives you foreign policy experience, but I'll save that question for another day.) While the blogosphere included a review of Biden's plagiarism issue, the MSM took a while to even mention the hint of controversy in his background.

But following Sen. John McCain's selection of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, it wasn't even two hours before the criticism started. In those two hours, I knew more about an investigation into her staff regarding the firing of an individual than I did about anything else, including her fiscal policy, her confrontation with fellow Republicans over ethics issues and even her family.

In our local paper, The Blade, the headlines for the news stories were the same: 'Obama taps Biden to be running mate' and 'Governor of Alaska chosen as John McCain's running mate.'
The first paragraph of the Biden story:

Barack Obama named Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware as his vice presidential running mate early Saturday, balancing his ticket with a seasoned congressional veteran well-versed in foreign policy and defense issues.

The first paragraph of the Palin story:

In a surprise move to bolster his "maverick" credentials and directly appeal to disgruntled Hillary Clinton supporters, John McCain yesterday picked Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as history's first Republican woman vice presidential candidate.

Obama is 'balancing his ticket' while McCain is trying to 'bolster his credentials.' Biden is 'seasoned' and Palin is 'a woman.'

In the 21st paragraph of the Biden story, you get the first criticism of the selection:

No sooner had word spread of his selection than McCain's campaign unleashed its first attack. Spokesman Ben Porritt said in a statement that Biden had "denounced Barack Obama's poor foreign policy judgment and has strongly argued in his own words what Americans are quickly realizing — that Barack Obama is not ready to be president."

Note that the McCain spokesman used Biden's own words against him. Also note the choice of words: 'no sooner,' 'unleashed,' and 'first attack.'

In the Palin story, it only takes seven paragraphs to get to the criticism:

"The pick of Ms. Palin brought raves from anti-abortion groups. But Democratic nominee Barack Obama's campaign immediately questioned her resume.

"John McCain put the former mayor of a town of 9,000 with zero foreign policy experience a heartbeat away from the presidency," Obama campaign spokesman Bill Burton said."

Notice the attack is twisted by focusing on Palin's time as a mayor without mentioning her time as governor?

Also note the choice of words compared to the coverage of Biden's criticism. The Obama campaign's reaction was almost immediate and the term 'no sooner' could certainly be applied. And 'unleashed its first attack' would be as appropriate to the Obama campaign reaction as it was to the McCain campaign reaction. However, the stories portray the McCain camp as 'attacking' while the Obama camp is only 'questioning' a resume.

Furthermore, in the Biden story, the comment from the McCain camp is the only criticism, other than a couple of references to how people found out about the choice. In the Palin story, there are three other references critical to her, including a quote from the Ohio Democratic Party and from a female attendee at the announcement.

Finally, there is the conclusion of the stories - the clincher, if you will - that leaves you with your final impression.

""Obviously, the most important question is: Is this person ready to be president?" Obama told "The Early Show" on CBS. Second, he said, was: "Can this person help me govern? Are they going to be an effective partner in creating the kind of economic opportunity here at home and guiding us through some dangerous waters internationally?"

And, he added: "I want somebody who is going to be able to challenge my thinking and not simply be a yes person when it comes to policymaking."

This is a positive, reassuring quote - designed to support the selection.

"Tricia Bowcher of Maineville, about an hour from Dayton, attended the rally at the Ervin J. Nutter Center on the campus of Wright State University. If Mr. McCain were intent on picking a woman, she said she would have preferred Ms. Hutchinson.

"She's more experienced than what this woman is," she said. "To be honest, I would have preferred Mitt Romney over everyone really, because he's conservative and just embodies the Republican base.""

This isn't positive and is designed to prove the point that others would have been a better selection.

While editorials are clearly opinion - and every paper has one - the choice of words are in stronger contrast. This is certainly the place for opinion, but both presidential candidates selected individuals as running mates for the same reasons: they bring a different perspective, they are strong where the candidate is weak, they appeal to targeted voters and are, hopefully, going to help the candidate win. That is, after all, the goal.

But while Obama's selection is praised for doing this, McCain's selection is called 'machination.' They're both doing the same things, but one gets positive words and the other gets negative words for the exact same thing.

According to the paper, Obama's selection might seem odd but makes good political sense. The exact same could be said of Palin, but it's not. McCain's choice "represents a maverick's gamble if ever there was one."

Overflowing with praise, the editors opine:

To those who think that the Obama candidacy is a lightweight craft sailing in rough seas, Senator Biden brings a heavy keel of experience to solidify the Democratic boat.

While McCain, with his lengthy resume needs no such steadying, gets this:

He has gone with a candidate who makes Mr. Obama's resume seem substantial by comparison. Ms. Palin is only 44 and has been governor for less than two years. Before that, she was mayor and a member of City Council in Wasilla, a small Alaskan town. She reportedly served with distinction, but she has not served long.

"Reportedly served with distinction"? No attempt at denigration, there.

Obama's selection answers his critics over his "alleged shortcomings in experience." With Palin, McCain's campaign "is making a calculated gamble that she will be as much help as hindrance."

Actually, Palin's selection answers the critics as well, especially when it comes to McCain's age and his lack of appeal among the conservative base. Biden's selection is truly a calculated gamble in that his penchant for 'opening mouth and inserting foot' could seriously hamper the Obama campaign. Biden's own words, used strategically by the McCain campaign, are not complimentary to Obama and picking someone who made such comments is more of a gamble than Palin. And with Obama's claim for 'change,' picking someone who represents the status quo and business as usual in Washington, certainly qualifies as being 'as much help as hindrance.'

News stories should be objective and fair. If you're going to do a straight story on the selection of the Democrat VP, you should do the same for the Republican VP. If you're going to get opposing commentary on the Republican VP, you should do so with the Democrat VP. That's what's missing in our local coverage of the news of the selections.

In the editorials, you expect a bias. They are designed to be opinion with persuasive words. However, the intellectual honesty is missing. The criteria for opinion isn't the same. You cannot honestly call one selection a gamble while failing to acknowledge that the description applies to both campaign decisions.

You cannot honestly emphasize one person's experience level while calling the other's inexperience 'alleged.' At least with the Republican ticket, the experience is at the top of the ticket, where it belongs, rather than in the second place.

If Biden can make a pitch to blue-collar voters, shouldn't the same be true of Palin, who was a union member and is married to one? Biden's never been in a union, but that's not ever pointed out. If you're going to compare the two choices fairly so you can make a good decision, knowing these things is critical.

Even if you are trying to persuade people that one choice is better than the other, the most effective way to do so is to be honest about their backgrounds, experience and policy - and then demonstrate why one is better than the other. To leave out key information opens you up to criticism that you are only telling others what you want them to know.

And that's the difference. I've tried to follow the rule that if you give people all the information and present them with facts, they'll agree with your conclusion - if you've made good one. I've always been comfortable in arguing a point, not just because I believe it to be correct, but also because I believe most people with all the data will agree that it is correct. Unfortunately, that doesn't happen much in the MSM - and it's certainly an anomaly in Toledo.

If you're hiring a team to do a job for you, you'd first examine the job description and decide on the skills necessary to perform the tasks and duties. You'd take a look at the experience in doing those tasks and you'd make a decision. Electing a president and vice president - or any other office holder, for that matter - is no different.

The key is to be honest with yourself while doing so. It's okay to pick the less-qualified candidate because you think they're a better fit. But don't claim they're less-qualified when you do so.


Tim Higgins said...


It's hard to argue with someone with Journalism in he background (something that we have to wonder about with some of the Blade writers, editors, & owners).

Thanks for the considered analysis on the two portrayals. I don't expect that we will be able to expect anything different from the Blade going forward; but as the numbers show, a dwindling number of people use Mr. Block's bully pulpit as a primary source of information anyway.

Hooda Thunkit said...


"While editorials are clearly opinion - and every paper has one..."

There's also something else that every paper has, just like the human body and, in "The Blah's" case, at least one more in control of the editorial page...

Let's understand and leave it at that ;-)

Carol said...

I have always felt that to concentrate on one's shortcomings instead of their accomplishments is a counter-productive measure.

I choose my candidates by their successes and their platform. Not by the amount of mud they can sling.

But ---- if there was no mud flying there are many that would not even bother to be involved.


Tim Higgins said...


The more I think about this, the more I realize that the Blade should in fact be congratulated. I would have thought that it would be difficult to perform "agenda based" reporting on every subject. The Blade somehow seems to manage.

"Consistency is the Hallmark of greatness."

Kelton said...

As a Libertarian, I see little difference between McCain and Obama and don't really have a preference for either side winning: therefore I think I am quite neutral on this issue.

But I must say that news coverage of McCain's VP choice in Palin is quite slanted, biased and grasping for scandal. The first time I heard McCain's choice, I started to shake my head and wonder why in the world McCain chose a "former mayor of a small town in Alaska" and a "beauty pageant contestant" It wasn't until hearing several news stories later that I even learned she was also the current governor of Alaska!

This whole controversy surrounding a teenage daughter is, I believe, unprecedented and has all the workings of a low smear campaign, not respectable journalism.

I thought biased and harmful coverage like this by the mainstream media was reserved for Libertarian Candidates, not major-party candidates!

Yes, McCain has my sympathy, but no, I am not going to vote for McCain, just share an observation.

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