The Media Research Center has just released a comprehensive study of the broadcast networks coverage of Barack Obama since he arrived on the national stage just four years ago. The bottom line: TV reporters adored Obama, and the celebratory coverage of the “rock star” candidate provided him with a huge advantage and almost certainly the margin of victory in the extremely close Democratic race. The Washington Post’s Howard Kurtz has an item about our study posted here.
We looked at 1,365 network news stories from the ABC, CBS and NBC evening newscasts through Clinton’s exit from the Democratic race in early June. Here are the key findings:
- The three broadcast networks treated Obama to nearly seven times more good press than bad — 462 positive stories (34% of the total), compared with only 70 stories (just 5%) that were critical.
- NBC Nightly News was the most lopsided, with 179 pro-Obama reports (37%), more than ten times the number of anti-Obama stories (17, or 3%). The CBS Evening News was nearly as skewed, with 156 stories spun in favor of Obama (38%), compared to a mere 21 anti-Obama reports (5%). ABC's World News was the least slanted, but still tilted roughly four-to-one in Obama's favor (127 stories to 32, or 27% to 7%).
- Barack Obama received his best press when it mattered most, as he debuted on the national scene. All of the networks lavished him with praise when he was keynote speaker at the 2004 Democratic Convention, and did not produce a single negative story about Obama (out of 81 total reports) prior to the start of his presidential campaign in early 2007.
- The networks downplayed or ignored major Obama gaffes and scandals. Obama's relationship with convicted influence peddler Tony Rezko was the subject of only two full reports (one each on ABC and NBC) and mentioned in just 15 other stories. CBS and NBC also initially downplayed controversial statements from Obama's longtime pastor Jeremiah Wright, but heavily praised Obama's March 18 speech on race relations.
- While Obama's worst media coverage came during the weeks leading up to the Pennsylvania primary on April 22, even then the networks offered two positive stories for every one that carried a negative spin (21% to 9%). Obama's best press of the year came after he won the North Carolina primary on May 6 — after that, 43 percent of stories were favorable to Obama, compared to just one percent that were critical.
- The networks minimized Obama's liberal ideology, only referring to him as a "liberal" 14 times in four years. In contrast, reporters found twice as many occasions (29) to refer to Obama as either a "rock star," "rising star" or "superstar" during the same period.
- In covering the campaign, network reporters highlighted voters who offered favorable opinions about Obama. Of 147 average citizens who expressed an on-camera opinion about Obama, 114 (78%) were pro-Obama, compared to just 28 (19%) that had a negative view, with the remaining five offering a mixed opinion.
Perhaps if he had faced serious journalistic scrutiny instead of media cheerleading, Barack Obama might still have won his party's nomination. But the tremendously positive coverage that the networks bestowed upon his campaign was of incalculable value. The early celebrity coverage helped make Obama a nationally-known figure with a near-perfect media image. The protectiveness that reporters showed during the early primaries made it difficult for his rivals to effectively criticize him. And when it came to controversies such as the Wright affair, network reporters acted more as defenders than as journalists in an adversarial relationship. If the media did not actually win the Democratic nomination for Barack Obama, they surely made it a whole lot easier.
At the very least, Obama ought to at least thank the press corps next week when he gives his acceptance speech.