Politico Acknowledges Media Favor Obama, But 'Ideological Favoritism' Is 'Nil'

John F. Harris and Jim VandeHei were important players on The Washington Post’s political team when they left to start The Politico newspaper and website. But they don’t think that most "mainstream" reporters are liberals or partisans. Now they’ve written an article provocatively titled "Why McCain Is Getting Hosed by the Press," noting their own mothers think the media’s in the tank for Obama.

Harris and VandeHei declared: "OK, let’s just get this over with: Yes, in the closing weeks of this election, John McCain and Sarah Palin are getting hosed in the press, and at Politico." But to critics, they can only say: "our sincere answer is that of the factors driving coverage of this election -- and making it less enjoyable for McCain to read his daily clip file than for Obama -- ideological favoritism ranks virtually nil."

They proclaimed that reporters are far too professional to let their personality show:

The main reason is that for most journalists, professional obligations trump personal preferences. Most political reporters (investigative journalists tend to have a different psychological makeup) are temperamentally inclined to see multiple sides of a story, and being detached from their own opinions comes relatively easy.

This idea of Harris or VandeHei being "detached from their own opinions" has been challenged by their actual television appearances in this cycle. Harris just recently declared after the vice presidential debate on PBS that Joe Biden cleaned Sarah Palin's clock, that he was more substantive and spontaneous, while Palin was "hanging on for dear life." (He repeats that line in this article, so he's hardly detached from it.) VandeHei is easily remembered for one of the ugliest questions in the Republican primary debates in 2007, selecting an Internet quiestion and hurling it at Mitt Romney: "What do you dislike most about America?"  

Reporters are centrists, they claimed, although they’ll overwhelmingly favor liberal Obama at the ballot box: "And, yes, based on a combined 35 years in the news business we’d take an educated guess – nothing so scientific as a Pew study – that Obama will win the votes of probably 80 percent or more of journalists covering the 2008 election. Most political journalists we know are centrists – instinctually skeptical of ideological zealotry – but with at least a mild liberal tilt to their thinking, particularly on social issues. So what?"

Harris and VandeHei dragged out the hoary old claim that reporters are more obsessed about process and polls than making the world safe for liberalism, but then they devastate their own argument in looking at what’s happened to McCain:

One is McCain backlash. The Republican once was the best evidence of how little ideology matters. Even during his "maverick" days, McCain was a consistent social conservative, with views on abortion and other cultural issues that would have been odds with those of most reporters we know. Yet he won swooning coverage for a decade from reporters who liked his accessibility and iconoclasm and supposed commitment to clean politics.

Now he is paying. McCain’s decision to limit media access and align himself with the GOP conservative base was an entirely routine, strategic move for a presidential candidate. But much of the coverage has portrayed this as though it were an unconscionable sellout.

Since then the media often presumes bad faith on McCain’s part. The best evidence of this has been the intense focus on the negative nature of his ads, when it is clear Obama has been similarly negative in spots he airs on radio and in swing states.

How does this reaction in any way square with the notion that reporters don’t care about ideology? Then the writers added that while they don’t think reporters are rooting for Obama, they do think his race is an advantage, but not an ideological advantage:

But he has benefited from the idea that negative attacks that in a normal campaign would be commonplace in this year would carry an out-of-bounds racial subtext. That’s why Obama’s long association with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright was basically a nonissue in the general election.

Journalists’ hair-trigger racial sensitivity may have been misplaced, but it was not driven by an ideological tilt.

This argument is just bizarre. Reverend Wright was not merely a racial figure. He was a rabidly ideological figure who charged in sermons that murdering 3,000 Americans on September 11 was just the "chickens coming home to roost" for American terrorism, and a figure making wild racial conspiracy theories like the U.S. government inventing the AIDS virus to kill off black people. Ignoring Wright does not show a "hair-trigger racial sensitivity." It shows that a liberal press corps doesn’t want the concept of patriotism to be an issue. They think it is a phony issue, and they also think that if it was an issue, that McCain’s sacrifice for his country dramatically outweighs Obama’s.

The most tiring argument is the "momentum bias" argument, that it’s odd to expect the press to report that the McCain campaign is going great when the polls are all against it. But that argument neglects that the polls in some respects reflect months and months of pro-Obama bias. Reporters are expected to challenge both candidates, not simply the one who’s behind, which the writers acknowledged:

A couple weeks back, Politico managing editor Bill Nichols sent out a note to the campaign team urging people to cough up more story ideas that took a skeptical look at the campaign tactics and policy proposals of the Democrat, who is likely to be president three months from now. As it happened, the response was a trickle.

This doesn't sound like a staff full of reporters that are detached from their own liberal opinions.

Tim Graham
Tim Graham
Tim Graham is Executive Editor of NewsBusters and is the Media Research Center’s Director of Media Analysis