Media's favoritism of Obama is just bias for a big story

The Baltimore Sun

A respected group of media researchers has found that Sen. Barack Obama gets a lot more coverage than Sen. John McCain. I didn't need a think tank to tell me that. After all, Madonna gets more coverage than Mr. McCain does, too, even when she doesn't want it - although it is hard to imagine when she wouldn't.

Mr. Obama gets more media attention than Mr. McCain because, as we have heard over and over again, he is the rock star of today's political scene. Mr. McCain, by contrast, is an attractive candidate and war hero who is less intriguing precisely because, in a political world where fresh and new have become the highest virtue, we know him so well.

Even liberals who disagree with him politically have a lot of affection for the Arizona senator as a man and a maverick, even when he's been talking a lot less maverick lately. But, running against Mr. Obama, he often brings to mind grumpy ol' Mr. Wilson chasing Dennis the Menace off his lawn.

The public tells us media workers this with their viewing and reading habits. A Time magazine cover with Mr. Obama in 2006 was the second best-selling of the year, and a Men's Vogue cover outsold every issue but the debut, according to The Washington Post. Newsweek has done six covers with Mr. Obama over the past year, two with Mr. McCain. Rolling Stone has given him at least two covers. If they don't know rock stars, who does?

Sure, the coverage helps Mr. Obama, but it also confirms the biggest bias in the media: our hunger for a big story - and the big audience that comes with it.

Mr. McCain, for example, has taken three foreign trips in the past four months. Not one was accompanied by a network anchor. All three network anchors rolled out to cover Mr. Obama's visits to Europe and the Middle East.

That's a continuation of a trend, according to the Project for Excellence in Journalism. Since June 9, when Mr. Obama clinched enough votes for the nomination, the project took a weekly look at 300 political stories in newspapers, magazines and television. In one week, for example, Mr. Obama played an important role in 77 percent of the stories. Only 51 percent featured Mr. McCain.

That troubles Tom Rosenstiel, the project's director. "No matter how understandable it is, given the newness of the candidate and the historical nature of Obama's candidacy," he told the Associated Press, "in the end it's probably not fair to McCain."

Mr. McCain tried to shrug it off. "It is what it is," he said during a news conference at the side of former President George H.W. Bush at the Bush family home in Maine. The former president was more direct. "We're jealous is all," he said, bringing a few laughs. Although conservatives will use this as further evidence of liberal media bias, the bigger lesson for Mr. McCain is to be careful what you ask for. It was Mr. McCain, after all, who taunted Mr. Obama over his failure to visit Iraq in the past two years. Mr. McCain's campaign Web site even displayed a clock ticking off the days since Mr. Obama had last been there. Now the clock has come down and, with a vineyard of sour grapes, the McCain campaign is complaining that Mr. Obama is spending too much time overseas. You just can't please some people.

Cheer up, McCainiacs. I expect my media colleagues to bend over backward to boost their McCain coverage. We saw signs of that when Saturday Night Live lampooned the media swoon over Mr. Obama at Sen. Hillary Clinton's expense - especially after she quoted from it during a Democratic primary debate.

Yet I do not recall her complaining a bit about how the Democratic Party debates consistently drew more TV viewers than the Republican match-ups did.

Besides, in Mr. McCain's case, the undercoverage could be a blessing. Mr. Obama's trip took attention away from the resignation of former Texas Sen. Phil Gramm as Mr. McCain's economic adviser. The old friend became a liability over his comments that we have become a "nation of whiners" about the sluggish economy. It's not good to have an economic adviser who shows the bedside manner of Dr. Jack Kevorkian.

And as the world watched and waited for any slips by Mr. Obama, the first gaffe of his trip went to ... John McCain! In an ABC interview he referred to the rough "situation on the Iraq-Pakistan border." Since the two countries don't share a border, Mr. McCain's foreign affairs expertise suddenly didn't sound so good.

Of course, Mr. Obama has made slips, too. He gave the country "57 states" in one campaign stop. Even when you're hungry for attention, there are some times when you're happy to be overlooked.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears regularly in The Sun. His e-mail is

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