For Senator McCain, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, crying foul on the news media represents a double-edged sword. On the plus side, he plays into the longstanding narrative that asserts reporters are rooting for Obama, the likely Democratic nominee, to win in November. Hillary Rodham Clinton played that card during the primaries, to some effect, but ultimately unsuccessfully.
A recent Rasmussen Reports poll backs up McCain, reporting a growing portion of likely voters see a bias toward Obama – now 49 percent, up from 44 percent a month ago. Only 14 percent believe reporters favor McCain. And the poll was taken before the McCain campaign complained publicly that the The New York Times had rejected an Op-Ed by the senator that responded to an Obama Op-Ed in the Times.
"Typically, complaining about the media is one of the steps on the 12-step program to losing," says Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Washington-based Project for Excellence in Journalism, which analyzes media coverage of the campaign. "When you're ahead, you don't complain about the press coverage, even if you think they only cover the gaffes and never the substance."
Still, he notes, it's early in the general election campaign, and McCain is trailing Obama by only a few points in the polls – outperforming his party's ravaged image. And, say others, there are good reasons for McCain to allege media bias.
"What you have here is a preemptive strike, a traditional tactic of politicians," says David Paletz, a political scientist at Duke University. "If you complain enough about media bias, journalists to some extent internalize it and think we have to be as tough, or maybe we're not being as tough on Obama as we are on McCain."
That's not to say there really is a bias on the part of news reporters, he says. The first question is, what does one mean by "the media?" Cable TV channels devoted to politics, such as MSNBC and Fox, may display biases, but those are more forums for opinion, rather than straight news outlets. When voters tell pollsters they see bias in "the media," it's not clear which sources of coverage they're reacting to. And Obama has contended with plenty of negative coverage – from the flap over his former minister, Jeremiah Wright, to his comment about "bitter" voters, to the mini-tempest over his not wearing an American flag pin (which he now wears).
In the contest for quantity of coverage, Obama is winning hands down. The Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ) conducts a weekly news index, surveying more than 300 newspaper, magazine, and TV stories, and has found that in the six weeks since the general campaign began, Obama has had significantly more exposure than McCain. Last week, Obama was found to be a "significant presence" in 83 percent of campaign coverage, versus 52 percent for McCain.
But, as Obama has learned, quantity isn't always a good thing. When the Reverend Wright matter flared, the Clinton campaign was more than happy to step aside and remain out of the headlines. Defenders of media coverage argue that Obama is the fresh new face on the political scene – and a historic one at that, given his mixed-race identity – and less known to the public than McCain, who has been in the public eye for decades. McCain himself boosted anticipation toward this week's Obama trip to the Middle East and Europe by posting a running tally on his website showing how long it had been since Obama last visited Iraq. McCain has visited Iraq eight times; on his last visit, in March, he was not accompanied by the anchors of the three major TV news broadcasts, as Obama has been.
For Obama, this week's trip poses risks, and not just to his security. If he commits a gaffe, all the world is watching – and if it's big enough, it could sink his campaign. So far, he's been gaffe-free, and so his image as a potential commander in chief could get a boost.
"The press coverage of his trip to the Middle East looks a great deal like the coverage of an incumbent president on a major world tour that has serious policy implications for the world," says Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center. "There's an area in which you can legitimately offer a critique."