Conservatives claim bias in coverage of Obama trip

The right is complaining about plans for the three big network anchors to accompany Barack Obama abroad, saying this shows a pro-Obama bias; as usual, there's a simpler explanation.

Published July 17, 2008 11:26PM (EDT)

Barack Obama hasn't even left the country yet, but conservatives are already claiming that the media coverage of his trip to Europe, Iraq and Afghanistan is biased in his favor.

They're pointing to an article in Thursday's New York Times that reports on the plans for anchors from the three major networks to accompany Obama for parts of his tour, and an imbalance in the amount of coverage given to Obama compared to rival John McCain.

"[W]ith Obama embarking on his world tour, all three broadcast networks will have their anchors trailing him, apparently hoping to record every bon mot that escapes from his lips," Ed Morrissey wrote in a post at Hot Air. "When was the last time we saw any network anchor doing a remote, let alone all three at the same time? ... This is nothing more than the media fawning over Obama, and looking to give him as much earned media as they can. Their pretense of objective reporting has been ripped away, and the media looks like little more than groupies vying for the attention of a pop star, hoping that some of his popularity rubs off on them."

(For the record, the last time we saw an anchor doing a remote was last month, when Brian Williams was in Afghanistan.)

Brent Bozell, the president of the Media Research Center, a conservative media watchdog, released a statement that read, in part:

The liberal media's shameless slavishness to Sen. Barack Obama knows no bounds... The liberal media obviously cannot help themselves. They are already neck-deep in the tank for Sen. Obama, yet they have made the decision that still there just hasn’t been enough loving coverage of him. So the Big Three networks all determined that the remedy would be to go on the road for live daily on-air massages.

This trip with Sen. Obama must be like the Grateful Dead, the Rolling Stones and the Beatles all rolled into one for the liberal media. For all three nightly news anchors to get to go on the road with him must be a dream come true.

Along with the statement was a release from the MRC, which complained, "Arizona Senator John McCain has made three trips overseas since March. No anchor has travelled with him on any of them and they provided little if any coverage of any of them."

As so often happens, the critics in this case are jumping to conclusions about bias without pausing to consider simpler explanations. For example: one of the three trips McCain made was to Canada. Another was to Colombia. That's not the kind of thing that gets viewers. Yes, McCain's other trip was to Iraq, but it came during March of this year, after he had already become his party's presumptive nominee, and while Obama and Hillary Clinton were still battling. The Democratic primary remained the story that viewers cared most about, and McCain was just not going to get much coverage while that continued.

As for the amount of attention given Obama, there are a few good explanations for that as well. As one network executive explained in the Times' story, by focusing as much attention on it as they have, and pressing for it in the first place, the Republicans are partially responsible for making Obama's trip as big of a story as it is. Additionally, there's the good, old-fashioned profit motive to think of. Media gossip blog Gawker did a good job of explaining that in a post on Thursday, pointing to how well magazines with Obama on the cover have sold as evidence of why the networks care so much about this -- simply put, they want the ratings. And finally, it's the middle of July, a down time for news in general, and reporters are looking for something to talk about. This story will provide the networks with some excitement and will come with good images from the countries visited; having compelling footage is always important in determining what gets covered on television.

Update: Just saw that at Newsweek's Stumper blog, Holly Bailey wrote about another important distinction between the two candidates' visits to Iraq, this one stemming in part from the fact that McCain's most recent trip was official Senate travel:

In what could be interpreted now as a possible strategic misstep, the McCain campaign chose not to take reporters along for the ride, forcing media outlets who wanted to cover the newly elected GOP nominee to travel on their own without any guarantee of getting anywhere near the senator. The small group of scribes who made the trek (Newsweek chose not to) faced a logistical nightmare, from arranging last-minute foreign visas to struggling to keep up with McCain as they flew commercially from stop to stop...

McCain was on official Senate travel, and aides rightly worried about an onslaught of stories questioning whether he was improperly using his Senate office to benefit his presidential campaign. It was also a campaign in transition, and they worried they didn't have the manpower logistically to handle a large press corps on an overseas swing.

By Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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