For a brief period last week, earnest members of my chosen profession, the press, did a little soul-searching and asked if we have been, and are, biased against Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.
The conclusion: Of course, we are. Any journalist who denies this fact is unable to recognize objectivity if it were branded on his eyeballs.
I am not referring to opinion writers, who are expected to bring their personal perspectives and slants to issues and events. I am talking about editors and reporters charged with delivering a product the public can trust as truth and fairness. (For the record, though, most pundits, conservatives and liberals, also show bias against Clinton.) If Clinton had not raised the issue and if “Saturday Night Live” had not spoofed journalists for fawning over Sen. Barack Obama, like puppies licking their owners’ mouths, the charge of bias probably would have remained a mere wink-and-nod charade.
The charge of bias picked up more credence when Clinton fund-raiser Walter Shorenstein, founder of the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University, sent a memo to Democratic Party superdelegates criticizing media coverage of Clinton and Obama.
Shorenstein wrote: “The stakes are so high — for our security, our economy, our health care, our future and our country. … Is it in the country’s best interest that voters received far more information about Hillary’s laugh than Obama’s legislative record?” Several independent watchdog organizations, including Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting and the Center for Media and Public Affairs, have documented persistent and widespread bias against Clinton and in favor of Obama.
The Center for Media and Public Affairs reported that since mid-December, when the Iowa caucuses came into play, Obama has received the lion’s share of the positive coverage: “From Dec. 16 through Jan. 27, five out of six on-air evaluations of Obama (84 percent) have been favorable, compared to a bare majority (51 percent) of evaluations of Mrs. Clinton. The gap in good press widened since the New Hampshire primary, with Clinton dropping to 47 percent positive comments and Obama holding steady at 83 percent positive.
“NBC’s coverage has been the most critical of Clinton — nearly 2 to 1 negative (36 percent positive and to 64 percent negative). Conversely, ABC’s coverage was most supportive — nearly 2 to 1 positive (63 percent vs. 37 percent). CBS and Fox were more balanced — 50 percent positive comments on Fox and 56 percent positive on CBS.”
The Pew Research Center found a sharp difference in tone between coverage of Clinton and Obama. Here, I also must address the pundits. Most, left and right, have been unfriendly to Clinton, some writing her obit and others advising her to fold up her tent. Obama, on the other hand, has been treated like the Second Coming.
If you do not believe me, go back and reread your newspapers and magazines. Order transcripts of your network nightly news and read them. I guarantee that you will hear a lot of Clinton-bashing and a whole lot of Obama-serenading.
The most surprising finding, at least to me, was the pervasive bias in coverage of the two candidates’ foreign policy. “When it comes to foreign-policy coverage — perhaps the most important issue in the coming election,” Shorenstein wrote in his memo, “the media monitoring group, Media Tenor, found that there was not a single positive story about Hillary Clinton and foreign policy in the month of February.” If we only had anecdotal evidence, I would be willing to question, or even dismiss, claims of media bias against Clinton. But each watchdog group conducted content analyses and crunched the numbers.
When I conducted my own analysis, I found that real or perceived bad news about Clinton earned front-page placement more often than for Obama. Rarely have I seen a story about Obama’s influence-peddling pal from Chicago, Tony Rezko, on the front page. Nor have I seen much on the front page about Obama’s linguistic sleight of hand with NAFTA and the Canadians.
Am I making a mountain out of a molehill? I do not think so. Journalism is important to me. It is my profession. And I agree with Shorenstein: “Our democracy depends upon the Fourth Estate (journalism) to fulfill the uniquely critical role of informing voters about the important issues facing our nation — yet far too often, the campaign coverage has been biased, blase or baseless.”
With its coverage of the Clinton-Obama campaign, the Fourth Estate has failed miserably.
(Bill Maxwell is a columnist and editorial writer for the St. Petersburg Times. E-mail maxwell(at)sptimes.com.)