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Sunday, October 26, 2008

Russians say U.S. media is biased towards Obama-Biden

Further to a conversation in the comment section here, I started doing a bit of searching to see if my gut feeling of media coverage of the election is at all accurate. While it's always hard to tell, especially given confirmation bias, some of us are getting the sense that media coverage of the Barack Obama campaign is more sympathetic than media coverage of the John McCain campaign.

There's at least one, admittedly dubious, study that purports to demonstrate a consistent media bias in favour of Obama. It comes to us from Russia's central elections committee which have assigned its Centre for the study of election technology to look at the U.S. election. Via the National Post:

A preliminary report prepared by the group, after studying U. S. media coverage on the NBC, CBS and ABC television networks since September, has concluded Barack Obama, the Democratic presidential candidate, has a "hidden advantage."

A preliminary report obtained by the Russian daily online newspaper Kommersant concludes the U. S. television networks devoted more time to Republican candidate John McCain, but "the material that makes up that time difference can be assessed as negative."

The Russian study also said Sarah Palin, the Republican vice-presidential pick, has been subjected to more criticism than her Democratic counterpart, Senator Joe Biden.

It adds that when the presidential candidates' platforms are described, Mr. Obama's is described last, to make it look better, and when platforms are compared, "Obama's is presented preferable."

The observations appear to ape western criticisms of Russia's elections in which international observers have complained Russia's television networks are overwhelmingly pro-Kremlin and offer unbalanced and unfair coverage of opposition candidates.

I'm not sure what to make of this, exactly. While NBC, CBS and ABC are news powerhouses in the U.S., their market share has been slipping, and has occasionally been eclipsed by Fox News alone (I'm looking for more recent TV viewership numbers. If you can find them, please drop a note in the comments). And since Fox News gives the McCain camp almost purely positive coverage, I wonder if not more Americans get positive McCain coverage versus positive Obama coverage (it doesn't matter that ABC, CBS, and NBC gives Obama more love if fewer people are watching them than are watching Fox).

Secondly, the radio market is dominated by conservative talk show hosts. Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, and Mark Levin own the radio dials in the U.S. That, too, matters.

Meanwhile, newspapers across the country seem much more favourable to Obama, especially when you consider the editorial endorsements as presented on this nifty map:


This newspaper map is precisely the kind of analysis that I'd like to see across news media formats, from radio to newspapers to television, to get a better sense of where most people get their news coverage from, and what candidate tends to be preferred by that outlet.

If you have more insight, drop it in the comments. And if you have your own gut feelings about this, express that in the comments as well.

Posted by P.M. Jaworski on October 26, 2008 in U.S. politics | Permalink


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Makes sense. Why wouldn't a bought and paid for media promote the marxist values of those who bought and paid for them? Obama will drag us into the poorhouse through an even deeper socialism and McCain will drag us into the poorhouse with an ongoing policy of foreign intervention that no one can afford...we're screwed either way.

Posted by: JC | 2008-10-26 12:51:37 PM


One of the biggest problems with the question of trying to measure media bias is there is no natural split in how much coverage the candidates should get and no natural split as to how positive or negative it should be. The reporting of measures of media bias often assumes (or implies) that anything other than 50-50 coverage of the campaigns or anything other than the same percentage of positive-negative coverage for both sides must be bias. But that is just not true.

Suppose in a hypothetical election one candidate running for President had never been accused of illegal or unethical conduct, never associated with questionable people, never made campaign promises he did not keep, never cheated on his wife, never said anything rude or insulting about anyone, etc. Now suppose the other not only had done all those things, but did them during the campaign. To expect the media to give the same amout of coverage time to both and to report as positively/negatively about both is absurd. Of course there should be more reporting of the faults of the second candidate and of course the reporting for that guy should be more negative because that's where the unbiased facts lead us.

In real elections, the questions of what is relevant and how relevant it is are ones that seem to have different answers based on one's partisan leanings. Kool-Ade-drinking Republicans probably think that not enough have been said in the media about William Ayers and what has been said has not been critical enough. Kool-Ade-drinking Democrats probably think too much time has been given to Ayers and the reporting has been too critical of Obama. The Kool-Ade-drinkers of both sides probably will not agree about how much time should be given to much of any topic nor about how positive/negative the tone should be. In the end, the Kool-Ade-drinkers will, no doubt, think that what is "fair and balanced" reporting looks either like an episode of "The O'Reilly Factor" or "Countdown with Keith Olbermann", depending on whether it is red-state raspberry or blue-state blueberry Kool-Ade.

So with that problem, looking for a 50-50 split or the same rates of postive-negative reporting is the closest to an objective standard that can be found, even if it is not at all what objective reporting would really look like. It's too bad we can't put a group of red-state raspberry and blue-state blueberry Kool-Ade-drinkers under a veil of ignorance where we could tell them the news choices without them knowing if the story was about the Republican or the Democrat and get them to decide whether it was real news and how big a deal it was. Short of that, it is hard to establish to any Kool-Ade-drinker's satisfaction that they are not the victims of media bias. My bet, though, is that those behind the veil would say that Obama's "association" with Ayers is about as big a deal to the election as McCain's "involvement" in the Keating Five (which is to say, not much of a big deal), but that the State legislature of Alaska finding that Sarah Palin was guilty of an "unlawful abuse of power" is a pretty big deal.

But the truth is that the flaws of those you already don't like always seem bigger than they are and the flaws of those you already like always tend to seem smaller than they are, so any agreement on what a fully fair and impartial media would do are almost impossible to settle. Although I'm pretty confident that it would look nothing at all like an O'Reilly or Olbermann show.

Posted by: Fact Check | 2008-10-26 1:05:02 PM

I'm in agreement, Fact Check.

I also think that the media is driven by ratings much more than most people are willing to admit. The media is in business to make money. Their decisions may be influenced by their preferences, but that influence is probably overshadowed by their desire to beat the other guys in market share, and to go home with a fatter wallet.

I find it strange that people infer, from a negative or positive portrayal of their loved/hated candidate, that an outlet likes or dislikes someone. Often, it has little to nothing to do with their personal beliefs, opinions, or preferences. Often, they report whatever they think will generate buzz. That's why I've been busy poring over Palin-related stuff, and mostly ignore Biden. No one cares about Biden. No one. But everyone seems keen on the latest Palin-related intrigue. So I post about it, even though, of all four candidates, I like Palin the most.

There are probably a few different ways to mark media bias, however, ways that are more-or-less not open to the kind of objections that we can level. For example, I like the use of which candidate's platform you mention first as a good indicator. The order of platform portrayal has an influence, it's the reason good polling firms rotate mentions of candidates from one home to the next. The media should do something similar in their coverage of platforms.

But others are more slippery.

Since newspapers actually endorse candidates, that's sort of a good way to get a sense of who the staff prefers. Since we know that personal preferences will influence coverage somewhat, we can sort of guess that papers that endorse Obama will have a (defeasible) tendency to give nicer coverage to Obama, especially in borderline cases (is Ayers news? If it's up in the air, and we don't know for sure, we'll just not cover it if we like Obama).

Posted by: P.M. Jaworski | 2008-10-26 1:19:16 PM


I agree with all that (except your mystifying admiration for Palin). In the days when TV news was done as a public service and not supposed to generate a profit, it would be easier to infect broadcasts with bias without suffering the consequences of the market. But today, that just won't work. While biases in any one particular news outlet can survive in a market-based news system, the market will decide how much of any one bias it can support. There are only a limited number of people who want shows like O'Reilly or Olbermann provide, so if too many of them are put on the air, some will die a natural death.

What this means, then, is if some people think there is a broad liberal media bias, that can only be the case if there are many more liberals interested in news, and probably because there just are many more liberals in general. In a market-based media, the biases of the broadcasters will accurately reflect the biases of the public. Whether that is good or bad, it is inevitable.

Posted by: Fact Check | 2008-10-26 3:31:09 PM

LOL...are you seriously wondering if there is a media bias towards Obama? Come on...check out all the Palin bashing, her "wardrobe" etc., and the lack of questioning of Biden's comments, and lack of investigations into Obama's history and associates.

I'm willing to bet that the american public is tiring of this bias (including the great Obama's tossing aside of any media outlets that dare ask tough questions)and will end up electing McCain in November. It is becoming very clear that if you dare to cross Barry Hussein Obama that Obamanation will make you pay the price, and it will be his undoing.

Posted by: Markalta | 2008-10-26 5:02:20 PM

Markalta: I don't doubt that there is a media bias in favour of Obama on NBC, ABC and CBS. But it doesn't matter if Fox News pulls in better news ratings than all three combined. It doesn't matter because what does matter is the reach, not the content.

And no one is going to dispute that Fox News is biased in favour of McCain, they are. I also brought up talk radio and newspapers. But, again, what matters is reach and market share.

Posted by: P.M. Jaworski | 2008-10-26 5:11:47 PM


The same people who are saying that the wardrobe business is a non-issue are generally the same ones who said that John Edwards $400 haircut was a real issue, and vice versa.

Yes, the Obama campaign cut off access to a TV station for an interview they did not like (albeit only to the Biden's wife - not exactly a big political "get"). But it was the McCain campaign that initially said no media could interview Palin unless they were "deferential" (their word). So there is no real difference here either.

"... Barry Hussein Obama ...." 'nuff said. BTW, you have some raspberry drink dribbling down your chin.

Posted by: Fact Check | 2008-10-26 5:26:18 PM

I will give you the fact that Fox leans towards McCain, however at least they always put on both sides of the case, unlike all the newspapers, and other MSM which just gush over Barry O. and ignore his and Joe Biden's blunders.

Let's not forget that the whole world wants Obama to win...which makes me think that stubborn americans of conservative and independent means might just vote for McCain to spite those Euroweenies and the rest of the world...of course I may just be projecting my own thinking. :)

Posted by: Markalta | 2008-10-26 5:28:41 PM

You don't like hearing Obama's middle name FC? Are you prejudiced or something? You disappoint me.

The difference between a $400 haircut and Palin's wardrobe is a matter of 1) the haircut shows that Edwards is a rich hypocrite (ok, maybe the hypocrite part comes from something else) 2) Palin didn't pay for the wardrobe.

So why not compare Obama spending $140,000 for Greek pillars, and the RNC supplying their candidate with clothing? At least that is a closer comparison considering that both are part of political packaging.

Posted by: Markalta | 2008-10-26 5:34:30 PM

Hey PM.
What happened to the post on Obama's inelligibility?

Posted by: JC | 2008-10-26 5:43:15 PM

JC: It's saved as a draft at the moment. Further digging showed that the judge had thrown the case out, so I'm not sure if it's interesting at the moment. Let me do some more due diligence, and then it might pop up again.

Posted by: P.M. Jaworski | 2008-10-26 5:49:24 PM

I checked it with Snopes...seems contradictory.
Good luck and Thanks

Posted by: JC | 2008-10-26 7:42:05 PM


"To expect the media to give the same amout of coverage time to both and to report as positively/negatively about both is absurd."

What is absurd is not recognizing the blatant political agenda of the mainstream media which has been known by the majority of American citizens for decades.

We knew Joe The Plumbers personal information within 2 days of his merely asking a question that found Comrade Barack in an unguarded moment yet, it has taken 2 years and he has still not been vetted.

Perhaps, your Braille keyboard needs to be replaced.

Posted by: Winghunter | 2008-10-31 10:04:35 AM

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