Sunday, August 17, 2008

Count Deborah

In an exceedingly silly column, this week the Washington Post's Deborah Howell works on her counting. Through simple arithmetic -- "Democrat Barack Obama has had about a 3 to 1 advantage over Republican John McCain in Post Page 1 stories since Obama became his party's presumptive nominee June 4" -- Howell proves that the press loves Obama. Or something.

Howell spends ninety percent of her column variously slicing and dicing the Post's coverage of the presidential race in vain search of a valid objective measure, but in the end she undercuts the entire project by quoting a less obsessive colleague:

Bill Hamilton, assistant managing editor for politics, thinks that I'm wrong to put weight on numbers. "We make our own decisions about what we consider newsworthy. We are not garment workers measuring our product every day to fulfill somebody's quota. That means as editors we decide what we think is important, because that's what our readers look for us to do -- not to adhere to some arbitrary standard.

"The nomination of the first African American presidential nominee after a bitter primary campaign and his efforts to unite a party afterward were simply more newsworthy than a candidate whose nomination was already assured and who spent much of that time raising money. In the end, we can and should be judged on the fairness of our coverage, but that is a judgment that must be made over the course of the whole campaign, not a single period of time."
"[S]omebody's quota"! Oooh, snap! Take that, critics!

But as Frank Rich suggests this morning over at the NY Times, maybe a quota system would break the Bill Hamiltons of the press corps out of their comfort zone on "what we think is important" and "newsworthy" about St. John McCain:
So why isn’t Obama romping? The obvious answer — and both the excessively genteel Obama campaign and a too-compliant press bear responsibility for it — is that the public doesn’t know who on earth John McCain is. The most revealing poll this month by far is the Pew Research Center survey finding that 48 percent of Americans feel they're "hearing too much" about Obama. Pew found that only 26 percent feel that way about McCain, and that nearly 4 in 10 Americans feel they hear too little about him. It's past time for that pressing educational need to be met.

What is widely known is the skin-deep, out-of-date McCain image. As this fairy tale has it, the hero who survived the Hanoi Hilton has stood up as rebelliously in Washington as he did to his Vietnamese captors. He strenuously opposed the execution of the Iraq war; he slammed the president's response to Katrina; he fought the "agents of intolerance" of the religious right; he crusaded against the G.O.P. House leader Tom DeLay, the criminal lobbyist Jack Abramoff and their coterie of influence-peddlers.

With the exception of McCain’s imprisonment in Vietnam, every aspect of this profile in courage is inaccurate or defunct.
Contrary to the implication of Howell's column, no news has been very good news for the McCain camp. McCain wins even when he loses.

Go figure.