After years of denial, the Times is finally taking allegations of press bias seriously - at least when they're made by a Democrat, Hillary Clinton, who accuses the press of favoritism toward her primary candidate Barack Obama.
In the end, however, media reporter Jacques Steinberg made the dubious case that the press has not been soft on Barack Obama, the more liberal Democratic candidate (and the most liberal Senator, according to a recent National Journal ranking) in "On the Press Bus, Some Soul-Searching Over Accusations of Favoritism."
The Times itself has certainly shown favoritism toward Obama's campaign. A TimesWatch analysis of Times political stories since Thanksgiving found that of stories dealing significantly with Obama,70 were positive and only 16 were negative, a positive-negative ratio of over4-1. By contrast, Hillary Clinton was the subject of only38 positive and60 negative stories, a negative ratio of 3-2 (56 more political storiesfeaturing Hillarywere classified as neutral, as were 65 stories featuring Obama, with much overlap.)
On the bus ferrying a group of reporters to an appearance by Senator Barack Obama at Ohio State University on Wednesday, Lee Cowan, the NBC reporter assigned to the campaign, was asked the media question of the week: Had journalists like himself been going easier on Mr. Obama than his opponent for the Democratic nomination, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton?
"I don't think that it's kind treatment versus unkind treatment," Mr. Cowan began, taking issue with the depiction of journalists fawning over Mr. Obama in a "Saturday Night Live" skit last Saturday, a characterization stoked nearly every day since by Mrs. Clinton and her aides.
And yet, Mr. Cowan then described several advantages that he saw Mr. Obama as having over his rival. "He hasn't been around as long, so there isn't as much to pick at," Mr. Cowan said. "He plays everything very cool. He's not as much of a lightning rod. His personality just doesn't seem to draw that kind of coverage."
"Even in the conversations we have as colleagues, there is a sense of trying especially hard not to drink the Kool-Aid," Mr. Cowan added. "It's so rapturous, everything around him. All these huge rallies."
As the two Democratic candidates shuttled between Ohio and Texas this week before Tuesday's potentially decisive nominating contests, questions over whether reporters were giving each candidate an equally fair shake were thrust into the center of the campaign itself. There were already indications that Mrs. Clinton and her surrogates were finding traction in casting the news media as a conflicted umpire, while also prompting some soul-searching among the reporters themselves.
At the same time, as Mr. Obama racked up a string of victories in recent weeks, Mrs. Clinton has begun appearing more frequently in the press section of her plane for on-the-record conversations. On Valentine's Day, she wandered back to call the girlfriends of several journalists, to apologize for keeping them on the campaign trail.
But to some reporters, those attempts at making nice have come late.
"Part of it is her campaign's fault," Andrea Mitchell, the longtime NBC political correspondent, said backstage at the MSNBC debate in Cleveland in Tuesday. "They started with this notion of inevitability. And they were very arrogant."
Others marshaled clippings indicating that Mr. Obama had been subject to more serious scrutiny than the Clintons would acknowledge. These include articles from Ms. Sweet of The Sun-Times examining Mr. Obama's flights on corporate jets early in his Senate career and the literary license he took on his first memoir. They also noted articles in the Chicago papers (as well as in The Times, and others) about Mr. Obama's relationship with Antoin Rezko, a former fund-raiser soon to be tried on federal charges of fraud and influence peddling.
Which is not to say that there is not much more scouring to be done.
"The number of questions that we don't know the answers to about the relationship between Mr. Rezko and Mr. Obama is staggering," Howard Wolfson, a top aide to Mrs. Clinton, said on a conference call with reporters on Friday.
Still, others have noted that with the exception of a mention by Mr. Russert in Tuesday's debate, Mrs. Clinton has largely escaped serious journalistic vetting over matters like when or whether her campaign will release her tax returns or her calendar from her years as first lady, or detail the origins of the $5 million she has contributed to her own campaign.
Jonathan Alter, the veteran Newsweek columnist who traveled with the Obama campaign to Dallas on Wednesday, said that the attempt by the Clinton camp to weigh various stories represented a kind of "silly, even-Steven-itis."
"People got it into their head that if you say something good about a candidate, you have to say something bad about him, and if you don't, that's not fair," Mr. Alter said. "What the Clinton partisans wanted was for us to create a phony balance that was at odds with what our eyes were telling us. That's not the job of a journalist."
What Steinberg didn't mention was that Alter called for Clinton to withdraw from the race in the latest edition of Newsweek (the online headline to Alter's piece, "Hillary Should Get Out Now," is not loaded with ambiguity), suggesting he has his own personal favorite in the race.