Obama's Margin of Victory: The Media

How Barack Obama Could Not Have Won the Democratic Nomination Without ABC, CBS and NBC


On August 28, when the junior Senator from Illinois accepts his party’s nomination to be the next President of the United States, Barack Obama may wish to spend a few moments thanking network news reporters for making the whole night possible. Since the launch of Obama’s national political career at the Democratic convention four years ago, the Big Three broadcast networks have showered Obama with positive — even glowing — news coverage, protected the candidate from the attacks of his rivals, and shown little interest in investigating Obama’s past associations or exploring the controversies that could have threatened his campaign.

These are the key findings of an exhaustive analysis of ABC, CBS and NBC evening news coverage of Barack Obama — every story, every soundbite, every mention — through the end of the Democratic primaries in June. Media Research Center analysts examined every reference to Obama on the three evening broadcasts, and found a near-absence of the journalistic scrutiny and skepticism normally associated with coverage of national politicians. Indeed, much of the coverage — particularly prior to the formal start of Obama’s presidential campaign in early 2007 — bordered on giddy celebration of a rising political "rock star" rather than objective newsgathering.

That the national media have unfairly tipped the scales in Obama’s direction is a fact not lost on the public. The Pew Research Center surveyed about 1,000 adults in late May, and reported that "far more Americans believe that the press coverage has favored Barack Obama than think it has favored Hillary Clinton," with even 35 percent of Democrats seeing "a pro-Obama bias." A Rasmussen survey of 1,000 likely voters released July 21 discovered "49 percent of voters believe that in the general election, most reporters will try to help Obama with their coverage" while "just one voter in four (24%) believes that most reporters will try to offer unbiased coverage."

TextBox1And a Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll of 900 registered voters released July 24 discovered six times as many think "most members of the media" want Obama to win rather than McCain. According to an article posted on FoxNews.com, "Only about 1 in 10 (11 percent) volunteers the belief that the media is neutral on the race to become the 44th President of the United States....When asked to rate the objectivity of media coverage of the campaigns, Americans feel Obama gets more of a positive spin by a better than 7-to-1 margin (46 percent more positive toward Obama; 6 percent more positive toward McCain)."

The public believes the media are tilted towards Obama because of the biased performance they witnessed during this year’s primaries. NBC News correspondent Lee Cowan, the reporter assigned to cover the Obama campaign full time during the primaries, admitted in an interview in early January that he felt pulled in Obama’s direction: "From a reporter’s point of view, it’s almost hard to remain objective because it’s infectious, the energy, I think. It sort of goes against your core to say that as a reporter, but the crowds have gotten so much bigger, his energy has gotten stronger. He feeds off that."

Weeks later, Cowan told the New York Times’ Jacques Steinberg that it was "hard not to drink the Kool-Aid" surrounding Obama: "Even in the conversations we have as colleagues, there is a sense of trying especially hard not to drink the Kool-Aid. It’s so rapturous, everything around him. All these huge rallies."

2008-02-12-MSNBC-mat2On CNN’s Reliable Sources on January 13, Washington Post media writer Howard Kurtz asked a former Washington Post editor, The Politico’s John Harris, whether he thought "journalists are rooting for the Obama story." Harris referred back to his time at the Post: "A couple years ago, you would send a reporter out with Obama, and it was like they needed to go through detox when they came back — ‘Oh, he’s so impressive, he’s so charismatic,’ and we’re kind of like, ‘Down, boy.’" Anchoring news coverage of Democratic primaries on February 12, MSNBC’s Chris Matthews famously confessed after listening to an Obama victory speech, "I felt this thrill going up my leg. I mean, I don’t have that too often."

To assess the degree to which journalists’ infatuation with Obama contaminated daily news coverage, MRC analysts used our own News Tracking System (NTS) software and Nexis to locate every story mentioning Obama on ABC’s World News, the CBS Evening News and NBC Nightly News from the time Obama emerged on the national stage (the first evening news story mentioning Obama aired on May 17, 2000) through June 6, 2008, the last broadcast before Hillary Clinton formally exited the Democratic race, cementing Obama’s nomination.

Chart1The three evening news broadcasts may not be able to tout the high ratings of a generation ago, but together averaged more than 23 million combined viewers from January through early June of this year, far more than their cable news competitors. And unlike the news junkies who flock to the 24/7 cable outlets, the typical broadcast evening news viewer spends less of their day devouring campaign news, which makes them consequently more likely to be influenced by the information and images they receive from these programs.

Analysts found a total of 1,365 news stories and interviews offering at least some discussion of Obama. About two-fifths of these (550) were full reports that focused exclusively, or nearly so, on Obama. Another 170 items (about 12% of the total) were brief, anchor-read items that also focused on Obama. Just under half of the total (645, or 47%) were full reports or interviews that included either mentions of or soundbites from Obama, but did not focus on him. Examples of stories included in this group are: items about the congressional debate over Iraq in early 2007 which quoted Obama along with many other senators; stories about candidate debates where Obama was one talking head among many; or stories about any of his Democratic (or Republican) rivals which included some comments directed at Obama himself. These stories, about 30 percent of which conveyed a distinctly positive or negative spin about the candidate (more about how we determined a story’s spin shortly), were included in the sample to ensure a complete portrait of network news coverage of Obama.

NBC and ABC aired the most total stories (490 and 464 respectively), with the CBS Evening News a fairly distant third with 411 stories. As far as stories that focused mainly on Obama, ABC (194) and NBC (198) were practically tied, with CBS again lagging (158 stories). The NBC Nightly News aired the most stories with minor discussion of Obama (249), followed by ABC’s World News (222) and CBS (174). The remainder were brief items read by the news anchor; the CBS Evening News — which had a regular "Campaign Notebook" segment of short items — aired the most such stories (74), followed by ABC (48) and NBC (43).

Methodology. For each story, analysts noted the topics discussed (i.e., Obama’s background; positions on policy issues; or his position in the campaign "horse race"), and any soundbites discussing Obama and whether those soundbites conveyed a clearly positive or negative evaluation of Obama. The analysts were also instructed to record the overall "spin" of the story, based on the cumulative information provided in the report and any editorial evaluations made by the reporter or anchor.

Ideally, every straight news report would have a "neutral" spin, with journalists matter-of-factly narrating the key events from the campaign trail and the rival candidates getting roughly equal time to get their points across. But as journalists succumb to the urge to not just report the news but also interpret and analyze it, their commentary frequently imputes a positive or negative spin to the news.

Journalists can provide such direction through their own use of language — on January 6, for example, ABC’s Jake Tapper spoke positively of how Obama "seems to have captured the imagination of independent voters," while on March 7 his colleague David Wright struck the opposite tone, telling viewers that day that "Obama was struggling to recalibrate his message." (Emphasis added.) Alternatively, the reporter can include the opinions of a designated expert or man on the street to contribute an editorial judgment, as CBS reporter Dean Reynolds did in a January 8 piece quoting a New Hampshire voter gushing about Obama: "He’s been able to really bring out the whole young voter core, and really kind of get people excited about getting involved in it."

Analysts reviewing these stories were instructed to look at all of these factors, and then only assign a story a "positive" or "negative" score if the content tilted in one direction by at least a two-to-one margin.

Thus, a score of "positive" was recorded if the total pro-Obama content (support for his policy proposals; positive portrayals of his background and past public service; enthusiastic reaction from the public; and campaign successes such as endorsements and primary victories) outweighed any anti-Obama content (criticism of his policy proposals; negative portrayals of his background and past service; sour reaction from the public; and campaign setbacks) by at least a two-to-one margin. If the negative material outweighed the positive by two-to-one, the item was scored "negative." If the content was largely neutral, or the positive and negative elements were in rough balance, the story was scored as "mixed" or "neutral."

Chart2Spinning for Obama. Using these criteria, more than seven times as many Obama stories (34%) were classified as favoring the candidate, compared to just five percent that reflected a negative spin. (See chart.) The remaining three-fifths of the coverage (61%) was categorized as mixed or neutral — although, as one might expect, more than half of the neutral items were those that only briefly mentioned Obama. Of stories that focused most heavily on Obama, 42 percent conveyed a positive spin, compared to seven percent that conveyed a negative spin. Of stories merely mentioning Obama, 27 percent were positive and four percent negative; more than a third of those brief anchor items (34%) were pro-Obama, with just six percent delivering bad news.

 As the chart at the below shows, the ratio of positive to negative stories is almost exactly the same for all three categories of stories — between six and seven times more good press than bad press. What differs is the percentage of neutral stories, with those stories that offered the least discussion of Obama naturally incorporating the least spin. Thus, the categories are interchangeable as far as measuring the degree of pro- or anti-Obama tilt.

 Chart3All three of the broadcast networks showered Obama with far more positive than negative press. ABC’s World News was the least skewed, although they produced nearly four times more pro-Obama stories than negative pieces. (See chart.) The CBS Evening News tilted more than seven-to-one in Obama’s direction, while Obama was treated to more than ten times as many positive than negative stories on the NBC Nightly News. The significant differences in each network’s coverage indicate that Obama’s good press was not merely the consequence of events (i.e., gaining endorsements or winning primaries), but also the journalistic interpretation of these events. ABC’s reporters covered the same news events as NBC’s journalists, but produced significantly fewer stories that were promotional of Obama — and more critical stories — than their competition.

Chart4The numbers, however, tell only part of the story. A review of the coverage shows the broadcast networks aided Obama with positive publicity at crucial moments of his campaign — especially in its earliest phases — even as TV reporters took a decidedly non-adversarial approach to many of the personal controversies that might have threatened Obama’s viability. As tight as the 2008 Democratic primaries turned out to be, the media’s celebratory approach to Obama gave him an invaluable advantage as he competed for his party’s presidential nomination.