Presidential campaign: Guess who's getting the worst press?

Our view: A comprehensive review of the U.S. news media's coverage of the presidential campaign yields a result that may shock Republicans

October 23, 2011

Which candidate running for president in 2012 has drawn the most negative coverage in the press over the last five months? Here's a hint: The results aren't even close.

If you said Texas Gov. Rick Perry, congratulations, you had it exactly wrong. Mr. Perry actually has enjoyed the most positive coverage of all the candidates, according to the latest study by the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism.

For all the criticism of Mr. Perry's policies regarding HPV vaccinations and immigrant tuition rates and his recent stumbles in Republican debates, positive press coverage has outweighed negative coverage by a 32 percent to 20 percent margin (with the balance being judged neutral).

By far the worst negative press coverage has been directed at President Barack Obama. The study shows reporters have treated him with the kind of positive feelings most of us reserve for the Internal Revenue Service or oral surgery without anesthetic. The Pew study found negative outweighed positive reporting of Mr. Obama by a 4-to-1 margin.

During not a single week of media reporting (the study looked at results week-by-week) was more than 10 percent of the president's coverage positive in tone. Even former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, an often-controversial figure who received the most negative coverage of any of the GOP candidates, did substantially better than that.

The results will probably surprise a lot of voters, particularly Republicans for whom the notion that the media is liberal-tilting and irredeemably biased in favor of Democrats is so deeply ingrained. Certainly, critics won't be able to fault the study as misleading or inaccurate. Pew's researchers looked at a wide range of media, including blogs, and even featured a computer algorithmic analysis that perused 11,500 news outlets each day.

Those familiar with the inner workings of the media, however, are probably not surprised at all. The negative coverage of President Obama does not reflect a bias against the president or the Democratic party any more than negative coverage of President George W. Bush during his time in the Oval Office suggested a bias against Republicans or Texans.

Instead, it merely reflects the reality that whoever sits in the White House is going to draw negative press coverage. It is the essence of journalism to question authority and to seek accountability. The negative coverage was not so much of candidate Obama but of President Obama, the leader of the most powerful nation on the planet.

We would never suggest that every news outlet shares The Sun's commitment to objective news reporting and reserves opinion for the editorial page. But that is certainly the case for the lion's share of the traditional media in this country. Bias of all types exists, but it is outweighed by other factors — in this case, the basic function of reporting on the actions, or inactions, of the executive branch.

The Pew study is valuable not only for pointing this out but for demonstrating that the Republican candidates that conservatives would most expect to be treated unfavorably by the press — Michele Bachmann and Sarah Palin to name two — have actually received more positive treatment than negative and have fared better than all but Mr. Perry in that regard.

One other media phenomenon of the presidential campaign so far — the increasing scrutiny candidates endure when they rise in the polls — is less well documented by the Pew research. But the impact of the televised GOP candidate debates is clearly shown. Mr. Perry's coverage went south, for instance, after his poor debate performance in September.

Pew is expected to update the study as the campaign progresses, but don't expect it to reveal Mr. Obama has been glorified in the media. There are plenty of reasons why, as Shakespeare once observed, uneasy lies the head that wears the crown. Newspaper headlines, TV news programs and even that 21st century phenomenon of postings in the blogosphere seldom bring a sitting president much comfort.

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