A respected group of media researchers has found that Barack Obama gets a lot more coverage than John McCain. I didn't need a think tank to tell me that. After all, Madonna gets more coverage than McCain does, even when she doesn't want it-although it is hard to imagine when she wouldn't.
Obama gets more media attention than John McCain because, as we have heard over and over again, Obama is the "rock star" of today's political scene. McCain, by contrast, is an attractive candidate and war hero who is less intriguing precisely because, in a political world where "fresh" and "new" has become the highest virtue, we know him so well.
Even some liberals have a lot of affection for the Arizona senator as a man and maverick, even when he's been talking a lot less maverick lately. But, running against Obama often brings to mind grumpy ol' Mr. Wilson chasing Dennis the Menace off his lawn.
The public tells us media workers this with their viewing and reading habits. For example, a Time magazine 2006 issue with Obama on the cover was Time's second-best-selling issue of the year, and a September 2006 issue of Men's Vogue with Obama on the cover outsold every issue but the debut, according to The Washington Post. Newsweek magazine has done six issues with Obama on the cover over the past year, two with McCain. Rolling Stone has given Obama two covers in the last year. If they don't know rock stars, who does?
Sure, the coverage helps Obama but it also confirms the biggest bias in the media, hunger for a big story and the big audience that comes with it.
McCain, for example, has taken three foreign trips in the past four months. Not one was accompanied by a network anchor. All three network anchors rolled out to cover Obama's recent visits to Europe and the Middle East.
That's a continuation of a trend, according to the Project For Excellence In Journalism. Since June 9, when Obama clinched enough votes for the Democratic presidential nomination, the project took a weekly look at 300 political stories in newspapers, magazines and television. In one week, for example, Obama played an important role in 77 percent of the stories. Only 51 percent featured McCain.
That troubles Tom Rosenstiel, the project's director. "No matter how understandable it is, given the newness of the candidate and the historical nature of Obama's candidacy, in the end it's probably not fair to McCain," he told The Associated Press.
McCain tried to shrug it off. "It is what it is," he said Monday during a news conference at the side of former President George H.W. Bush at the Bush family home in Maine. Bush was more direct. "We're jealous is all," he said, bringing a few laughs. It also brought to mind a bumper sticker from the former president's era: "Annoy the media: Vote for Bush".
Although conservatives will use this as further evidence of liberal media bias, the bigger lesson for McCain is to be careful what you ask for. It was McCain, after all, who taunted Obama over his failure to visit Iraq in the past two years. Now the McCain campaign is complaining that Obama is spending too much time overseas. You just can't please some people.
Cheer up, McCainiacs. I expect my media colleagues to bend over backward to boost their McCain coverage. We saw signs of that when "Saturday Night Live" lampooned media swooning over Obama at Hillary Clinton's expense-especially after she quoted from the skit during a Democratic primary debate.
Yet, I do not recall her complaining a bit about how the Democratic Party debates consistently drew more TV viewers than the Republican match-ups.
Besides, in McCain's case, the undercoverage of his campaign could be a blessing. Obama's foreign trip took attention away from the Friday resignation of former Texas Sen. Phil Gramm as McCain's economic adviser. McCain's old friend became a liability over his comment that we have become a "nation of whiners" about the sluggish economy.
And as the world watched and waited for any slips by Obama, the first gaffe of his trip went to-John McCain! In an ABC interview, McCain referred to the rough "situation on the Iraq-Pakistan border." Since the two countries don't share a border, McCain's foreign affairs expertise suddenly didn't sound so good.
Of course, Obama has made slips too. He gave the country "57 states" in one campaign stop. Nevertheless, McCain's border goof is a reminder that, in a big political campaign, there are always some stories you're happy to leave uncovered.