The Myth of the Liberal Media

A new Pew survey of news coverage during the primary season found that President Obama has gotten the least positive coverage of the major party presidential candidates. The two candidates that got the most? Mitt Romney and Ron Paul.

Mitt Romney needed 15 weeks once the primary contests began to gain a secure hold over his party’s nomination for president. But he emerged as the conclusive winner in the media narrative about the race six weeks earlier, following a narrow win in his native state, according to a new report by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism that examines in detail the media’s coverage of the race.

After Romney’s tight victory in the Michigan primary on Feb. 28, news coverage about his candidacy became measurably more favorable and the portrayal of his rivals—particularly Rick Santorum—began to become more negative and to shrink in volume…

A look inside the coverage also reveals that Romney endured more media “vetting” of his record and personal character than the other Republican contenders. Since November, just over 12% of the coverage in which Romney was a significant figure was devoted to those subjects. The press focused in particular on his wealth and his experience at the private equity investment firm Bain Capital.

A similar percentage of the coverage of Newt Gingrich also involved vetting his record and personal life (just under 12%), but he received only about half as much campaign coverage generally as Romney.

Adam Serwer has more details and one particularly interesting find:

The Liberal Media has consistently given more positive coverage to likely Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney compared to President Barack Obama, according to a new survey of media coverage from the Pew Research Center’s Excellence in Journalism Project.

During the early weeks of 2012, Romney’s media coverage was slightly negative—between January 2 and February 26, 33 percent of the stories about the ex-Massachusetts governor were positive and 37 percent were negative, according to Pew’s analysis. But Romney has received mostly positive coverage since then (47 percent positive to 24 percent negative). By contrast, according to the report, President Barack Obama “did not have a single week in 2012 when positive coverage exceeded negative coverage.”

One could argue that the media’s tone on Obama was consistently negative for objective reasons—the state of the economy, for example, or Americans’ disagreement with the president’s foreign policy. But the negative coverage of Obama hasn’t been particularly substantive—only 18 percent of coverage of Obama has been on domestic issues, with two percent on foreign issues. The vast majority of coverage, sixty-three percent, has been focused on “strategy,” often the journalistic equivalent of empty calories. It’s not as though the negative coverage has been driven by say, drone strikes in Yemen or inadequate responses to foreclosure fraud. Coverage of Romney, while more positive overall, was even more (74 percent) focused on “strategy.” This is actually an improvement over 2008, since according to Pew, the media was even more preoccupied with horse-race coverage during that campaign.

This is the real problem with the media, especially during election years when they essentially turn into sports reporters, concerned only about the score. Very little of the coverage of any of the candidates was primarily substantive. Can you remember the last time President Obama was asked about his constant use of the State Secrets Privilege? I can. It was in 2009.

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  • unbound

    Report after report keeps confirming that the media isn’t liberal in general. But the conservatives have been awesome at pressing this point home with the masses.

    Here is a good link that talks about past articles debunking the lie (links galore in there if you really want to dig deep) –

  • Aliasalpha

    Was there ever a liberal media or was it a fairy tale all the time?

    It’d be interesting to see these kinds of stats on the history of the media coverage over the last few decades. See if the media favours one party all the time or if its more of a ‘anyone but who we have now’ thing

  • jthompson

    If nothing else comes of this, at least we can finally point Ron Paul fans to it when they try to convince us he’d be elected king of the planet if only the media would pay him some attention.

  • John Kruger

    I think that when your definition of “liberal media” is “any coverage that damages my ideals” then a lot of the time all the media has to do to the right in order to be branded liberal is to report accurately. I think the only reason FOX news is not liberal is because they actively distort things in the direction the right wants.

    It is not too surprising that Romney would get more coverage during the time leading up to the Republican primaries, and considering the nuts he was up against the positive coverage was almost inevitable. All this would be expected of a somewhat neutral media though, not a liberal one, so the criticisms stand.

  • ph041985

    I think what people need to realize is that mainstream media – at least when it comes to political coverage – want to be seen as getting it right all along. In other words, they skew their coverage based on who they think will end up winning the race, so they can point to their coverage and claim that they knew it all along. So in trying to predict the eventual winner, the media provides more favorable coverage to a candidate, solely based on their perceived greater likelihood of victory. I think this has the overall effect of the media having more influence over the actual outcome than expected.

  • jesse


    The myth of the “Liberal Media” started cropping up in the 80s.

    It has several origins.

    First, the right wing and conservative Democrats, to some degree, wanted a way to taint anybody who expressed even a mild disagreement with official policy. Impugning the patriotism of the New York Times et al was one way to do that.

    Second, there is a grain of truth to it, but “Liberal” is a bit different now than what it was when the term was coined. That is, the Liberal consensus was basically anti-communist, felt that some regulation of capitalism was warranted, but basically agreed that you should, as far as possible, stand behind the administration. But to many in the government even this rather mild dissent was unacceptable. SO there had to be a way to make sure you kill it in the bud.

    Which brings us to the next point. Conservatives generally went after the patriotism of the reporters and editors when they said anything opposing policy, first by saying they were simply “blaming America” (see: Kirkpatrick’s speech to the GOP convention in 1988) and later getting into “Support the Troops” in the first Gulf War.

    Nobody wanted to be seen as unpatriotic, so at that point you see the “Liberal” NYT and WaPo, for instance, toe the party line. And none of the papers’ management was willing to call anybody out.

    I should say that both “Liberal” papers were fully in support of the Vietnam War, for instance, and not one single major publication in the United States called into question the wisdom of intervening in that country or any other. The NYT didn’t even say that having troops there was a bad idea until oh, 1971, perhaps 1972 or so. By that time it was clear the only way for us to “win” was to kill every Vietnamese person. I’ll take genocide for $200, Alex.

    Noam Chomsky said it best. Censorship in the US isn’t about telling you “you cannot say X.” It’s about leaving certain questions unasked. That is much more powerful.

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