- The Washington Times - Friday, May 30, 2008

The American public may hanker for substantial political coverage that explains policy, issues, public records and other comprehensive perspectives. But the press is not delivering.

Journalists are instead mired in the horse race, with more than three-fourths of their stories - 78 percent - devoted to the hair-splitting tactics and strategy of the White House race, according to an analysis of almost 9,000 print, broadcast and online news reports from 46 sources released yesterday by the Project for Excellence in Journalism and Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center on Press, Politics and Public Policy.

Just 7 percent of the coverage addressed serious policy issues, 7 percent looked into the three candidates’ character and ethics, and 2 percent examined their public records.

The press remains friendly to the Democrats in the long run. More than two-thirds of the stories during the primary season provided “positive narratives” about Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton; 57 percent of the stories about Sen. John McCain were critical of the likely Republican nominee.

Still, no one was an automatic media darling.

“Democrat Barack Obama has not enjoyed a better ride in the press than rival Hillary Clinton,” the study said. “The trajectory of the coverage began to turn against Obama and did so well before questions surfaced about his pastor Jeremiah Wright.”

Mr. Obama started off the year with a bang, with 77 percent of the stories about him positive, emphasizing that he represented “hope and change” and had “a special and rare charisma,” among other optimistic narratives.

“By March 9, the figure had dropped to 53 percent. During this time, statements concerning his inexperience and youth more than doubled in prevalence,” the study said.

Mrs. Clinton had her own struggles. She enjoyed considerable favorability rating among those who felt she was prepared to lead the country and was more “likable” after crying on camera earlier this year. She later hit a “pothole” after former President Bill Clinton got aggressive on the campaign trail, prompting many supporters to wonder whether Mrs. Clinton had too much old political baggage.

Mr. McCain has had some succinct media challenges as he fielded questions about his age, health and temperament.

“Within that battle, one criticism proved particularly persistent. Claims that he is not a reliable conservative and may alienate the conservative core of the party” were the most problematic, cited in 88 percent of the negative coverage about him.

Attempts to quell such charges “got little traction in the press,” the study said.

The importance of election news was subject to some interpretation. Online news sites such as Google News provided the least amount, with 29 percent of their coverage devoted to the presidential race. Newspapers followed with 33 percent. Broadcasters were all over the topic - more than two-thirds of the stories on both talk radio and cable news channels, for example, were about the election.

The study also determined the top story themes over the past few months, leading with Mr. Obama’s relationship with Mr. Wright, followed by the issue of superdelegates, “bittergate,” the Florida and Michigan primaries, Mr. McCain’s ethics and the troubled role of Mr. Clinton in his wife’s campaign.

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