In his "The Fix" blog yesterday, Washington Post political reporter Chris Cillizza uncritically furthered a faulty Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ) that argues that President Obama has actually received more negative news coverage this political season than the Republican presidential primary contenders. This morning, Post print edition editors excerpted Cillizza's item on page A4, the "Campaign 2012" news page.
While Cillizza noted in his blog post that there are "mitigating factors" in the survey data -- that langauge was cut from the print edition excerpt -- he confidently asserted that "for all the chatter about Obama’s preferential treatment by the media, the data tells a very different story. And the data doesn’t lie." But as my colleague Rich Noyes explained on Monday, the data examined by the study are fundamentally flawed and hence worthless to arrive at a conclusion about the media's judgments of the candidates (emphases mine):
But "the press" hasn't been tougher on Obama than the Republicans. PEJ's "good press/bad press" statistic mixes reports of the campaign horse race (who's ahead, who's behind) with judgmental coverage of a candidate's background, issue positions, etc. And, according to PEJ's own statistics, the vast majority of the reports they examined (they peg it at 64%) are about campaign strategy.
[Check out my earlier blog post for more explanation of the flaws in PEJ's methodology.]
What this all means is that the GOP candidates got better "good press" scores because they each won primaries this year. This is obvious when you look at the report's explanation of how Romney, Santorum and Gingrich each fared with "the press" (I'm stripping out the statistics, because they are a meaningless distraction):
[Romney] enjoyed one week of clearly positive coverage... in the week following his solid, if widely expected win in New Hampshire on Jan. 10. But that media bounce was short lived. The week of his loss on Jan. 21 to Newt Gingrich in South Carolina, negative coverage of Romney... outstripped positive....
Santorum’s Iowa victory on Jan. 3 also produced a burst of positive coverage for him....But during the week of his third-place finish in South Carolina on Jan. 21, the tone of Santorum’s coverage dropped markedly....
Gingrich only enjoyed a single week in which positive coverage about him significantly outweighed negative, the week he won the South Carolina primary.
In other words, PEJ is not actually tracking how the press -- journalists, reporters, commentators, etc. -- are evaluating, ranking, spinning, etc., the campaign. Their sample is so heavy with redundant Web posting of the same horse race results that it completely masks the spin that journalists impart to the coverage.
Think about it this way: Can any serious media observer argue that the media elite have been more positive towards Christian conservative Rick Santorum than Barack Obama? On its face, this study is not measuring what it purports to measure, i.e., the tone of campaign journalism.
Undoubtedly, given the resources they've put into this project, you'll see additional reports throughout the campaign year. If President Obama takes a polling lead over Mitt Romney, you'll see PEJ claim a burst of good press for the Democrat; if Romney takes the lead, they'll continue to say that the press is beating up on Obama. Don't believe it.