Warning: Story About Lack of Substance

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The LA Times’ On the Media column points out a provocative study from (my old employer) the Center on Media and Public Affairs that seems to deflate the conventional wisdom that Obama is benefiting from favorable media coverage. The center classified statements about the candidates from the nightly network newscasts over the past six weeks as either “positive” or “negative” (or neutral) and found “when network news people ventured opinions in recent weeks, 28% of the statements were positive for Obama and 72% negative.” McCain wasn’t exactly coddled, but the split measured by CMPA was far less dramatic: “43% of the statements positive and 57% negative.”

My job at CMPA was to provide critical analysis of popular studies; I tended to find that most polls and studies quoted in popular media are not in themselves flawed or dishonest, but that writers and readers tended to emphasize the topline results, without looking at the ways in which methodology skews those results. Like, for instance, with this study. The authors admit that “most on-air statements during that time could not be classified as positive or negative,” and that, in fact, found “less than two opinion statements per night on the candidates on all three networks combined.” (I actually think that this apparent LACK of bias should be the real headline of the study.) Let’s be generous and say that the average was about 1.5 “opinionated” statements a night — that’s a grand total of about 60 “biased” statements since the study began on June 8. The article doesn’t provide a break down for how the total number of biased statements split between the candidates, but another recent study of the evening news found that Obama received about 70 percent of all campaign coverage and McCain just under 30 percent. Applying that basic proportion to the 60-something biased statements uttered in the past month and a half, you get 40 statements about Obama and 20 about McCain.

Compared to the massive amounts of political coverage — and opinion — available in the media over all, this is not a particularly significant sample.

What’s more, studies such as this one have no way of measuring how any one biased statement builds up or chips away at existing media narratives, or of weighing the relative harm various kinds of criticism might inflict. Let’s say that every single one of the negative statement about Obama was along the lines of “He’s un-American,” whereas the statements about McCain were more varied and more superficial: “He’s old,” “He’s stubborn,” “He’s like Bush.”

Wouldn’t that make the coverage of Obama infinitely more damaging? Or at least much more than 12 percent more damaging?

That’s not exactly how things have played out, of course. But the hypothetical illustrates the limits of attempts to quantify bias. And despite my belief that a single “unAmerican” message about Obama would do more damage than a series of mixed criticisms about McCain, the effect of biased statements in the media on audiences is just as mysterious as sorting out the bias itself. Which is why the golden rule of PR is not to get good coverage, just coverage. In that regard, not only is Obama “winning” the media game, he’s actually changing the rules.

Bonnie Fuller, the editor that helped define modern celebrity coverage, argues that the Obama campaign’s reliance on mass-media vehicles like People, Us, and “The View” to introduce the family to the country has made the evening news all but irrelevant.

Compare the ever-diminishing audience of the nightly news to the 60 million women who read celebrity glossies weeky, pouring over pictures that simultaneously glamorize and humanize the stars:

The fact that they shop at the supermarket, pick up their own dry cleaning and play with their kids in the park just makes Brad, Angie, Jen Garner, Reese Witherspoon, Kate Hudson and the rest of the cast of A-list characters all the more likable.

If humanizing celebrities sells magazines and movie tickets, why wouldn’t some “Obamas are just like us” stories help make voters feel more familiar and comfortable with the Obamas? After all, it’s widely believed that George Bush managed to beat out Al Gore in the 2000 presidential campaign because Americans thought he’d be more fun to share a beer with than with “elitist” Al.

Obama and his family have been on the cover of both Us and People in the past month, in addition to Obama having snagged glamorous portraits on the covers of Esquire, Rolling Stone and (in multiple instances) Time and Newsweek.

The power of celebrity as a media influence, as every American knows, transcends that of politicians. They get away with more, they earn more, we pay attention to them more. The Obamas are very much on their way to becoming the Bradgelina of the White House, and part of me is thrilled. It’s been a long time since Americans paid that much attention to the occupants of 1600 Penn. And then there’s the part of me that worries about what happens if we are as tolerant of politicians as we are of movie stars, or if we forget that, in the end, both celebrities and politicians work for us. Angelina may have a face that could launch a thousand ships, but she can’t actually start a war.