A Campaign Still to Be Plumbed

By Deborah Howell
Sunday, October 5, 2008

With only a month until Election Day, both Republican and Democratic readers are venting daily. Editors tell me there are many stories on the way, so I am reserving final judgment until after Nov. 4.

Republicans claim that The Post is biased toward Barack Obama. News stories and photos don't have to be strictly equivalent, but it's obvious that Obama has gotten more Page 1 coverage and more photos in The Post. Since Obama became the Democratic Party's presumptive nominee June 4, he has been featured in 163 Page 1 stories, and John McCain 131, though the gap has narrowed since August. Thirty stories included both of them.

Obama has been in 260 photos, compared with 220 of McCain, since monitoring started June 4. They are about even on Page 1 pictures with McCain at 17 and Obama at 18. Obama has appeared in more photos of three columns or more -- 99 to 84 -- and more color pictures, 137 to 110.

Readers want more about issues. While there have been many back-and-forth stories, there hasn't been nearly enough critical examination of the candidates' plans. Bless Michael Dobbs -- the Fact Checker-- who has been out there whacking away at the obfuscation.

Ruth Klein of New York: "The country is at a significant crossroads of issues -- war, economy, education, health care, taxes. The media is not discussing those on the front page. It's not presenting analysis of the candidates' positions and what they could mean to us. So, can the media now refocus on the issues that are really affecting people's lives?"

Judi Watson of Springfield: "I try to read every word of The Post's political coverage but notice the absence of simple charts or tables that would compare the Obama plans with the McCain plans on an array of important topics (e.g., taxes, Iraq, energy) . . . . It would be simply awful if people cast their votes based upon an erroneous understanding about what positions each candidate promulgates."

There have been more than twice as many "horse race" stories as issue stories as of Friday -- 1,193 horse race stories to 526 on issues -- since my assistant Jean Hwang and I started monitoring on Nov. 11. Obama has 248 horse race stories and McCain 236. McCain and Obama were about even on issues stories -- 129 to 127. Obama has more stories about voters, 64, than McCain, 45. McCain has more stories on his life, 28, than Obama, 22.

Some readers say that The Post has concentrated too much on Sarah Palin, with Joe Biden getting short shrift. Lynn Caporale of New York wrote: "I . . . think that after so many stories about Palin, a stand-alone story about Biden (not just a silly one on so-called gaffes) would make sense given his long service in the Senate in D.C. What is his temperament . . . what have been his key legislative achievements, what has he opposed consistently." Biden and his record deserve a harder look.

After a story on Palin getting per-diem payments while living at home, several readers echoed Ken Rush of Herndon: How much does Biden's daily commute home [on the train to Delaware] cost the American taxpayer?

Demian Brady of Alexandria complained about "the extremely liberal Tom Shales's partisan-infused review of the debate" Sept. 27. Shales is The Post's television critic, and he's a liberal. The headline: "McCain's High Horse Meets Obama's High-Mindedness."

Shales leaned toward Obama ("the more presidential temperament") but found fault with both candidates. Shales irritates Republicans the way former film critic Stephen Hunter riled Democrats with occasional conservative asides. But Shales doesn't spare Democrats; I reviewed some of his columns on Bill Clinton's presidential speeches -- "steadfastly unremarkable," "strangely ineffective," "wishy-washy," "a medley of bland banalities."

Several readers complained about a Sept. 27 headline on the Page 1 story after the debate. The subhead said: "Obama Ridicules Support for War; McCain Faults Criticism of 'Surge.' "

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