A TV Column on Obama Feeds Perceptions of Bias

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Thursday seemed like Valentine's Day to some Post readers, who felt a Style section piece on President Obama's news conference Wednesday was little more than a mash note.

The president answered reporters' questions "earnestly, disarmingly, enchantingly," wrote The Post's Tom Shales.

He described Obama as "a truly flabbergasting president. And in a good way -- not the way some of his predecessors were."

To "disbelievers" who accuse Obama of wanting to expand the size of government, Shales said "many are just the predictable strident voices of the kind of partisan pedantry that Obama has said he abhors."

Some of those "predictable strident voices" contacted the ombudsman in a rage, citing Shales's piece as evidence that The Post is in the tank for the president. Others echoed those sentiments in comments on washingtonpost.com.

"The sycophantic, syrupy praise Shales has spewed out is enough to put me in a diabetic coma," wrote ynot4tony2.

"Your fawning is shameful," said yourekiddingright.

Shales, a Post veteran who now writes for the newspaper on contract, has won a Pulitzer Prize for criticism. But Thursday's piece did not identify him as a critic, an analyst or a columnist (although he was labeled that way online). To some readers, he appeared to be a reporter writing a straight news story.

The reaction, coming as Obama marked his 100th day in office, serves as a reminder that a large swath of The Post's readership sees pro-Obama bias. Each month I receive hundreds of e-mails and calls insisting that the paper is reflexively partial to the president.

Critics gained ammunition last week when a study concluded that Obama "has enjoyed substantially more positive media coverage than either Bill Clinton or George W. Bush during their first months in the White House."

Conducted by the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism, the survey was based on a sampling of stories on network television newscasts and in national publications, including The Post.

The study found that "positive stories about Obama have outweighed negative by two-to-one" -- 42 percent to 20 percent -- while 38 percent were neutral or mixed. At my request, Pew broke out data for The Post. Project director Tom Rosenstiel said they show "The Post's coverage, while mostly positive, is slightly more negative than the media overall."

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