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Reality vs. the Mythmakers

By David Broder

WASHINGTON -- As dramatic as the contests have been for the Democratic and Republican presidential nominations, they have not been enough to satisfy the myth-makers. With the general election imminent, the fiction writers in both parties insist on versions of the battle that bear little resemblance to reality.

How often, for example, have you heard or read that Hillary Clinton has endured a far-rougher hazing from the press and the public than has Barack Obama? Or that John McCain has gotten a free ride from the punditocracy?

The best evidence to test these and other propositions arrived last week in a report from the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism and the Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University.

From Jan. 1 through the early spring primaries, teams of researchers monitored the campaign coverage of 46 news outlets, among them the most prominent and influential newspapers, television and cable broadcasts, and Web sites.

The researchers eliminated reports that dealt primarily with events of the day, the horse-race pieces about tactics, strategies and results, filtering out the variations dependent on how well the candidates were doing at the moment. They eliminated almost four-fifths of the 8,800 items. What was left were what they call "the dominant personal narratives in the media," analyzing "the candidates' character, history, leadership and appeal." Each resulting story was rated as positive, negative or neutral.

From the start of the year through the Texas and Ohio primaries in March, the media story lines about Obama and Clinton "were almost identical in tone, and were both twice as positive as negative," the study found. McCain fared less well. Negative stories about the Arizona senator outnumbered positive ones by 14 percentage points, almost entirely because of the heavy emphasis on assertions that he was not a true or reliable conservative.

But when the scholars looked at the trends over time, they found a very different picture. As the primaries unfolded, Obama's positives ratings declined, while Clinton, after cratering around the time of the South Carolina primary, recovered and McCain experienced a steady improvement.

The authors don't have figures for April and May, but they strongly suspect that the Jeremiah Wright flap and other issues have continued to erode Obama's ratings, while McCain has continued to gain. Since patterns are reflected in the polls, this points to a close election.

The positives and negatives for the two likely nominees are pretty much what you would expect. Working for Obama are his identification with hope and change, and his reputation for charisma and eloquence. The biggest negative -- and a growing one -- is the claim that he lacks experience.

McCain's assets are his reputation for strong character and conviction, and the belief that his appeal to independents bolsters his chances of winning in November.

No surprises there. But a similar analysis of the Clinton narrative rebuts her favorite myths. As expected, her strong suit is the belief that, as she has said, her experience would make her "ready on Day One" for the presidency. But her main negative is that she represents the past -- not that she has been caricatured in a way that makes her seem cold or lacking in real convictions.

In addition to these myth-correcting generalizations, the report offers a variety of other insights.

As in 2004, the horse-race coverage totally dominates, with policy stories making up only 7 percent of the filings and examinations of the candidates' records only 2 percent. That is probably the greatest indictment of the media.

Further indications of the trivialization of the coverage can be found by recounting the top campaign stories from January through early May.

Far out front were examinations of Obama's relationship with Wright. Then came the controversy over the superdelegates, Obama's comments on "bitter" Pennsylvania voters turning to guns and God, the fight over the Florida and Michigan delegations, the questionable New York Times story about McCain and the woman lobbyist, and the role of Bill Clinton in his wife's campaign.

You can't read that list without thinking that we in the press have not only accepted many myths in this campaign, but we have done our best to dumb down the process.

It would be nice to think the next five months will be better, but I wouldn't guarantee it.

Copyright 2008, Washington Post Writers Group

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