by Adam | We've collectively grown used to the idea of a biased media. Conservatives consistently harp on the idea of a liberal media bias, to the point that it's almost accepted wisdom, while authors such as Glenn Greenwald and Ariana Huffington have exhaustively laid out the case that it is the right that controls the media narrative.
At times, however, it's more interesting to temporarily set aside which way the media is biased, and in stead focus on why the media would have an incentive to be biased. That is, forget for a moment that the right wing rewards loyal journalists with access and scoops, or that many journalists are part of the wealthy elite that benefits from extreme neoliberal economic principles. In stead, just think about the media as a business that wants more eyeballs so they can sell advertising at higher rates. With that in mind, it becomes clear that they need a compelling story to tell.
This year, the #1 story they have to tell is the 2008 presidential election. And frankly, the story basically goes like this: Democrats vastly outnumber Republicans in party identification at a historical level, and the public at large likes the Democratic plans for the economy, health care, and, most clearly, Iraq, more than the Republican ones. Unless Obama stumbles, or allows the election to be decided on side issues, he should win by at least 4 points and with at least 300+ electoral votes.
The problem with that narrative is that it is boring. So, the media, in order to create a more compelling narrative, must manufacture reasons why Obama might somehow lose this election. So it is in their interest to generate stories where McCain "beats" Obama in some sense. In this part of the story, I will look at one such issue: campaign finance.
Much hay has been made in the media about Obama backing out of his former pledge to take public financing in the general election. While Obama generally couched that pledge in a requirement that the Republican nominee would agree to stamp out other sources of advertising (which McCain was not willing to do), I'm perfectly willing to concede the point that Obama made it sound like he was going to take public money, and then he didn't.
Now, the media's coverage of this story, everywhere from MSNBC to Fox News, has essentially reduced this story to "McCain is taking public financing while Obama has backed out of the public system". The universal implication is that McCain's finances are clean compared to Obama's. However, this is an absurdly simplistic way to look at the situation, missing many key aspects of the campaign finance picture that quite clearly portray Obama in a more positive light than McCain.
Let's take a quick look at Obama's fundraising numbers for June. Obama raised $52 million in June, his second biggest monthly haul behind February, which was more or less the best month any politician has ever had. Remarkably, though, the average contribution in June actually dropped significantly, all the way down to $68. The healthy majority of Obama's contributions have come from relatively small donations, with only about a sixth of his overall contributions coming from the big "bundlers" who corrall a bunch of $2300 checks from wealthy donors and hand them over en masse.
By contrast, McCain gets over half of his financing from said donors. Despite the acceptance of "public financing", which essentially amounts to getting matching money from the federal government, McCain's campaign is substantially supported by a relatively small group of rich donors. McCain's "bundler" income is not only a vastly larger percentage of his financial pie (even after public finance is taken into account), but it is also larger in an absolute sense.
Moreover, this is before we consider the various ways McCain has sought to work around the restrictions of the public finance system (restrictions which, ironically, he was instrumental in creating). In the primary season, McCain created a small scandal for himself when he opted into public financing, took a loan using public finance as collateral, and then opted out of public financing. Perhaps more significantly, McCain's campaign is set to rely substantially on ads from the Republican national committee, to which individual donors can give up to $70,000, and McCain has already built up a $62 million war chest, three quarters of which comes from only a couple thousand ultra-rich donors.
And of course, we have the 527 groups which will introduce potentially unlimited negative ads against the candidates. Both candidates have paid lip service to opposing such ads, but only Obama has actually taken action to curb negative ads paid for by these groups.
My point is not to protest the great unfairness that is McCain's funding sources. It is what it is. My point is that the mainstream media's coverage of this issue, which essentially breaks down to "McCain is the champion of campaign finance reform while Barack Obama flip-flopped on joining the public system" is almost unfathomably simplistic and biased.