The 'Wow' Factor and Media Coverage

BlogLast week, we were treated to extensive media coverage of Barack Obama’s overseas trip. Evidently, the so-called ‘wow factor’ made its way abroad. Obamamania was one headline; others alluded to the ‘presidential stature’ of the presumptive nominee. Clearly, for many Europeans, this is a slam dunk choice.

Not so fast. He is not yet elected.

Senator McCain spent the week fighting for media coverage with a series photo ops, some indicating proximity with the voter while another with Bush senior only highlighted the age issue. McCain was understandably upset that all the networks displaced themselves to see Obama abroad and only some reporters made the effort to cover McCain’s two trips abroad. (Yes, two!)

Is this media bias in favour of the new darling, Obama? If one analyzes volume of coverage, it is clear Obama is favoured. Some of it has a lot to do with the tight Democratic race against Hillary Clinton, which lasted many months and packed all the suspense of a movie thriller. Some of it can be attributed to the nature of his candidacy: he’s the first African-American nominee and he’s got a compelling narrative to boot. Perhaps a lot has to do with change-and the media, whether consciously or unconsciously, sees Obama as the better agent of change.

Is McCain correct to complain that he is a victim of media bias? There is no doubt that Obama has captured the imagination of the media, and his stellar performance overseas may actually reinforce that fact. (The American flag was waved rather than burned was how one commentator summed it up.) But this is not the first time the media has been enthralled by a personality or an issue. Remember the Kennedys? Or the media reaction to 9/11, when anchors wore the US lapel pin? Or when they were embedded with troops, hardly giving objective reports? It is up to the media to find balance and it cannot be dictated by the candidate who feels deprived of his fair share of coverage.

Over the years, McCain has benefited from favourable media coverage, largely because he is likable, sensitive, and has shown himself to be an independent thinker. The media also portrays McCain as the most compassionate and least partisan Republican. He is accessible and has set the agenda on many issues.

However, though it is still early, McCain has not performed with the agility and novelty of earlier campaigns. Obama has done some flip flopping, but McCain has done so in ways that have placed him closer to the Bush administration. His stand on tax cuts and his rhetoric on the war are straight out of the Bush playbook. His trips abroad came across as photo ops without a message or, worse still, as continuations of the Bush message. His lacklustre performance on the stump, where reading from a teleprompter seems to be a chore, removes whatever ‘wow’ factor a man of his stature can bring to a captive audience. Bad timing and over the top sniping (like his “Obama would prefer to lose a war to win a political campaign” remark) only further alienate him from the media.

Let’s face it: the media covers controversies, conflict, and whatever is a good story. McCain’s challenge in 2000 and his come-from-behind victory last winter were good stories; they had a ‘wow’ factor to them. But promoting Bush-type policies, failing to set the agenda as Obama has done, and poor performances on the stump do not produce a good story. Media bias? Maybe. But for the lack of media coverage? Blame McCain.