A recent John McCain web video highlights one of the more candid confessions of the presidential campaign season. The video quotes NBC News correspondent Lee Cowan describing how he felt when NBC assigned him to cover Barack Obama: "I must confess my knees quaked a bit."
If Cowan's knees quaked, MSNBC correspondent Chris Matthews' leg trembled. The online spot shows Matthews telling a fellow reporter about listening to an Obama speech: "I felt this thrill going up my leg."
The three-minute video-featuring floating hearts and the song "Can't Take My Eyes Off You"-claims a media love affair with Obama and includes short clips of lofty coverage of the candidate by other cable networks. The McCain camp contends news outlets give far more coverage to Obama's campaign, and aides sarcastically call Obama "The One."
The Media Research Center (MRC), a conservative media watchdog group, says hard numbers do suggest a media bias in favor of Obama.
A July MRC analysis compared media coverage of Obama's recent trip to Europe with a similar trip McCain made to Europe in March. The results: The major television networks (ABC, CBS, and NBC) gave Obama's trip at least 10 times more coverage than McCain's tour, according to MRC.
A Rasmussen poll in July showed that 49 percent of voters believe most reporters will try to help Obama through their political coverage. Only 14 percent said they thought the media would try to help McCain win the election.
The New York Times recently defended its decision to reject an essay written by McCain in response to an Obama op-ed that criticized McCain's views on Iraq. Opinion Page Editor David Shipley asked the McCain campaign for a new draft with a new format: "It would be terrific to have an article from Senator McCain that mirrors Senator Obama's piece."
Since January, Newsweek has featured Obama on its cover five times, highlighting his faith, his influence on race relations, and his sharp political team. McCain has made the cover twice this year, once with this headline: "There Will Be Blood: Why the Right Hates McCain."
In late July, the Chicago Tribune acknowledged its heftier coverage of Obama's trip to Europe but contended more coverage doesn't equal bias against McCain. "It means that Obama's first trip to the Middle East and Europe is bigger news this week than what McCain's been doing," wrote the editorial board.
McCain hasn't helped himself. The day after Obama addressed a crowd of 200,000 in Berlin, McCain strolled through a Pennsylvania grocery store and posed in front of a display of cheese. At one point, the grocery store's PA system drowned out McCain's comments about high food prices, and a McCain cameraman knocked over a shelf of applesauce.
"Not exactly equal images," says Rich Noyes, MRC director of research. Noyes says Obama's campaign is simply outdoing McCain's camp in staging effective photo-ops, an area in which McCain will likely need to improve. And McCain has to contend with the historic elements of Obama's candidacy, which offers a fresh storyline for reporters.
Despite the debate over media coverage, polls show voters' opinions haven't significantly changed in recent weeks. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll in late July reported Obama holding a 6 point lead over McCain-about the same margin Obama held before his European trip.
Those numbers suggest that voters are still trying to make up their own minds, says Noyes: "It's still early yet for the people who are actually going to decide the election."