For the first time since this general election campaign began in early June, Republican John McCain attracted virtually as much media attention as his Democratic rival last week.
Barack Obama was a significant or dominant factor in 81% of the campaign stories compared with 78% for McCain, according to PEJ’s Campaign Coverage Index for July 28-Aug. 3. Not only was that a high water mark for McCain in the general election season (his previous best was 62% from June 30-July 6). The virtual dead heat in the race for exposure between the two candidates also marked the first time his weekly coverage had even been within 10 percentage points of Obama’s total. Indeed, in the eight weeks since early June when the general election contest began, 79% of the stories have significantly featured Obama, compared with 55% for his Republican rival.
The spike in press attention to the McCain campaign came a week after Obama’s tour of the Mideast and Europe commandeered the headlines, accounting for half the election coverage for July 21-27. It also came a week after the media engaged in a spasm of introspection, amid a wave of accusations that the media was being unfair to the GOP standard bearer. The third biggest campaign storyline for July 21-27 was the issue of whether the press was biased toward and lavishing too much attention on Obama.
Last week, the McCain campaign also drove the narrative by directly tackling that perception in a controversial ad. It described Obama as “the biggest celebrity in the world” and featured images of Britney Spears and Paris Hilton—two tabloid favorites known more for hard-partying lifestyles than any other achievements. (It was a relatively big week for Spears, too. First, she was featured in the ad. Then an Obama spokesman responded to that spot by accusing McCain of another negative attack, saying “Oops! He did it again”—which is a play on the title of her hit single.)
The “celebrity” spot also helped push campaign advertising to a more prominent place in the coverage than before. Advertising was the second-biggest campaign story line last week, filling 10% of the campaign newshole. And the ripple effects were felt throughout the week. The ad generated another narrative—whether McCain campaign was too negative—that filled 6% of the newshole. The tone of the campaign, and the new McCain ad, then triggered a third major story line. When Obama accused Republicans of trying to frighten Americans because he “doesn’t look like all those other presidents on those dollar bills,” the McCain team responded by accusing Obama of playing the “race card.” And that controversy, at 15%, became the biggest campaign narrative of all.
Read the full report Extra! Extra! McCain Makes as Much News as Obama on the Project for Excellence in Journalism Web site.