The candidates: Who makes the news?
John McCain might call media coverage of Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama "fawning," as Times reporter Maeve Reston wrote on Tuesday, but so did several dozen Times readers in the past few weeks who sent messages like this from Walter Mielke of Pasadena: "Bias towards Obama. Front page everyday. Tired of it."
A recent surge in such comments, with readers also saying they see bias against Republican candidate McCain, started July 11, when an article on McCain's first marriage was published. The story reported that "McCain, who is about to become the GOP nominee, has made several statements about how he divorced Carol and married Hensley that conflict with the public record," and examined the conflicting information. Typical was a response from the reader who wrote an angry e-mail saying that The Times "will do anything to help Obama and hurt McCain." (Response to those readers is below.)
But it's the string of Page 1 stories and photos that has brought the most recent protests: On Sunday, July 20, the Campaign '08 banner was over a story about the Iraqi prime minister's endorsement of Obama's plan for withdrawing U.S. troops; on Monday the article was about the political furor triggered by that withdrawal plan. On Tuesday the front-page story was "Obama's views resonate in Iraq." (That was the headline in print; headlines on the online versions are often different.) Each story included an above-the-fold photograph. There were front-page stories, too, last week, on July 15 ("Obama re-admonishes blacks"), 16 ("Obama stands by his plan to end war"), and 17 (a profile of Obama and his father headlined "So alike and yet so different").
Wrote another reader: "I can't take four more months of flattering Obama articles and pictures."
It isn't all flattering, say editors, as evidenced in the July 24 front-page: The photo showed Obama in front of thousands in Berlin. However, the article reported that "Fresh polls show that he has been unable to convert weeks of extensive media coverage into a widened lead."
The news itself dictates the amount of coverage, editors point out. Times reporters are on the trail with both McCain and Obama. In recent days, coverage of McCain has included two front-page pieces ("Housing crisis is a test for McCain" on July 19 and "McCain takes a risk on Social Security," July 14), several brief stories as well as two longer ones inside the main section ("McCain wins some respect," about his address before the NAACP convention, Page A14 on July 17; "McCain's turn before La Raza in San Diego," Page A11, July 15).
Aaron Zitner, who edits campaign coverage from The Times' Washington bureau, summarizes the events that made for more news about Obama's overseas trip: "First," Zitner wrote in an e-mail, "the Iraqi government decided to announce during Obama's trip that it agreed, more or less, with his timeline for U.S. troop withdrawals. This was significant news, because it suggested that the Iraqi government is not on the same page with President Bush on this important issue -- and the Bush administration is actively negotiating with the Iraqis just now over the role of U.S. forces there.
"Second, the Iraqi government turned Obama's trip into a three-day news event. The Iraqis said that they agreed with Obama's timeline for troop withdrawals, then the next day suggested that they disagreed with him, and then seemed to agree with him again on the third day. This kept Obama's visit in the news.
"Finally, Obama's reception in the Mideast was significant. At home, his opponents are trying to portray him as naive on foreign policy, particularly in his proposals to withdraw U.S. combat troops from Iraq within 16 months and to sit down at the table with Iran. The fact that Iraqi leaders agreed with him on the first point, and that Israeli leaders accepted his views on Iran, made for substantive news stories."
Earlier in the month, readers who protested the story of McCain's first marriage received a note from National Editor Scott Kraft: "The piece on John McCain's first marriage was one of a number of stories we have done -- and will continue to do -- on the two candidates for president. In those pieces, we are looking at every aspect of the candidates' lives. We are looking at what they said about their past and what others say about their past.
"This was a story that looked at that period in McCain's life when his marriage broke up, he met his current wife and when his personal relationship soured with the Reagans, among others. We also looked at the discrepancy between what the candidate said in his autobiography and what he said in court documents that he signed. I think voters themselves can determine whether such discrepancies are relevant or irrelevant. But they can't make those decisions without all the facts. McCain and Obama have put themselves up for the highest elected office in the land. We think their background is not only fair game -- it's something every thinking voter would want to know more about."
Photo: From Page A1, Friday, July 25, showing some of the estimated 215,000 people who filled the Tiergarten park in Berlin to hear Barack Obama speak. Credit: Jae C. Hong / Associated Press