New study by the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism shows that Romney beat Obama in positive press coverage.
Riffing on a refrain heard often during an election campaign, Mitt Romney said last Tuesday that "there will be an effort by the, quote, 'vast left-wing conspiracy' to work together to put out their message and to attack me. They're going to do everything they can to divert from the message people care about, which is a growing economy that creates more jobs and rising incomes."
Romney later added that "many in the media are inclined to do the president's bidding, and I know that's an uphill battle we fight with the media generally."
According to a study released Monday by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism, Romney may be right about the press passing on the key issues: 64 percent of campaign coverage so far has been about the race itself (remarkably, that's down from 80 percent in the 2008 GOP primary season).
But Romney's wrong about the media doing the president's bidding. In fact, the study indicates that, if anything, the press has been tougher on the president than on his GOP challenger. Negative coverage of President Obama exceeded positive press in 14 of 15 primary season weeks studied.
Conversely, coverage of Romney was more positive than negative in six of the 15 weeks, and evenly divided in four, according to Pew, which used a computer-assisted analysis of 11,000 news outlets and human coding of 52 key outlets.
"While a sitting president may have access to the 'bully pulpit,' that doesn't mean he has control of the media narrative, particularly during the other party's primary season," the report stated.
Indeed, the GOP candidates' bully pulpit was one of the main factors cited for the president's bad press coverage. Other factors were more issue-focused -- a lukewarm economy, a hot mic picking up comments about postreelection "flexibility" Obama made to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, a continuing cold reception for his health care plan, among others.
But at least some coverage of the president was about policy, not politics. That was barely the case for his GOP challengers: "Domestic and foreign policy issues" accounted for 21 percent of Obama's coverage, compared with 8 percent for Romney, 7 percent for Rick Santorum, 6 percent for Newt Gingrich and 9 percent for Ron Paul.
The landslide margin for stories about who's up and who's down reveal the real media bias: Choosing horse race coverage far more often than it saddles up for substantive stories about issues that really impact voters.
This fixation with political competition is one of the main reasons the actual coverage of Romney belies his characterization of it: Once the press sensed the presidential nomination was his to lose, Romney won a more favorable narrative, while his challengers were chronicled more negatively, and less often.
There's even a decisive turning point: The Feb. 28 Michigan primary, when Romney homed in on his home state and locked in inevitability.
When the press pursued "personal issues," the difference in the tenor of coverage of Romney and that of his rivals wasn't dramatic. The topic comprised 6 percent of Romney's overall coverage; 4 percent of Santorum's, and 5 percent of Gingrich's. Romney just won more often, and thus got more coverage.
When he was winning, Santorum also had three brief two-week periods of net positive press. Gingrich, conversely, enjoyed only one net positive week, when he won the South Carolina primary -- even though he had to hit back against agonizing allegations by one of his ex-wives.
And because Paul never won, the press lost interest in him. So even though his coverage was net positive in 11 out of the 15 weeks studied, he got only about one-eighth as much press attention as Romney, and a quarter as much as Santorum and Gingrich.
With so many profound presidential decisions to be made by the eventual victor, it's distressing that the press stressed "strategy" for 64 percent of its campaign coverage, compared with 12 percent on "personal issues," 9 percent on "domestic issues," and 6 percent on both "public record" and "other."
And despite the Arab Spring, winter for the euro and what looks to be a long hot summer of Mideast strife, only 1 percent of coverage was dedicated to "foreign issues."
As respected as Pew is, and exhaustive as the study is, the data won't end the debate over campaign coverage.
But it should shift it away from partisanship to this fundamental question: Does anyone really believe that the overwhelming press preference for horse race coverage is a good bet for voters?
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist.