AP refers to McCain as "Arizona Democrat"; are they turning into Fox?

There have been a number of indications that the Associated Press isn't being as neutral in the election as we would expect from a major media outlet. At an event in April, two Associated Press employees gave McCain a box of donuts and a cup of coffee - both prepared to his tastes - while the Chairman of the AP asked Obama a question about Afghanistan, where "Obama bin Laden is still at large". Concerns have been raised regarding AP campaign coverage of Iraq and health care, among other issues. The hypothesis that there might be a solid pro-McCain bias at the AP has received additional support and attention following recent revelations that the man responsible for APs campaign coverage sent Karl Rove an email that signed off with "keep up the fight", and "seriously considered" taking a job working for the McCain campaign.

An AP article published this morning is going to to absolutely nothing to reduce those concerns. The article is allegedly about Obama's calls to tax oil company profits in order to fund a tax rebate for Americans who are hurting at the pump. It uses this as a hook to "discuss" the energy plans of both candidates. It also seems to use a reporting technique that originated at Fox News: if you're going to criticize a Republican, make sure you report their party as "Democrat":

Obama has said recently that he would reluctantly consider accepting some new offshore oil drilling. Obama previously opposed any offshore drilling.

Lately, however, he has cited "very constructive" talks between Senate Republicans and Democrats on this issue. He praised a plan unveiled by a group of Republican and Democratic senators to permit drilling while supporting an effort to convert most vehicles to alternative fuels in 20 years.

McCain's campaign accused the Democrat of flip-flopping. However, the Arizona Democrat recently reversed his own former opposition to drilling on the Outer Continental Shelf.

This is the same sort of "mistake" that both Fox and the AP made during the Mark Foley scandal. It's also something that Fox did to McCain at least once during the Republican primary, at a time when they were clearly not rooting for him to win.

It's possible, of course that this is really just an honest mistake on the part of the AP's reporter. After all, it's an easy mistake to make, particularly if reporting on this sort of thing is your full-time job. (And the same goes for the copy editor.) Even assuming honest error there, the AP article still seems to exhibit a subtle pull for McCain. The article starts with:

CHICAGO (AP) -- Barack Obama's campaign will begin running a television ad Monday that attacks Republican John McCain's energy policies.

"After one president in the pocket of big oil we can't afford another," says the ad, referring to President Bush's previous work in the oil industry.

Obama hoped to emphasize energy and the economy in campaign stops this week in Michigan, Ohio and Indiana, beginning with a speech Monday in Lansing, Mich. Gas prices over $4 a gallon have become a top issue in the presidential contest.

Obama's spot trumpets his proposal to revive a windfall profits tax on energy companies and asserts that McCain favors tax breaks for the oil industry.

Neither the latest article or one written on Thursday by the same AP staff writer actually address whether or not Obama's "assertion" is correct.

The conclusion of the piece shifts the focus from Obama to McCain:

Both candidates have energy proposals to reduce U.S. dependence on oil. Obama's was first, and its centerpiece is a 10-year, $150 billion spending plan focusing on clean coal technology, further development of plug-in hybrid cars, commercialization of wind and solar power and other measures.

McCain's, which is called the Lexington Project, includes building 45 new nuclear power plants; offering a $300 million prize for major advancement of low-cost, plug-in hybrid or electric car technology; and "encouraging the market" in wind, hydroelectric and solar power. Both he and Obama would cut use of fossil fuels to combat climate change.

There are two things to note here.

First, look at the way the candidates' positions on hybrid cars are contrasted. When describing Obama's plan, the phrase is "further development of plug-in hybrid cars". With McCain, it becomes "major advancement of low-cost, plug-in hybrid". Is it just me, or do the favorable adjectives appear to be weighted just a bit toward the Democrat Republican?

The second thing to note is that the article starts with Obama and a tax increase, and ends with McCain's energy plan. This one is a bit more subtle. The conclusion of an article does a great deal to influence the reader's final impression. In this case, the conclusion is that McCain has a plan for alternative power, and is also going to fight climate change.

All of these things might not mean much taken individually. It's possible that the author had no conscious intention of changing the focus of his piece from Obama to McCain. It's also entirely possible that labeling McCain as a Democrat during the one part of the article that criticized him was an honest mistake. But neither of these things is an individual event, and it's becoming less and less reasonable to take them individually. There have been many complaints about both bias and conflict of interest in the AP's campaign coverage, and while there have been several complaints about Republicans being mislabeled as Democrats during negative coverage, I can't think of a case where the same error has been made in reverse.

Sadly, it's becoming more and more difficult to escape the conclusion that a national wire service like the AP is becoming as unfair and unbiased in it's political coverage as Fox.


While perusing Google News to see how many other media outlets have run the unaltered AP article with its "Arizona Democrat" phrase (answer: lots), I found an expanded version of the same AP article. This version does even more to reinforce the feeling that they're pulling for McCain. It includes the following:

"Barack Obama's latest attack ads shows his celebrity is matched only by his hypocrisy," said McCain spokesman Tucker Bounds. "After all it was Senator Obama, not John McCain, who voted for the Bush-Cheney energy bill that was a sweetheart deal for oil companies. Also not mentioned is the $400,000 from big oil contributors that Barack Obama has already pocketed in this election."

A less-biased article would almost certainly have followed that with some sort of indication that Obama isn't the only one taking oil money. It might even have noted that McCain took in $1.1 million - almost three times the amount they're criticizing Obama for taking - from oil industry employees in June alone. The AP hack job does neither.


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Do we have even a single example of this sort of mistake happening the other way round?

The fundamental bias is to keep the race -- any race; all races -- even. When the victor becomes obvious then who would listen to the media?

Yes, the media are partisan, but their party line is orthogonal to Democrat-Republican-Green etc.

By Matt Hussein Platte (not verified) on 04 Aug 2008 #permalink

>>First, look at the way the candidates' positions on hybrid cars are contrasted. When describing Obama's plan, the phrase is "further development of plug-in hybrid cars". With McCain, it becomes "major advancement of low-cost, plug-in hybrid"<<

what the ad sez is mccain would offer $300k for somebody who can demonstrate "a major advancement of low-cost, plug-in hybrid" tech. if you're looking for bias there, you're barking up the wrong tree.
some of the other mistakes such as obama/osama and democrat/republican are understandable given AP's redonkulous deadlines. stories are often filed within minutes of an event. now editors should catch those mistakes before they go across the wire -- that's inexcusable -- but be careful you're not projecting your own biases onto the reporting.
the news biz has enough problems as it is without readers blaming us for not telling them what they wanna hear.