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Originally published Sunday, November 2, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Cable news reports it's good — and bad — to be John McCain

On any given night, there are two distinctly different views of the presidential campaign offered on two of the three big cable-news networks, Fox News Channel and MSNBC, a dual reality that also is reflected online.

The New York Times

WASHINGTON — It was a lousy day to be Sen. John McCain, Keith Olbermann told viewers Thursday on MSNBC.

Barack Obama's surge in the polls was so strong he was competitive in McCain's home state, Arizona. The everyman hero of McCain's campaign, "Joe the Plumber," failed to make an expected appearance at a rally in Defiance, Ohio, and the senator's efforts to highlight Obama's association with a professor tied to the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) were amounting to nothing.

Wait a minute ... not so fast. Click.

Things were looking up for McCain, Fox News Channel hosts Sean Hannity and Greta Van Susteren told viewers at roughly the same time. He received a boost at a rally in Sandusky, Ohio, from none other than "Joe the Plumber," who announced his intention to vote for "a real American, John McCain"; he was gaining new ground in ever-tightening polls, despite overwhelming bias against him in the mainstream media; and Obama's association with a professor sympathetic to the PLO was at "the center of the election."

On any given night, there are two distinctly different views of the presidential campaign offered on two of the three big cable-news networks, Fox News Channel and MSNBC, a dual reality that also is reflected online.

On one, polls that are "tightening" are emphasized over those that are not, and the rest of the media is portrayed as papering over questions about Obama's past associations with people who purportedly have anti-American tendencies. ("I feel like we are talking to the Germans after Hitler comes to power, saying, 'Oh, well, I didn't know,' " conservative commentator Ann Coulter told Hannity last week.)

On the other, polls that show tightening largely are ignored, and the race is cast as one between an angry and erratic McCain, whose desperate, misleading campaign has as low as a 4 percent chance of beating a cool, confident, deserving Democratic nominee. ("He's been a good father, a good citizen; he's paid attention to his country," MSNBC host Chris Matthews said Wednesday. "Give the guy a break and think about voting for him.")

It is a political division of news that harks back to the way American journalism was through the first half of the 20th century, when newspapers had more open political affiliations. But it never has been so apparent in such a clear-cut way on TV, a result of market forces and partisan sensibilities chipping away at the post-Watergate preeminence of a more dispassionate approach.

That more objective approach came as the corporate owners of the networks pushed for higher profits and the newspaper industry consolidated and sought broader audiences. "To sell as many copies as you could to as many people as you could, you became what we considered 'objective,' " said Richard Wald, a professor of media and society at Columbia University School of Journalism and a former senior vice president at ABC News.

Fox News Channel was founded 12 years ago with an argument that the mainstream media were biased toward liberals and that nonliberals were starved for a "Fair and Balanced" television antidote by day and openly conservative-leaning opinion by night. But MSNBC, long struggling for an identity, only recently established itself as a liberal alternative to Fox News Channel.

The presidential campaign and the partisan and ideological intensity surrounding it have been the perfect subject for both sides.

The result is a return to a "great tradition of American journalism," Wald said. "Basically, you chose your news outlet if it made you happy, if it reinforced all your views."

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Indeed, voters who primarily get their news from Web sites such as The Huffington Post by day and MSNBC by night, and those who primarily get theirs from The Drudge Report by day and Fox News Channel by night would have different views of the candidates and the news driving the campaign year.

When Politico.com reported Oct. 21 that the Republican National Committee had spent $150,000 on clothing for Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, Olbermann interrupted his program to promote the story and discuss it, as did Rachel Maddow, whose program follows.

Fox News didn't report it until the next morning, on "Fox & Friends" in a segment in which the report was described as sexist and unfair, and Bill O'Reilly and Van Susteren later criticized the media for giving it as much attention as they had.

That was a reversal from May 2007, when news broke that former Sen. John Edwards had paid $400 for a haircut out of his Democratic presidential-campaign account.

Olbermann named Hannity the "Worst Person in the World," a running feature on his program, for making fun of Edwards' haircut and showing video of him styling his hair before an interview.

O'Reilly had said of Edwards at the time: "He runs around telling Americans the system is rigged, while paying $400 for a haircut. This guy is a one-man sitcom."

The Project for Excellence in Journalism at the Pew Research Center has studied the election-year coverage and found that McCain has been the subject of more negative reports in general than has Obama on issues that include assessments of their performances in polls, the debates and running their campaigns.

But within that universe, the study found, the number of positive reports on McCain at Fox News was above the average of the media at large, and the number of negative reports about Obama was higher, too.

The study also found that MSNBC featured more negative reports about McCain than the rest of the media and more positive reports about Obama.

Fox News Channel executives would not comment for this article. Phil Griffin, president of MSNBC, agreed his network gives an opinionated viewpoint at night. "All of our material is based on fact; our guys work really hard on it, and the point-of-view shows make their conclusions," he said.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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