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Downplaying The Differences Between Obama, McCain

Paul Krugman had an interesting item in early June on the media’s coverage of the presidential campaign as the dominant story shifts from a heated p

Paul Krugman had an interesting item in early June on the media’s coverage of the presidential campaign as the dominant story shifts from a heated primary race to the general election. When the focus was on Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, it was in the media’s interest to exaggerate differences between two candidates who agree on almost everything. With the focus shifting to Obama and John McCain, it should make the media’s job easier — there are, as Krugman noted, “stark differences on issues between the candidates.”

There’s no way to argue that Obama and McCain — a classic story of contrasts — offer similar ideas and solutions. Krugman noted that eight years ago, news outlets ran far too many stories downplaying the differences between Bush and Al Gore — stories that look comically ridiculous in hindsight — and wondered whether journalists might try a similar tack this year.

It seems unlikely, doesn’t it? Obama and McCain are so different — personally, ideologically, professionally, temperamentally — the media just can’t screw this up.

But they’re going to try. The LAT had a front-page item over the weekend downplaying the enormous differences between the two major-party candidates.

Stem-cell research and nuclear weapons are just two examples of a surprising but little-noticed aspect of the 2008 campaign: Democrat Obama and Republican McCain agree on a range of issues that have divided the parties under Bush.

On immigration, faith-based social services, expanded government wiretapping, global warming and more, Obama and McCain have arrived at similar stances — even as they have spent weeks trying to amplify the differences between them on other issues, such as healthcare and taxes…. Even on Iraq, a signature issue for both candidates, McCain and Obama have edged toward each other.

First, much of this is factually wrong. Second, I can’t imagine why news outlets are trying to downplay the differences between these candidates in the first place.

The LAT points to Obama and McCain agreeing on immigration. That’s half true — both have supported legislation on comprehensive reform, which included a pathway to citizenship. What the Times neglects to mention, though, is that McCain abandoned (then re-embraced, then abandoned again, then re-embraced again) Obama’s position during the Republican primaries. At this point, it’s hard to know for sure if Obama and McCain agree or not, since no one can know for sure which position McCain will support on any given day.

On faith-based policy, both Obama and McCain agree on the broad notion of contracting with religious ministries, but that’s a small part of a much larger story. How the two would implement such a policy is actually a study in contrasts — Obama wants to keep safeguards in place to protect taxpayers, faith-based groups, and the rights of beneficiaries. McCain, however, wants to follow the Bush model. This isn’t an area of agreement; it’s an area of disagreement.

On government wiretapping, Obama made a mistake by voting for the FISA “compromise,” but he and McCain differed on telecom immunity, and more importantly, Obama wants to re-open the issue next year; McCain doesn’t.

On global warming, both Obama and McCain agree that climate change is serious, but Obama has an ambitious policy to combat the trend. McCain’s rhetoric, meanwhile, doesn’t meet reality.

And for crying out loud, to suggest that these two are similar on Iraq is ridiculous. McCain believes an indefinite U.S. military presence in Iraq is the solution; Obama believes an indefinite U.S. military presence in Iraq is the problem. One wants to withdraw; one wants to stay. One likes the status quo; one rejects it. One opposed this war from the outset; one has supported it from the outset and recently said he’d do it all over again.

The LAT noted that both candidates “favor combating global warming with a ‘cap and trade’ system,” without mentioning that McCain’s model wouldn’t actually include a “cap.” The article said both candidates advocate “stepped-up negotiations with Russia,” without mentioning that McCain’s model would also reportedly include antagonizing Russia by trying to kick it out of the G8. The article said “both embrace the idea of continuing Bush’s faith-based initiative,” despite the fact that this is demonstrably false.

But what’s especially striking is the media trend in general. This misguided LAT piece follows an equally flawed LAT editorial, and a Bloomberg News article, both of which made the same mistake.

Voters have a choice between two very different candidates, offering two very different agendas, at a critical time. Why would media outlets intentionally paper over these differences? Shouldn’t journalists be doing the exact opposite? Doesn’t conflict sell better?

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