WASHINGTON -- It is the elephant in the room, the talk of the radio airwaves, the shadow that some believe is hovering over the presidential race.
These days, at least, no subject is more likely to cause teeth-gnashing on the right, waves of e-mail complaints and defensive-sounding explanations by journalists.
Over the past month, many conservatives, Republican voters and even some journalists themselves have concluded that the mainstream media are tilting heavily toward Vice President Al Gore.
Never mind that George W. Bush enjoyed a solid year of largely favorable press coverage while Gore was depicted as a bumbling, wardrobe-changing stiff. Never mind that reporters tend to follow the polls, heaping praise on front-runners and skewering candidates who fall behind. The sudden reversal of fortune that began with The Kiss has fueled suspicions that Gore has the fourth estate not-so-subtly on his side.
Even as nonpartisan an observer as political analyst Charlie Cook felt compelled to declare in the National Journal that reporters are "larding their stories with their own ideological biases" in favor of Gore.
Many journalists say this is nonsense, but the perception has clearly taken hold. More than half of all Bush supporters say the press is biased against the Texas governor, according to an Editor & Publisher poll. Only a minority of Gore backers see the media as biased, not surprisingly, but 35 percent of those who do concede that their man has gotten more than an even break.
"There's a coming-home factor in the late stages of a campaign in which the Democratic candidate tends to do very well and the Republican candidate doesn't do very well," said Brit Hume, Washington managing editor of Fox News. "The media are not disposed toward Republican presidents -- any Republican president -- and really never have been."
"I don't buy it," replied Ronald Brownstein, political writer for the Los Angeles Times. "Bush by and large has better relations with his press corps than Gore does with his. When Gore was behind in the spring, his campaign was portrayed as constantly making mistakes. What's changed for Bush? What's changed is that he's losing."
Since Sept. 4, according to the Center for Media and Public Affairs, comments about Gore on the ABC, CBS and NBC evening newscasts have been 55 percent positive, compared to 35 percent positive for Bush. By contrast, Bush got 62 percent positive evaluations in July.
Cook, who publishes the Cook Political Report, said the pre-convention coverage of the 2000 campaign was "fairer and more balanced than I'd seen in a long time." But, he added, "when there was the perception that Gore could win and might win, suddenly the cheerleading started. It's like football: When their team seemed hopelessly behind, there was very little rooting -- until the team started scoring."
Most journalists dismiss such charges of liberal bias as a stale stereotype.
First, they say reporters personally like Bush, who enjoys slapping backs and giving journalists nicknames, and that the governor garnered plenty of favorable headlines from the moment he jumped into the race in the summer of 1999.
Second, they say that once Gore shed his lackluster image and surged in the polls after the Democratic convention, it was inevitable that the media spotlight would focus on how he managed to overtake Bush.
Finally, they argue that Bush has stumbled badly in recent weeks -- on everything from calling a reporter a vulgar name to getting sidetracked in a debate over debates -- and that the recent coverage reflects this uneven performance.
What really riles those on the right is the conviction that not all gaffes are treated equally by the media. For example, they say, the rats were big news and the dog was not.
The New York Times ran a front-page story on a Republican ad that included the word "rats" for 1/30th of a second, although the same information had been reported two weeks earlier by Fox News Channel. All the networks jumped on the story, playing the subliminal image over and over.
But when the Boston Globe reported last week that Gore had misstated the prices of prescription drugs for his mother-in-law and his dog, the Big Three evening newscasts didn't touch the controversy for three days -- until "CBS Evening News" devoted part of a story to the dog tale Wednesday and "NBC Nightly News" did the same Thursday. (The Washington Post reported both the rats ad and the dog story on inside pages.)
Mike Rosen, a conservative radio host at Denver's KOA, says Gore's canine flub was worse because there is no evidence that Bush knew about the rats image.
Fox's Hume called the rats story "ridiculously overplayed."
But Michael Oreskes, the Times' Washington bureau chief, said flatly: "I don't see any evidence that the coverage right now of this campaign is being tilted by the political predilections of reporters."
Major newspapers led the way in unearthing a raft of scandals involving President Clinton -- the New York Times broke the Whitewater story, the Los Angeles Times was out front on the 1996 fund-raising abuses and The Washington Post broke the Monica Lewinsky story. What's more, the media provided unusually upbeat coverage of John McCain, a conservative Republican, during the primaries.
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