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Whatever happened to balanced coverage?

Moments before I began writing this, Good Morning America's Robin Roberts began the ABC broadcast by saying the network has team coverage of Barack Obama's trip to Europe and the Middle East. That coverage included criticisms by John McCain's campaign that Obama's trip is little more than a photo opportunity by a presidential candidate trying to beef up his foreign policy resume and reputation. Regardless of if you agree with the McCain campaign's assessment of the trip, you do have to wonder about the over-the-top coverage of the trip and, indeed, Obama's campaign in general, by the mainstream media.

CNN's Jack Cafferty noticed the disproportionate coverage. In his blog yesterday he pointed out that 200 journalists have asked to travel with Obama overseas and that all three broadcast networks will send their main anchors to cover the story. Brian Williams, Charlie Gibson and Katie Couric did not join McCain on any of his three foreign trips in the last four months. Cafferty also points out that since June, the networks have devoted almost three times as much coverage to Obama as McCain. I agree with Cafferty's assessments, including historical significance, about why Obama garners more coverage, but it doesn't make it OK.

You may ask if there is a law or regulation that requires news agencies to use balance in their coverage. Yes and no. It all has to do with the so-called Equal Time Rule, which dates back to the Radio Act of 1927. Congress was concerned, perhaps rightfully so, that broadcasters may use the airwaves to skew an election through unbalanced coverage. Over time, though, the rule has evolved/devolved. Eventually Congress, likely trying to protect the ability of incumbents to get better coverage than their opponents, established certain exemptions from the Equal Time Rule, which mainly applied to news coverage. In other words, a news program could show a candidate without being worried about having to give opponents equal time, but other formats outside of news would trigger the rule. For instance, when Arnold Schwarzenegger ran for governor in California, his movies were pulled from the airwaves, because showing Terminator on a LA station would mean the station would have to give all his opponents the same amount of time.

Even though we are excluded from a governmental requirement to balance our coverage of candidates, a sense of ethics should dictate we do a better job. It is our job as journalists to serve the public interest and provide fair coverage of issues, including elections. While I agree with the exception that allows us to cover an incumbent doing his or her official work and not having to worry about giving equal time to an opponent, I do not agree with giving one candidate a free ride for something purely related to a campaign, as seems to be happening with Obama's foreign trip.

By: Kevin Wuzzardo

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