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McCain camp cries foul

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"Typically, complaining about the media is one of the steps on the 12-step program to losing," says Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Washington-based Project for Excellence in Journalism, which analyzes media coverage of the campaign. "When you're ahead, you don't complain about the press coverage, even if you think they only cover the gaffes and never the substance."

Still, he notes, it's early in the general election campaign, and McCain is trailing Obama by only a few points in the polls – outperforming his party's ravaged image. And, say others, there are good reasons for McCain to allege media bias.

"What you have here is a preemptive strike, a traditional tactic of politicians," says David Paletz, a political scientist at Duke University. "If you complain enough about media bias, journalists to some extent internalize it and think we have to be as tough, or maybe we're not being as tough on Obama as we are on McCain."

That's not to say there really is a bias on the part of news reporters, he says. The first question is, what does one mean by "the media?" Cable TV channels devoted to politics, such as MSNBC and Fox, may display biases, but those are more forums for opinion, rather than straight news outlets. When voters tell pollsters they see bias in "the media," it's not clear which sources of coverage they're reacting to. And Obama has contended with plenty of negative coverage – from the flap over his former minister, Jeremiah Wright, to his comment about "bitter" voters, to the mini-tempest over his not wearing an American flag pin (which he now wears).

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