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In campaigns, as in basketball, the refs get worked

Phil Jackson huffed along the sidelines and unleashed a post-game rant: His Lakers were manhandled, but the Celtics got all the calls.

Basketball is not a bad primer, it turns out, on how our political ballclubs carry on.

Team McCain has been complaining no end about how easy that lanky young rookie, Barack Obama, has it with the press, while their scrappy veteran suffers "fiction" at worst and inattention at best.

Reports on John McCain's bad temper are exaggerated, even imagined, his advisors say, and the Arizona senator gets not nearly the television time he's due as a presidential nominee.

Working the refs is a time-honored tradition in basketball and presidential politics. And for good reason: It can have an impact on the next contest.

"We can't sit back when the press clearly, clearly is giving Obama very favorable coverage and very little tough scrutiny and not sort of call fouls when they happen," McCain strategist Charles Black said in a story on Politico.com.

That's fine as a political strategy. But the reality is not so clear-cut. So here's a summary of the campaign media action thus far:

With little defense or tough officiating to slow him from the opening tip, the freshman senator from Illinois runs the floor like a gazelle. Most journalists don't think Obama will make the finals, anyway, so why not riff a little about "hope" and "change"?

A look at the box score early in the game (courtesy of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, which tracks stories at dozens of news outlets) confirms that nearly half of the stories about Obama in the first five months of 2007 are positive. McCain struggles behind, with 12% of his stories in the positive column.

But after his turnaround win in January's New Hampshire primary, the narrative on McCain begins to shift. This might be deemed the second quarter, when the press writes more about his character and appeal as a general election candidate.

After a barely discernible halftime, the general election campaign begins and McCain remains saddled with only one persistent negative story line -- that he has not been able to persuade his base that he is a "true" conservative.

But that "negative" could turn into a "positive" in a contest that could be decided by moderate voters.

The Washington-based Project for Excellence in Journalism backs up these conclusions not with think-tank bloviation but with actual research and analysis from nearly 50 outlets.

Some of you will no doubt try to prove that I'm wrong, but I think you'd have a hard time proving that the Los Angeles Times is in love with either Obama or McCain.

One Times story last fall described how Obama, billed as ethically chaste, fit right in playing the "blood sport" of Chicago politics. Another raised the specter of Obama as a political gamesman, who sometimes voted "present," or changed his vote, when confronted with controversial issues in the Illinois Legislature.

The Obama camp reacted with fury to yet another Times story last year, which quoted Chicago activists who said the politician had taken too much credit for successes they had won together in community activism.

As for McCain, critics on the left regularly describe how the "corporate media" plays footsie with him. But Los Angeles Times stories last year delved into the senator's many health challenges and questioned whether his "legendary temper" was becoming a campaign liability. And a front-page story in March found that many of McCain's "predictions and prescriptions" about the war in Iraq "turned out wrong."

Other media have taken swipes at both Obama and McCain. But like the stories above, they didn't fit the profile for talk radio or cable television. There's no "bounce" for stories with too much nuance and none of the sound and video that fill the electronic maw.

Yes, the media tends to love "firsts" and will fixate on Obama's bid to be the first African American president. But most journalists still work in a newsroom culture where the highest praise, for better or worse, goes to those who prove they are "tough."

So news hounds, many of them politically liberal in their other lives, probed every angle of Obama's relationship with his onetime pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. They dwelt on his contention that "bitter" voters turn to guns and God.

Don't expect your favorite polemicist, on the right or the left, to recall any of that coverage when they launch their next harangue.

So, to recap, the Lakers took the ball to the hoop more aggressively in Game 3. But just as importantly, Coach Jackson had smoothed a path by railing about the officials. The result: The Lakers got two dozen more free throws than they did in Game 2.

In campaign land, Obama won the first contest in Iowa. His opponents complained loudly that he was getting a free pass in the media. (Remember the "Saturday Night Live" parody? Journalists fawning and conceding they were "totally in the tank" for the young candidate.)

Shortly after that, in February, "we saw a downturn in Obama's coverage," said Mark Jurkowitz, the Project for Excellence in Journalism's associate director. "There was a week of stories that even said, 'We are giving this guy too easy a ride.' "

And that's why the campaigns and their true believers won't stop raving about the media. And why news consumers should receive that bleating with more than a little suspicion.

james.rainey@latimes.com

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