DOWNPLAYING THE DIFFERENCES…. In early June, Paul Krugman had an interesting item on the media’s coverage of the presidential campaign, as the dominant story shifted from a 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. When the focus shifted to Obama and John McCain, it made 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 seemed unlikely. Obama and McCain are so different — personally, ideologically, professionally, temperamentally — the media just can’t screw this up.

But as the latest analysis piece from the AP demonstrates, they’re going to give it their best shot.

John McCain and Barack Obama share common ground on a surprising selection of issues where the age-old Republican-Democratic divide doesn’t cut it anymore.

Both want the United States to join the campaign against global warming in earnest. Both want to cut taxes for the middle class. […]

As much as the candidates would be loathe to admit it, circumstance and the evolution of war policy have even diminished their differences over the course in Iraq.

Call it the McBama agenda, a limited but striking bipartisan convergence.

The LA Times recently had a similar front-page item downplaying the enormous differences between the two candidates, as did Bloomberg News.

There’s just no excuse for such bizarre reporting.

Let’s unwrap the AP piece in a little more detail.

* Global warming: The AP says both want to combat climate change “in earnest.” In reality, yes, both Obama and McCain agree that global warming is serious. The difference is, Obama has an ambitious policy to combat the trend, while McCain’s rhetoric doesn’t meet reality.

* Taxes: The AP says both want to cut taxes for the middle class. This neglects to mention that Obama’s tax cuts for the middle class are bigger, and that McCain’s tax cuts for the extremely wealthy are even more regressive than Bush’s tax policies.

* Iraq: While there’s been security progress in Iraq, to suggest there are minimal differences between Obama and McCain on Iraq policy is backwards. These two haven’t agreed on almost any aspect of the war for six years.

* Stem cell research: The AP says both want to end the ban on federal money for embryonic stem cell research. That’s true, but it neglects to mention that McCain is running on a party platform that would prohibit any and all research, publicly or privately financed.

* Gay rights: The AP says there are “only shades of difference over key questions about gay marriage.” This neglects to mention that while Obama is a supporter of gay rights, McCain is virulently anti-gay, even opposing civil unions and gay adoption.

* Cap and trade: The AP says, “They are both advocating a cap and trade system that would force companies that cannot meet targets to pay for the right to pollute.” This neglects to mention that McCain recently announced that he no longer supports the “cap” part of his “cap-and-trade” policy.

In other words, even on issues where the media says these two agree, they disagree.

Voters have a choice between two very different candidates, offering two very different agendas, at a critical time in American history. Why would media outlets like the AP deliberately paper over these differences?

Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.