Demanding a double standard

DEMANDING A DOUBLE STANDARD…. The Washington Post’s Dan Balz had an online item yesterday that was so odd, I read it a couple of times, just to make sure I wasn’t misinterpreting his point.

As Balz sees is, John McCain is very likely to lose on Nov. 4, so “the real focus now ought to be on Barack Obama.” The race isn’t completely over, Balz concedes, but given Obama’s current lead, questions from the media “ought to be going toward him as much or more than McCain.”

This strikes me as very foolish. Is Obama ahead right now? Obviously, yes. And if I had a McCain-like affinity for casinos, I’d probably wager that Obama is the safer bet right now. But three weeks is still a very long time in the course of a presidential race — if you don’t believe me, consider the developments of the last three weeks — and electoral conditions can change. There’s even another debate to go.

What Balz is suggesting is that the media effectively act as if the race is over, and start holding Obama to a higher standard. As Balz sees it, scrutinizing Obama more than his opponent is sensible, if not necessary.

It is hard to think of a new president who inherited such a rapidly altered landscape…. How adaptable is Obama to all of this? How willing is he to address these questions in real time, as opposed to later? How much time has he given recently to rethinking the scope and ambition of a possible Obama administration? Would he come to office with a determination to be bold or to be cautious? Is he the pragmatist that allies have suggested — or committed to a more ideologically oriented agenda, as his critics say?

To my mind, Obama has already addressed most, if not all, of this over the course of the last several months. But more importantly, why should Obama be pressed on these questions more than McCain? Because of a few polls?

Balz concluded that there “ought not to be any moratorium on asking hard questions of both candidates right now, and especially of the Democratic nominee.” Why “especially”? If major news outlets want to scrutinize the candidates closely over the remaining 21 days, with an emphasis on substance and philosophy of governing, I’d be delighted. But for those same outlets to decide in advance that the leading candidate deserves extra scrutiny, just because he’s ahead, seems wildly irresponsible.

Jonathan Chait’s conclusion in response to Balz was spot on: “I’ve heard reporters admit that coverage can be biased for one reason or another — ideology, desire for a close race, personal affinity for one of the candidates — but I’ve never before seen one openly propose a double standard.”

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Steve Benen

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.