REALITY HAS A WELL-KNOWN LIBERAL BIAS…. I’m a little behind on this one, but Deborah Howell, the Washington Post’s ombudsman, had an item the other day scrutinizing the paper’s coverage of the presidential campaign. She concluded that the Post had an “Obama tilt” over the course of the year

The op-ed page ran far more laudatory opinion pieces on Obama, 32, than on Sen. John McCain, 13. There were far more negative pieces about McCain, 58, than there were about Obama, 32, and Obama got the editorial board’s endorsement. The Post has several conservative columnists, but not all were gung-ho about McCain. […]

The number of Obama stories since Nov. 11 was 946, compared with McCain’s 786. Both had hard-fought primary campaigns, but Obama’s battle with Hillary Rodham Clinton was longer, and the numbers reflect that.

McCain clinched the GOP nomination on March 4, three months before Obama won his. From June 4 to Election Day, the tally was Obama, 626 stories, and McCain, 584.

Indeed, Howell offers all kinds of numbers. Obama stories led McCain stories by 42 (626 to 584), but Howell doesn’t explain whether those stories were flattering or unflattering. Obama led in front-page articles by 32 (176 to 144), but again, there’s no indication of whether the coverage was positive or negative. Obama also led in Post photographs by 29 (311 to 282).

These numbers aren’t exactly overwhelming, but far-right blogs were thrilled by Howell’s report, using it as “proof” of media bias.

Now, in principle, this kind of scrutiny is welcome. Part of the problem with Howell’s analysis, though, is that it’s terribly flawed. More specifically, it identifies the wrong goal for a major news outlet.

For example, Howell was troubled by the imbalance of the op-ed page. There are a variety of conservatives on the page, but some, most notably George Will and Anne Applebaum, found McCain’s campaign deficient, and explained to readers when the Republican ticket was wrong. This is a problem because … well, I’m not sure why it’s a problem. Apparently, the ombudsman wants “balance” — in this case, relatively similar numbers — regardless of merit. Howell’s goal isn’t to see the paper provide insightful analysis of political events; the goal is to provide equal analysis of the events.

But what if one of the candidates is wrong more than the other? Or runs a sleazier campaign? Or makes more mistakes/gaffes? Or broadcasts more dishonest ads? Or offers policy proposals that stand up poorly to scrutiny? Is the goal of the newspaper to cover the campaign as it happens in reality, or to cover the campaign with forced balance, regardless of merit?

E&P’s Greg Mitchell raises an important point on Howell’s analysis, noting that most of the Post’s coverage was built around horse-race stories. With that in mind, since Obama was winning, he necessarily had more “positive” coverage.

“[W]e will be reading for years about the strong media ‘bias’ against McCain when it was mainly (although perhaps not completely) a matter of Obama leading the horse race and getting credit for that by reporters who were, surprise, not deaf, dumb and blind,” Mitchell noted. “Does anyone doubt that if McCain had roared to the lead in October and stayed ahead until the end that the results of the studies would have been completely different? Yes, the press is biased — in favor of recognizing who is winning and stating that perhaps too often.”

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.