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Obama? So Handsome, And Probably Delicious

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 30, 2006

"Why Barack Obama Could Be Our Next President," says Time's cover.

"Would you announce on this show?" Oprah Winfrey asked.

"If your party says to you, 'We need you' -- and there's already a drumbeat out there -- will you respond?" NBC's Meredith Vieira asked.

When the media fall in love with a promising politician, they usually shower him with accolades as a way of enticing him into a big-time race. But in the case of Obama, who has been a senator for less than two years, some are dispensing with the niceties.

From the left: "You embody the politics of hope. But such moments don't last forever. I hope you run," writes Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page.

From the right: "Barack Obama should run for president. . . . Obama is a new kind of politician," writes New York Times columnist David Brooks.

Unreal. The Illinois Democrat waded into this by hawking his new book, and when Obama answered Tim Russert's "Meet the Press" question eight days ago by saying he is thinking about running in 2008 -- rather than the usual phony dodge -- the floodgates opened. It was front-page news in The Washington Post, and the New York Times weighed in with a piece examining the impact on Hillary Rodham Clinton. Slate Editor Jacob Weisberg says Obama would be the instant front-runner.

The subtext is a journalistic hunger for a young, attractive black candidate who somehow seems to transcend race. Not since the media establishment tried to draft Colin Powell for president in 1995 have reporters, columnists and talk show hosts so openly swooned over a potential White House occupant.

Of course, Powell engaged in a great tease about his political intentions and never did make a run, but sold 2 million copies of his autobiography in the process. Could Obama be playing a similar game?

"It seems that the whole media establishment has just been snookered by the PR blitz designed just to sell the book," Lynn Sweet, Washington bureau chief of the Chicago Sun-Times, said in a CNN interview.

Obama's appeal isn't hard to fathom. With a father from Kenya and a mother from Kansas, a stint as president of the Harvard Law Review and a style that is both charismatic and conciliatory, he seems to offer an antidote to today's polarizing politics. But with a war raging in Iraq and terror threats around the globe, are the media really pushing someone who two years ago was a state senator in Springfield, Ill.?

To which some of the pundits are replying: Experience? Who needs experience? That just makes you more vulnerable to negative ads. More Senate seasoning, they say, will make Obama seem like just another droning Washington pol.

Obama got elected without a scratch after his Republican opponent quit amid allegations by his ex-wife about being pressured to have sex at public clubs, and replacement candidate Alan Keyes quickly fizzled. The Post pronounced Obama "the party's new phenom" when he spoke at the 2004 Democratic convention. Before Obama had so much as taken office, he was on the cover of Newsweek, which put him in a league with Tiger Woods and Bobby Kennedy. But that was an early harbinger of a press corps that sees the man as an empty vessel into which its fondest hopes can be projected.

"The bar got set impossibly high the minute after that convention speech," says Obama spokesman Tommy Vietor.

Not everyone has drunk the Kool-Aid. Ken Silverstein of Harper's has a cover story this month questioning whether the senator is starting to cozy up to his big donors. Times columnist Maureen Dowd made fun of his "modeling gigs in Men's Vogue, Marie Claire, Vanity Fair and Washington Life." And Joe Klein, in the generally favorable Time cover story, said Obama is less than bold when it comes to policy.

If Obama decides to take the plunge, the free ride is over. As Page noted in his please-run column, the media will turn on him like a bunch of vultures. And they won't have far to look: Obama's acknowledgment in his book of having played around with marijuana, alcohol and "maybe a little blow" may seem a bit less charmingly candid in a declared presidential candidate.

Vietor says his boss expects tougher scrutiny if he runs. "For any candidate, there is a honeymoon period," he says. "When an announcement is made, the claws come out and research documents fly out of the back rooms and reporters turn a more critical eye on the candidate."

John McCain was the last presidential contender to cause media hearts to throb, but in the heat of the 2000 primaries, journalists started questioning his temper and his tactics. Reporters have a way of discovering a dark side of even the most admirable public figures. And if Obama takes his pristine image into the muddy arena of presidential politics, even the warm embrace of Oprah won't protect him.

Don't Shoot

Last week, this column suggested that investigative reporting -- the kind that has uncovered a slew of major congressional scandals -- would undoubtedly suffer as some newsrooms get slashed by 20 or 25 percent.

Now I stand accused of essentially arguing, "Don't touch this paper or we'll shoot these investigative reporters."

Slate media writer Jack Shafer draws a comparison to cities that, when faced with budget cuts, immediately threaten to close firehouses as a way of rallying public support. It's wrongheaded, Shafer says, to "somehow correlate the full employment of journalists with the common good. If there is a profession that doesn't think it's essential to the steady rotation of the planet around the sun, I've never heard of it."

Buzz Machine blogger Jeff Jarvis also weighs in, saying that what I should lament "is the refusal of newspaper editors to wake up and smell the latte: all the wasted froth that squanders their budgets. The newspaper has to learn what its real value is and that is, indeed, reporting and its editors have to stop defending raw numbers of bodies."

Not to spoil a good food fight, but I don't disagree with any of that. Some newspapers are overstaffed. Not all budget cuts are bad. Not every newspaper in America needs to have a reporter covering the White House, or London, or attending political conventions and writing the same pap as everyone else. What's more, lest they suffer the fate of General Motors by churning out gas-guzzlers, they need to move more boldly into the digital age, which probably requires smaller newsrooms than in the past as print circulations decline.

But many of the corporate executives ordering these cuts don't care about finding innovative ways to cover the news; they just want to please Wall Street by getting the payroll down.

Investigative reporting doesn't just mean maintaining separate SWAT teams. Beat reporters do important digging all the time, but that requires having a few extra days or weeks to pursue leads and pore over records. If, in depleted newsrooms, they have to churn out copy every other hour, the chances that they'll look into the mayor's land deal or the congressman's favors for big contributors are greatly diminished.

Newspapers -- good ones, at least -- do two things that, if their staffs shrivel, no TV station, Web site or blogger will be able to match. One is to provide detailed local coverage of schools, hospitals, zoning battles and town councils. The other is holding public officials and business executives accountable with aggressive investigative work.

They are also tradition-encrusted places that need to become less cautious, less stuffy and less arrogant. But if the critics think that a starvation diet will somehow produce healthier reporting, they are fantasizing.

End of Discussion

"I was hoping he'd say 'You're fired!' " -- Chicago Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin, recounting how Donald Trump hung up on him during an interview on local criticism of his planned 92-story Windy City tower.

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