For Clinton, A Matter of Fair Media

Sen. Clinton filing candidacy papers in New Hampshire last month. The onetime leader's recent dip in Iowa and New Hampshire polls has been portrayed as disastrous by many in the media.
Sen. Clinton filing candidacy papers in New Hampshire last month. The onetime leader's recent dip in Iowa and New Hampshire polls has been portrayed as disastrous by many in the media. (By Jim Cole -- Associated Press)
By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 19, 2007

DES MOINES, Dec. 18 -- After weeks of bad news, Hillary Clinton and her strategists hoped that winning the endorsement of Iowa's largest newspaper last weekend might produce a modest bump in their media coverage.

But on Sunday morning, they awoke to upbeat headlines about their chief Democratic rival: "Obama Showing New Confidence With Iowa Sprint," said the New York Times. "Obama Is Hitting His Stride in Iowa," said the Los Angeles Times. And on Monday, Clinton aides were so upset about a contentious "Today" show interview that one complained to the show's producer.

Clinton's senior advisers have grown convinced that the media deck is stacked against them, that their candidate is drawing far harsher scrutiny than Barack Obama. And at least some journalists agree.

"She's just held to a different standard in every respect," says Mark Halperin, Time's editor at large. "The press rooted for Obama to go negative, and when he did he was applauded. When she does it, it's treated as this huge violation of propriety." While Clinton's mistakes deserve full coverage, Halperin says, "the press's flaws -- wild swings, accentuating the negative -- are magnified 50 times when it comes to her. It's not a level playing field."

Newsweek's Howard Fineman says Obama's coverage is the buzz of the presidential campaign. "While they don't say so publicly because it's risky to complain, a lot of operatives from other campaigns say he's getting a free ride, that people aren't tough enough on Obama," Fineman says. "There may be something to that. He's the new guy, an interesting guy, a pathbreaker and trendsetter perhaps."

Obama spokesman Bill Burton says the accusation of softer treatment is untrue but "the Clinton campaign whines about it so much, it becomes part of the chatter. No candidate in this race has undergone more investigations and examinations than Barack Obama has," he says, citing lengthy pieces in the Chicago Tribune and New York Times. "As Obama says, running against the Clintons is not exactly a cakewalk. Their research operation has ensured that if there's any information about Obama to be had, it's been distributed to the media."

The question, of course, is what journalists do with that information.

Asked for comment about the coverage of Clinton, her spokesman, Jay Carson, says: "I'll just say that at the Clinton campaign, we do our best to live by the old adage that it's not wise to pick fights with people who buy ink by the barrel."

For nearly a year, the New York senator was widely depicted as the inevitable nominee. But now many media accounts are casting her recent dip in the Iowa and New Hampshire polls as a disaster in the making.

"Slipping Away?" said a headline on ABC's "Good Morning America." "Hillary Clinton's campaign is teetering on the brink," Fineman wrote in Newsweek. CBS's Jim Axelrod said her operation is "reeling." The Los Angeles Times said she is facing her "most serious crisis." And a banner headline on the Drudge Report asked: "Is It the End?"

When Clinton's New Hampshire co-chairman resigned last week after raising the issue of Obama's adolescent drug use, the issue itself received scant treatment in the media because Obama had disclosed it in his 1995 autobiography. "He has been able, by luck or planning, to control his own story, because he wrote it first," Fineman says.

The Illinois senator's fundraising receives far less press attention than Clinton's. When The Washington Post reported last month that Obama used a political action committee to hand more than $180,000 to Democratic groups and candidates in the early-voting states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, the suggestion that he might be buying support received no attention on the network newscasts. The Clinton team is convinced that would have been a bigger story had it involved the former first lady.

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