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.
There was also a lack of media pickup when the Atlantic's Marc Ambinder reported that an Obama aide had sat down next to him and "wanted to know when reporters would begin to look into Bill Clinton's post-presidential sex life."
When NBC's David Gregory interviewed Hillary Clinton Monday during her round of morning-show appearances, he briefly noted her endorsement by the Des Moines Register before asking what had happened to her momentum. He pressed six times for a reaction to her husband's telling PBS's Charlie Rose that the country would "roll the dice" if it elected Obama. "So you're choosing not to answer that question," Gregory finally said.
Moments later, when Meredith Vieira interviewed John McCain, who had also won the Register's endorsement, most of the questions revolved around how he could win the Republican nomination despite trailing in the polls, with one query about his temper.
When Obama appeared on "Today" last month, Matt Lauer asked whether Clinton was playing the "gender card" against him, about his pledge to meet with hostile foreign leaders, and whether he thought the country was heading for a recession.
Journalists repeatedly described Obama as a "rock star" when he jumped into the race in January. His missteps -- such as when his staff mocked Clinton's position on the outsourcing of jobs overseas by referring to the Democrat not as representing a state but as "D-Punjab" -- generated modest coverage, but rarely at the level surrounding Clinton's mistakes. Some reporters told Clinton aides when she enjoyed a double-digit lead that she is held to a higher standard as the front-runner.
Obama did undergo something of a media audit earlier this year, with stories focusing on his record in the Illinois Senate and his ties to indicted fundraiser Tony Rezko. But his recent rise in the polls hasn't brought the kind of full-time frisking being visited on the hottest Republican, Mike Huckabee. In fact, much of the coverage of Oprah Winfrey stumping for Obama bordered on gushing.
In an online posting Monday, ABC reported that an Obama volunteer wearing a press pass asked the candidate a friendly question about tax policy at an Iowa event. But several of the assembled reporters huddled and concluded that it was not a story, one of them said. Clinton faced a storm of media criticism over a similar planted question.
Some reporters confess that they are enjoying Clinton's slippage, if only because it enlivens what had become a predictable narrative of her cruising to victory. The prospect of a newcomer knocking off a former first lady is one heck of a story.
Halperin, who surveys political news at Time.com's the Page, says: "Your typical reporter has a thinly disguised preference that Barack Obama be the nominee. The narrative of him beating her is better than her beating him, in part because she's a Clinton and in part because he's a young African American. . . . There's no one rooting for her to come back."
Sometimes the Clinton complaints go too far. In the PBS interview last week, Bill Clinton challenged the media's ridicule of his wife for pointing out that Obama had written a kindergarten essay saying he wanted to be president one day. It was just a joke, the former president contended, and Obama's camp "got a few stenographers to write stories as if this kindergarten letter was serious," he said. In fact, the kindergarten matter was included in a humorless release about Obama's longtime ambition, and Clinton aides have admitted it was a mistake.
Her campaign faces lingering resentment among many reporters over the lack of access to the candidate and the aggressive style of some of her operatives, who push back hard against stories they dislike. CNN correspondent Candy Crowley received a blistering e-mail merely for asking questions about reports that the former president was unhappy with the campaign's direction.
When Obama was languishing in the polls for months, the media tended to fault him for not being aggressive enough against Clinton, rather than for specific positions or comments.
"The problem here may be that Obama remains reluctant to really go after Hillary's character -- to portray her as unethical and dishonest on some fundamental level," the New Republic's Michael Crowley wrote. Fineman suggested that Obama "attack more in sorrow than in anger" and "argue that Clinton is too polarizing, that she cannot win a general election."
Some accounts have questioned Obama's record but were not widely picked up by other news organizations, despite a full-court press by the Clinton camp. Politico questioned whether Obama might be too liberal for a general election, noting a 1996 questionnaire in which he opposed the death penalty and backed a ban on the manufacture and possession of handguns. The Capitol Hill newspaper also reported that after reporters questioned Obama's declaration that lobbyists "won't work in my White House," he softened his stance at the next campaign stop, saying lobbyists "are not going to dominate my White House."
Clinton benefits greatly from her global celebrity and the novelty of a president's wife trying to win the office he had held. She can command attention at a moment's notice, such as when all six network and cable morning shows jumped at the chance to interview her Monday, just as the five Sunday shows did in September. But the withering spotlight can also lead to the spread of distortions, such as an erroneous radio report that she and her party had eaten at an Iowa diner without leaving a tip.
At an appearance Monday in suburban Johnston, where she was lauded by old friends and people she had helped, Clinton seemed to signal a degree of frustration with her media image.
"I want you to have some flavor of who I am, outside of the television cameras," she said.