In Calling The Race, The Media Miss by a Mile
Saturday, January 5, 2008
For most of the past year, the news media treated Hillary Clinton as inevitable and Mike Huckabee as invisible.
In the wake of Thursday's Iowa caucuses, those judgments are looking rather shortsighted.
Until recent weeks, Huckabee was regarded as an asterisk, a former Arkansas governor whose entry into the presidential race didn't even warrant a mention on the "CBS Evening News." He was good for comic relief -- the wisecracking, bass-playing, weight-losing preacher man -- but not portrayed as a serious threat to win in Iowa or anyplace else. The media's chief benchmark is money, and Mitt Romney had truckloads of it and Huckabee very little.
Barack Obama, who beat Clinton in the Democratic contest, was initially hailed by anchors and pundits as a "rock star," but by the summer and fall he was depicted as a dull candidate who seemed to have little hope of catching up. Commentators openly urged him to attack the former first lady. Obama's winning margin was something of a surprise, but not as big, perhaps, as the bursting of the Hillary bubble that may have been inflated by a year's worth of press.
"Everyone just thought she was going to win -- I mean, how could she not?" says Keli Goff, an African American blogger and former Democratic strategist. "How could a freshman senator no one had heard of until a couple of years ago, whose name no one could pronounce, come out of nowhere and beat a woman married to the 'first black president'?"
Amy Holmes, a black conservative and former Republican speechwriter, says most journalists "are rooting for Obama, in part as a consequence of the media's testy relationship with Hillary. I think the media swallowed the whole concept that she was inevitable and then swallowed her contention that she was the most experienced."
Even on the right, says Holmes, a CNN commentator, "Obama's candidacy is exhilarating and exciting and makes us all feel better about ourselves."
In September and October, with the Illinois senator trailing Clinton nationally by 30 points, journalists began picking apart his strategy. "Does Obama's Message Match the Moment? Reconciliation May Be Hard Sell to Angry Party," a front-page Washington Post headline said.
But even as Obama moved into a virtual tie with Clinton and John Edwards in Iowa, he was spared the kind of searing scrutiny that accompanied Huckabee's rapid rise. Earlier stories about his ties to an indicted Chicago fundraiser remained dormant, and a New York Times piece on Obama repeatedly voting "present" as an Illinois legislator got no traction. He simply has less of a public record to investigate, and spilled some of his own secrets -- such as adolescent drug use -- in his autobiography.
After a debate last spring about whether Obama is "black enough" for the African American community, there has been surprisingly little media focus on his race. Obama campaigns differently than Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton, and journalists often portray him as transcending race -- much like Oprah Winfrey, whose stumping for her Chicago pal brought him still more good press.
Jim Geraghty, a columnist for National Review Online, says the historic nature of Obama's candidacy has a chilling effect on press criticism: "Okay, you write the piece that takes him down. You take this lovely and inspiring story of racial reconciliation and torch it all to hell. You write the expos¿ of the second coming of Martin Luther King."
On the Republican side, Huckabee's $2.3 million in fundraising for the first nine months of the year -- compared with the $44 million that Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, raised or donated to his campaign -- relegated him to the media's second tier. He was endlessly available for interviews because he badly needed the free exposure.