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Correction to This Article
This column incorrectly says that the Associated Press had erroneously projected, based on exit polls, that Hillary Rodham Clinton would win the Feb. 5 Democratic primary in Missouri. The AP says exit polls played no part in its projection.
Campaign Story Lines, All Knotted Up

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 11, 2008

In the seven days before Super Tuesday, Mike Huckabee was featured in a grand total of 2 percent of presidential campaign stories.

The media -- that is, the same media that all but ignored him before he won the Iowa caucuses in January -- were selling the Republican race as a two-man showdown. John McCain was a significant presence in 37 percent of stories and Mitt Romney in 21 percent, says a study of newspaper, television, radio and online coverage by the Washington-based Project for Excellence in Journalism.

Talk about betting on the wrong horse. Huckabee won five states -- which anchors and pundits treated as a stunning development -- and took Kansas and Louisiana on Saturday, while Romney abruptly dropped out.

Time and again, the media's preferred narratives for this campaign have collided with reality. Remember when journalists repeatedly declared that both nominations would be settled by Feb. 5? Scratch that. How about the blowout television and print coverage of Ted Kennedy anointing Barack Obama as the crown prince of Camelot? Hillary Clinton showed how little it mattered in the heart of Kennedy country, taking Massachusetts by 15 percentage points.

And the whole "back from the dead" story line for McCain exists mainly because journalists all but buried him when his fundraising collapsed last summer. (It would "take a miracle" for McCain to win the early primaries, CBS's Bob Schieffer said then.) Now he's made them look foolish by virtually wrapping up the GOP nomination.

Reporters consistently overestimate the importance of money in presidential campaigns: McCain was out of cash, and Huckabee never had any, so their chances were drastically downgraded. Romney gave his own campaign $50 million and his chances were constantly talked up.

There have been factual errors as well. The Associated Press blew a major call Tuesday, projecting Clinton the winner in Missouri based on exit polls, even though much of the St. Louis vote hadn't come in. The wire service withdrew the call 90 minutes later, after Obama moved ahead in the state he would soon win.

Another embarrassment was the Reuters/C-SPAN pre-election poll -- widely picked up online -- that gave Obama a 13-point lead in California. Instead, Clinton scored a 10-point win in the state. The poll also had Mitt Romney ahead by seven points in California; McCain easily carried the state. Pollster John Zogby, who conducted the survey, says he underestimated Hispanic turnout and overestimated black turnout.

The networks, however, were commendably cautious. In fact, CNN lagged as much as 90 minutes behind Fox and MSNBC in calling certain states. CNN executives say they were more concerned with making accurate calls than quick ones.

The media have long been trying to winnow the field, as John Edwards complained while struggling for a smidgen of attention against Obama and Clinton. One reason for the recent decline in Huckabee coverage is that his low-budget campaign, desperate to save money, dropped its press plane, making it difficult for correspondents to follow him. But Huckabee was also dismissed as a marginal figure after mediocre showings in several states following his Iowa win. Most of the meager newspaper and television coverage he did get focused on whether he was a spoiler, helping McCain by drawing conservative votes from Romney.

Huckabee's secret weapon was that he was available for every imaginable television show, where his one-liners made him a marketable guest. He made 19 live appearances between 10 p.m. Tuesday and 8 a.m. Wednesday, then proceeded to hit "Hardball," "Your World With Neil Cavuto," "Mad Money," "Tucker," "Glenn Beck" and "World News" -- and the next day played air hockey (with individual states as pieces) with Stephen Colbert. He told CNN that he won Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, West Virginia and his native Arkansas "going against the head winds of talk radio and the pundits saying that I had simply disappeared. I wasn't even relevant, didn't matter."

After Tuesday, one interviewer after another -- Matt Lauer, Harry Smith, Robin Roberts, Wolf Blitzer -- asked Huckabee if he would accept an offer to be McCain's running mate, something no active presidential candidate would ever acknowledge. Newspaper stories explored the question as well.

The most frequently replayed sound bite from the last Clinton-Obama debate was of Blitzer asking them the same premature question: whether they would run on the same ticket. Time did a poll last week showing that a majority of Democrats approve of the idea. Never mind whether such an awkward marriage would be realistic; campaign chroniclers were casting a movie in which the quarreling couple kiss and make up at the end.

And therein lies the key to the way news organizations have framed this campaign. Whether it's cleavage, cackling or crying, as in Clinton's case, the personal trumps the political. Tackling what is actually happening -- the candidates clashing on the issues, making speeches, piling up delegates -- is insufficiently exciting compared with speculation about what might happen down the road. Minutes after Romney dropped out Thursday, the pundits started handicapping his chances in 2012.

Even as McCain was winning nine states on Super Tuesday, much of the television chatter was about whether he could persuade Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham and other conservative radio talkers to stop beating up on him. Although that is a significant story, it's not quite in the same league as the Arizona senator amassing nearly two-thirds of the delegates needed for nomination. But it's more fun to kick around.

By the same token, far more media scrutiny was applied to the "snub" story -- whether Obama had deliberately turned his back on Clinton at the State of the Union address -- than to the details of their dueling health-care plans.

What the media apparently wanted -- and kept forecasting -- was a short, bloody, two-person fight that would be resolved with a knockout blow. Instead, in the wake of Obama's four-state weekend sweep, the Democratic race may drag on for weeks or months and ultimately be resolved by superdelegates. Can that keep pace with Britney's latest release from the psych ward, Heath Ledger's overdose death and the latest twist in the three-year-old Natalee Holloway case?

Perhaps only if the ultimate journalistic fantasy -- a brokered convention -- comes to pass. And that, not surprisingly, is the latest torrid topic on the talk circuit.

'Pimped Out' Fallout

NBC is done apologizing to Hillary Clinton's campaign.

NBC News President Steve Capus is the highest-ranking official to have personally expressed his regret to the campaign for MSNBC correspondent David Shuster's crack that Chelsea Clinton was being "pimped out" for political work. But after the apologies from Capus, Shuster and others -- and the suspension of Shuster for an undetermined period -- the campaign released a stinging letter to Capus over the weekend.

"Nothing justifies the kind of debasing language that David Shuster used and no temporary suspension or half-hearted apology is sufficient," Hillary Clinton wrote. The escalation is reminiscent of Clinton putting out a fundraising letter last summer based on a column about her cleavage by Washington Post fashion writer Robin Givhan.

NBC executives say privately that they have acted appropriately to deal with a bad choice of words and are waiting to see whether the Clinton camp follows through on a threat to withdraw from an MSNBC debate in Cleveland on Feb. 26. A spokeswoman yesterday said only that the network stands by its previous comments.

Digging for Support

What may become the biggest investigative team in journalism is getting a major boost today.

ProPublica, a nonprofit newsroom that plans to launch online this spring, is announcing an advisory board that includes five top newspaper editors. And that boosts the chances that some major papers may run the group's investigative pieces, which otherwise would appear only on its Web site.

"It certainly doesn't hurt," says Paul Steiger, the Wall Street Journal's former top editor, who is running the operation. "Most everyone I talked to about it in the abstract said, 'Bring it on.' That's in the abstract. It will come down to a specific story."

The board includes New York Times Managing Editor Jill Abramson, Boston Globe Editor Martin Baron, Denver Post Editor Gregory Moore, Seattle Times Editor David Boardman, and Cynthia Tucker, editorial page editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Others include U.S. News & World Report editor at large David Gergen, former Los Angeles Times editor John Carroll, Fortune columnist Allan Sloan and historian Robert Caro.

ProPublica is in the process of hiring 25 journalists -- Steiger has already gotten 850 r¿sum¿s -- to do what he calls "the deep-dive stuff." Much of its $10 million annual budget has been donated by Herbert and Marion Sandler, former owners of a California savings and loan, and Herbert Sandler chairs the board of directors. They have given hundreds of thousands of dollars to Democratic Party campaigns.

Steiger says ProPublica will fill a void left by cutbacks in the newspaper business that have reduced investigative staffs. He says he may offer some of his stories exclusively to one newspaper or television show and that, thanks to his sizable budget, "we don't have to ask for any money in return."

Howard Kurtz hosts CNN's weekly media program, "Reliable Sources."

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