By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 3, 2008
During a campaign stop in Ohio last week, ABC's Jake Tapper asked Barack Obama about what he called "an attempt by conservatives and Republicans to paint you as unpatriotic."
Tapper's litany: "That you didn't put your hand over your heart during the national anthem, that you no longer wear an American flag on your lapel pin, that you met with some former members of the Weather Underground, and now they are questioning your wife's comments when she said she hasn't been proud of the U.S. until just recently."
Obama dismissed the criticism as "nonsense." But did the exchange mark the end of a long period in which the media have gone easy on the man who could all but clinch the Democratic nomination in tomorrow's primaries? Are the media going to change the environment that prompted Kristen Wiig, playing a CNN anchor on "Saturday Night Live," to declare that she and her colleagues "are in the tank for Obama"?
The Illinois senator still hasn't faced the sort of negative onslaught that generally envelops presidential front-runners. But after a year of defying the laws of journalistic gravity, he is being brought back to earth.
Some of this involves recycled reporting that didn't get much traction the first time around. Within the last two weeks, ABC's "World News" has done a story on Obama voting "present" nearly 130 times as an Illinois legislator, two months after that information was on the New York Times front page. "NBC Nightly News" has followed up a two-week-old Times piece about Obama compromising on Senate legislation affecting a nuclear energy company that contributed to his campaign. A "CBS Evening News" segment reviewed a series of negative points -- Obama's controversial pastor, his ties to indicted fundraiser Tony Rezko, voting present, the nuclear contributions and the lack of a flag pin.
Obama spokesman Bill Burton maintains the media have "consistently examined both his public and personal record." Burton calls suggestions of soft treatment "a false premise that is advocated by a couple of members of the media and the Clinton campaign. The investigative teams at the networks, major national news organizations and the Chicago papers would take great issue with the notion they haven't examined Barack Obama's record." The Chicago newspapers have been the most aggressive by far.
Some conservative commentators, after years of obsessing over Hillary Clinton, are now training their fire on Obama. Cincinnati radio host Bill Cunningham, appearing at a John McCain event, generated a wave of coverage last week by challenging the media to "peel the bark off Barack Hussein Obama."
In his Times column, Bill Kristol picked up on Obama's comment in October that he views wearing a flag pin as a substitute for true patriotism. "Obama's unnecessary and imprudent statement impugns the sincerity or intelligence of those vulgar sorts who still choose to wear a flag pin," Kristol declared.
Erick Erickson, editor of the blog RedState, wrote that voters should be wary of "the liberal anti-gun former cokehead whose feminist wife hates America."
Michelle Obama became talk-show fodder when she said on Feb. 18 that "for the first time in my adult life, I'm really proud of my country." But for the following week, there was no mention of the flap in a Washington Post or New York Times news story, although the Los Angeles Times jumped on the controversy.
There was also little pickup when the Politico reported that a decade ago Obama visited Bernardine Dohrn and William Ayers, the 1960s radicals whose Weather Underground group was involved in two dozen bombings. And the issue of Obama's dealings with Rezko all but vanished after a brief flurry until the run-up to his trial, which begins today.
Similarly, there was scant media mention of Louis Farrakhan's support for Obama until Tim Russert challenged the senator to repudiate that support at last week's MSNBC debate -- making Russert the target of some liberal bloggers who say he went overboard on the issue.
Would Clinton have skated as easily if she were found to have visited radicals tied to violence? Or bought land from an indicted businessman, as in the Rezko case? Or if the pastor of her church had talked about "this racist United States of America," as the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, who heads Obama's church, has?
That is hard to imagine. Clinton's complaints about media imbalance are buttressed by a new study from the Center for Media and Public Affairs. From Dec. 16 through Feb. 19, it says, the three network newscasts aired reports that were 84 percent positive for Obama and 53 percent positive for Clinton. She scored higher on evaluations of policy and public performance, but that amounted to only 10 percent of the coverage.
On Friday, Clinton spokesman Howard Wolfson told reporters there was a "staggering" gap between the Rezko coverage and the volume of questions he fielded about her indicted fundraiser, Norman Hsu. Yet Clinton's team angered the press again by not telling traveling reporters in Texas that she was flying to New York to appear on "SNL" -- intelligence they had to learn from Obama aides.
Still, after a year in which Obama was hailed as the second coming of JFK, will his Teflon coating now be scratched? Tapper says he asked Obama about his patriotism "because obviously Democratic voters think the nominee should be someone who is able to withstand Republican conservative attacks." He says he noticed such criticism spreading on talk radio, cable shows and blogs, and "to act as if we can ignore other parts of the media because we're snobby about it . . . then we're irrelevant, because we're missing part of the story.
"It's very difficult to argue that the level of scrutiny of Barack Obama has been the same as the level of scrutiny of other candidates."
But, Tapper says, holding Obama accountable is difficult because he speaks to reporters infrequently.
RedState's Erickson says the media haven't really focused on Obama's positions. "I've spent the last six months accumulating stuff from his voting record. This is an opportunity to define him," he says.
Erickson concedes that his "cokehead" crack was a distraction, saying he would not join the ranks of partisan commentators who "write in such a hyperbolic way that it destroys their credibility. It's going to be the template, as with the Clinton-haters, for the Obama-haters to report on the salacious and the rumors."
But the media don't need to descend into Rumorland to give a candidate a hard time. After Russert raised the issue of Obama's pastor at the debate, CNN did a piece on the senator's relationship with Wright, an admirer of Farrakhan. (Obama says they disagree on some issues.) The Washington Post, followed by the Times, ran a story on Obama trying to reassure Jewish leaders about his commitment to Israel, a controversy that had been brewing for months.
One overlooked aspect of Obama's success may be his skill at defusing hostile media inquiries. He preempted critics by calling his dealings with Rezko a "boneheaded mistake." He has talked about the danger of spending "too much time arguing with the refs," says a new book by Chicago reporter David Mendell. The question is whether Obama can resist that temptation if journalists start tackling him more often.So Much for Diplomacy
Sam Zell, the Chicago businessman who now owns the Tribune Co., recently hurled an obscenity at a photographer for one of his papers, the Orlando Sentinel. Zell apologized, and editors at the Los Angeles Times, the largest Tribune paper, issued a memo saying it was all right for the boss to curse but not the employees.
Some staffers in the company's Washington bureau certainly felt like uttering expletives -- and one female staffer was left in tears -- after a Zell visit last week. The new boss complained about the size of the Times' 47-person contingent, saying that far fewer reporters were covering California's Orange County and perhaps the numbers should be reversed.
Doyle McManus, the Times bureau chief, tried to reassure his demoralized staff afterward. In a memo, McManus said Zell's comments "shouldn't be taken literally. . . . Sam Zell likes to say his role is to throw bombs and shake people up." On that point, he succeeded.Cruelty to Animals
California's North County Times has fired an editor with a warped sense of humor. As a joke, the unnamed editor mucked with a wire-service account of a news conference on pet spaying at which a Los Angeles City Council member "held a kitten," changing the verb to "strangled." The paper apologized for the "terrible mistake."