Obama's Chilly Spring

Barack Obama didn't waffle when chastising a reporter in Scranton, Pa., but his unease with the media was apparent.
Barack Obama didn't waffle when chastising a reporter in Scranton, Pa., but his unease with the media was apparent. (By Scott Olson -- Getty Images)
By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 5, 2008

The man who tried to soar above politics has been brought back to earth by the same media organizations that helped fuel his spectacular rise.

After more than a year of mostly glowing coverage, Barack Obama is having to defend his relationship with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, his temerity in not sporting a flag pin, even his arugula-loving, bad-bowling, let-me-eat-my-waffle persona that fostered what Newsweek has branded "the Bubba Gap."

"The media have decided to get tougher on Obama," says St. Petersburg Times media critic Eric Deggans. "There was so much talk about him getting such an easy ride that some journalists got tired of it."

When the Illinois senator denounced his former pastor last week, it followed days of saturation coverage of Wright's inflammatory, sometimes eccentric remarks. The press, which was slow to recognize the importance of the Wright controversy -- videotapes of his sermons could have been purchased months earlier -- was no longer willing to dismiss the reverend as a sideshow.

Still, says David Greenberg, a Rutgers University professor of journalism and history, the coverage could be far worse. For journalists, he says, "there has been a real infatuation with Obama that has served as almost an unconscious restraint" as many became "taken with the idea of demonstrating their tolerance and America's tolerance by electing a black candidate."

What loosened those restraints, Greenberg says, was the media's conclusion that Obama had virtually wrapped up his nomination fight against Hillary Clinton. "It's backwards -- the toughest scrutiny should come while it's still a real fight," he says.

Obama's image has undergone something of a transformation. In March, feeding the curiosity about his background, a Newsweek cover story focused on "When Barry Became Barack" in college, while a Time cover profiled the candidate's mother. By last week, Newsweek's cover piece was exploring why he seems "strange," "exotic" and, to some, "haughty" and "a bit of an egghead." How did Obama, cast by some journalists as the new JFK, come to be depicted as what the New Republic's John Judis says may be "The Next McGovern"?

When Obama won 10 straight states, he was hailed as a winner. When he was beaten in Ohio, Texas and Pennsylvania, reporters began poring over exit-poll data showing him doing poorly among white working-class voters. "After you lose," Obama said on "Fox News Sunday," "then everybody writes these anguished columns about why did you lose."

As a newcomer to the national scene -- as well as the first African American with a serious shot at the presidency -- Obama is something of a blank canvas for political writers, especially compared with a former first lady. His long association with Wright prompted journalistic questions, however belated, about what Obama believes and why he remained at Wright's church despite the pastor's anti-American rhetoric.

Deggans says the coverage of Wright and the flag-pin flap "kind of bugged me. . . . It's a weird universe where you've got some journalists who are looking for a story that is going to change the game significantly because that's how they make their bones."

The Wright story initially erupted in March, shortly after journalists were stung by a pair of "Saturday Night Live" skits that portrayed them as in the tank for Obama. By the time a Huffington Post blogger taped Obama musing at a fundraiser last month about "bitter" small-town residents clinging to God and guns, the press was no longer giving him the benefit of the doubt. Minor incidents -- Obama throwing gutter balls or refusing to indulge in high-calorie foods -- were trumpeted as evidence that he is an out-of-touch Harvard elitist.

Clinton, for her part, pushed this line as aggressively as she knocked back shots in a bar. Perhaps a post-election seminar can discern how the media allowed a woman whose family earned $109 million in the past eight years to attach the elitist label to a man raised by a single mother who once relied on food stamps -- even if he did become editor of Harvard Law Review.

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