Obama's Chilly Spring
Once-Cordial Press Coverage Turns Decidedly Cool

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.

The climate turned chillier as conservative commentators who were once intrigued by Obama became disenchanted. In January, New York Times columnist David Brooks said Obama had "achieved something remarkable . . . changing the tone of American liberalism." Late last month, Brooks wrote that Obama had become "a more conventional politician" who engages in "fibs, evasions and hypocrisies."

Even when he was riding high, Obama provided surprisingly little access to his traveling press corps. When a reporter recently tried to ask Obama a question in a Scranton, Pa., diner -- drawing the response, "Why is it that, like, I can't just eat my waffle?" -- the interruption was in part because of the paucity of news conferences. Such incidents reinforce the growing media perception of Obama as aloof.

"He's always been wary of the press," says David Mendell, author of "Obama: From Promise to Power," and regards some of its members as "pure antagonists." Mendell was covering the 2004 Senate race in Illinois when Obama complained to him -- two months after the fact -- about the Chicago Tribune reporter's description of him as "a little verbose."

When Obama is pressed about what he deems to be side issues, as in last month's ABC debate, Mendell says, he takes on a "law professor air" of "why am I being asked all these ridiculous questions?"

Obama aides, for their part, are somewhat taken aback at the abrupt turn of events. They didn't mind the pundits declaring for weeks that Clinton had virtually no chance to win the nomination, but now believe the result is a huge imbalance in the level of media scrutiny. The staff is constantly fielding questions from reporters digging into Obama's background in places from Chicago to Honolulu.

"There's no shortage of effort to look at all three of them," says Brian Ross, ABC's chief investigative reporter, adding John McCain to the mix. "To say we've stopped working on her is not the case."

Candidates, of course, help shape their coverage by deciding how personal to get. In the spring of 1992, Bill and Hillary Clinton posed for the cover of People with 12-year-old Chelsea after strategists realized that many voters didn't know he had a daughter.

Obama, though, has exhibited a certain disdain for campaign rituals. He has, understandably, kept his young daughters out of the limelight, but has also bristled at sampling the local junk food or chatting with reporters on his Virgin Islands vacation.

That may be starting to change. Obama now talks about eating pot roast and Jell-O while growing up. He has twice played basketball before the cameras in recent days, once with the University of North Carolina Tar Heels, appearing more athletic than his ill-fated bowling excursion would suggest. The photo op produced headlines such as this one in the Raleigh News & Observer: "On the Court, Obama Is Center of Attention."

Despite the battering he has taken for what cable TV dubbed his "pastor disaster," Obama's staff has avoided the kind of stories about infighting that have plagued the Clinton camp, keeping its disagreements about strategy behind closed doors. And Obama has used the media to mount his defense, appearing last week on "Today" (with his wife, Michelle) and yesterday on "Meet the Press," even though it was obvious that the Wright controversy would dominate the interviews. Indeed, host Tim Russert pressed Obama about Wright for 20 minutes, asking whether he refused to denounce the pastor until it was politically expedient.

"We're running for president," says Obama spokesman Bill Burton. "We deserve scrutiny of our record and plans for the future, and Barack is getting it in large doses."

Footnote: On "This Week," ABC's George Stephanopoulos noted his past service in the Clinton White House, but Hillary Clinton turned that into a jab while being questioned on free trade: "Now, you remember this, because George did work in that '92 campaign, and George and I actually were against NAFTA. I'm talking about him in his previous life, before he was an objective journalist and didn't have opinions about such matters."

Capital Idea

CBS might be looking to add a little female star power in the expectation that Katie Couric will relinquish the anchor chair next year. The network is close to a deal to bring Lara Logan, its South African-born chief foreign correspondent, to Washington. Logan, who won an Emmy for her Iraq coverage last year, would specialize in diplomatic and foreign news.

Correction of the Week

"A headline and an article on Monday about a Vanity Fair photograph showing the actress Miley Cyrus in a suggestive pose left the incorrect impression that she was bare-breasted. While the pose was indeed revealing, she was wrapped in what appeared to be a bedsheet; she was not topless." -- New York Times, April 29.

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