Obama Abroad: We Get the Picture

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 25, 2008

After saying little in public during a weekend in Iraq and Afghanistan, Barack Obama met with traveling reporters near Jordan's Temple of Hercules, a gladiator standing his ground against the media hordes.

But even as the likes of NBC's Andrea Mitchell and ABC's Jake Tapper rose to press the Democratic candidate on Tuesday, television viewers back home heard nothing but faint voices in the wind. The journalists weren't miked; only Obama's answers came through loud and clear.

That may have been unintentional, but it underscored the degree to which Obama has controlled the message -- and, more important, the pictures -- during his exhaustively chronicled trek across the Middle East and Europe. Obama meeting the troops, meeting the generals, meeting prime ministers and kings, drawing a huge crowd in Berlin yesterday -- the images trump whatever journalists write and say.

In short, though Obamapalooza was not quite the lovefest that some expected, news outlets provided a spotlight so bright that their own people were left in the shadows.

"The pictures bring people into the story," says Jerry Rafshoon, who was President Jimmy Carter's media adviser. "In the television age, the more people who can see him in the role of commander in chief, the better it is for him." By contrast, Rafshoon says, when John McCain was seen riding around Kennebunkport in a golf cart with former president George H.W. Bush, "you're seeing him with his generation, the older generation. They looked like the past."

Dorrance Smith, President Bush's former Pentagon spokesman and a onetime ABC News producer, agreed that "the pictures have dominated. . . . In a campaign, that's as good as gold. The pictures would have broken through whether there was a one-camera pool or every anchor in the world."

Beyond the images, most journalists and pundits have depicted the trip as an unalloyed triumph. "A slam-dunk success," in the words of Time's Joe Klein; "a real grand slam," as Salon Editor Joan Walsh put it on "Hardball."

Obama became increasingly accessible as the week wore on. He held a second news conference in Israel, granted interviews to Time and Newsweek, and agreed to sit-downs through the weekend with CNN, Fox and "Meet the Press." Beyond that, he did something he rarely does: joking around with reporters on his plane.

Singling out New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd yesterday, Obama said: "What are you guys going to do in Berlin? Huh? Dowd? You got any big plans?"

He brushed aside a scribe's suggestion that he would attract "a million screaming Germans. Let's tamp down expectations here."

One reporter lowered the estimate to 900,000; another said, "Let's start a pool."

"We could!" Obama said.

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