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.
While the scene looked cozy, the reporters asked substantive foreign-policy questions in more formal settings. And the three network anchors, whose presence came to symbolize complaints that the media were blanketing the trip as if it were a state visit, earned their paychecks.
CBS's Katie Couric repeatedly pressed Obama on why he wouldn't acknowledge the military success of Bush's surge in Iraq. ABC's Charlie Gibson asked about public sentiment that he's inexperienced and challenged him about changing his position on the status of Jerusalem, questioning whether that was a "rookie mistake." NBC's Brian Williams invoked a poll finding that a majority of Americans view him as the riskier choice for president. All three newscasts, whether out of guilt or a sense of fairness, also featured interviews with McCain.
All week, McCain was asked whether the media were favoring Obama. He deflected the question with the mantra: "It is what it is."
The loudly debated charge that news organizations are fawning over the Obama trip -- especially when contrasted with the meager attention paid to McCain's foreign travels -- seeped into the coverage itself.
"This has got to be very frustrating for John McCain . . . that he wants to make his points, he wants to get coverage, and yet everything seems to swarm around Barack Obama," Gibson told viewers. Couric, playing a clip from a McCain video mocking the media for swooning over the Illinois Democrat, asked, "Will the summer of love last?"
There were some dust-ups. Some reporters complained about the lack of a press pool in Iraq and Afghanistan, where the military orchestrated all pictures and public statements (the Obama camp says the schedule was packed and the Pentagon was in charge, although he did squeeze in interviews with CBS's Lara Logan and ABC's Terry Moran). When the campaign pitched a background briefing in Jordan with aides who could not be identified, the correspondents balked, saying only the White House could get away with that.
Still, the tone of the coverage sometimes bordered on gushing, as in this Associated Press dispatch before the appearance in Berlin:
"In this city where John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton all made famous speeches, Obama will find himself stepping into perhaps another iconic moment Thursday as his superstar charisma meets German adoration live in shadows of the Reichstag and the Brandenburg Gate. He then travels to Paris and London where he can expect to be greeted with similar adulation.
"It's not only Obama's youth, eloquence and energy that have stolen hearts across the Atlantic. . . . Obama has raised expectations of a chance for the nation to redeem itself."
A Rasmussen poll this week found that 49 percent of those surveyed expect the media to favor Obama this fall, while 14 percent expect favoritism toward McCain.
Not everyone is drinking the Kool-Aid. Chicago Tribune columnist John Kass wrote of the coverage: "McCain is now cast as the crabby uncle who visits and shrieks there's no gin in your house," while Obama is "busy fighting off throngs of reporters, a cast of thousands as urgent and impassioned as in those old Hollywood biblical epics."
Ralph Begleiter, a former CNN correspondent who is now journalist in residence at the University of Delaware, says the notion that Obama was making real news -- as opposed to exploiting pretty backdrops -- is "a sham argument. Of course it's a photo op. If he wanted to go to Afghanistan as a senator, he could have done it."
An unspoken assumption is that Obama, who enjoys a slight lead in the polls, is the odds-on favorite to win. In an upcoming People cover story, a reporter asks the candidate and his wife, Michelle, about their daughters: "How are you preparing them for possible life in the White House?"
Some journalists defend the coverage as a matter of marketing: Obama is hot, McCain is not.
"The Obama phenomenon is so much the better story -- an obscure African American senator from Illinois, little known to most Americans two years ago, emerges as very probably the next president," says Terence Smith, a former correspondent for CBS and PBS. "That is a fantastic story. Of course it's going to get two or three times the space and attention and airtime of John McCain, who, while he may be a very appealing semi-maverick on his bus, is a much more conventional candidate."
By that standard, though, journalists can continue to lavish more coverage on Obama simply by declaring him a more fascinating guy.
Chris Wallace, host of "Fox News Sunday," says no one has to apologize for covering the "extraordinary" trip. And, he says, "there is no question in my mind there is more interest in Obama. It's the news business; you want to sell magazines. Some of it is flavor of the month. And there is some bias."
But overall, says Wallace, "I don't know that that's a good excuse. One would hope there would be rough parity in the coverage."
The power of stirring images was on display again yesterday in Berlin. Moments after finishing his speech at the Victory Column, as 200,000 Germans cheered, Obama strolled off with Brian Williams, camera crew in tow, to talk about what had just transpired.