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Safety in Numbers? Poll-Driven Press Goes Out on a Limb

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Salon's Walter Shapiro sees "McCain's prospects dwindling to a point where even Kansas and Oklahoma may soon be dubbed 'swing states.' " And Tucker Carlson wrote on the Daily Beast blog: "It's over. Obama won."

If some journalists are excited by the prospect of the first African American president, many are also citing racial attitudes as a reason the polls might be overstating Obama's support. That enables them to hedge their bets a bit.

Any analysis, of course, must be grounded in reality. McCain, tied to the most unpopular president in a generation, is being dragged down by a massive financial crisis and record-breaking public sentiment that the country is on the wrong track. His choice of Sarah Palin is proving increasingly controversial. The number of self-identified Democrats now exceeds those who call themselves Republicans. And McCain is defending traditionally red states while Obama is trying to pick off several that voted for President Bush four years ago.

McCain has also been hurt by conservative commentators -- including David Brooks, George Will, Kathleen Parker, Peggy Noonan and Christopher Buckley -- who have chastised the Arizonan's campaign and the choice of Palin. (Buckley, in fact, lost his National Review column last week for the heresy of backing Obama.) The saturation coverage of Colin Powell's "Meet the Press" endorsement of Obama yesterday -- his remarks outside the NBC studio carried live on cable, his words leading many newspaper Web sites -- added weight to the media verdict that Obama has sealed the deal.

"You've got people on the right side of the political equation saying the McCain campaign's screwed up and he's picked a running mate who is unqualified," Greenfield says. That adds to the impression of a sinking ship.

But the theater-criticism aspect of modern journalism is a factor as well. After McCain's most aggressive performance in the final debate, much of the media focus was not on his specific attacks but whether he looked angry and exasperated while Obama stayed calm and collected. Is criticism valid only if it makes your opponent whine or tear up?

McCain's invocation of Joe the Plumber to make the case against Obama's tax policies dissolved in a series of dispatches about how Joe Wurzelbacher is not a licensed plumber, he's not in the high-income bracket targeted by Obama, and what's more, his first name isn't Joe. And McCain is never going to draw the kind of attention for his mortgage bailout plan that he did for telling David Letterman he "screwed up" by canceling an earlier appearance, or that Palin did in appearing with Tina Fey on Saturday night.

For all the complaints that the media swoon over Obama -- he has garnered editorial endorsements in recent days from The Washington Post, Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times -- journalists are ultimately driven by electoral math. If McCain were to make a comeback in the almighty polls, the narrative would abruptly change. If the numbers don't move, the chatter about an Obama presidency will grow louder, perhaps drowning out the campaign's final days.

Back in Action

Fox News is expected to announce today the hiring of a new contributor, a veteran national security correspondent who has shared a Pulitzer Prize.

Her name is Judith Miller, and she is nothing if not controversial. Miller left the New York Times in 2005 after testifying in the trial of former White House aide Lewis "Scooter" Libby that he had leaked her information about a CIA operative. Miller's conduct in the case, which led to her serving 85 days in jail for initially refusing to testify, drew rebukes from the Times executive editor and some of her colleagues.

In the run-up to the Iraq war, Miller reported stories on the search for Saddam Hussein's supposed weapons of mass destruction that turned out to be untrue, some of which were cited in a Times editor's note acknowledging the flawed coverage. Miller, now with the conservative Manhattan Institute, wrote when she left the paper that she had "become a lightning rod for public fury over the intelligence failures that helped lead our country to war."

Miller will be an on-air analyst and will write for Fox's Web site. "She has a very impressive résumé," says Senior Vice President John Moody. "We've all had stories that didn't come out exactly as we had hoped. It's certainly something she's going to be associated with for all time, and there's not much anyone can do about that, but we want to make use of the tremendous expertise she brings on a lot of other issues. . . . She has explained herself and she has nothing to apologize for."


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