Crossing Over

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 18, 2008 9:26 AM

From what I'm hearing, the migration of journalists to the Obama administration isn't over, and that raises some intriguing questions.

In poking around at Time, I've learned more about Jay Carney's decision to become Joe Biden's communications director, although he wouldn't comment. Carney follows former ABC correspondent Linda Douglass, now a spokeswoman for the inauguration committee.

Here's how it happened: Carney, 43, is a longtime pal of Tony Blinken, who had been Biden's chief of staff at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The day after the election, Blinken asked him if he might consider working for the vice president-elect, whom Carney had admired since his first presidential run but didn't know very well. Carney, who as Washington bureau chief took himself out of Time's transition coverage, went to Wilmington. Biden had two concerns: Would there be a comfort level between them, and could Carney, a 20-year journalist, make the switch to administration flack? They cut the deal last week.

Carney had risen as far as he could go at Time -- he wasn't moving to New York unless he could get the managing editor's job, which wasn't in the cards -- and had been thinking about a new challenge. Although he was once friendly with McCain, those familiar with his thinking say he was profoundly moved by Obama's election. His politics lean left, but he often argued at Time that some of the media's Obama coverage was fawning and that Time needed to give McCain equal time and more cover stories.

"As a reporter and bureau chief," Time managing editor Rick Stengel tells me, "Jay was always a voice for fairness -- for both sides. In fact, since Jay covered McCain in 2000 and in this cycle as well, he was a strong advocate for making sure McCain was fairly represented in the pages of Time."

So does Carney's defection show the media are crawling with pro-Obama liberals? Not necessarily, though Obama did enjoy stunningly positive coverage during the campaign. Local reporters make such career changes all the time, from Phil Trounstine, who went from political editor of the San Jose Mercury News to a top aide to Gov. Gray Davis, to Karen Hughes, a Texas TV reporter who became the spokeswoman for Gov. George Bush.

Twenty years ago, another Time correspondent became the VP's spokesman. His name was Dave Beckwith, and he quit to work for Dan Quayle.

Caroline does upstate: Looks like Ms. Kennedy took my advice. She not only hit Syracuse and Rochester, she spoke to reporters (enough with the surrogates!). But then she let aides shoo her away without answering questions. Bad move! She looked like a sheltered figure who couldn't handle a routine encounter. Kennedy has to show she's a plausible senator, and that includes engaging the press.

Here's the NYT account:

"Responding briefly to reporters who asked about her qualifications to be a United States senator, she described her experience as an author, mother and education advocate.

" 'I've had a lifelong commitment to public service,' she said, leaving the offices of the Monroe County Democratic Committee. 'I've written books on the Constitution and the importance of individual participation. And I've raised my family. I think I really could help bring change to Washington.' "

I profiled Robert Gibbs a few weeks ago, and here is a NYT Magazine profile of the incoming press secretary by Mark Leibovich:

"Staff members were encouraged to ignore new Web sites like The Page, written by Time's Mark Halperin, and Politico, both of which had gained instant cachet among the Washington smarty-pants set. 'If Politico and Halperin say we're winning, we're losing,' Obama's campaign manager, David Plouffe, would repeat mantralike around headquarters. He said his least favorite words in the English language were, 'I saw someone on cable say this . . . ' "

Uh, not quite. Not only did the Obamaites leak to Politico all the time, a senior official told me that was a deliberate strategy.

"The campaign bragged that Obama never even visited with the editorial board of The Washington Post -- a decision that would have been unheard of for any serious candidate in a previous presidential cycle. 'You could go to Cedar Rapids and Waterloo and understand that people aren't reading The Washington Post,' Gibbs told me last month in Chicago."

He's right. But lots of presidential candidates have ignored The Post, which until Virginia went blue this time wasn't near a swing state. By contrast, they always kiss the rings of editorial writers at the Des Moines Register.

I've been thinking about the following subject for the past few days. Why is Obama's coverage different than that of every other president-elect?

Plenty of reporters were enamored of President-elect Bill Clinton and agreed with many of his views. But he was seen as an outsize figure, a man of enormous talent and appetites, and a Bubba-like figure from Hope, Arkansas. He was Not Like Us.

But the reason there are so many stories about Obama having to give up his normal life, surrender his BlackBerry, yadda yadda, is that reporters identify with him. He is a writer who produced two books. He lives in a big city. He was not born to a wealthy family. And yet he keeps his essential core hidden. So journalists, I believe, are as curious about Barack as the public at large.

Two recent stories underscore the point. This one, from the NYT:

"Last Sunday night, President-elect Barack Obama's three closest friends -- Valerie Jarrett, Martin Nesbitt and Dr. Eric Whitaker -- sat down in the study of Mr. Nesbitt's house in Chicago for one of their increasingly frequent heart-to-hearts.

"They were puzzling over a new question: how the Obamas, who hope to remain close to their Chicago friends, will spend time with them while living in the isolation chamber of the White House. Over Diet Cokes, the three drafted the beginnings of an elaborate visiting schedule that will bring Hyde Park to Washington, so the nation's new first family can have a little taste of home . . .

"In the presidential campaign, the Obamas had a 'no new friends' rule, surrounding themselves with a coterie of familiar faces. Even if the Obamas lift that rule in Washington, newcomers are unlikely to replicate the intensity of this group's ties, formed over more than a decade by births and deaths, Scrabble games, barbecues and vacations, but also by shared beliefs about race, success and responsibility."

And this, from Politico:

"Barack Obama's transition team found itself in the midst of a minor kerfuffle the other day when a reporter reported that the president-elect had worked out with a Microsoft Zune -- rather than his trusty iPod. When word got out, Apple geeks went crazy, and the media -- from Wired to the Wall Street Journal -- flooded the zone. Suddenly, the phone lines at the Obama transition office were ringing with inquiries from reporters who passed up other pressing curiosities -- who will be the education secretary? -- to unpack the still not-entirely-answered question of which brand of MP3 player Obama used during a particular exercise session.

"Welcome to the world of the celebrity president. Reporters have been bombarding the president-elect's transition office and those close to Obama with the most detail-obsessed questions about his every move. Among the inquiries received in recent weeks: Does Obama prefer Macs or PCs? Who designed that tie he's wearing? Where does he buy his suits? What's his morning exercise routine like? How about his basketball techniques? What movie has he seen recently? Who cuts his hair? Will he sell his house in Chicago? What did he have for Thanksgiving dinner? What's his favorite food?

"And by the way, why hasn't he been going to church on Sundays? And if he does start going regularly, where does he plan to attend church once he moves to Washington?"

Here's more evidence: After Time, not surprisingly, names Obama its Person of the Year, the New York Post goes wild over what it trumpets as "SECRET" pictures from Obama's past:

"A series of photos newly discovered by Time magazine were taken three decades ago and capture 20-year-old college student Barack 'Barry' Obama suavely striking a pose in a leather jacket and dragging on a cigarette."

Wow, what a revelation that Obama was a smoker.

Obama says it's a little "frustrating" that he can't talk about the Blago scandal -- Patrick Fitzgerald has asked him to wait -- and Pay-Rod himself says he's "dying" to talk:

"Disgraced Gov. Rod Blagojevich joked and jogged in his Chicago neighborhood Wednesday and vowed to tell his side of the story soon, while his attorney tore into impeachment-minded state lawmakers trying to force the governor out of a job," the Chicago Tribune reports.

I like this Atlantic post by Marc Ambinder because it examines why a certain story line pops up:

"The Politico's John Bresnahan has written a great story about how House Speaker Nancy Pelosi put the screws to her former House colleague, Rahm Emanuel, informing him that she did not need his advice about leadership elections and, most dramatically, demanding that the White House account for every conversation it has with Pelosi's members.

"The story makes Pelosi look formidable and Rahm look like a creampuff.

"Clearly, the origin of the story -- even if it was laundered through neutral parties before reaching the Politico -- comes from Pelosi allies.

"Why share that anecdote now? Because, in the wake of the Blagojevich revelations, Rahm's public standing is as weak right now as it's ever going to get. He's been portrayed as knee-deep in the Blagojevich corruption case, although there's no indication he did anything wrong or even suspicious. Cameras are chasing him all across Chicagoland, and he is hiding from them; and given the investigation, he is in the un-Rahm-ian position of not being able to comment. Right now -- and only right now -- no one's afraid of Mr. Emanuel. He can't fight back."

The right was never wild about McCain, and at Pajamas Media, Pam Meister bids the senator good riddance:

"When John McCain didn't denounce his staff after the election for spreading scurrilous rumors about Sarah Palin and blaming her for the loss of the Republican ticket, I took the picture of Palin and McCain I had received from the RNC and cut McCain out of it. I called my little act of symbolic rebellion 'dumping the dead weight' from the Republican Party.

"Looks like my instincts were right on the money.

"Now that the election is over, John McCain is, to quote Laura Ingraham, 'free' from conservatives and is busy rebuilding the bipartisan credentials that traditionally served him so well with Democrats and their cheerleaders in the mainstream press. In an interview over the weekend, McCain chided the GOP for jumping all over the Obama-Blagojevich connection:

In a surprising rebuke to the warriors who fought for him through tough times, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) on Sunday sided with President-elect Barack Obama and scolded the Republican National Committee for fanning the Illinois corruption scandal.

"What's so surprising about that? Anyone who has followed John McCain's career over the past 20-plus years should know that McCain is usually quick on the draw to scold members of his party for doing what political parties are supposed to do -- act in a partisan manner to advance their own interests. Duh."

The dispiriting news about the incredible shrinking news business hasn't lacked for attention, and Slate's Jack Shafer wonders whether we are overdoing it:

"Hardly a day goes by, it seems, without some laid-off or bought-out journalist writing a letter of condolence to himself and his profession. The Columbia Journalism Review and the American Journalism Review have harbored these self-pitying fellows, as have newspaper columns and blogs. The Web magazine LA Observed has almost made the unhiring of journalists its beat, with black-bunting dispatches about job cuts at the Hollywood Reporter, the L.A. Daily News, the Ventura Star, and the Chicago Tribune in the last month alone.

"The genre will only grow, what with newspapers gone over the edge in Albuquerque, N.M., and teetering in Denver; the Tribune Co. chain thrown into bankruptcy; the New York Times Co. borrowing against its skyscraper to cover debt; and other newspaper companies -- the Journal Register Co., Lee Enterprises, MediaNews, the McClatchy Co., the Philadelphia dailies -- racing to stay ahead of their creditors. The Paper Cuts mashup records 15,471 layoffs and buyouts at U.S. newspapers this year. That doesn't include the magazine industry, which is showing hundreds the door as titles downsize or fold.

"The misery of a laid-off or bought-out journalist isn't greater than that of a sacked bond trader, a RIF-ed clerk, or a fired autoworker. The only reason we're so well-informed about journalists' suffering is they have easy access to a megaphone."

Much as I feel terrible about the job losses and think there's an important larger story here, Shafer is right. Corporations are cutting 10,000, 20,000, even 35,000 jobs at a time. We need to keep our own industry's plight in perspective.

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