The New York Times – by Jacques Steinberg – March 1, 2008
On the bus ferrying a group of reporters to an appearance by Senator Barack Obama at Ohio State University on Wednesday, Lee Cowan, the NBC reporter assigned to the campaign, was asked the media question of the week: Had journalists like himself been going easier on Mr. Obama than his opponent for the Democratic nomination, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton?
“I don’t think that it’s kind treatment versus unkind treatment,” Mr. Cowan began, taking issue with the depiction of journalists fawning over Mr. Obama in a “Saturday Night Live” skit last Saturday, a characterization stoked nearly every day since by Mrs. Clinton and her aides.
And yet, Mr. Cowan then described several advantages that he saw Mr. Obama as having over his rival. “He hasn’t been around as long, so there isn’t as much to pick at,” Mr. Cowan said. “He plays everything very cool. He’s not as much of a lightning rod. His personality just doesn’t seem to draw that kind of coverage.”
“Even in the conversations we have as colleagues, there is a sense of trying especially hard not to drink the Kool-Aid,” Mr. Cowan added. “It’s so rapturous, everything around him. All these huge rallies.”
As the two Democratic candidates shuttled between Ohio and Texas this week before Tuesday’s potentially decisive nominating contests, questions over whether reporters were giving each candidate an equally fair shake were thrust into the center of the campaign itself. There were already indications that Mrs. Clinton and her surrogates were finding traction in casting the news media as a conflicted umpire, while also prompting some soul-searching among the reporters themselves.
The night after Mrs. Clinton reprimanded Tim Russert and Brian Williams during the Cleveland debate on MSNBC for asking her a disproportionate number of “first” questions, she appeared Wednesday at a rally in St. Clairsville, Ohio. When someone stood to castigate the news media for being unfair to her, the audience cheered, with some even turning to cast a collective evil eye on the reporters in the high school gymnasium.
In a New York Times/CBS News telephone poll conducted Feb. 20-24 and released Tuesday, nearly half of those respondents who described themselves as voters in Democratic primaries or caucuses said the news media had been “harder” on Mrs. Clinton than other candidates. (Only about 1 in 10 suggested the news media had been harder on Mr. Obama.)
Meanwhile, relations between the candidates and their chroniclers have shown signs of wear, as the Democratic contest has moved into its second year.
On Tuesday, Carrie Budoff Brown, a correspondent for the Web site Politico who has been covering the Obama campaign, posted an article in which she complained about the candidate’s setting aside little time for questions from the national press and about the metal barriers that now prevented reporters from mingling with spectators at rallies. (David Axelrod, a senior adviser to Mr. Obama, said the barriers were at the behest of the Secret Service.)
In an interview on the Obama campaign’s flight from Cleveland to Columbus, Ohio, Lynn Sweet, the Washington bureau chief of The Chicago Sun-Times, voiced a more basic lament: that the candidate’s aides omitted seemingly newsworthy gatherings from his publicly released schedule. As an example, she cited the lack of previous notice about a meeting he had with about 100 Jewish leaders in a Cleveland suburb last Sunday.
“The main issue is not whether he comes back here and shmoozes,” Ms. Sweet said of Mr. Obama, her hand tracing the middle and rear of the cabin. “First, tell me what you’re doing. Then we can argue if I can have access.”
Asked about Ms. Sweet’s concerns, Mr. Axelrod said that a transcript and video of the meeting had been released to her and others. “Occasionally, people in politics have private meetings,” he said.
Meanwhile, the Clinton campaign, which only a few weeks ago released a letter signed by Mrs. Clinton calling on MSNBC to fire a reporter who had made an off-color reference to her daughter, Chelsea, provided a letter to The Huffington Post this week taking issue with The Times. The letter, signed by 503 staff members and volunteers, disputed the central point in an article on Sunday’s front page: that the campaign was rapidly losing hope.
At the same time, as Mr. Obama racked up a string of victories in recent weeks, Mrs. Clinton has begun appearing more frequently in the press section of her plane for on-the-record conversations. On Valentine’s Day, she wandered back to call the girlfriends of several journalists, to apologize for keeping them on the campaign trail.
But to some reporters, those attempts at making nice have come late.
“Part of it is her campaign’s fault,” Andrea Mitchell, the longtime NBC political correspondent, said backstage at the MSNBC debate in Cleveland in Tuesday. “They started with this notion of inevitability. And they were very arrogant.”
It would be difficult to analyze systematically whether the mountain of articles, blog postings and video segments tilts toward one candidate or the other. But the Project for Excellence in Journalism, a research institute that compiles a weekly index of campaign coverage by 48 news outlets, said that by one measure Mr. Obama had outpaced Mrs. Clinton beginning in mid-February — prominent mentions in that coverage.
Some Clinton aides and even reporters pointed this week to articles that could, at least anecdotally and in isolation, be construed as favorable to Mr. Obama. Among those cited were a front-page article in The Times last June that focused on Mr. Obama’s pickup basketball prowess, and another Tuesday on the front of The Washington Post that extolled his oratorical virtues.
Others marshaled clippings indicating that Mr. Obama had been subject to more serious scrutiny than the Clintons would acknowledge. These include articles from Ms. Sweet of The Sun-Times examining Mr. Obama’s flights on corporate jets early in his Senate career and the literary license he took on his first memoir. They also noted articles in the Chicago papers (as well as in The Times, and others) about Mr. Obama’s relationship with Antoin Rezko, a former fund-raiser soon to be tried on federal charges of fraud and influence peddling.
Which is not to say that there is not much more scouring to be done.
“The number of questions that we don’t know the answers to about the relationship between Mr. Rezko and Mr. Obama is staggering,” Howard Wolfson, a top aide to Mrs. Clinton, said on a conference call with reporters on Friday.
Still, others have noted that with the exception of a mention by Mr. Russert in Tuesday’s debate, Mrs. Clinton has largely escaped serious journalistic vetting over matters like when or whether her campaign will release her tax returns or her calendar from her years as first lady, or detail the origins of the $5 million she has contributed to her own campaign.
Jonathan Alter, the veteran Newsweek columnist who traveled with the Obama campaign to Dallas on Wednesday, said that the attempt by the Clinton camp to weigh various stories represented a kind of “silly, even-Steven-itis.”
“People got it into their head that if you say something good about a candidate, you have to say something bad about him, and if you don’t, that’s not fair,” Mr. Alter said. “What the Clinton partisans wanted was for us to create a phony balance that was at odds with what our eyes were telling us. That’s not the job of a journalist.”
The most significant element of the coverage that has so rankled the Clinton campaign may be one that cannot responsibly be omitted: her recent win-loss record in nominating contests.
“My role model and mentor at The A.P. was Walter Mears, who recently retired, and he used to say that who wins is part of the story,” said Mike Glover, an Associated Press reporter, as he flew on Mrs. Clinton’s plane on Thursday from Hanging Rock, Ohio, to Houston. “We’re covering a candidate who’s lost 11 straight primaries. They’re covering a candidate who has won 11 straight primaries.”