POLITICO; by John F. Harris & Jim Vandehei; April 18, 2008
My, oh my, but weren’t those fellows from ABC News rude to Barack Obama at this week’s presidential debate.
Nothing but petty, process-oriented questions, asked in a prosecutorial tone, about the Democratic front-runner’s personal associations and his electablity. Where was the substance? Where was the balance?
Where indeed. Hillary Clinton and her aides have been complaining for months about imbalance in news coverage. For the most part, the reaction to her from the political-media commentariat has been: Stop whining.
That’s still a good response now that it is Obama partisans—some of whom are showing up in distressingly inappropriate places—who are doing the whining.
The shower of indignation on Charlie Gibson and George Stephanopoulos over the last few days is the clearest evidence yet that the Clintonites are fundamentally correct in their complaint that she has been flying throughout this campaign into a headwind of media favoritism for Obama.
Last fall, when NBC’s Tim Russert hazed Clinton with a bunch of similar questions—a mix of fair and impertinent—he got lots of gripes from Clinton supporters.
But there was nothing like the piling on from journalists rushing to validate the Obama criticisms and denouncing ABC’s performance as journalistically unsound.
The response was itself a warning about a huge challenge for reporters in the 2008 cycle: Preserving professional detachment in a race that will likely feature two nominees, Obama and John McCain, who so far have been beneficiaries of media cheerleading.
This is not to say that ABC’s performance was flawless. There were some weird questions (“Do you think Reverend Wright loves America as much as you do?”). There were some questionable production decisions (the camera cutaways to Chelsea Clinton, the stacking of so many process questions in the first 45 minutes.)
But there was nothing to justify Tom Shales’s hyperbolic review (“shoddy, despicable performances” by Gibson and Stephanopoulos) in the Washington Post or Greg Mitchell’s in Editor & Publisher (“perhaps the most embarrassing performance by the media in a major presidential debate in years.”) Others, like Time’s Michael Grunwald, likewise weighed in against ABC.
In fact, the balance of political questions (15) to policy questions (13) was more substantive than other debates this year that prompted no deluge of protests. The difference is that this time there were more hard questions for Obama than for Clinton.
Moreover, those questions about Jeremiah Wright, about Obama’s association with 1960s radical William Ayers, about apparent contradictions between his past and present views on proven wedge issues like gun control, were entirely in-bounds. If anything they were overdue for a front-runner and likely nominee.
If Obama was covered like Clinton is, one feels certain the media focus would not have been on the questions, but on a candidate performance that at times seemed tinny, impatient, and uncertain.
The difference seems clear: Many journalists are not merely observers but participants in the Obama phenomenon.
(Harris only here: As one who has assigned journalists to cover Obama at both Politico and the Washington Post, I have witnessed the phenomenon several times. Some reporters come back and need to go through de-tox, to cure their swooning over Obama’s political skill. Even VandeHei seemed to have been bitten by the bug after the Iowa caucus.)
(VandeHei only here: There is no doubt reporters are smitten with Obama’s speeches and promises to change politics. I find his speeches, when he’s on, pretty electric myself. It certainly helps his cause that reporters also seem very tired of the Clintons and their paint-by-polls approach to governing.)
All this is hardly the end of the world. Clinton is not behind principally because of media bias; Obama is not ahead principally because of media favoritism. McCain won the GOP nomination mainly through good luck and the infirmities of his opposition. But the fact that lots of reporters personally like the guy—and a few seem to have an open crush—did not hurt.
But the protectiveness toward Obama revealed in the embarrassing rush of many journalists to his side this week does touch on at least four deeper trends in the news business.
1. The breakdown of journalistic conventions about point-of-view. In an earlier era these standards—favoring austere, stoical language conveying voice of God authority—were designed in part to ensure that stories betrayed no hint of the writer’s real feelings.
But the convention was a pretense. There is a generally laudable move toward more conversational—and more candid—language in stories. This shift allows a respected pro like the Associated Press’s Ron Fournier to unsheathe a knife and write this sentence earlier this year about Mitt Romney: “The former Massachusetts governor pandered to voters, distorted his opponents’ record and continued to show why he’s the most malleable — and least credible — major presidential candidate.”
This shift is also what allows NBC News to feel comfortable with its Obama reporter, Lee Cowan, who has acknowledged that he finds it hard to keep his objectivity covering Obama.
But when does a legitimate attempt to capture the energy and mood of a political movement become boosterism? Did Cowan cross the line in this dispatch for the “Nightly News” on Feb. 5?: “Since the early days of his campaign, the candidate has morphed from the intellectual to the inspirational… And it’s that theme that’s brought crowds in the door and to their feet.”
It is a thin and often illegible line between this kind of journalism and outright favoritism.
Wherever the line, it is clear that the profession collectively has stepped over it—based as much on what it hasn’t covered as what it has.
Two of the questions ABC asked Wednesday were related to subjects that have largely been met with media yawns.
One was Obama’s casual association with 1960s era radicals and would-be bomb-setters William Ayers and Bernadine Dohrn: What is the nature of his relationship?
Another was about a questionnaire from a 1996 legislative race in which he endorsed a ban on handguns. Obama said the questionnaire was filled out by someone else and was in error about his views at the time. But it was later found that his handwriting was on the document: What gives?
One can dispute the relevance of these stories—though it seems certain they will be of interest to many moderate voters Obama would need in the fall—but it is indisputable that if Clinton was facing similar questions they would be the subject of constant and all-consuming coverage. There is an obvious double-standard.
2. The rise of the liberal echo chamber. It used to be that if a reporter received a letter that started “You biased S.O.B” it was almost certainly coming from someone on the right. In 1998—the year of the Lewinsky scandal and Bill Clinton’s impeachment—those notes began coming in equal measure from the left. During the Bush era—when the media stumbled in coverage of the march to war in Iraq—complaints are much more likely to come from liberals.
But it has only been in this campaign cycle that we have seen the liberal echo chamber—from web sites like Huffington Post and cable commentators like Keith Olbermann—be able consistently to drive a campaign storyline. In the past, it was only the conservative echo chamber—Matt Drudge, Rush Limbaugh—who regularly drove stories in new media and old media alike. This is a huge shift.
3. The blurring of lines between journalist and advocate. The Huffington Post is an admirable enterprise, staking a flag in a new media landscape. Its success this year was made possible by the openness of the web and the decline in what was once the near-monopoly power of old media institutions like the New York Times to set the agenda on national politics. (Politico is itself an experiment in that new media landscape—one reason we admire Huffington.)
But it covers politics with a mix of traditional reporters and analysts, like Tom Edsall, and with people who define themselves principally as advocates. Many of these advocates, like Huffington Post as a whole, are proudly cheering for Obama. (This is true even though the site, almost apologetically, broke the story about Obama’s recent remarks saying small-town Pennsylvanians turn to guns and God because they are bitter.)
Obama benefits also from probably the strongest bias of traditional, old media reporters: Against partisan combat and for a brand of politics that would transcend differences in favor of cooperation and centrism on elite issues like entitlement reform. Many of these reporters see Clinton representing bad, angry, contrived old politics and Obama bravely leading the way for good, civil, authentic new politics.
4. Covering politics as it is versus as it should be. Many of the people complaining about ABC’s coverage, even some Clinton supporters, disliked the questions and the tone because they felt they were serving as a warm-up act for Republican attacks in the fall.
It is not an easy balance. It is not reporters’ jobs to promote the opposition’s storylines—especially dubious ones like the suggestion that because Obama does not favor flag pins on his lapel it reflects adversely on his patriotism. But nor can a serious reporter avert his or her gaze from the fact that questions about how well candidates connect personally and culturally with voters matter a lot—they were decisive factors in both the 2000 and 2004 elections.
Gibson and Stephanopoulos handled this balancing act responsibly. They asked tough questions of both candidates. In the wake of the debate, it is time for Obama’s cheerleaders in the media to ask some questions of themselves.