All three network anchors and dozens of other reporters followed Barack Obama on his whirlwind tour through the Mideast and Europe this week, sparking humor-infused complaints from the John McCain campaign. Project for Excellence in Journalism Director Tom Rosenstiel says there's nothing new about hating on the media, but that Obama has in fact enjoyed a disproportionate amount of coverage.
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BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York, this is NPR's On the Media. Brooke Gladstone is out this week. I'm Bob Garfield.
Presidential hopeful Barack Obama made his way through a whirlwind tour this week, taking him inside the war zones of Afghanistan and Iraq to the mountains of Jordan and through the streets of Berlin, where more than 200,000 adoring fans waited to see him. And throughout this tour, the media followed. FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Well, just hours after Barack Obama landed in Baghdad, the Iraqi government — MALE CORRESPONDENT: The first place that he visited here in Iraq was a southern town called Basra — FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: walking into a gym full of troops in Kuwait- BOB GARFIELD: And they followed. [CROWD HUBBUB] FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: There you see it — Barack Obama’s touching down in Jordan, in a MALE CORRESPONDENT: — on a mountaintop against the backdrop of — BOB GARFIELD: And followed.
BRIAN WILLIAMS: We're here, of course, in advance of Barack Obama’s stop KATIE COURIC: I met with Barack Obama here in Amman. CHARLES GIBSON: We talked about all of that with the senator today. BOB GARFIELD: The Obama coverage frenzy led to outrage within the McCain campaign, which, to illustrate its anger, issued mock press passes to those unfortunate reporters still stateside, covering McCain. The passes read, “JV squad left behind [LAUGHS] to report in America.”
In fact, the McCain campaign thought the media’s attention on Obama crossed over the line — into love. [CLIP] WOMAN SINGING: I want to hold — MALE CORRESPONDENT: The media’s love affair with Barack Obama is all-consuming. CHRIS MATTHEWS: I felt this thrill going up my leg. MALE CORRESPONDENT: Well, I CHRIS MATTHEWS: And I don't have that too often. [END CLIP] BOB GARFIELD: That’s from a video on McCain’s website, asking supporters to vote for the song that best characterizes the love between Obama and the media. Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, says that since June when Obama emerged as the presumptive nominee, 78 percent of election related articles mention Obama, while only 51 percent mention McCain.
Rosenstiel says this doesn't necessarily mean the media are in the tank for Obama, but he’s not surprised McCain is making that argument. TOM ROSENSTIEL: It’s a time honored tactic that often doesn't work. Let's not forget that the first President Bush, near the end of his campaign when the polls were not moving, began to criticize the press and even had bumper stickers that said, “Annoy the Media, Reelect Bush.” That was a last gasp for George Bush, and I think whether it works or not depends on when it comes in a campaign. BOB GARFIELD: Well, this is pretty early. I mean, we're not even at the conventions yet and he’s already pulling out this trick, which is often, as you suggest, the last refuge of a desperate candidate. Why do you suppose he’s already going down this road? TOM ROSENSTIEL: Well, if you start attacking the press early in a campaign, you’re working the refs. You’re trying to get the press to change its behavior. The press is highly sensitive to criticism and will quickly evaluate whether these charges are perceived to have merit. And if they are, history suggests it may cause the press to change its behavior.
We only have to remember back to February, when Hillary Clinton accused the press of being soft on Obama. I think there’s little doubt, and our data certainly support the idea that after she did that, the press became more skeptical of Obama.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, it’s certainly true that Obama has gotten the preponderance of coverage. Preponderance of coverage is not the same thing as bias, is it? TOM ROSENSTIEL: No, it’s not. If John McCain were ahead in the polls, laying low in the press wouldn't be a problem. Press attention doesn't equal winning. Press attention is a kind of oxygen. It’s necessary for winning, but it’s not sufficient. And some of the storylines here are not all positive for Obama. In our data we see “Is Obama a flip flopper and a hypocrite?” is becoming a kind of a staple of the narrative.
And the second thing is that there are a host of journalistic reasons why he may be getting more coverage. He is new. He is historic. The crowds are large. All of those things make him a better story.
But there was also a question of whether the press, in following those journalistic instincts, has created an unlevel playing field for McCain. And that’s something that journalists have to worry about.
Then you can throw in, is the press also in the tank for Obama? Is there bias here? That’s an unanswerable question, I think, that, you know, will never be resolved. BOB GARFIELD: If, as you suggest, that this whole campaign is a way, early in the race, to play the refs, to get them to be less likely to call a foul, how should the press react? Should they look inward to see if they're being too tough on McCain, or should they just trust their instincts, even if it means a caravan to Europe to follow Obama? TOM ROSENSTIEL: [LAUGHS] The press has extra responsibilities in a campaign. Normally you don't worry about, oh, gee, we're covering the mayor too much, we should tack back and cover the governor more.
But campaigns are different because the press is both covering the news and sort of conducting the job interview on behalf of the public. And if they create a situation where they have made it manifestly harder for one candidate to get elected, that’s a problem, I think, even if all the reasons that they're covering one candidate more are defensible. And so, I think that the press may tack back here.
BOB GARFIELD: Okay, point taken. But doesn't it also behoove the McCain campaign to do or say something fundamentally newsworthy? TOM ROSENSTIEL: Yes, I think that’s part of McCain’s problem, that he is not generating much interest. But intellectual consistency is not one of the hallmarks, typically, of candidates. BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] TOM ROSENSTIEL: And, you know, McCain can have an empty message and also complain about the press not covering him. And there’s a risk for McCain here, too, in doing this, which is you want to work the refs but you don't want to look like a whiner. That’s unappealing to voters. And ultimately it’s voters who decide these things and not, obviously, the media.
So now that McCain has made his statement, it’s probably wise to leave it to surrogates from here on to complain about the press, or you look like somebody who’s got four fouls and can't seem to play defense cleanly and — BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] TOM ROSENSTIEL: — you know, is on the brink of being ejected. BOB GARFIELD: Okay, Tom. Thank you very much. TOM ROSENSTIEL: My pleasure. BOB GARFIELD: Tom Rosenstiel is director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism.