A Harsh Mistress
Will the media still love Barack Obama in the autumn?

The American Spectator, July 2008

Barring something truly unexpected, this November's presidential election will be the first in U.S. history in which both parties' nominees are sitting U.S. senators. With Barack Obama as the Democratic standard-bearer, it will also be the first to pit two media darlings against each other.

The Republicans' nominee-to-be has such a reputation for successfully courting journalists that my colleagues at the Wall Street Journal used to refer to him puckishly in editorials as "John McCain (R., Media)." But once he secured his party's nomination, McCain learned that the media's love is fickle (see "Attack of the Keller Tomatoes," TAS, May 2008). Obama got an inkling of this in March and April, and it is a lesson he would do well to remember in the fall.

Obama is likely to remain the media favorite, of course. After all, he is a Democrat. He is also young, black, charismatic, and . . . but I'll let the Associated Press's Charles Babington, an objective journalist, take it from here:

The amazement was on their faces. Hundreds waited for Barack Obama on that evening in South Carolina, 15 weeks ago, to claim victory--a surprising victory, surprisingly large.

And amazing it was. . . .

Maybe the toughest question is this:

Is Obama, with his incandescent smile and silky oratory, a once-in-a-century phenomenon who will blast open doors only to see them quickly close on less extraordinary blacks? . . .

There's ample evidence that Obama is something special, a man who makes difficult tasks look easy, who seems to touch millions of diverse people with a message of hope that somehow doesn't sound Pollyannaish.

Babington also informs us that "without question, Obama is an electrifying speaker," that "Obama has a compelling biography, too," and that "Obama also has spot-on instincts, associates say, and a steely confidence in his convictions, in good times and bad."

Babington wrote this in mid-May, two and a half months after NBC's Saturday Night Live aired a sketch satirizing such fawning coverage. The SNL "reporters" asked questions like these:

• "Senator Obama, are you comfortable? Is there anything we can get for you?"

• "Senator Obama, uh, a minute ago, Jorge Ramos asked if there was anything we could get you, and you said, 'No, thank you. I'm fine.' My question is: Are you sure? Because it's, you know, it's really no trouble."

• "Senator Obama--oh, God! I'm so nervous! I still can't believe I'm actually talking to you! . . . Okay. Uh, as you know, uh, Senator, as I explained in the letter that I duct-taped to your front door--I'm sorry that it went on so long, I just, uh, I just really, really, really, really, really want you to be the next president! And not just because you're a fantastic human being, and the only person who can turn this nation around, but, you know, also because, deep down, I, I really and truly believe that it is destiny that you and I will one day be together! That, uh, you will become a part of me, and I will become a part of you. Joined as one. Does that make sense? . . . Okay. So, my--my question is: Are you mad at me?"

Come to think of it, Babington's dispatch might have been slightly more over-the-top than the SNL sketch. Some reporters, however, seemed to have been shamed by the late-night mockery. ABC News, in particular, got tough on Obama. On March 13, some three weeks after the SNL sketch aired, the network reported that Jeremiah Wright--Obama's longtime pastor and, according to most media accounts, his "spiritual mentor"--had used his pulpit to rail against America, or, as he called it, "the U.S. of KKK A." Wright declaimed, "God damn America!" asserted that the 9/11 attacks were "America's chickens . . . coming home to roost," and alleged that the U.S. government invented AIDS to kill blacks.

Obama's initial defense was to claim he was absent from church when Wright said these things and to suggest--invidiously, one might think--that the pastor's attitude was typical of his race: "I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community," Obama said in a speech that was supposed to kick off a "national conversation on race."

That speech drew exultant praise from the media. Author Garry Wills, writing in the New York Review of Books, went so far as to liken Obama to Lincoln, who as a presidential candidate in 1860 delivered an antislavery speech at New York's Cooper Union. But the national conversation on race failed to materialize, and when Wright, in late April, persisted in his lunatic views--and made the undoubtedly accurate observation that Obama "says what he has to say as a politician"--Obama did finally disown him, more or less.

In the interim, ABC had aired a Pennsylvania debate between Obama and Mrs. Clinton, in which moderators George Stephanopoulos and Charlie Gibson asked him a series of tough questions about Wright and about his long-standing friendship with Bill Ayers, an unrepentant one-time member of the Weather Underground terror organization. (It is worth noting that Stephanopoulos was a White House aide to Mrs. Clinton's lesser half, and that Gibson, to his credit, was one of the few reporters to ask John Kerry about inconsistencies in his Vietnam narrative before the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth launched their 2004 ad campaign.)

Forty-one self-described journalists and "media analysts" signed an "open letter" denouncing ABC News:

In the words of Tom Shales of the Washington Post, Mr. Gibson and Mr. Stephanopoulos turned in "shoddy, despicable performances." As Greg Mitchell of Editor and Publisher describes it, the debate was a "travesty." We hope that the public uproar over ABC's miserable showing will encourage a return to serious journalism in debates between the Democratic and Republican nominees this fall. Anything less would be a betrayal of the basic responsibilities that journalists owe to their public.
The signers of the letter were far from journalistic all-stars. Only two of them listed affiliations with mainstream news outlets: a columnist for the Baltimore Sun (who turned out to be a college professor by day), and a writer for England's leftist Guardian. There was also someone listed as "formerly Chicago Tribune." The other signatories were affiliated with assorted left-wing magazines, academic institutions, or blogs.

There is something pathetic about a herd of so-called journalists signing an "open letter," all endorsing exactly the same views in exactly the same words. Even Charles Babington does not put his byline on other people's fawning descriptions of Obama. Also pathetic was Obama's fainthearted response to the debate kerfuffle. He pulled out of a planned North Carolina debate with Mrs. Clinton. This almost certainly means he will duck all further debates until October.

The Wright fiasco did not cost Obama the nomination. But the November electorate will be less congenial to Obama--less liberal, less black, less fed up with his opponent's family--than the Democratic primary electorate was. If Obama runs away from media scrutiny now, it may catch up with him in the fall. Just ask John Kerry.

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