Team Obama

Has the media fallen for the Democratic candidate?


I came into the office the other day, wearing an "Obama 2008" cap, a "Yes We Can" button, a "Team Obama" T-shirt, carrying an "Obama for Change" tote bag filled with Obama bumper stickers, made a stop at the Obama altar in the newsroom, strewed some rose petals, chanted a few hosannas, lit a votive candle and had a sudden thought: Is the news media's love affair with Barack Obama getting out of hand?

John McCain and his campaign staffers have a sneaking suspicion it is. They put out a video with footage of journalists acting gooey about the Democratic candidate, to the strains of "Can't Take My Eyes Off of You." According to the campaign, "The media is in love with Barack Obama." McCain's people say that like it's a bad thing.

If there are some journalists who are taken with Obama, it's not surprising. One of the unfortunate things about the American press corps is that it is made up of people. Many people in other walks of life have been attracted to Obama, moved to vote for Obama, even enthralled by Obama. So you would expect some people wearing press badges to be susceptible to the same kind of reactions.

John McCain didn't always mind this tendency. In 2000, the crushes were all on him. Newsweek gushed about his courage, his candor, his "puckish charm" and his life story—a saga "so overpowering and, at times, excruciating, that it has needed a fresh kind of human interaction to show that the hero isn't made of marble."

U.S. News and World Report said he "seems too good to be true," "a man of consistency, character and a few rough edges in a world of contradiction, lies and conformity." Cue the Four Seasons!

So, yes, reporters and commentators can sometimes be taken with a presidential candidate. Politicians who make serious runs for president usually have more than the average quota of charm and magnetism. Journalists, like McCain, are not made of marble, so they are not immune to those qualities.

Chris Matthews said of one Obama speech, "I felt this thrill going up my leg," which invited ridicule. But his mistake was an excess of honesty. Obama is by anyone's standard a powerful orator, and powerful orators are good at eliciting emotions. Being affected by a speech, however, is not the same thing as worshipping the speechgiver.

I'm probably not the only journalist in America who shed tears when Ronald Reagan spoke at Omaha Beach on the 40th anniversary of D-Day. I felt a few chills when New York Gov. Mario Cuomo delivered the keynote address at the 1984 Democratic national convention—which didn't stop me from blasting his message.

You may assume Matthews is a shameless liberal. But the same Matthews was dazzled by the "star power" and masculinity of Republican Fred Thompson, fantasizing about the smell of "English Leather on this guy."

There are some journalists who openly favor Obama. There are also some who openly favor McCain. That's fine, because they are commentators, who are supposed to take sides.

But McCain supporters tend to discount the conservative commentators while assuming that the liberals speak for all journalists. They also assume that reporters, who are supposed to be objective, would rather help their favorite candidate win than do their jobs in a professional way.

Is that plausible? Not really. In 2004, journalists voted overwhelmingly for John Kerry over George W. Bush. Kerry got plenty of unflattering news coverage anyway. I'd bet that in 2000, most media people voted for Al Gore, who thought he got a raw deal from the press.

Obama is getting more congenial coverage, but not because he's ideologically compatible with most scribes. The real reasons are that he vanquished the formidable Hillary Clinton, his race gives him huge historical significance, and he has exceptional political talents that even his critics acknowledge.

But those attributes will grow stale. Obama will make mistakes. His flaws will become more noticeable. Presidential campaigns are like baseball seasons: Today's hero is tomorrow's goat.

With three months to go, there will be plenty of chances for McCain to shine and Obama to stumble—and the news coverage will shift accordingly. By Election Day, Obama may feel like he's been worked over by the Hells Angels.

Who knows? That newsroom altar might even start gathering dust.