As if awakening from a long, languorous slumber where dreams of the perfect liberal being comfortably ensconced in the White House made it impossible for the press to get up, rub their eyes, and return to the real world, it seems that the American media has finally decided to start treating Barack Obama with a little of the curmudgeonly cynicism that has been the hallmark of political reporting in this country for much of its existence.
The press likes to think of themselves as the “Fourth Estate” – the gatekeepers who protect American democracy from the ravages of crooked pols, greedy businessmen, religious charlatans, and most especially, unqualified presidential candidates.
Of course, many of my fellow conservatives don’t think of the press as the “Fourth Estate” as much as they see the media as a “Fifth Column,” deliberately undermining American policy abroad and either ignoring or savaging conservatives at home.
But that judgment may be too harsh. Overall, the press may hold liberal positions on the issues but their real failure lies in their total insularity from views different than their own.
The problem is that there is a bubble that these media elites live in. They live in it in Manhattan & Washington. It’s a very comfortable bubble and they almost never run into people inside it who have differing points of view. They can go through a whole day, a whole week, a whole month, without running into someone who has a differing view on the big social issues of our time…
If you take into consideration how consolidated the media is today and the fact that most local newspapers and TV networks depend on the big boys for national and foreign news reporting, you can see how just a handful of insulated liberals can affect the way news is reported across a wide swath of the American media landscape.
So it is not surprising that the glowing, almost worshipful coverage of the Obama campaign would have powered the Illinois senator through the primaries to a now virtual lock on the Democratic nomination.
But as Howard Kurtz points out, the dynamic of press coverage has now changed:
After more than a year of mostly glowing coverage, Barack Obama is having to defend his relationship with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, his temerity in not sporting a flag pin, even his arugula-loving, bad-bowling, let-me-eat-my-waffle persona that fostered what Newsweek has branded “the Bubba Gap.”
“The media have decided to get tougher on Obama,” says St. Petersburg Times media critic Eric Deggans. “There was so much talk about him getting such an easy ride that some journalists got tired of it.”
And the catalyst for this turnabout came from a very unexpected source; a couple of skits on the old political warhorse TV show Saturday Night Live. The bits were devilishly clever, playing to the idea that the media was in the tank for Obama – something almost everyone in America was aware except the media itself.
The February 23rd show was actually mentioned by Hillary Clinton in the Cleveland debate as proof that the press was biased toward her opponent. Those skits may have been one of the most impactful political satires in decades. Not since Chevy Chase’s bumbling portrayal of President Ford has a TV bit entered the political consciousness of the country.
The press was stung to the quick and began to look for opportunities to stick it to Obama. They didn’t have long to wait when the Jeremiah Wright fiasco exploded onto the scene in mid-March. Seeming to make up for lost time, the press latched on to the Wright controversy and began to question Obama’s judgement and beliefs – long overdue according to some:
Still, says David Greenberg, a Rutgers University professor of journalism and history, the coverage could be far worse. For journalists, he says, “there has been a real infatuation with Obama that has served as almost an unconscious restraint” as many became “taken with the idea of demonstrating their tolerance and America’s tolerance by electing a black candidate.”
What loosened those restraints, Greenberg says, was the media’s conclusion that Obama had virtually wrapped up his nomination fight against Hillary Clinton. “It’s backwards—the toughest scrutiny should come while it’s still a real fight,” he says.
Obama’s image has undergone something of a transformation. In March, feeding the curiosity about his background, a Newsweek cover story focused on “When Barry Became Barack” in college, while a Time cover profiled the candidate’s mother. By last week, Newsweek’s cover piece was exploring why he seems “strange,” “exotic” and, to some, “haughty” and “a bit of an egghead.” How did Obama, cast by some journalists as the new JFK, come to be depicted as what the New Republic’s John Judis says may be “The Next McGovern”?
What does it say about a press that waits until the candidate has the nomination virtually sown up before pouncing on his vulnerabilities? I think any reasonable person can conclude that they’ve got the process back asswards. Aren’t they supposed to vet the candidate while there is still a competitive race going on? And the fact that they haven’t played their traditional role of gatekeeper with Obama (closing the gate after the horse has gotten away) is significant.
That and the fact that all of this is happening 7 months before the election in November means that Obama – a gifted and inspiring figure to many – can still recover and beat McCain in the fall. One wonders if Reverend Wright would have received this kind of coverage in October.
My guess is no, he wouldn’t have been a big issue in September or October. Nor will Tony Rezko make an appearance between the time of the Democratic convention and election day. And I doubt we’ll be hearing too much about William Ayers and his flag stomping, terrorist ways either.
All of that will rightfully be seen as old news by then – that is, unless new information surfaces that would show Obama to be a liar as far as the extent of his problem associations have been. Whether such information is out there to be reported I have little doubt. But the only place you are going to see Wright damning America come the fall campaign is in a GOP 527 ad.
In short, the press may not be as puppy-dog worshipful as they were a couple of months ago. But their basic feelings about Obama don’t show any signs of changing. Witness the panting over his March speech in Philadelphia where he denounced what Wright was saying but not the man. It was hailed as one of the greatest political speeches in history. The press was just looking for an excuse to forgive him and they found it in Obama’s post-racial vision of America.
Then just last week, the press once again praised Obama to the skies for “distancing himself” from Wright – rarely asking the obvious question of why he couldn’t have done so the previous month in “one of the greatest speeches” of all time.
Yes the press has taken a more aggressive tack in covering Obama. But at the same time, they are still bending over backwards to excuse, to explain away, or, as in the case of the William Ayers story, simply ignore Obama’s lies about how well he knew him.
For these reasons, I don’t think we can say that the press still isn’t in the bag for Barack Obama. They may like McCain as well but does anyone really believe that when the campaign narrative is developed this fall that John McCain will be seen by the press in a positive light? It will be Barack Obama to America’s rescue, riding on a black and white horse but with the head of an elephant and the tail of a donkey. He will be the post-racial, post partisan candidate just as he was always meant to be.
Just as the press wants him to be.