There is a sort of love affair, if not an intense infatuation, going on between Barack Obama and the mainstream media. This guy comes right out of central casting for presidential candidates. He is young, charismatic, dynamic, charming, speaks in sound bites, and, according to the photo in People magazine, looks better than his opponents in a bathing suit.
We in the media love to cover the horse race. Each presidential campaign starts earlier than the one before it. The 2008 campaign will be more like an ultra-marathon than a 5K or 10K race. It will be about endurance and discipline, about conditioning and the ability to manage the media under the most difficult of circumstances.
In many ways, Barack Obama is the Howard Dean of 2008 — only with a pleasant personality and lacking the volatility that caused Dean to implode when he came in third in Iowa in 2004. I first realized how media-savvy Obama is when I saw him on “Oprah.” He was relaxed and conversational. He was chumming it up with Oprah, and the crowd filled mostly with women loved it. He was self-effacing and as substantive as he needed to be. No serious policy talk here. Obama knew his audience. They wanted to know him as a person; as a husband; as a father; and as a black man running for president with a very realistic chance of winning.
Obama’s media appeal became even clearer when his wife, Michelle, joined him and Oprah on the set. Michelle and Barack Obama appear to be a media dream couple. She, too, is classy, looks great on camera and appears to know just what to say. She, too, is self-deprecating, but poked fun at her husband while still being respectful.
The media’s love affair with Barack Obama is also based on another factor — race. While Obama’s mother was white, he clearly identifies himself as a black politician. And while it is still early, it appears that most white reporters are not that comfortable aggressively challenging Obama. I’m not saying that Obama won’t be challenged aggressively down the road, but for now, the media “honeymoon” is in full swing. A prime example is this headline in The New York Times on Feb. 20: “The ‘Hot’ Ticket in Hollywood: An Evening with Obama."
“Saturday Night Live’s” Darrell Hammond and other white comedians who poke fun at politicians for a living recently told Newsweek magazine that Obama is very difficult to rip apart. Hammond said that Obama was smart and articulate. (Which is not funny.) Many white comedians said that it was risky to poke fun at a black candidate for fear it may be seen as racist. Frankly, it is harder for white comedians to make fun of black politicians than it is for black comedians, like Chris Rock or Tracy Morgan, to make fun of George Bush, John Kerry or even Hillary Clinton. I’m convinced the same principle holds true for many white journalists when it comes to aggressively challenging or criticizing Obama. They have little or no experience doing it, and many are not sure of how it will play.
There is a double standard when it comes to current media coverage of Obama. One can only hope that changes soon, because to treat him differently from the other serious presidential candidates does represent a racist attitude.
Interestingly, Obama was critical of some in the media for coverage of him focusing on “softer” topics while he wanted to talk substantive issues. Chill out, Senator, and count your blessings. If People magazine wants to show you in a bathing suit and talk about your pecs, consider yourself lucky. And if you are that worried about the coverage of you as a “rock star” with loads of personality, stop doing interviews with Oprah or personality-driven magazines. Exactly how did you and your wife get on the February cover of Ebony? Was that because of your position on Iraq or because the two of you are very photogenic and have an even more interesting personal story to tell?
To his credit, when Obama screwed up recently by saying the 3,000-plus American lives that were lost in Iraq were “wasted,” he immediately apologized. He minimized the damage and potential fallout, both in the media and with voters. Apologizing was a very smart move, something Hillary Clinton still hasn’t figured out when it comes to her 2002 Iraq vote.
This relationship between Obama and the media is going to be a fascinating one to watch, because unlike Jesse Jackson and even Al Sharpton, Obama has huge crossover appeal and could in fact be our next president. I only hope that we in the media start treating him like that and press him harder on the substantive issues that matter most to American citizens.
My advice to Obama is to enjoy the honeymoon while it lasts, because when it does end, history shows that it can get pretty ugly. The media loves to build national candidates up, but we love even more to tear them down. Barack Obama’s fascinating story continues.
Write to Steve Adubato at