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Obama's Margin of Victory: The Media

How Barack Obama Could Not Have Won the Democratic Nomination Without ABC, CBS and NBC

In The Beginning

ABC and NBC viewers first heard the future nominee’s name in 2004, when Barack Obama was the Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate in Illinois and keynote speaker at that year’s party convention. Prior to that, Obama had appeared on a national network news broadcast only once before, on the CBS Evening News on May 17, 2000, when he was a law professor at the University of Chicago.

2000-05-17-CBS-ObamaTowards the end of a piece on possible reparation payments to the descendants of U.S. slaves, Chicago-based reporter Cynthia Bowers included a soundbite from a local expert: "Professor Barack Obama supports more discussion of the issue, but says any law would likely be spiked in the courts." CBS then ran this short clip of Obama: "Generally, the Supreme Court has a philosophy that you have to identify a clear wrongdoer and a clear victim.

Professor Obama then vanished from the airwaves, not to return for more than four years. But when Barack Obama again found the media spotlight as a state senator running for the U.S. Senate, he would quickly become a darling of network reporters, and their gushing reviews would help propel him to the top ranks of presidential politics.

In June and July 2004, the networks mentioned Obama in a handful of stories discussing the turmoil among Illinois Republicans after Senate nominee Jack Ryan left the race amid a sex scandal. Then-ABC anchor Peter Jennings referred to Obama as "a popular Democrat," while NBC reporter Ron Allen called Obama "a rising star on the national stage." CBS’s Cynthia Bowers, in a story about the potential candidacy of former Chicago Bears coach Mike Ditka, referred to Obama as a "populist Democrat" who was "dominating the polls."

Obama became the center of network attention as the keynote speaker of that year’s Democratic Convention, and network reporters praised Obama’s personality and biography. Reporter Dean Reynolds, then with ABC, touted Obama on July 27, a few hours before his convention speech: "Democrats could have picked someone more famous for tonight’s speech, but the pros saw something special in Barack Obama....He’s a terrific campaigner, direct and often funny....[He] might be considered a case study in overcoming barriers."

"He calls himself a skinny kid with big ears, but at 42, Barack Obama is taking on rock-star status at this convention," CBS’s Bowers enthused that same night. "His life story has become legend....How well he does tonight could go a long way toward determining whether he becomes a giant in the Democratic Party." Bowers also included a soundbite from an Illinois Republican, Dan Proft, who argued that Obama was even then benefitting from a smitten press corps: "I mean, this guy is way out there, but that is not being heard in this arena again, because of a media coronation that wants to tell a fairy tale and because of a Republican Party that can’t get its act together."

The night after Obama’s speech, then-NBC anchor Tom Brokaw delivered another positive profile: "His national debut is getting rave reviews....This blessed young father of two is the son of a Kenyan working-class man and a white Midwestern mother. Both his parents are gone, but the lessons of their love are not."

In contrast, the networks showed none of that affection for the Republican keynoter that year, then-Democratic Senator Zell Miller. Brokaw described Miller’s efforts on behalf of President Bush’s re-election as "torching his party and its ticket," and NBC’s Brian Williams branded Miller "a disaffected member of the opposition party." CBS’s John Roberts suggested a character flaw in Miller’s decision to back a Republican: "Call him disillusioned conservative Democrat or turncoat, it’s the sort of remarkable about-face Miller is famous for."

Roberts was much more positive when he weighed in on Obama’s speech the previous month: "In what even some Republicans call the most effective political speech they’ve ever seen, the convention’s keynote speaker hit what could only be called a home run right into center field." Roberts then showed this clip of Obama from the night before: "There is not a liberal America and a conservative America. There is the United States of America.

The notion that Obama’s political approach was actually centrist or non-ideological was not the norm in 2004, as most of these early profiles were straightforward about Obama’s liberal ideology. ABC’s Terry Moran, in a July 25 profile, said Obama "is a proud, traditional liberal." Two days later, in his profile, Dean Reynolds asserted that Obama is "trying to run a positive campaign with liberal positions." CBS’s Bowers said Obama "has never hidden a decidedly liberal platform." And while Brokaw offered no label for Obama in his July 28 profile, NBC reporter Mark Potter did so less than two weeks later, referring to Obama’s "liberal views" in a report on Republican Alan Keyes entering the Illinois Senate race.

Chart5But over the next four years, as Obama won election to the U.S. Senate and undertook his presidential campaign, network reporters became much stingier in applying the "liberal" tag to Obama. Correspondents called Obama a liberal only 10 more times through the end of the Democratic primaries, for a total of 14 such labels over nearly four years. ABC reporters were the least reticent to brand Obama a liberal, doing so a total of nine times. CBS’s correspondents only tagged Obama as liberal three times, and NBC just twice in four years.

In contrast, network reporters on 29 separate occasions called Obama some variation of a "rising star," "emerging star," "superstar," and "rock star." This was a contest NBC’s reporters won, with 15 such salutations of Obama, more than on CBS (8) and ABC (6) combined.

Thrilled by Obama the Campaigner, Yawns for Obama the Senator. Barack Obama became Senator Obama in 2005, but his activities as a U.S. Senator drew scant interest from the networks. During his first 21 months in office, Obama was mentioned just 20 times — and only nine of those were specifically for his official duties. His most prominent official endeavor was a November 1, 2005 hearing on preparations for a potential bird flu epidemic that garnered him a soundbite on both CBS and NBC; a little over a month earlier, on September 29, 2005, ABC’s World News had quoted (without video) Obama’s warning that bird flu "is a crisis the entire country has to awaken itself to." In all of these stories, Obama was just the source of a single quote, not the center of attention.

Besides that, Obama soundbites appeared in stories remembering Rosa Parks and Coretta Scott King; an oversight hearing on federal spending following Hurricane Katrina; and protesting the government’s failure to secure from theft the IDs of 26 million military veterans. In August 2005, NBC quoted Obama rejecting a proposal from Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr., that non-citizens be permitted to vote under certain circumstances. Then-anchor Bob Schieffer conducted a short interview with Obama on the January 31 CBS Evening News to get his reaction to Coretta Scott King’s passing and that night’s State of the Union address by President Bush.

In a January 18, 2005 story about confirmation hearings for Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, ABC’s Linda Douglass called Obama "the Democrats’ newest star," and ran a soundbite of the Senator challenging Rice on Iraq: "I think part of what the American people are going to need is some certainty. Right now, it appears to be an entirely open-ended commitment." Douglass later quit journalism to join Obama’s presidential campaign (see earlier text box).

CBS’s Byron Pitts saluted Obama for participating in a May 1, 2006 protest on behalf of "rights" for illegal immigrants, the so-called "Day Without Immigrants." Pitts led into a clip of an interview with Obama by trumpeting: "Unlike last month’s wave of demonstrations, politicians didn’t simply take notice. Today, many showed up." Pitts asked Obama to reply to those "people across the country who say, ‘How dare people who broke the law by entering the United States now plead with the Senate and the Congress to do something about that?’"

Obama offered the orthodox liberal reply, "Well, you know, the problem is that we’ve been engaging in hypocrisy in this country. We don’t mind these folks mowing our lawns, or looking after our children, or serving us at restaurants, as long as they don’t actually ask for any rights in return."

If Obama’s work in the Senate failed to excite network reporters, his prospects as a potential presidential candidate did. On September 17, 2006, then-CBS reporter Sharyn Alfonsi reported on Obama’s visit to an annual steak fry hosted by Iowa Senator Tom Harkin, a venue for prospective presidential candidates. Alfonsi’s was the first broadcast evening news story to present Obama as a possible 2008 candidate; her only soundbites came from Harkin, Obama and two supporters of an Obama candidacy, including Illinois state comptroller Daniel Hynes, who gushed: "In some cases, you don’t choose the times, the times choose you. And I believe this time has chosen Barack Obama."

A few weeks later, on October 13, Obama’s profile received a boost as he delivered a commentary on the CBS Evening News, part of the broadcast’s short-lived "FreeSpeech" segment. Anchor Katie Couric set up Obama: "Tonight, a warning that falling gas prices should not lull you into a false sense of energy security." Obama blandly argued for more efficiency and adoption of alternative fuels: "America’s oil addiction doesn’t go away when prices come down or the polls close."

Flocking to Barack. Less than two weeks later, on October 22, 2006, Obama on NBC’s Meet the Press told moderator Tim Russert that he was thinking of running for president in 2008. Like a match had been struck, the networks were suddenly interested in Obama again. That Sunday, all three evening newscasts covered Obama’s announcement — CBS included a short item read by anchor Russ Mitchell, while the other two networks produced full reports; ABC’s World News Sunday even made it their lead item. The next night, all three broadcasts spent a second night covering Obama, with full stories speculating about his potential campaign.

The positive spin evoked the glowing coverage Obama received at the 2004 convention. On the October 23, 2006 Nightly News, reporter Chip Reid first called Obama "the newest — and at the moment the brightest — star in the Democratic sky," and anchor Brian Williams confided to Tim Russert that Obama was "a guy that could actually cause excitement over American politics to break out again.

TextBox2Over on CBS, then-correspondent Gloria Borger enthused: "If every presidential candidate has to have a great story to tell, Barack Obama’s life certainly qualifies....He’s a certified political phenom, with a best-selling book and a date with Oprah....It’s the American dream for some Democrats." The lavish praise for Obama extended far beyond the evening newscasts to the rest of the establishment media. (See text box.)

During the final week of the 2006 midterm campaign, the networks covered Obama’s campaign efforts on behalf of the Democrats alongside those of President Bush for the Republicans. Obama was included in seven evening news stories over the last five days of the campaign. NBC’s reporters touted Obama as a "star" for three successive nights — David Gregory called him "one of the party’s emerging stars" on November 3; the next night, Chip Reid relayed how "Democratic stars are hitting the road," as he showed a clip of Obama in Maryland; and the following night Kelly O’Donnell talked about "the Democrats’ emerging star, Senator Barack Obama, in Pennsylvania today."

After the Democrats’ midterm victories, Obama’s early campaign trips on his own behalf were touted as major events. NBC’s Chip Reid followed the Senator to New Hampshire in December: "A raucous, standing-room only crowd welcomed Barack Obama on his first trip to New Hampshire today, and he responded with the kind of speech that’s been captivating Democrats from coast-to-coast....Ever since he electrified the Democratic convention in 2004, Obama has been treated more like a rock star than a politician."

2006-10-23-NBCNNcoversBy the time Obama officially filed his candidacy papers on January 16, 2007 (another event that drew heavy network coverage), he had been mentioned or profiled in 81 broadcast evening news stories — a fairly large number, considering the brevity of his national political career. During the previous two years, the networks showed little interest in assessing Obama’s capabilities as a policymaker; rather, reporters praised his personal story and his abilities as a speaker and campaigner. Indeed, TV reporters virtually ignored Obama’s work in the Senate, highlighting him only as he stepped into the role of partisan campaigner — the 2004 Democratic convention, campaigning for Democrats in the 2006 midterm elections, and preparing his own presidential campaign.

While none of the networks reported any legislative or policy accomplishment by Obama, a slight majority of stories (51%) nonetheless conveyed a positive spin; all of the remaining stories were neutral or mixed. (See chart on next page.) While some of the longer stories about Obama included brief references to potential bad news topics — his past drug use, his lack of solid policy experience — these negatives were overwhelmed by positive themes. Obama in 2007 had the luxury of launching his presidential campaign having never once been the subject of a negative evening news story.

By the time his campaign formally began, the networks had gone a long way toward making the previously unknown Barack Obama a national figure with a near-perfect media image. While the realities of a presidential campaign meant Obama would inevitably receive negative publicity in the months to come, the celebratory themes of his early coverage would be revisited throughout the primaries, giving him a unique advantage on the trail.