Obama's Margin of Victory: The Media
Table of Contents:
Protecting Obama From His Past
With his victory in Iowa, Barack Obama enjoyed a wave of media celebration and momentum going into the New Hampshire primary five days later. Most pundits believed, probably correctly, that if Obama could score another victory in the Granite State, Hillary Clinton would have little chance of stopping his momentum. The night after Iowa, NBC’s Andrea Mitchell gushed about Obama’s victory speech: "Delivered with the help of a TelePrompter, [it] looked almost presidential, perhaps the passing of the torch to a new generation of politicians and voters."
Over on ABC, anchor Charles Gibson suggested Obama was unbeatable. "How do you run against hope?" he asked George Stephanopoulos, repeating: "How do you run against hope?"
Just hours before the New Hampshire polls closed on January 8, reporters suggested the race was nearly over. CBS’s Dean Reynolds told anchor Katie Couric: "Barack Obama anticipates a good result tonight, and at this point there is no reason for him to think otherwise....His campaign organization is brimming with confidence."
On NBC, anchor Brian Williams celebrated with Obama, showing the candidate a copy of Newsweek magazine, with a cover story on "Obama’s Dream Machine." Williams wondered: "How does this feel, of all the honors that have come your way, all the publicity?...Who does it make you think of? Is there, is there a loved one?"
Obama’s loss that night to Hillary Clinton pushed the nomination contest to Nevada and South Carolina, where the issue of race took center stage. The networks’ presumption was that the "race issue" would most likely hurt Obama, who would presumably lose the votes of prejudiced whites. NBC’s Bob Faw, for example, suggested in December that the South Carolina primary "is a referendum of sort on how much this state is still shackled to its Jim Crow past, and how much it has set itself free."
Did Faw really mean a vote for Obama was a vote for freedom, and that a vote for Clinton was a vote for Jim Crow?
But there was another side of the race issue which showed itself in positive news coverage of Obama as a racial pioneer, exciting African-Americans as the potential first black president. All three networks pegged their Martin Luther King Day coverage to Obama’s prospects as a racial breakthrough. According to ABC’s Deborah Roberts, "whether or not they accept Obama’s message, many black voters are enthusiastic about his candidacy." CBS’s Byron Pitts declared that thanks to Obama "race is still an irresistible force in America, but no longer an immovable object."
That same night, NBC’s Lee Cowan highlighted Obama’s leading the NAACP’s annual march in Columbia, South Carolina, "swarmed by supporters" and advocating unity. The following story by Andrea Mitchell cast the Clinton campaign as on the defensive about Bill Clinton’s use of supposedly divisive rhetoric. Pivoting off of Clinton’s earlier charge that Obama’s claim to be the staunchest opponent of the Iraq was "the biggest fairy tale I’ve ever seen," Mitchell narrated: "At Ebenezer Baptist Church today, Atlanta’s mayor, an Obama supporter, rebuked Bill Clinton to his face, saying electing a black man can be a reality."
Viewers then saw a soundbite from Mayor Shirley Franklin: "Yes, this is reality, not fantasy or fairy tale." Mitchell then noted that "at least two party leaders, Senator Ted Kennedy and Congressman Rahm Emanuel, a former Clinton aide, have told Bill Clinton that as a former president he should stop attacking Obama and dividing the party. But he has refused."
The contrast could not have been sharper — Obama was elevated as a potential breakthrough in achieving racial unity, while the Clintons were challenged as the sowers of racial division. Overall, about 12 percent of Obama’s coverage (157 stories) included specific discussions of race. Just under a quarter of those (23%) offered a positive spin on Obama’s role as a racial healer. The remaining three-fourths were neutral or mixed; none were negative. Thus, the "race issue" — at least as dealt with on the Big Three networks — was on balance another plus for Obama, and another handicap for his rivals.
Little TV Time for Obama’s Rezko Connection. A few hours after those laudatory Martin Luther King Day newscasts, the candidates met in yet another debate where Hillary Clinton attempted to force a negative story onto the media agenda. After Obama slammed Clinton as "a corporate lawyer sitting on the board of Wal-Mart" as jobs were being outsourced, the New York Senator counterpunched: "I was fighting against those ideas when you were practicing law and representing your contributor Rezko in his slum landlord business in inner-city Chicago."
But the networks had little interest in promoting the details of Obama’s connection with Tony Rezko, the then-indicted (now convicted) one-time Obama fundraiser. Prior to the debate, only CBS’s Katie Couric had mentioned the case, in a brief report back on April 27, 2007, calling it a "potential threat to what’s been a meteoric political rise." Couric, anchoring from Chicago, then followed up with a long report about the good works Obama accomplished as a community organizer.
Couric gushed: "Most people stayed in that job for four months. Obama continued to fight for four years, cutting his teeth on community activism, the first measure of leadership skills that are now being tested on a much larger stage."
While all three of the networks ran Clinton’s Rezko-raising soundbite on their January 22 newscasts, only NBC’s Lisa Myers followed up with a detailed report. On the January 29 Nightly News, Myers spelled out how Rezko was a longtime friend of the Obamas whose biggest favor to Senator was helping with the purchase of a home in 2005. The owner had wanted to sell the home and an adjoining lot together for more than $2.5 million; the Obamas ended up buying the house for $1,650,000 while Rezko’s wife forked over $625,000 for empty lot. At the time, Rezko was already being investigated for bribery and fraud.
In other words, a man under investigation for bribing state officials had delivered a pricey favor to the Obamas when they needed help buying the house they wanted. At the very least, it looked suspicious.
"Critics say that in paying full price for the lot, Rezko may have essentially subsidized Obama’s purchase, which Obama strongly disputes. The realtor who represented the seller says Obama could not have bought the house unless someone bought the lot at the same time," Myers reported, adding: "Obama strongly denies any wrongdoing, but now calls the deal a ‘bone-headed mistake.’"
After Myers’ report, NBC essentially ignored the story, offering brief mentions on March 4, March 15 and June 4, the day Rezko was convicted — and the day after the last of the Democratic primaries. CBS’s Dean Reynolds included the bare-bones details of the Rezko transaction as part of a much longer profile of Obama for the February 28 Evening News, carefully pointing out that "no one has charged Obama with wrongdoing, something he has been quick to point out." Apart from minor mentions of the case on March 3 and June 4, the Evening News had nothing else to say about the Rezko case, either.
Like NBC, ABC’s World News provided a single full report on the Rezko case, timed to coincide with the start of Rezko’s trial in early March. Reporter Brian Ross pointed out that "for all of his stated disdain for fat cats and special interests, Senator Barack Obama has had a long and close relationship with Rezko." Uniquely, Ross pointed out to anchor Charles Gibson that "prosecutors do allege that in at least two cases Rezko did secretly funnel money to Obama’s campaign as part of his kickback schemes, something Obama says, Charlie, that he never knew." ABC offered six other minor mentions of the case between March 2 and June 4, but like the other networks did not make it an issue that would dog Obama during the primaries.
Total coverage of the Rezko case: Just two full stories, with 15 miscellaneous mentions of the case between April 2007 and June 2008. The minimal press attention assured that Obama’s Rezko connection would hardly be an obstacle on his road to the nomination — more like a minor speed bump.
Insulating Obama from Reverend Wright. By the time the controversy over Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s radical statements reached the airwaves, Barack Obama had clearly achieved frontrunner status in the Democratic nomination race after an unbroken string of victories over Hillary Clinton from February 9 through February 19. At this point, Obama’s delegate lead would be difficult for his rival to overcome without a major shift in Democratic voters’ perceptions of Obama. The Wright story had the potential, at least, to trigger such a shift, if voters came to believe that Obama, a parishoner at Wright’s Trinity United Church of Christ for two decades, shared some of his longtime pastor’s radical sentiments.
But as with many of the stories that could have been a serious problem for Obama, the networks came to the story late and were loath to suggest a philosophical connection between Wright and Obama. ABC’s Jake Tapper, back in February 2007, briefly suggested Obama’s "critics" would ask if "his church here on Chicago’s South Side, which expresses a message of black power, is too militant for mainstream America to accept," but made no specific mention of Wright nor expounded on the church’s "message of black power." A month later, the New York Times reported that Obama had excluded Wright from his formal campaign announcement due to "the campaign’s apparent fear of criticism over Mr. Wright’s teachings, which some say are overly Afrocentric to the point of excluding whites." None of the networks picked up on the Times report.
For nearly a year, the networks stayed silent on Wright and Trinity as a possible problem for Obama. In his February 28, 2008 profile of Obama, CBS’s Dean Reynolds broke the embargo by including a short summary of the matter, saying "critics" called Trinity "separatist, racist and anti-Israel," and noted without showing any soundbites that Reverend Wright had pronounced "that racism is how this country was founded and how this country is still run."
Two weeks later, the networks finally picked up on video clips of Wright’s sermons, showing him damning America and yelling that the U.S. had deserved 9/11. First to arrive on the story, ABC’s Tapper on March 13 incorporated one quote from Wright in a longer piece that mainly focused on criticism of former Democratic vice presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro, a Clinton supporter, for saying that "if Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position" of Democratic frontrunner. Tapper balanced the piece by noting how Wright "is a member of the Obama campaign’s African American religious leadership committee," and played this clip from Wright preaching: "Barack knows what it means to be a black man living in a country and a culture that is controlled by rich, white people. Hillary can never know that. Hillary ain’t never been called a ni**er." (The network bleeped the final word.)
CBS picked up on the same quote the next night, plus Wright’s "God damn America" sermon in a piece by Dean Reynolds that included the first condemnation from Obama: "Obama today wrote, ‘I categorically denounce any statement that disparages our great country.’" NBC held itself to just a short item (without any video clips) read by fill-in anchor Ann Curry, who promised that Obama would appear on "MSNBC’s Countdown tonight to address this still-brewing controversy." After that 22-second piece, the newscast spent three minutes on a puff piece about how excited Obama’s childhood friends in Indonesia were about his candidacy. (See text box.)
NBC finally got around to a full report on its lower-rated Saturday broadcast on March 15. Correspondent Lee Cowan was protective: "While his public rants are old, new airings of the video prompted the campaign to dismiss Reverend Wright from Obama’s religious advisory committee," and included a clip of Obama on Countdown condemning the comments. After that, NBC and CBS suspended their coverage of Wright until Obama’s race speech the following Tuesday. Only ABC’s World News included Wright in their daily political wrap over the weekend and into Monday, when ABC’s Tapper included an old clip of Obama praising Wright: "I’ve got to give a special shout-out to my pastor, the guy who puts up with me, counsels me, listens to my wife complain about me. He’s a friend, and a great leader."
While all of the networks described the Wright-Obama story as a "controversy" and a "firestorm," none of the networks had at this point aired so much as a single clip from any critic castigating Obama for his long association with Wright — the only soundbites were of Wright spouting off and Obama disapproving of his pastor’s rhetoric. Prior to Obama’s race speech, the networks had excluded any suggestion that the candidate’s deep ties to Wright — including basing the themes of his 2004 convention address and his book, The Audacity of Hope, on Wright’s sermons — could indicate that Obama either shared some of his minister’s radical views or had casually overlooked them as unimportant.
And, for the networks, Obama’s March 18 speech quickly changed the discussion from one about a radical minister to one about an African American presidential candidate who had the potential of uniting America. ABC, CBS and NBC framed their coverage as about Obama’s success in "confronting" the issue of "race in America" in an "extraordinary" speech. Both ABC and CBS displayed "Race in America" on screen as the theme to their coverage, thus advancing Obama’s quest to paint himself as a candidate dedicated to addressing a serious subject, not one forced to explain his ties to racially-tinged hate speech.
"Barack Obama addresses the controversial comments of his pastor, condemning the words but not the man," CBS’s Katie Couric teased before heralding: "And he calls on all Americans to work for a more perfect union." On ABC, Charles Gibson announced: "Barack Obama delivers a major speech confronting the race issue head on, and says it’s time for America to do the same." Reporting how "Obama challenged Americans to confront the country’s racial divide," Gibson hailed it as "an extraordinary speech."
On NBC, Lee Cowan admired how, "in the City of Brotherly Love, Barack Obama gave the most expansive and most intensely personal speech on race he’s ever given." Later on the same newscast, Washington Post editorial writer Jonathan Capehart was brought on to assess the speech. Capehart declared it a "gift" from Obama: "It was a very important speech for the nation. It was very blunt, very honest....a very important gift the Senator has given the country."
That night, only CBS’s Jeff Greenfield — on an Evening News panel that included liberal activist Jim Wallis of Sojourners and Debra Dickerson, a blogger for the left-wing Mother Jones, who both gave the speech rave reviews — dared to suggest that Obama had unfinished business: "How does a guy who spends 20 years with somebody with notions that seem very bizarre — like AIDS is a government conspiracy — what’s he doing with that guy for 20 years?...I don’t think this speech, effective as it may be in other areas, ends that controversy for him."
Whether it truly answered any of the important questions about Obama’s relationship with Wright, the speech did effectively end the controversy as a major evening news story, with CBS anchor Katie Couric announcing three days later that her network’s polling had found how "an overwhelming majority of voters, seven out of 10, say he did a good job of explaining his relationship with the controversial Reverend Jeremiah Wright." Beyond minor mentions, the Wright story was basically history until the Reverend launched his own media tour at the end of April, appearing on PBS’s Bill Moyers Journal, speaking at an NAACP dinner and appearing before the National Press Club on April 28, where he repeated many of his past incendiary allegations, and added at least one new one: equating U.S. troops to the Roman legions who killed Jesus.
Rather than point out how Wright’s 90-minute spectacle at the Press Club completely undermined Obama’s initial claim that the short video clips of his sermons had been unfairly taken out of context, the networks cast Obama as the true victim of the now-indisputably left-wing minister. NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams stressed how "one veteran politico today called it a ‘circus’ and a ‘sideshow.’" Reporter Andrea Mitchell fretted that "Wright’s appearances were an unwelcome distraction for Barack Obama....Supporters described the whole thing as a media circus."
Once again, Nightly News brought on the Post editorialist Capehart for his expert analysis. Capehart rued that "unfortunately, the victim in all of this is going to be Senator Obama’s campaign."
While the Wright story is often portrayed as the most damaging media episode for Obama, the record shows that the broadcast networks calibrated their stories to shield the candidate from the toughest questions and refused to air some of the most inflammatory clips of Wright’s preachings.
[For additional details on how the networks covered this story, please refer to our earlier report from the MRC’s Director of Media Analysis Tim Graham, "Editing Reverend Wright’s Wrongs."]
Bad Press for "Bitter" Gaffe. Obama actually received tougher coverage in mid-April, after a liberal blogger published a quote from the candidate suggesting small town Americans are "bitter" people who "cling to their guns or religion or antipathy towards people who aren’t like them." The quote emerged on Friday, April 11, but none of the evening newscasts offered reports that night. That weekend, CBS’s evening newscasts were pre-empted by coverage of the Masters golf tournament, but ABC and NBC produced full reports on their Saturday and Sunday newscasts.
For two days, the network spin was clearly negative towards Obama: "For Senator Barack Obama, the timing could not be worse," ABC anchor David Muir began on April 12. Reporter T.J. Winick showed a soundbite from political analyst Stu Rothenberg, who opined that the remarks would be "a huge problem," and Winick concluded by noting how "some voters were actually wearing ‘I’m Not Bitter’ stickers" at a Clinton campaign rally."
Over on NBC, Lee Cowan reported how "critics claim the comments made him look like a liberal looking down his nose at conservative values." The next night on ABC, reporter David Wright noted from Finleyville, Pennsylvania, that "one thing that bothers people in this small town is that Obama made those offending remarks out in San Francisco, almost like he was speaking behind their backs — and that makes it an even more bitter pill to swallow."
Wright quoted a Catholic churchgoer rejecting Obama’s comments about faith: "I don’t think we turn to it out of bitterness. I think we turn to it out of hope."
Of the seven stories about Obama’s gaffe aired on ABC and NBC over the weekend, five were clearly negative in tone, with the other two mixed, making it the worst two days of press coverage Obama had ever received. But over the next three days leading up to the final debate in Pennsylvania, the tone shifted in Obama’s favor. Nine out of the 10 stories that discussed the issue from April 14-16 adopted a mixed tone, not the negativism seen over the weekend.
Reporters began suggesting that Hillary Clinton’s criticisms had become excessive; ABC’s David Wright found that "talking to some of the voters, some say there’s a danger she’s pushing it too far." Over on NBC, reporter Kelly O’Donnell forwarded complaints that the "elitist" charge against Obama was out of bounds, because it "amounts to the racially-charged word ‘uppity.’"
An ABC News debate between Clinton and Obama on Wednesday night shifted the dynamic once again, with pro-Obama stories on all three networks the following evening suggesting the candidate had been a victim of ABC’s supposed bias against him, demonstrated by tough questions about Reverend Wright and Obama’s relationship with ’60s radical terrorist William Ayers. Even ABC’s own reporter highlighted criticism of his network from a Pennsylvania voter: "I felt they wasted a whole hour, a good hour, talking about nothing."
Between Wright’s radicalism and Obama’s gaffe about "bitter" voters, the seven weeks prior to the Pennsylvania primary were, in fact, his worst period in terms of network coverage. But as the chart on page 11 shows, even during this period, Obama still benefitted from twice as many positive stories from the networks (21%) than negative stories (just 9%). The Wright story, as mentioned earlier, actually wound up being a net positive for Obama on the networks, with virtually no direct criticisms of the candidate for his association with Wright, but hearty praise for his March 18 speech on race. And while Obama’s "bitter" gaffe earned him negative press, the heaviest criticism appeared during the lower-rated weekend newscasts.
While the bad news certainly hurt, other stories helped prop up Obama’s image. On March 28, for example, NBC’s Lee Cowan offered a long piece on Obama’s late mother that quoted only the candidate and his friends and family. "You know, at night, if I’m saying a prayer, you know, I send out maybe a little message to my mother, and hopefully she’s somewhere and can hear it," Obama confided to Cowan. "A quiet but heartfelt whisper over the noise of a presidential campaign," Cowan dramatically concluded.
The day before the Pennsylvania primary, CBS’s Bill Whitaker interviewed pro-Obama voters in Philadelphia and reported that black clergy from 200 churches had endorsed Obama. Reverend Ellis Washington contributed a soundbite praising the candidate: "We feel very strongly about the brand of leadership that he’s bringing, the fact that he has energized a whole new generation of voters."
After Pennsylvania, Obama’s next showdown was in North Carolina and Indiana, where the Clinton campaign touted their candidate’s pledge to suspend the federal gas tax for the summer. Obama declared Clinton’s plan to be a "gimmick" and — for the first time in the campaign — all three networks dove into a substantive policy debate, seeking quotes from policy experts weighing in on the matter.
Amazingly, every expert cited by the networks in the week before the Indiana primary suggested Clinton was wrong and Obama was right. "The high oil price isn’t going to come down just because we temporarily cut the federal tax on gasoline," economist Mark Zandi declared on the April 29 CBS Evening News. "Great politics, but apparently terrible economics," ABC’s David Wright asserted the next night just before quoting economist Len Burman: "You would be hard pressed to find any economist who would say this is a good idea."
In his report on May 2, NBC’s Ron Allen insisted "many economists say it’s [suspending the tax] a bad idea, because it could encourage more driving, increase demand and perhaps push prices up." CBS was back on Sunday with a report from Priya David pointing out how "150 economists signed a petition saying it’s a bad idea." The day before the primary, ABC’s Jake Tapper cited no source as he asserted that "policymakers of all stripes think the proposal is a lousy one that may not even save consumers money." NBC’s Andrea Mitchell shined her spotlight on voters who agreed with Obama that Clinton’s plan was a gimmick. "Oh, yeah, absolutely," Indiana voter Donna Phelan declared. "It’s politics. They’re saying what people want to hear."
The unanimous network commentary in favor of Obama’s position in the gas tax debate could only have helped him in Indiana, where Clinton’s final vote margin was just 1.2 percent (50.6% to 49.4%, according to RealClearPolitics.com). And, undoubtedly many economists did think that a temporary suspension of the 18 cent per gallon tax would not significantly affect the real problem of rising fuel costs.
In contrast, four months later (after the primaries concluded) Obama himself promoted swapping 70 million barrels of oil from the nation’s Strategic Petroleum Reserve, a step which he claimed "in the past has lowered gas prices within two weeks." Would Obama’s proposal really have a genuine effect on prices, or was it also vulnerable to the charge of being a "gimmick"? (Four weeks earlier, Obama had specifically rejected such a step, saying the reserve should only be tapped in cases of genuine emergency.)
Unlike their coverage of the gas tax holiday in late April and early May, the networks on August 4 showed no interest in running Obama’s proposal to tap the emergency reserves by the experts. ABC’s Jake Tapper listed the proposal as he went through Obama’s laundry list of energy ideas, but sought no expert opinion about its merits. Neither did CBS’s Dean Reynolds, although Reynolds at least noted how Obama had flipped positions. On NBC, anchor Brian Williams read a brief item that suggested Obama was "refining" his position (a pun Williams almost certainly intended), but did not spell out exactly how Obama had shifted.
The next night, NBC’s Andrea Mitchell included the Obama proposal in a look at both candidates’ plans on energy. She noted the flip-flop, but the only expert she brought in, economist Fred Bergsten, did not weigh in on the idea to tap the reserves, instead scolding both Obama and McCain for having "not talked much about conservation."
Thus, no network held Obama’s mid-summer energy proposals up to the same scrutiny they had reserved for Obama’s rivals in the spring — one more gift for the Illinois Senator’s presidential aspirations.