Obama's Margin of Victory: The Media

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

Conclusion: Winning With a Lot of Help From His Friends

2008-06-04-ABC-WNCG-history11Obama’s showing in the May 6 primaries prompted network pundits to declare him the inevitable victor in the nomination contest. "Absent a complete collapse in the Obama campaign or an act of God," NBC’s Tim Russert announced on the May 7 Nightly News, "this race is over."

While Obama lost four of the last six primaries and collected 400,000 fewer votes than Hillary Clinton, the disappointing electoral results did not dampen the media coverage. During the final month, the networks would give Obama his best press since the start of his campaign in early 2007. More than four out of 10 network reports were pro-Obama during this period (43%), compared to just one percent that carried an anti-Obama tone.

Rather than subject Obama to the sort of pesky questions a candidate routinely faces, the networks focused on the history Obama was making. "Less than 150 years ago, black men and women were held in involuntary servitude. Slavery was the law of the land. And now, the Democratic Party will nominate a black man to be President of the United States,"ABC’s Charles Gibson celebrated on June 3, the night of the last primary contests. On NBC, Russert enthused how "Barack Obama, who says he’s a skinny black kid from the South Side of Chicago, has defeated the Clinton machine...to be the first African-American nominated for president by a major party. It is an extraordinary night."

TextBox8The next night, after Obama had officially collected the last delegates he needed, the networks all followed up with stories about the enthusiastic reaction of black Americans. "In clinching the nomination, Senator Obama has defied a long-held belief among many African-Americans that America would never be ready for this moment," ABC’s Steve Osunsami argued. On CBS, Byron Pitts compared Obama to John F. Kennedy and declared that "one of America’s oldest and ugliest color lines has been broken." (See text box.)

The euphoric coverage underscored one of the media advantages that Barack Obama enjoyed throughout the primaries. The success of Obama’s campaign did, in fact, represent a monumental shift in the history of race relations in the United States, a positive development that could rightly be celebrated. But Obama himself was also a partisan politican engaged in a tight contest, and simple fairness would suggest that just as a candidate must not be penalized because of his race, they also should not be elevated because of race. But the networks were clearly enthusiastic about Obama’s potential as a racial trailblazer, and this element of the campaign narrative provided a significant boost to the candidate’s media image.

The early coverage, beginning with the 2004 convention and through the launch of his campaign in early 2007, also aided Obama’s cause. Four years ago, Barack Obama was a little-known state senator seeking to win his first statewide office, but the highly positive media reception he received over the next two-and-a-half years made him a well-known national political "rock star." His celebrity profile raised Obama above other challengers in his ability to compete with the universally-known Hillary Clinton for early campaign dollars and supporters. The networks did not select Obama for his keynote role in 2004, of course, but the networks did promote Obama with an enthusiasm that other keynoters — including the African-American Tennessee Congressman Harold Ford, Jr., who spoke at the 2000 convention — never received.

This celebrity component to Obama’s coverage also gave him an advantage in the weeks before the Iowa caucuses, when his tour with Oprah Winfrey received heavy coverage from the networks. The tremendously good press Obama received prior to those caucuses could only have helped him in such a tight race, which he needed to win to have a chance for the nomination. Losing Iowa would likely have meant the end of his candidacy; winning it gave him the momentum he needed to challenge Hillary Clinton across the rest of the country.

As the primaries settled into a one-on-one contest, the networks aided Obama with the way they handled stories of his past that might have affected voter sentiments. The candidate’s dealings with Tony Rezko, whose trial coincided with the final three months of primaries, was given surprisingly little attention from the networks. The coverage of his minister’s radical preachings was handled in a way that spared Obama from most direct criticism, as reporters cast Obama as Wright’s victim rather than his longtime friend.

It is possible, of course, that all of these network favors had no effect in boosting Obama’s quest for the Democratic nomination. But if the media did not actually win the Democratic nomination for Barack Obama, they surely made his road to the White House a whole lot smoother.