With Sen. Barack Obama now emerging as the Democratic front-runner, clear signs suggest that his press treatment will soon change and that the media will fall back into their routine of viewing -- and critiquing -- leading Democrats through the eyes of Republican spin.
Just last week, we saw how a single line from a Michelle Obama speech was seized upon by conservative partisans, led by Fox News, to suggest she is not patriotic, and how that attack was given a wider airing in the mainstream press. (CNN casually raised questions about Barack Obama's patriotism, as well.) We've also seen the media-manufactured narrative take root that Obama is the leader of a cultish following (more on that below), which dovetails with the creeping media meme that Obama is a phony.
Meanwhile, in Sunday's New York Times, Obama was twice described as being overly effeminate: He's an "elusive starlet" who prefers "playing the tease," while espousing a "feminine management style." Compare that to the media's portrayal of Republican Sen. John McCain as sort of a man's man, and it's obvious where those competing narratives are headed.
Writing at Slate.com, John Dickerson announced he's had enough of the Obama euphoria: "Isn't there a natural limit to our enthusiasm for to this kind of sweeping phenomenon?" By "our," I suppose Dickerson meant voters, but my hunch is he was likely referring to journalists and how they had reached their "natural limit." I'm not sure this foreshadows a full-fledged media backlash against Obama, but it certainly suggests a fundamental shift is on the horizon. The pendulum is swinging.
Specifically, look at the about-face being done by partisan conservative columnists who, rather unbelievably, had expressed their deep admiration for Obama, a liberal Democrat, during the primary season when he opposed Clinton.
"He is the brilliant young black man as American dream," wrote Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan, whose hatred of Hillary Clinton is limitless. But with the Clinton campaign now wounded and Obama grabbing the inside track on the nomination, Noonan quickly flip-flopped. In her February 22 column, she suggested the Obamas are self-centered "snobs" who can't relate to "normal Americans." (Bill Kristol is now hitting that nasty theme as well.)
New York Times Republican columnist David Brooks performed a similar pivot. Last year, he praised Obama effusively while urging him to take on Clinton for the Democratic nomination: "Whether you're liberal or conservative, you should hope Barack Obama runs for president."
More recently, in January, Brooks wrote of how Obama "offer[s] a politics that is grand and inspiring" and noted Obama's rhetoric about "the high road versus the low road; inspiration versus calculation; future versus the past; and ... service versus selfishness."
Then last week, the columnist showed his true partisan colors, the same colors he and an army of others will be waving for months to come. New narrative: Obama is an overhyped, waffling phony, and his followers are delusional suckers. To accentuate the mocking tone, Brooks in his column referred to Obama as "the Hope Pope," "His Hopeness," "The Chosen One," "The Presence," "The Changemaker," and the "High Deacon of Unity."
Why are predictable partisan jabs noteworthy? Because previous media patterns suggest those types of derogatory right-wing talking points about Democratic front-runners will almost certainly be absorbed by the larger mainstream press.
Still, some media observers suggest it's unlikely that Obama's press coverage will change dramatically, in part because the press has already examined Obama's record and couldn't find much dirt on him. "The assumption that every politician who reaches a point of power must have a dead prostitute or a shady land deal in his past just waiting to be discovered seems a cynical view, born out of a particularly journalist-centric view of the world," wrote Gal Beckerman for the Columbia Journalism Review.
But I think that misses the larger point about today's brand of superficial political press coverage, which does not revolve around uncovering scandals or digging up dirt on candidates. Meaning, even if Obama has a sterling background, that does not mean he's immune to downbeat media.
For instance, none of the relentlessly negative press coverage that Clinton has been hit with over the past four months, during which time I don't think the Clinton campaign won a single news cycle, has had anything to do with revelations about Clinton's past, and it had virtually nothing to do with her politics. Indeed, there's no logical reason why Clinton's mainstream, left-leaning centrist candidacy would spark the kind of swarming animosity that it did within the press corps. Just like there was no rational reason why Al Gore's pragmatic platform in 2000 prompted the press to openly despise him.
The truth is, long-term campaign press coverage has almost nothing to do with the candidate's policies, shortcomings, or previous scandals. It's built almost entirely around questions of "character," and even more transparently, around personality, or pointless personality traits. (Do you think the media's sexist obsession with Clinton's "cackle" sprang from some sort of larger policy concern?) And that's why Obama remains vulnerable, because Republicans do a masterful job of convincing journalists that, in the end, they don't really like Democratic candidates, that they don't trust them.
And, as usual, Republicans are already telegraphing their script. Grover Norquist, the conservative anti-tax activist, told The Sunday Times of London, "Barack Obama has been able to create his own image and introduce himself to voters, but the swing voters in a general election are not paying attention yet. He is open to being defined as a leftwing, corrupt Chicago politician."
If recent history is any indication and Obama solidifies his status as front-runner, the press will soon play a central role in spreading that negative narrative.
There's another key reason Obama's media treatment will likely turn harsher: John McCain. And not just because he's the longtime "media darling," as NBC's David Gregory conceded last week. Rather, as Time.com's Ana Marie Cox noted, the McCain camp is already complaining to reporters that the media is going too easy on Obama. McCain's aides are working the refs, and it is going to pay off.
Why? Because when McCain and the entire GOP establishment play the liberal media bias card and complain that the press is going too easy on the Democrat, the press will listen.
History shows us that the press panics when faced with the charge of liberal media bias, especially during a campaign year.
That's why it's so important to start paying attention not only to the media's own manufactured negative narratives, but also right-wing talking points quickly forming about Obama. We know McCain is going to echo every one of them, and my guess is the press will, too.
I'm not referring to the truly nutty stuff that the radical right is starting to churn out, like National Review's Lisa Schiffren, who argued, with zero proof, that Obama's mixed-race parents had communist leanings because back when they got married, the only reason black and white people married was because they were communists. Or Accuracy In Media's Cliff Kincaid and his retro Red Scare column about how "Obama had an admitted relationship with someone who was publicly identified as a member of the Communist Party USA."
I doubt the traditional press will show much interest in that kind of textbook hatemongering. But I do think the press will gladly amplify more mainstream, personality-based attacks on Obama. (Time's Mark Halperin gets a head start here.)
For instance, the central point of Brooks' recent contemptuous New York Times column about Obama was that delusional followers of his were suffering from "Obama Comedown Syndrome" and that they struggled against "Obama-myopia." And that line of attack closely mirrors another emerging mainstream meme: Enthusiastic Obama followers are akin to mindless cult members, and their eccentric fanaticism is driving his campaign.
CNN's Carol Costello suggested that the audience response at an Obama rally represented "a scene some increasingly find not inspirational, but 'creepy,' " while on-screen the text read "OBAMA-MANIA BACKLASH" and "PASSION 'CULT-LIKE' TO SOME."
The Los Angeles Times' Joel Stein referred to "the Cult of Obama," while mocking the campaign as "Obamaphilia" and his supporters as "Obamaphiles." (If Obama supporters were wondering what it felt like to be openly derided by the mainstream media, now they know.)
Time's Joe Klein complained, "There was something just a wee bit creepy about the mass messianism." The Times' Brooks joked that Obama's supporters would soon be "selling flowers at airports and arranging mass weddings."
And most egregiously, ABC's Jake Tapper made fun of the "Helter-Skelter cult-ish qualities" of Obama's supporters. That's right, the Charles Manson-led Helter Skelter cult that slaughtered five adults during the summer of 1969, and the same cult that believed murderous blacks would soon stage a bloody revolution and try to take over America. That's who Tapper compared Obama's base to. Ha-ha. Get it?
The cult narrative simply highlights how Obama is not immune to bad press -- bad press that has nothing to do with his past, his policies, or his campaign platform. But bad press that journalists essentially concoct, the way they do every four years when a Democrat eyes the White House.