Reporters whine about Obama; ignore McCain attacks on the press

››› ››› ERIC BOEHLERT

Meanwhile, as the press today ponders whether Obama is playing too tough with the press, it ignores the fact that the McCain campaign, despite the media mythology about the candidate's Fourth Estate love affair, has a long history of snubbing reporters and walling them off.

The Obama campaign hurt Adam Nagourney's feelings.

The New York Times' political reporter recently claimed to have felt the campaign's sting after he wrote a front-page piece on July 16, detailing recent polling that suggested the presidential candidacy of Sen. Barack Obama had not dramatically altered views about race in America.

In a New Republic article about the campaign's pushback against his July 16 piece, Nagourney said that the night the story was first posted online he received a terse email from an Obama rep who raised questions about the story. Nagourney responded to the email and thought that the matter had been settled. The next morning he was surprised to see that the Obama camp had released a lengthy, eight-point critique of his article. (The Obama team was not alone; the premise of the Times piece was widely criticized.)

Nagourney "really flipped out" when he saw the Obama release. "They attacked me like I'm a political opponent," the aggrieved reporter told The New Republic, which used the anecdote to kick off a rather breathless analysis of what the magazine claimed was Obama's increasingly rocky relationship with the press.

Headlined, "End of the Affair: Barack Obama and the press break up," the New Republic piece leaned heavily on the notion that reporters were angry with the Democratic candidate and ready to revolt; that Obama's press aides were "alienating" the media by providing "little to no access," being "total tightwads with information," and acting in an arrogant fashion.

And worse, as Nagourney lamented, the campaign treated a reporter like a political opponent.

Oh, brother.

Do I even have to make the obvious point here that Republican politicians, and Republican candidates, have been attacking journalists and treating them like political opponents for years now? (Most notably President Bush, whose contempt for the press has been widely advertised for years.

But over the years, why didn't reporters complain publicly -- why didn't they flip out, as Nagourney called it -- about the naked GOP attacks? I didn't hear many industry-wide cries of consternation then. Instead, it's only considered to be newsworthy, and to be a point of deep media concern, when a Democrat is accused of slighting the press.

Indeed, the double standard on display couldn't be more obvious: When the GOP plays hardball with the press, or what's perceived to be hardball, journalists tough it out and consider it the cost of doing battle in the Beltway.

But when Democrats play hardball, or what's perceived to be hardball, reporters consider the jousting to be some sort of personal attack and rush to complain to colleagues how nasty the Dems are behaving.

Meaning, journalists expect Republicans to be mean and treat them like political opponents; to sit on information, cast aspersions, and make life difficult. That's a dog-bites-man story. By contrast, journalists feel personally wounded and get indignant if they think Democrats have dissed the press. And then journalists wonder how the slights might affect the candidate's campaign coverage. (That's a topic rarely broached when the GOP plays rough.)

And talk about thin-skinned. Nagourney even "conceded that he may have erred" in omitting polling information, according to Talking Points Memo. So why did he take the Obama camp's critique personally? Why did he flip out when the campaign's objections targeted the substance of the article, not the reporter who wrote it?

Meanwhile, as the press today ponders whether Obama is playing too tough with the press, it ignores the fact that the McCain campaign, despite the media mythology about the candidate's Fourth Estate love affair, has a long history of snubbing reporters and walling them off.

Note that the current double standard doesn't apply only to Obama. The New Republic mined this same territory before. Back during the Democratic primaries, the magazine published a hyperventilating piece detailing the over-controlling Hillary Clinton campaign's desire to "crush" the press and how, much like Obama today, it was endangering campaign coverage.

To highlight the vicious brand of hardball being practiced by the Clinton camp, the article led with what was supposedly its best anecdotal evidence: After the Times had published a friendly feature about Obama's love of basketball, a Clinton rep called the Times reporter to note his "annoyance" with the story. ... That was it. No threats. No profanity-laced tirades. No organized boycott. Just a person-to-person call to express annoyance. That's how The New Republic was sure the Clinton campaign was out to "crush" the media.

Even more comical was a later anecdote in the piece about how, when making small talk with The Washington Post's Anne E. Kornblut, Clinton noted that Kornblut had just returned to the campaign trail from vacation. The problem? The encounter, according to The New Republic, revealed Clinton's "ominous awareness of the reporter's movements."

Good grief. When Bush made buddy-buddy banter like that with reporters during the 2000 campaign, the press announced that it was proof that he was authentic and one of the guys. When McCain does the same today, reporters gush about all the personal attention he showers on them. But during the primaries when Clinton made time for small talk with a reporter, The New Republic practically portrayed the Democrat as a stalker.

To review: When Republican candidates turn on reporters, it's expected. When Democrats are accused of doing it, it's newsworthy. When Republican candidates schmooze the press, it shows their human touch. When Democrats schmooze, it reveals their dark side.

But back to Obama. Any discussion about his press relations and whether his campaign has walled out reporters takes place against the backdrop of the Beltway conventional wisdom that McCain enjoys an easygoing kinship with reporters because his free-wheeling, media-loving campaign boasts an "almost obsessive level of press access," as Ana Marie Cox stressed in a recent issue of Radar. (It's access that, as Media Matters for America's Jamison Foser pointed out, serves no real purpose unless reporters put it to use by asking McCain probing questions.)

"Covering McCain is a blast," wrote Cox. "He genuinely likes reporters: He'll joke with us about our drinking habits, playfully request our cell phones in the middle of a call and tell some unsuspecting editor or parent that the phone's owner has just been hauled off to rehab, and engage in gleefully sarcastic banter about both our colleagues and his."

According to Cox, it's because of that close camaraderie that reporters mostly turn away when McCain makes obvious campaign trail gaffes, like confusing Sunnis and Shiites.

In her piece, Cox quoted an unnamed television reporter who appeared star-struck after McCain engaged Cox and the TV reporter in some small talk in the lobby of a hotel: "I've been doing this for 12 years and no candidate ever does that -- just comes over to say hi."

In other words: He likes us, he really likes us!

Two points. First -- this is hardly an original observation -- the idea that journalists base their presidential campaign coverage around the personal likes and dislikes of candidates and their handlers is so obviously wrong that one would hope it didn't need to be highlighted. Yet clearly it does.

Second, this notion that McCain's campaign puts reporters up on a pedestal and that the candidate himself graciously responds to every press query is pure mythology.

For instance, in terms of access, The Wall Street Journal reported last week, "As the Arizona senator re-organizes his operation and tightens control of his message, the campaign has taken to cherry-picking who and what media outlets get the most face-time with the candidate."

The newspaper stressed how the "national press has had very limited access" to the candidate.

That's what The New Republic article accused the Obama camp of doing -- limiting access. Yet note there are no audible rumblings on the media landscape about a pending breakup between the press and McCain. Why? Because it's OK for Republicans to wave off the press; to treat reporters with disdain. But if a Democrat gets tagged for doing it, that's the basis for a messy divorce -- a "break up."

And make no mistake, McCain and his campaign regularly show contempt for the press.

For instance, last week, McCain publicly snubbed Wall Street Journal reporter Elizabeth Holmes. (She was the same reporter who wrote about the McCain campaign limiting access to journalists.) After calling on Holmes during a press avail on July 25, McCain, standing just few feet from her, promptly, and pointedly, ignored her and called on another reporter.

McCain's rebuke was just the latest in a long line of slights; slights that The New Republic has yet to detail in an article chronicling the press' reaction to being humiliated and ignored by the Republican hopeful:

  • The McCain camp last week released a fundraising video, dubbed "Obama Love," that openly questioned the press' professionalism for what Republicans claim is the soft coverage Obama has been receiving on the trail. The McCain video featured a myriad of TV clips featuring well-known journalists discussing Obama, mockingly set to the background music of Frankie Valli's "Can't Take My Eyes Off of You."
  • When McCain held a 10-minute press conference on July 9, national reporters were sitting 27 miles away on an airport tarmac, having been "ferried" to McCain's charter plane.
  • Mother Jones Washington bureau chief David Corn wrote this month that "it seem[s] that the McCain campaign has been screening questioners during the conference calls featuring campaign aides and top-level surrogates it mounts for reporters."
  • In March, McCain berated New York Times reporter Elisabeth Bumiller after she asked why, in 2004, the senator had denied ever talking to Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) about possibly being his vice presidential running mate.
  • In May, after Newsweek published an article the McCain camp didn't like, McCain aide Mark Salter reportedly threatened to throw the magazine's reporters off the campaign bus.
  • A senior McCain strategist in 2006 allegedly told an Arizona Republic reporter he was "off the bus" after writing an article the McCain camp didn't like.

And let's face it, McCain is simply picking up where the 2000 and 2004 Bush presidential campaigns left off in terms snubbing the press. And specifically, the Bush crowd loved to snub The New York Times.

At a September 2000 campaign rally, Bush spotted a veteran political reporter in the crowd and turned to running mate Dick Cheney to remark: "There's Adam Clymer, major league asshole from the New York Times." "Oh yeah, big time," replied Cheney, in an exchanged captured by an open microphone.

During the 2004 re-election campaign, the Republican National Committee accused the Times of fabricating "third-hand, made-up quotes" from Bush (the paper was guilty of "Kitty Kelley journalism," RNC chairman Ed Gillespie said). The Times had reported that during a closed-door meeting with funders, Bush claimed he would announce plans for "privatising of Social Security" after the election, which of course, is precisely what he did in 2005.

And don't forget that Times reporters were denied access to Cheney's campaign plane in 2004.

Did anyone at the Times fight back publicly? Did anyone get quoted in Beltway magazines about how the nasty Bush campaign attacks on reporters had really "flipped" them out? How they were surprised to be treated like "a political opponent"?

Not that I saw. But when the Obama campaign simply issues a statement raising factual doubts about a questionable Times campaign report, we're told it's an egregious act?

Please. The GOP has done far worse for years, and the press never made a peep.

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