Obama coverage finds dark lining around silver clouds
Looking at recent media coverage of Sen. Barack Obama, it's hard not to be a bit amused at the contortions reporters have gone through to portray the Democratic presidential candidate in a negative light. News organizations that know Sen. John McCain's campaign is lying about Obama adopt those lies as the framework for their coverage. Reports on campaign polling obsess over Obama's inability to garner the support of more than 50 percent of the public -- all the while McCain struggles to stay above 40. And, increasingly, reporters and pundits have taken to describing Obama's seemingly positive qualities as fraught with electoral peril.
None of this is particularly surprising. Two years ago, I wrote:
No matter who emerges as a progressive leader, or a high-profile Democrat, they're in for the same flood of conservative misinformation in the media. Too many people chalk up outrageous media treatment of, say, Al Gore or John Kerry to the men's own flaws, pretending that if they were better candidates, they'd have gotten better press coverage. That's naïve. The Democratic Party could nominate Superman to be their next presidential candidate, and two things would happen: conservatives would smear him, and the media would join in.
The eagerness with which the media have spread some truly bizarre criticisms of Obama confirms this theory. Just think about some of the things Obama has seen the media portray as weaknesses. He's too popular and respected. He's too well-educated. His great speeches are attended by many enthusiastic people -- just like Hitler! He's too fit.
Yes: The Wall Street Journal would have you believe that Barack Obama faces an uphill electoral climb because he may be "Too Fit to Be President." Journal reporter Amy Chozick devoted more than 1,300 words to exploring this pressing topic:
[I]n a nation in which 66% of the voting-age population is overweight and 32% is obese, could Sen. Obama's skinniness be a liability? Despite his visits to waffle houses, ice-cream parlors and greasy-spoon diners around the country, his slim physique just might have some Americans wondering whether he is truly like them.
Just for good measure, the Journal included a graphic depicting Obama, McCain, and five presidents. For four of the five presidents, along with McCain, the Journal respectfully chose photos in which the men were wearing suits (though Taft was without his jacket.) In the photo the Journal chose for Bill Clinton, he was in mid-jog, in shorts, T-shirt, and a baseball cap; Obama was in exercise garb, with a basketball in his hand.
Chozick apparently had some trouble finding people to support the crackpot premise that Obama's physical fitness might cause voters to question his fitness for office, so she turned to trolling Internet message boards in desperate search of someone -- anyone -- she could quote. As the blog Sadly, No! revealed, Chozick posted a Yahoo! Message Board thread on July 15, asking, "Does anyone out there think Barack Obama is too thin to be president? Anyone having a hard time relating to him and his 'no excess body fat'? Please let me know. Thanks!"
About three-and-a-half hours later, Chozick got her first response -- a post ridiculing her for her focus on "totally meaningless drivel." Nearly an hour after that, Chozick finally got the response she was looking for. A user posting under the name "onlinebeerbellygirl" wrote, "Yes I think He [sic] is to [sic] skinny to be President. ... I won't vote for any beanpole guy." Chozick quoted the post in her article -- one of only two quotes agreeing with the premise of the article. She did not, however, disclose that the quote had come only after she started a thread encouraging people to make such comments. After she got caught, the Journal acknowledged: "The article should have disclosed that the reporter used the bulletin board to elicit the comment."
There may be more to it than that. A post in a subsequent Yahoo! Message Board discussion thread devoted to Chozick's article noted that "[n]either Chozick nor 'onlinebeerbellygirl' has made any other posts on Yahoo before or since, and both profiles appear to have been created on 7/15, the day Chozick started the topics. It certainly looks like Amy Chozick constructed the whole thing."
Another post wondered: "Do WSJ reporters make up fake IDs and make up fake quotes?"
Chozick's original thread has been deleted (a cached copy is available here). Even more curiously, a search of the Yahoo! message boards for "onlinebeerbellygirl" comes up empty. Whether "onlinebeerbellygirl" ever really existed at all or was a Chozick invention, running a 1,300-word article suggesting Obama is too skinny to be president, based upon a random Internet message board post, is insane. As Slate.com's Tim Noah noted, "In the vastness of cyberspace, you can always find somebody who will say whatever you want."
You might think that The Wall Street Journal's speculation that Obama's failure to be overweight might cost him the presidency was so inane and baseless that no other journalist could possibly repeat this nonsense. You might think that, if you haven't been reading Maureen Dowd. Sure enough, Dowd raced to quote the Journal article in her Sunday New York Times column:
In The Wall Street Journal, Amy Chozick wrote that Hillary supporters -- who loved their heroine's admission that she was on Weight Watchers -- were put off by Obama's svelte, zero-body-fat figure.
"He needs to put some meat on his bones," said Diana Koenig, a 42-year-old Texas housewife. Another Clinton voter sniffed on a Yahoo message board: "I won't vote for any beanpole guy."
It's a good thing The New York Times keeps Maureen Dowd around. How else would their readers be exposed to crackpot theories found in ethically questionable Wall Street Journal articles?
But the most cynical assault on Obama has been the suggestion that he's "too presidential." That's what much of the media criticism of Obama's recent trip abroad boiled down to, James Rainey explained in the Los Angeles Times:
The candidate's crowning demonstrations of hubris, according to those building a case, came during his extended trip to Iraq, Afghanistan, the Middle East and Europe. Recall the pundits demanding the freshman Illinois senator prove he could be presidential in the foreign arena?
So he appeared at ease with world leaders, talked animatedly with beaming American troops and drew huge civilian crowds. Then the pundits -- who had been taking a round of bashing for supposedly going easy on Obama -- told Obama he needed to beware of appearing too presidential.
What makes this criticism so distasteful is that throughout the primaries, the media kept saying various candidates looked "presidential" or "like a president." The pundits rarely explained what it means to "look like a president," but those candidates had at least two things in common: They were white, and they were men. I don't remember Barack Obama (or Hillary Clinton) being described that way. So, after excluding Barack Obama from their lists of candidates who "look presidential," the media have moved on to suggesting he looks too presidential.
Too popular. Too well-educated. Too fit. Too presidential. The guy doesn't stand a chance. No wonder media coverage of poll results that show Obama beating McCain makes it sound like McCain is winning.