On August 28, when the junior Senator
from Illinois accepts his party’s nomination to be the next President of
the United States, Barack Obama may wish to spend a few moments thanking
network news reporters for making the whole night possible. Since the
launch of Obama’s national political career at the Democratic convention
four years ago, the Big Three broadcast networks have showered Obama
with positive — even glowing — news coverage, protected the candidate
from the attacks of his rivals, and shown little interest in
investigating Obama’s past associations or exploring the controversies
that could have threatened his campaign.
These are the key findings of
an exhaustive analysis of ABC, CBS and NBC evening news coverage of
Barack Obama — every story, every soundbite, every mention — through the
end of the Democratic primaries in June. Media Research Center analysts
examined every reference to Obama on the three evening broadcasts, and
found a near-absence of the journalistic scrutiny and skepticism
normally associated with coverage of national politicians. Indeed, much
of the coverage — particularly prior to the formal start of Obama’s
presidential campaign in early 2007 — bordered on giddy celebration of a
rising political "rock star" rather than objective newsgathering.
That the national media have unfairly tipped the scales in Obama’s
direction is a fact not lost on the public. The Pew Research Center
surveyed about 1,000 adults in late May, and reported that "far more
Americans believe that the press coverage has favored Barack Obama than
think it has favored Hillary Clinton," with even 35 percent of Democrats
seeing "a pro-Obama bias." A Rasmussen survey of 1,000 likely voters
released July 21 discovered "49 percent of voters believe that in the
general election, most reporters will try to help Obama with their
coverage" while "just one voter in four (24%) believes that most
reporters will try to offer unbiased coverage."
a Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll of 900 registered voters released July
24 discovered six times as many think "most members of the media" want
Obama to win rather than McCain. According to an article posted on
FoxNews.com, "Only about 1 in 10 (11 percent) volunteers the belief that
the media is neutral on the race to become the 44th President of the
United States....When asked to rate the objectivity of media coverage of
the campaigns, Americans feel Obama gets more of a positive spin by a
better than 7-to-1 margin (46 percent more positive toward Obama; 6
percent more positive toward McCain)."
The public believes the media are tilted towards Obama because of the
biased performance they witnessed during this year’s primaries. NBC News
correspondent Lee Cowan, the reporter assigned to cover the Obama
campaign full time during the primaries, admitted in an interview in
early January that he felt pulled in Obama’s direction: "From a
reporter’s point of view, it’s almost hard to remain objective because
it’s infectious, the energy, I think. It sort of goes against your core
to say that as a reporter, but the crowds have gotten so much bigger,
his energy has gotten stronger. He feeds off that."
Weeks later, Cowan told the New York Times’ Jacques
Steinberg that it was "hard not to drink the Kool-Aid" surrounding
Obama: "Even in the conversations we have as colleagues, there is a
sense of trying especially hard not to drink the Kool-Aid. It’s so
rapturous, everything around him. All these huge rallies."
On CNN’s Reliable Sources on January 13, Washington Post
media writer Howard Kurtz asked a former Washington Post
editor, The Politico’s John Harris, whether he thought
"journalists are rooting for the Obama story." Harris referred back to
his time at the Post: "A couple years ago, you would send a
reporter out with Obama, and it was like they needed to go through detox
when they came back — ‘Oh, he’s so impressive, he’s so charismatic,’ and
we’re kind of like, ‘Down, boy.’" Anchoring news coverage of Democratic
primaries on February 12, MSNBC’s Chris Matthews famously confessed
after listening to an Obama victory speech, "I felt this thrill going up
my leg. I mean, I don’t have that too often."
To assess the degree to which journalists’ infatuation with Obama
contaminated daily news coverage, MRC analysts used our own News
Tracking System (NTS) software and Nexis to locate every story
mentioning Obama on ABC’s World News, the CBS Evening News
and NBC Nightly News from the time Obama emerged on the national
stage (the first evening news story mentioning Obama aired on May 17,
2000) through June 6, 2008, the last broadcast before Hillary Clinton
formally exited the Democratic race, cementing Obama’s nomination.
three evening news broadcasts may not be able to tout the high ratings
of a generation ago, but together averaged more than 23 million combined
viewers from January through early June of this year, far more than
their cable news competitors. And unlike the news junkies who flock to
the 24/7 cable outlets, the typical broadcast evening news viewer spends
less of their day devouring campaign news, which makes them consequently
more likely to be influenced by the information and images they receive
from these programs.
Analysts found a total of 1,365 news stories and interviews offering
at least some discussion of Obama. About two-fifths of these (550) were
full reports that focused exclusively, or nearly so, on Obama. Another
170 items (about 12% of the total) were brief, anchor-read items that
also focused on Obama. Just under half of the total (645, or 47%) were
full reports or interviews that included either mentions of or
soundbites from Obama, but did not focus on him. Examples of stories
included in this group are: items about the congressional debate over
Iraq in early 2007 which quoted Obama along with many other senators;
stories about candidate debates where Obama was one talking head among
many; or stories about any of his Democratic (or Republican) rivals
which included some comments directed at Obama himself. These stories,
about 30 percent of which conveyed a distinctly positive or negative
spin about the candidate (more about how we determined a story’s spin
shortly), were included in the sample to ensure a complete portrait of
network news coverage of Obama.
NBC and ABC aired the most
total stories (490 and 464 respectively), with the CBS Evening News
a fairly distant third with 411 stories. As far as stories that
focused mainly on Obama, ABC (194) and NBC (198) were practically tied,
with CBS again lagging (158 stories). The NBC Nightly News aired
the most stories with minor discussion of Obama (249), followed by ABC’s
World News (222) and CBS (174). The remainder were brief items read
by the news anchor; the CBS Evening News — which had a regular
"Campaign Notebook" segment of short items — aired the most such stories
(74), followed by ABC (48) and NBC (43).
Methodology. For each story, analysts noted the topics discussed
(i.e., Obama’s background; positions on policy issues; or his position
in the campaign "horse race"), and any soundbites discussing Obama and
whether those soundbites conveyed a clearly positive or negative
evaluation of Obama. The analysts were also instructed to record the
overall "spin" of the story, based on the cumulative information
provided in the report and any editorial evaluations made by the
reporter or anchor.
Ideally, every straight news report would have a "neutral" spin, with
journalists matter-of-factly narrating the key events from the campaign
trail and the rival candidates getting roughly equal time to get their
points across. But as journalists succumb to the urge to not just report
the news but also interpret and analyze it, their commentary frequently
imputes a positive or negative spin to the news.
Journalists can provide such direction through their own use of
language — on January 6, for example, ABC’s Jake Tapper spoke positively
of how Obama "seems to have captured the imagination of
independent voters," while on March 7 his colleague David Wright
struck the opposite tone, telling viewers that day that "Obama was
struggling to recalibrate his message." (Emphasis added.)
Alternatively, the reporter can include the opinions of a designated
expert or man on the street to contribute an editorial judgment, as CBS
reporter Dean Reynolds did in a January 8 piece quoting a New Hampshire
voter gushing about Obama: "He’s been able to really bring out the whole
young voter core, and really kind of get people excited about getting
involved in it."
Analysts reviewing these
stories were instructed to look at all of these factors, and then only
assign a story a "positive" or "negative" score if the content tilted in
one direction by at least a two-to-one margin.
Thus, a score of "positive" was recorded if the total pro-Obama
content (support for his policy proposals; positive portrayals of his
background and past public service; enthusiastic reaction from the
public; and campaign successes such as endorsements and primary
victories) outweighed any anti-Obama content (criticism of his policy
proposals; negative portrayals of his background and past service; sour
reaction from the public; and campaign setbacks) by at least a
two-to-one margin. If the negative material outweighed the positive by
two-to-one, the item was scored "negative." If the content was largely
neutral, or the positive and negative elements were in rough balance,
the story was scored as "mixed" or "neutral."
Spinning for Obama. Using these criteria, more than seven times
stories (34%) were classified as favoring the candidate, compared to
just five percent that reflected a negative spin. (See chart.) The
remaining three-fifths of the coverage (61%) was categorized as mixed or
neutral — although, as one might expect, more than half of the neutral
items were those that only briefly mentioned Obama. Of stories that
focused most heavily on Obama, 42 percent conveyed a positive spin,
compared to seven percent that conveyed a negative spin. Of stories
merely mentioning Obama, 27 percent were positive and four percent
negative; more than a third of those brief anchor items (34%) were
pro-Obama, with just six percent delivering bad news.
As the chart at the below shows, the ratio of positive to negative
stories is almost exactly the same for all three categories of stories —
between six and seven times more good press than bad press. What differs
is the percentage of neutral stories, with those stories that offered
the least discussion of Obama naturally incorporating the least spin.
Thus, the categories are interchangeable as far as measuring the degree
of pro- or anti-Obama tilt.
All three of the broadcast
networks showered Obama with far more positive than negative press.
ABC’s World News was the least skewed, although they produced
nearly four times more pro-Obama stories than negative pieces. (See
chart.) The CBS Evening News tilted more than seven-to-one in
Obama’s direction, while Obama was treated to more than ten times as
many positive than negative stories on the NBC Nightly News. The
significant differences in each network’s coverage indicate that Obama’s
good press was not merely the consequence of events (i.e., gaining
endorsements or winning primaries), but also the journalistic
interpretation of these events. ABC’s reporters covered the same news
events as NBC’s journalists, but produced significantly fewer stories
that were promotional of Obama — and more critical stories — than their
The numbers, however, tell only part of the story. A review of the
coverage shows the broadcast networks aided Obama with positive
publicity at crucial moments of his campaign — especially in its
earliest phases — even as TV reporters took a decidedly non-adversarial
approach to many of the personal controversies that might have
threatened Obama’s viability. As tight as the 2008 Democratic primaries
turned out to be, the media’s celebratory approach to Obama gave him an
invaluable advantage as he competed for his party’s presidential
In the Beginning...
ABC and NBC viewers first heard the future nominee’s name in 2004,
when Barack Obama was the Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate in
Illinois and keynote speaker at that year’s party convention. Prior to
that, Obama had appeared on a national network news broadcast only once
before, on the CBS Evening News on May 17, 2000, when he was a
law professor at the University of Chicago.
Towards the end of a piece on possible reparation payments to the
descendants of U.S. slaves, Chicago-based reporter Cynthia Bowers
included a soundbite from a local expert: "Professor Barack Obama
supports more discussion of the issue, but says any law would likely be
spiked in the courts." CBS then ran this short clip of Obama:
"Generally, the Supreme Court has a philosophy that you have to identify
a clear wrongdoer and a clear victim."
Professor Obama then vanished from the airwaves, not to return for
more than four years. But when Barack Obama again found the media
spotlight as a state senator running for the U.S. Senate, he would
quickly become a darling of network reporters, and their gushing reviews
would help propel him to the top ranks of presidential politics.
In June and July 2004, the networks mentioned Obama in a handful of
stories discussing the turmoil among Illinois Republicans after Senate
nominee Jack Ryan left the race amid a sex scandal. Then-ABC anchor
Peter Jennings referred to Obama as "a popular Democrat," while NBC
reporter Ron Allen called Obama "a rising star on the national stage."
CBS’s Cynthia Bowers, in a story about the potential candidacy of former
Chicago Bears coach Mike Ditka, referred to Obama as a "populist
Democrat" who was "dominating the polls."
Obama became the center of network attention as the keynote speaker
of that year’s Democratic Convention, and network reporters praised
Obama’s personality and biography. Reporter Dean Reynolds, then with
ABC, touted Obama on July 27, a few hours before his convention speech:
"Democrats could have picked someone more famous for tonight’s speech,
but the pros saw something special in Barack Obama....He’s a terrific
campaigner, direct and often funny....[He] might be considered a case
study in overcoming barriers."
"He calls himself a skinny kid with big ears, but at 42, Barack Obama
is taking on rock-star status at this convention," CBS’s Bowers enthused
that same night. "His life story has become legend....How well he does
tonight could go a long way toward determining whether he becomes a
giant in the Democratic Party." Bowers also included a soundbite from an
Illinois Republican, Dan Proft, who argued that Obama was even then
benefitting from a smitten press corps: "I mean, this guy is way out
there, but that is not being heard in this arena again, because of a
media coronation that wants to tell a fairy tale and because of a
Republican Party that can’t get its act together."
The night after Obama’s speech, then-NBC anchor Tom Brokaw delivered
another positive profile: "His national debut is getting rave
reviews....This blessed young father of two is the son of a Kenyan
working-class man and a white Midwestern mother. Both his parents are
gone, but the lessons of their love are not."
contrast, the networks showed none of that affection for the Republican
keynoter that year, then-Democratic Senator Zell Miller. Brokaw
described Miller’s efforts on behalf of President Bush’s re-election as
"torching his party and its ticket," and NBC’s Brian Williams branded
Miller "a disaffected member of the opposition party." CBS’s John
Roberts suggested a character flaw in Miller’s decision to back a
Republican: "Call him disillusioned conservative Democrat or turncoat,
it’s the sort of remarkable about-face Miller is famous for."
Roberts was much more positive when he weighed in on Obama’s speech
the previous month: "In what even some Republicans call the most
effective political speech they’ve ever seen, the convention’s keynote
speaker hit what could only be called a home run right into center
field." Roberts then showed this clip of Obama from the night before:
"There is not a liberal America and a conservative America. There is the
United States of America."
The notion that Obama’s
political approach was actually centrist or non-ideological was not the
norm in 2004, as most of these early profiles were straightforward about
Obama’s liberal ideology. ABC’s Terry Moran, in a July 25 profile, said
Obama "is a proud, traditional liberal." Two days later, in his profile,
Dean Reynolds asserted that Obama is "trying to run a positive campaign
with liberal positions." CBS’s Bowers said Obama "has never hidden a
decidedly liberal platform." And while Brokaw offered no label for Obama
in his July 28 profile, NBC reporter Mark Potter did so less than two
weeks later, referring to Obama’s "liberal views" in a report on
Republican Alan Keyes entering the Illinois Senate race.
But over the next four years, as Obama won election to the U.S.
Senate and undertook his presidential campaign, network reporters became
much stingier in applying the "liberal" tag to Obama. Correspondents
called Obama a liberal only 10 more times through the end of the
Democratic primaries, for a total of 14 such labels over nearly four
years. ABC reporters were the least reticent to brand Obama a liberal,
doing so a total of nine times. CBS’s correspondents only tagged Obama
as liberal three times, and NBC just twice in four years.
In contrast, network reporters on 29 separate occasions called Obama
some variation of a "rising star," "emerging star," "superstar," and
"rock star." This was a contest NBC’s reporters won, with 15 such
salutations of Obama, more than on CBS (8) and ABC (6) combined.
Thrilled by Obama the Campaigner, Yawns for Obama the Senator.
Barack Obama became Senator Obama in 2005, but his activities as a U.S.
Senator drew scant interest from the networks. During his first 21
months in office, Obama was mentioned just 20 times — and only nine of
those were specifically for his official duties. His most prominent
official endeavor was a November 1, 2005 hearing on preparations for a
potential bird flu epidemic that garnered him a soundbite on both CBS
and NBC; a little over a month earlier, on September 29, 2005, ABC’s
World News had quoted (without video) Obama’s warning that bird flu
"is a crisis the entire country has to awaken itself to." In all of
these stories, Obama was just the source of a single quote, not the
center of attention.
Besides that, Obama soundbites appeared in stories remembering Rosa
Parks and Coretta Scott King; an oversight hearing on federal spending
following Hurricane Katrina; and protesting the government’s failure to
secure from theft the IDs of 26 million military veterans. In August
2005, NBC quoted Obama rejecting a proposal from Rep. Jesse Jackson,
Jr., that non-citizens be permitted to vote under certain circumstances.
Then-anchor Bob Schieffer conducted a short interview with Obama on the
January 31 CBS Evening News to get his reaction to Coretta Scott
King’s passing and that night’s State of the Union address by President
In a January 18, 2005 story about confirmation hearings for Secretary
of State Condoleezza Rice, ABC’s Linda Douglass called Obama "the
Democrats’ newest star," and ran a soundbite of the Senator challenging
Rice on Iraq: "I think part of what the American people are going to
need is some certainty. Right now, it appears to be an entirely
open-ended commitment." Douglass later quit journalism to join Obama’s
presidential campaign (see earlier text box).
CBS’s Byron Pitts saluted Obama for participating in a May 1, 2006
protest on behalf of "rights" for illegal immigrants, the so-called "Day
Without Immigrants." Pitts led into a clip of an interview with Obama by
trumpeting: "Unlike last month’s wave of demonstrations, politicians
didn’t simply take notice. Today, many showed up." Pitts asked Obama to
reply to those "people across the country who say, ‘How dare people who
broke the law by entering the United States now plead with the Senate
and the Congress to do something about that?’"
Obama offered the orthodox liberal reply, "Well, you know, the
problem is that we’ve been engaging in hypocrisy in this country. We
don’t mind these folks mowing our lawns, or looking after our children,
or serving us at restaurants, as long as they don’t actually ask for any
rights in return."
If Obama’s work in the Senate failed to excite network
reporters, his prospects as a potential presidential candidate did. On
September 17, 2006, then-CBS reporter Sharyn Alfonsi reported on Obama’s
visit to an annual steak fry hosted by Iowa Senator Tom Harkin, a venue
for prospective presidential candidates. Alfonsi’s was the first
broadcast evening news story to present Obama as a possible 2008
candidate; her only soundbites came from Harkin, Obama and two
supporters of an Obama candidacy, including Illinois state comptroller
Daniel Hynes, who gushed: "In some cases, you don’t choose the times,
the times choose you. And I believe this time has chosen Barack Obama."
few weeks later, on October 13, Obama’s profile received a boost as he
delivered a commentary on the CBS Evening News, part of the
broadcast’s short-lived "FreeSpeech" segment. Anchor Katie Couric set up
Obama: "Tonight, a warning that falling gas prices should not lull you
into a false sense of energy security." Obama blandly argued for more
efficiency and adoption of alternative fuels: "America’s oil addiction
doesn’t go away when prices come down or the polls close."
Flocking to Barack. Less than two weeks later, on October 22,
2006, Obama on NBC’s Meet the Press told moderator Tim Russert
that he was thinking of running for president in 2008. Like a match had
been struck, the networks were suddenly interested in Obama again. That
Sunday, all three evening newscasts covered Obama’s announcement — CBS
included a short item read by anchor Russ Mitchell, while the other two
networks produced full reports; ABC’s World News Sunday even made
it their lead item. The next night, all three broadcasts spent a second
night covering Obama, with full stories speculating about his potential
The positive spin evoked the glowing coverage Obama received at the
2004 convention. On the October 23, 2006 Nightly News, reporter
Chip Reid first called Obama "the newest — and at the moment the
brightest — star in the Democratic sky," and anchor Brian Williams
confided to Tim Russert that Obama was "a guy that could actually cause
excitement over American politics to break out again."
Over on CBS, then-correspondent Gloria Borger enthused: "If every
presidential candidate has to have a great story to tell, Barack Obama’s
life certainly qualifies....He’s a certified political phenom, with a
best-selling book and a date with Oprah....It’s the American
dream for some Democrats." The lavish praise for Obama extended far
beyond the evening newscasts to the rest of the establishment media.
(See text box.)
During the final week of the 2006 midterm campaign, the networks
covered Obama’s campaign efforts on behalf of the Democrats alongside
those of President Bush for the Republicans. Obama was included in seven
evening news stories over the last five days of the campaign. NBC’s
reporters touted Obama as a "star" for three successive nights — David
Gregory called him "one of the party’s emerging stars" on November 3;
the next night, Chip Reid relayed how "Democratic stars are hitting the
road," as he showed a clip of Obama in Maryland; and the following night
Kelly O’Donnell talked about "the Democrats’ emerging star, Senator
Barack Obama, in Pennsylvania today."
After the Democrats’ midterm victories, Obama’s early campaign trips
on his own behalf were touted as major events. NBC’s Chip Reid followed
the Senator to New Hampshire in December: "A raucous, standing-room only
crowd welcomed Barack Obama on his first trip to New Hampshire today,
and he responded with the kind of speech that’s been captivating
Democrats from coast-to-coast....Ever since he electrified the
Democratic convention in 2004, Obama has been treated more like a rock
star than a politician."
By the time Obama officially filed his candidacy papers on January
16, 2007 (another event that drew heavy network coverage), he had been
mentioned or profiled in 81 broadcast evening news stories — a fairly
large number, considering the brevity of his national political career.
During the previous two years, the networks showed little interest in
assessing Obama’s capabilities as a policymaker; rather, reporters
praised his personal story and his abilities as a speaker and
campaigner. Indeed, TV reporters virtually ignored Obama’s work in the
Senate, highlighting him only as he stepped into the role of partisan
campaigner — the 2004 Democratic convention, campaigning for Democrats
in the 2006 midterm elections, and preparing his own presidential
While none of the networks reported any legislative or policy
accomplishment by Obama, a slight majority of stories (51%) nonetheless
conveyed a positive spin; all of the remaining stories were neutral or
mixed. (See chart on next page.) While some of the longer stories about
Obama included brief references to potential bad news topics — his past
drug use, his lack of solid policy experience — these negatives were
overwhelmed by positive themes. Obama in 2007 had the luxury of
launching his presidential campaign having never once been the subject
of a negative evening news story.
By the time his campaign formally began, the networks had gone a long
way toward making the previously unknown Barack Obama a national figure
with a near-perfect media image. While the realities of a presidential
campaign meant Obama would inevitably receive negative publicity in the
months to come, the celebratory themes of his early coverage would be
revisited throughout the primaries, giving him a unique advantage on the
Hailing Obama On the Road to Des Moines
Between the effective launch of his presidential campaign on January
16, 2007 and the Iowa caucuses on January 3, 2008, Obama was featured in
91 network evening news stories and mentioned in 305 additional full
reports or anchor briefs. This was substantially more intensive coverage
than he had received in the previous two-and-a-half years, but the
networks largely maintained their positive approach. More than half of
the 91 stories featuring Obama (52%) carried a positive spin, although
the large number of stories carrying a neutral mention of the candidate
dropped his overall level of good press to 30 percent. Still, the
positive stories outnumbered the handful of negative stories by a
five-to-one margin. Among the smaller group of stories focusing mainly
on Obama, positive stories dominated by a 10-to-1 margin.
Coverage of the first weeks
of Obama’s campaign mirrored the adulatory treatment that had become
customary since the 2004 convention. On ABC’s World News, which
devoted more than four minutes to Obama on January 16, fill-in anchor
Kate Snow trumpeted how "Democratic rising star Barack Obama takes a
major step toward a run for the White House." She soon touted how "the
presidential race got a major jolt today. The man who could become the
first African-American President took a major step toward becoming a
candidate." Snow even spun a negative into a positive: "His political
resume is rather thin, but in the 2008 race, that could be a plus."
"Just two years ago, Obama was a novice mounting a national stage, a
young Illinois state senator with a great story: the son of a white
mother from Kansas and a black father from Kenya, raised in Hawaii with
his grandparents, who wound up as the editor of the Harvard Law Review
and eventually in the U.S. Senate," CBS’s Gloria Borger enthused on the
Evening News that same night. "But here’s the biggest question: Is
America ready for an African-American President?"
March 4, all three networks covered Obama’s participation in events
commemorating the 42nd anniversary of a 1965 march for voting rights in
Selma, Alabama. The networks presented the day’s events as a showdown
between Obama and Hillary Clinton, who was also taking part in the
commemoration. "It may not mean a thing, but the line to hear Obama is
several times longer than the line to hear Hillary Clinton," ABC’s John
Cochran observed. "Some said they admire her, but have been more
impressed by Obama."
But none of the broadcast networks pointed out that in his speech
Obama had claimed that his parents "got together" because of "what
happened in Selma." Obama was born in August 1961, three years before
the march occurred. In a speech broadcast live on CNN that afternoon,
Obama claimed of his parents: "There was something stirring across the
country because of what happened in Selma, Alabama, because some folks
are willing to march across a bridge. So they got together and Barack
Obama, Jr. was born." (See text box.)
ABC and NBC acted as if the gaffe hadn’t happened while CBS’s Borger
only obliquely referred to it: "In March of 1965, Barack Obama was just
three years old. Even so, he says, he’s still the product of Selma." The
brief soundbite CBS ran left it unclear whether Obama was speaking
figuratively, not literally: "This is the site of my conception. I am
the fruits of your labor. I am the offspring of the movement." (CBS
finally got around to reporting the gaffe thirteen months later, in an
April 2, 2008 report about candidate mistakes prompted by Hillary
Clinton’s claims of ducking sniper fire in Bosnia.)
Later that month, Obama’s hometown Chicago Tribune published a
long investigative story questioning whether the stories about his early
life that Obama presented in his memoir, Dreams from My Father,
could be trusted. "Several of his oft-recited stories may not have
happened in the way he has recounted them," the Tribune’s Kirsten
Scharnberg and Kim Barker reported in their March 25 article, "The
not-so-simple story of Barack Obama’s youth."
"Some seem to make Obama look better in the retelling, others appear
to exaggerate his outward struggles over issues of race, or simply skim
over some of the most painful, private moments of his life," the
Tribune discovered. The reporters investigated Obama’s anecdote
about being deeply affected by a Life magazine article about a
black man scarred in an effort to lighten his skin. "In fact, the
Life article and the photographs don’t exist, say the magazine's own
As with the gaffe Obama made at the Selma march, none of the evening
newscasts bothered to mention the Tribune investigation showing
potential falsehoods in Obama’s memoir.
Over the course of the spring and summer of 2007, much of the
coverage was focused on a series of debates between the Democratic
contenders. Obama drew mixed reviews after he declared in a CNN debate
on July 23 that he would meet "unconditionally" with the leaders of
virulently anti-American states, including Iran and North Korea. And his
declaration a week later that he would be willing to attack terrorist
targets inside Pakistan without that government’s permission was
portrayed as a rookie mistake. In an August 1 report, ABC’s Jake Tapper
highlighted an expert from the Council on Foreign Relations who
explained the potential consequences of such a unilateral act: "You
could have a fall of the government. You could have radical extremism.
You’ve got nuclear weapons there that are controlled by the government.
Who would control them when that was done?"
But the networks quickly
moved past the gaffes. Indeed, while reporters were impressed with
Obama’s record-breaking fundraising, their main focus remained on
frontrunner Hillary Clinton, sparing Obama the intense scrutiny that he
might have faced if he had been the frontrunner. During the first 10
months of 2007, Obama was mentioned an average of once every six days by
one or another of the evening newscasts. That rose as the actual
primaries and caucuses arrived, to about four times per week during the
final run-up to the Iowa caucuses, and then shot up to an average of
nearly three stories per night for the remainder of the primaries, or
about one story for each newscast. (See chart.)
During the last weeks before the Iowa caucuses, the networks provided
Obama with another crucial burst of good press. Over the weekend of
December 8-9, talk show host Oprah Winfrey joined Obama on a trip to
Iowa, South Carolina and New Hampshire. Rather than dismissing it as a
celebrity photo-op that shed no light on Obama’s substantive platform,
the networks gave the Oprah tour huge play. All three networks mentioned
it on their Friday newscasts, provided full reports on Saturday, Sunday
(ABC and NBC only; CBS was pre-empted by football) with additional
wrap-up stories on Monday — 13 stories in all.
Every newscast led with Oprah and Obama on Saturday December 8:
"Oprah Winfrey shared top billing with the man she has endorsed for
president at the biggest rally of his campaign," CBS reporter Dean
Reynolds announced. "She can turn a book into a best seller, but can she
turn a politician into our next president?" ABC anchor David Muir
NBC led with Oprah again on December 9, coupled with a new poll
showing Obama pulling even with Clinton in early states. Correspondent
Lee Cowan included half a dozen soundbites from Oprah promoting her
candidate: "For the first time, I’m stepping out of my pew because I’ve
been inspired....Dr. King dreamed the dream, but we don’t just have to
dream the dream anymore. We get to vote that dream into reality."
The next night, Cowan was still thrilled by Oprah: "Her gravitational
pull is pretty hard to ignore. Here in New Hampshire, she brought in the
largest pre-primary crowd any candidate has ever had. And that, at
least, is a picture of momentum that no campaign could ever buy."
A Double Standard on Cocaine Use. A few days later, the networks
rallied to Obama again, this time after a Clinton campaign surrogate
suggested Obama’s admissions of once using cocaine could be exploited in
a general election. The networks’ approach was to put the onus on
Clinton for engineering a dirty trick. "The Clinton team denied it was
an authorized attack and is now trying to contain the damage," argued
NBC’s Andrea Mitchell on the December 13 Nightly News. "But
despite the Clinton campaign’s denials that they intentionally brought
it up, their allies have been frustrated at the lack of attention to
Obama’s adolescent drug use, leading Obama aides to say tonight this
whole episode was deliberate."
While in his July 2004 profile NBC’s Tom Brokaw had asked Obama about
drug use — "In a book that you wrote before you decided to get into
politics, you talked about your errant adolescence. You talked about
drinking, smoking some dope, and even doing some blow, it’s cocaine.
Aren’t the Republicans going to come after you on that?" — the network
evening newscasts pretty much buried the topic of Obama’s cocaine use in
their presidential campaign coverage.
Besides the stories suggesting the Clinton campaign was out of line
for raising the issue in December, CBS’s Gloria Borger on January 16,
2007 briefly referred to the admission in Obama’s "candid memoirs that
the 45-year-old Senator tried cocaine as a confused high school
student." And in a March 9, 2007 story about candidates revealing
problems themselves before they can be discovered by others, CBS’s Jim
Axelrod noted Obama’s "admitting to using cocaine in his autobiography"
as well as admitting to a few unpaid parking tickets.
Other than those scant references, the last of which was on December
13, 2007, the network evening newscasts never specifically referred to
Obama’s acknowledged use of cocaine, preferring less informative
language about Obama’s past "drug" use. Nor did they give any hint that
they had asked Obama specific questions about how old he was when he
quit using such drugs and whether he could truthfully pass a standard
background check for a sensitive government position.
But eight years earlier, back in August 1999, network reporters
aggressively pushed Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush to
reveal whether he might have used cocaine (he has never admitted doing
so), and whether he could have passed a background check when his father
took office in 1989.
Filling in as NBC anchor on August 19, 1999, Brian Williams called it
"the question that will not go away," while ABC’s Charles Gibson said
the issue was "dogging" Bush: "Did Texas Governor George W. Bush ever
use cocaine, or didn’t he? The question is dogging his otherwise smooth
campaign." Unlike their approach with Obama in 2007, the networks in
1999 gave no sense that publicizing such allegations was a disreputable
smear, even CBS correspondent Eric Engberg noted at the time that for
Bush it was both "the press and opponents" who were trying to force the
issue into the headlines.
Highlighting Voters for Obama. In the days immediately before the
Iowa caucuses, network reporters — and the anchors who parachuted into
the Hawkeye State — spent time interviewing likely voters, and those
citizen soundbites almost universally praised for Obama. On the day
before the caucuses, for example, ABC’s David Wright showed Diane
Franken, a "political newcomer" at an Obama rally: "He’s the first one
I’ve been excited about in 30 years." Over on NBC, Andrea Mitchell
spotlighted Monica Green, "a life-long Republican who twice voted for
George Bush now canvassing for Obama." Green’s testimonial: "I just keep
saying, ‘Look at the problems in the world, and look at who you think is
going to be able to solve those problems.’" And CBS’s Dean Reynolds also
found two "Republican converts" for Obama. Bob Hamilton explained, "I
think he’s very genuine," while Shirley Berger said simply, "I like
In their coverage prior to the caucuses, the network evening news
quoted 30 regular citizens voicing their opinions about Obama; 29 were
supportive while just one was critical. The sole negative voice belonged
to a caller to a black radio program in Chicago highlighted on the
February 9, 2007 Nightly News — the woman complained that Obama
"has never really stood on any black issues." The almost unanimous
praise for Obama from ordinary citizens was yet another aspect of the
positive network coverage that aided Obama prior to the Iowa caucuses.
the remainder of the primary campaign, the voters selected to provide
soundbite opinions on Obama stayed positive, although not quite so
positive as in the early phases of the campaign. Overall, the networks
highlighted 114 positive soundbites on Obama from voters, compared to
just 28 that were critical and five that were mixed. Again, NBC was the
most positive, with 83 percent of voter soundbites favoring Obama, vs.
79 percent positive for CBS and 73 percent positive for ABC. (See
It is possible, of course, that Barack Obama could have won the Iowa
caucuses on January 3 if the national networks had approached him in a
more traditional, adversarial manner. But the fact is that Obama
received highly positive national press coverage going into Iowa, which
could only have given him an advantage over his rivals.
If he had lost the Iowa caucuses, Obama would have seen the campaign
momentum shift to Hillary Clinton, who at that point enjoyed leads in
the rest of the early contests. If he had lost Iowa, Obama would have
almost certainly have lost the nomination. But by winning Iowa, Obama
was able to seize the momentum and began climbing in New Hampshire,
Nevada and South Carolina polls. Looking back, Obama’s January 3 victory
gave him an edge over Clinton that he never really lost for the
remainder of the primaries. Over the next five months, the biggest
threats to his claiming the nomination would not be the former First
Lady’s formidable campaign, but controversies from his past that might
have sunk another candidate.
Yet once again, Obama would get even more help from his friends in
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?"
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
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
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.
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.)
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
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
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
[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."]
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
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
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
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
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
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.
Conclusion: Winning With a Lot of Help From His Friends
Obama’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."
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
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."
The 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
The Media Research Center
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