Obama Vacation: Fair Game For Press?

Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., speaks with reporters during a biref impromptu interview given while he was taking some days off from his campaign, at the Ritz Carlton Hotel, in Great Bay, St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, Tuesday, March 25, 2008. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley) AP

For days, the Barack Obama campaign refused to confirm where the senator and his family were heading on a short Easter vacation, even as rumors spread among the press corps that they were bound for the Virgin Islands.

So that presented a conundrum for news organizations: Should they send a correspondent on the - presumably enjoyable - assignment to the Caribbean, to investigate the white sand beaches and clear blue waters?

As it turns out, CNN was the lone cable network to play a game of "Where in the World is Barack Obama?" Chris Welch, an off-air producer covering the Obama campaign since the Iowa caucuses, headed out to the islands.

CNN political director Sam Feist was unavailable for comment, but a spokesperson told Politico that the network "has a producer in the area to cover any news that may arise."

Even so, Fox got the scoop on the vacation location - which they've replayed several times throughout the day.

Just before noon Monday, Fox showed a photograph of Obama sitting on the beach, dressed inconspicuously in sunglasses, a black hat and white T-shirt, posing for the camera next to a six-year-old girl.

It's a much less memorable shot than the shirtless photo from Jan. 2007, immortalized in the "Obama Girl" video, and featured in a People magazine "Beach Babes" spread. At the time, the Washington Post's Dana Milbank said Obama, splashing in the water, was "transformed into Burt Lancaster in 'From Here to Eternity.'"

But this time, the photo wasn't taken by a clever paparazzo, or even a Fox embed ducking behind sand dunes: it was shot by the young girl's mother, Pam DiStefano.

"We were finishing up the Easter egg hunt and happened to be walking near the beach. He walked right by us," DiStefano told Fox News, after e-mailing the photo through the network's U-Report function on the Web site.

The Associated Press, at nearly the same time, published a dispatch confirming Obama was in the Virgin Islands. With a "Charlotte Amalie" dateline - the Island capital - the A.P. described the candidate as "keeping such a low profile." Since the campaign still refused comment, the A.P. relied on an anonymous government official to confirm the candidate was staying in St. Thomas.

As of Sunday, spokesperson Jen Psaki would only divulge in an e-mail that "Barack Obama will take a long overdue break from the campaign trail to spend time with his family on Monday and Tuesday."

But is a candidate fair game when on vacation? Or was the idea that the press and campaign could take a pause from the relentless coverage, perhaps for the only time in 2008?

"The decision was made to not cover Senator Obama's vacation because he is not the nominee or presumptive nominee," said Jeff Zeleny, who's on the Obama beat at the New York Times.

There was some discussion last week, Zeleny said, but political editor Richard Stevenson decided to follow the paper's protocol, and not cover candidates' vacations before it's settled whether or not they are the party's nominee.

Back in 2004, for instance, The Times and several news outlets covered John Kerry's April 2004 ski trip to Idaho because he was already the presumptive nominee.

Chuck Todd, NBC's political director, wrote in an e-mail to Politico that the network does not have any set policy similar to the Times.

However, Todd wrote, "we did a thorough debate internally and did our due diligence on this and felt it wasn't necessary this time; that doesn't mean we won't do this in the future; this was a decision made on this particular vacation."

And Obama wasn't the only one who needed a vacation.

Zeleny described the last week - with campaign stops in six states, and major speeches on both race and Iraq, as "one of the busier weeks, since the crunch of Super Tuesday."

Flying out of Oregon on Saturday afternoon, Zeleny said, it "kind of felt like the beginning of spring break." That said, the good times on the beach - or wherever reporters manage to get away - ends on Wednesday, when Obama appears at a town hall meeting, in Greensboro, North Carolina.

By Michael Calderone
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