Obama's Biggest Media Challenge: McCain

Democratic presidential hopeful, Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., speaks while campaigning at Summit High School in Bend, Ore., Saturday, May 10, 2008. AP Photo/Don Ryan

Now, Sen. Barack Obama will face his most significant media challenge.

He has all but sewn up the Democratic nomination, and can look ahead to taking on Sen. John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee.

Illinois' Obama has been a media favorite ever since he started his campaign and consistently got more favorable press reviews than his chief Democratic rival, New York Sen. Hillary Clinton. Much of Obama's success stemmed from his uncanny ability to charm the media and, through them, the voters, who often make up their minds based on what they see and read about a candidate.

While Clinton has resisted calls to drop out of the race, the media have concluded that the shouting is over. Last week, Time magazine published a photo on the cover of a grinning Obama. The blurb hammered home the point: "And the winner is..."

Obama's task

To keep the momentum going, Obama will have to understand -- every day -- that he will face even more media scrutiny.

Mainly, he will have to try harder to be as assertive as possible. Journalists -- especially the New York Times' brilliant, acerbic columnist Maureen Dowd -- have hounded him and suggested that he has looked weak because he couldn't vanquish Clinton.

Obama will have to realize that whatever he accomplished in the Democratic primaries will now pale against the sexier news peg: that he may not be presidential material because he couldn't convince Clinton to drop out of the race.

Then there is the challenge posed by McCain. Obama will be taking on an adversary who is also very popular with reporters. McCain is often seen as having a "one-of-the-boys" appeal with journalists.

I witnessed the McCain phenomenon first-hand a few years ago at a magazine conference in Puerto Rico. The night before he was scheduled to deliver his remarks to a ballroom full of influential editors and publishers, he spent a few hours shooting craps at a casino. McCain was having a good night and punctuated his successful throws by throwing his fist in the air triumphantly and shouting to the fascinated press corps who watched his every move.

McCain's popularity sometimes surfaces in bizarre ways. TVNewser reported Friday that a 24-year-old Fox News Channel production assistant was fired after she was overheard telling him, "I voted for you in the primary; you're going to win." (Fox, like MarketWatch, the publisher of this column, is a division of News Corp.) McCain, appearing at the time at Time magazine's Time 100 gala, was in turn overheard saying to her, "You're not supposed to reveal that."

Popularity

Recently, when the New York Times published a story loosely insinuating that McCain may have had an improper relationship with a female lobbyist, the paper was blasted by politicians and members of the media alike. They saw it as a cheap shot, partly because McCain had built up so much good will.

I doubt that the sympathetic outpouring on McCain's behalf would have been so strong if a rather unpopular politician had been the target.

Yes, America, for better or worse, journalists are human, too, and we sometimes play favorites in our coverage.

Baggage

Obama must be rather cynical about the media by now. He was their favorite son early in his campaign and yet the more successful he was in the primaries, the more skeptical journalists acted toward him.

Obama is certainly smart and savvy enough to recognize that once the media build you up to unrealistic proportions, the only direction that you can go is south.

McCain's opportunistic camp will surely have noticed that Obama was unable to put away the highly determined Clinton, and even allowed her to dictate the media debate in such industrial states as Pennsylvania.

That means Obama will have to convince reporters that he can thwart McCain. McCain has proven himself to be just as dogged as Clinton -- remember, McCain was given up for dead shortly before the primary season began late last year. Undercapitalized and plagued by image problems, McCain survived on grit and thrived by demonstrating his poise under pressure.

Obama took a different route with the media. He burst from the Iowa caucus, winning stunningly and basically ending any discussion of whether a man of color could win a national election. Obama relied on wowing crowds -- especially young people and other traditionally disenfranchised voters -- on the strength of his inspirational speeches.

Now that Obama is on top, he'll need more than inspirational speeches to continue to dazzle the media.
By Jon Friedman
  • Tucker Reals

    Tucker Reals is the CBSNews.com foreign editor, based at the CBS News London bureau.

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