Obama's No. 1 Media Problem

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., arrives at the Valley of the Temples memorial park, which features the replica of a 12th century Buddhist temple named Byodo-In Temple, near Kaneohe, Hawaii, Aug. 10, 2008. AP Photo/Alex Brandon

This is the first installment in a two-part series discussing how the two presidential candidates are dealing with the media. Next week, Jon Friedman will look at Sen. John McCain.


I'm starting to worry about Barack Obama.

From a journalistic perspective, he seemed like such a refreshing departure from the oft-paranoid media relations practiced by Bill and Hillary Clinton and the two George Bushes.

Now I'm not so sure.

Too often, Obama and his handlers have overreacted to what we've come to accept as frivolous, basically harmless "coverage" by the celebrity-obsessed mainstream media.

Two examples of him getting his back up: Obama made a federal case of the appearance by his daughters on "Access Hollywood" and he was snippy with reporters when he was pressed about his unexpected email friendship with actress Scarlett Johansson.

Sure, these are minor events. But if he is going to be anal about the small stuff, it may get ugly if he loses his composure about something important.

Obama has staked his claim by offering American voters a fresh voice and a strong sense of optimism about the future. When he was on the way up, he was the favorite son of the media, who heaped almost unprecedented praise on him. Now that he has all but secured the Democratic nomination, Obama has shown little patience for standard media practices, which can range from silly to stupid.

The Obama team may still think the "old" rules apply. By old, I'm referring to the kid-gloves treatment the media gave him when he was an up and comer and Hillary Clinton was heavily favored to secure the Democratic nomination.

Even before Obama stunned Clinton by winning the Iowa caucus, the first high-profile showdown between the rivals last fall, the media had all but decreed that Obama would be their darling, the one who could do no wrong.

If Obama was designated "hero," the media had to find a "villain" to complete the convenient story line and, of course, Hillary Clinton was consigned to wear the black hat.

That was then. Now, Obama and his staff must accept the reality that the game has changed as he prepares to battle John McCain. As PBS anchor Jim Lehrer told me a few weeks ago, it wasn't so long ago that McCain was the media's darling.

The story line the media love best is to hail the candidate who was down, but not out, and somehow rallied to achieve a stirring victory. This is McCain's saga over the past year.

Obama has to realize that he will be subject to increasing scrutiny as the campaign really heats up. What we've seen so far is the orchestra tuning up. The real show begins after Labor Day, as the Obama-McCain debate season begins to take shape.

The mainstream media, as well as bloggers who have a point of view, will seek to exploit any situation as a way to create news. Don't forget that all hell broke loose when the New Yorker, which you'd think was solidly behind Obama in his fight against McCain, published (I thought) a biting and witty look at the stereotypical way many Americans view Barack and Michelle Obama.

Still, some accused the magazine of exploiting Obama and his wife. Others said it was a racially insensitive cover. These critics completely missed the point that the New Yorker was mocking bigots in the strongest fashion. Or, perhaps, they wanted to miss the point as a way to advance their arguments.

Members of Barack Obama's campaign thought he got a raw deal from the media during his battle with Hillary Clinton to win the Democratic nomination. Perhaps they were just trying to stir an argument because any fair-minded observer could see that Clinton was the one should have felt mistreated by the press.

Obama had better toughen up -- fast. The media spotlight -- or is it a glare? -- will only get brighter in the months leading up to Election Day. Expect the incessant charges that Obama is too inexperienced and unprepared to be president and a Pollyanna cockeyed optimist to get more shrill, too.

Obama has resented the media for treating him like a presidential candidate -- someone with a personal life, a family and a past. He had better get used to it. The pace is sure to quicken between now and Election Day.

And if you win, Mr. President-Elect, look out. Things can only get worse.
By Jon Friedman
  • Tucker Reals

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

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