Candidates Caught In A Media Circus

Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., face off during a debate at Drexel University in Philadelphia, Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2007.
AP/Matt Rourke

She's unstoppable! She's invincible!

No, wait… she's in big trouble.

A bad debate two weeks ago triggered an avalanche of bad reviews. Then the polls began to drop.

Every mishap became a portent -- look, the flags are falling! -- and for the first time, the talk about Hillary Clinton turned… chilly.

And it's not just Sen. Clinton, CBS News senior political correspondent Jeff Greenfield reports. For more than a year, 24-hour political news coverage has been obsession over every line of every debate, every YouTube video, every slip of the tongue.

Fred Thompson's energy level, Barack Obama's posture during the national anthem, Rudy Giuliani's cell phone habits - inflating every event, or non-event, as if every one were a matter of cataclysmic consequence.

Why? In part, newer technologies have accelerated a long journalistic tradition of hyperventilation.

"Bloggers post many times a day," said Nicholas Lemann, dean of Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. "There's a lot of empty air space on cable news that's filled by talkers, so, you know, into the vacuum comes a great deal of speculation."

And this echo chamber feeds on the polls that now are churned out almost by the hour -- measuring judgments the voters themselves say are tentative. For instance, in the latest CBS/New York Times poll, more than half the Iowa caucus-goers say they could change their minds. But that's no match for the conflict-hungry media.

"There is absolutely no question that the press wanna make sure that there is a race," said Chris Lehane, Al Gore's former press secretary. "And every speed bump that you run into literally becomes an enormous brick wall that you have to get around."

And when you remember that election after election, primary voters decide very late -- when you remember that four years ago Howard Dean was the all-but-crowned nominee and John Kerry was on the brink of oblivion -- you wonder why we in the press so often acts like kids in the backseat of a car as the family sets out on vacation, demanding to know, "Are we there yet?"

No we're not.