The scene was quite a contrast from the circus atmosphere they recalled in the same lobby during the early stages of two other recent high-profile trials — those of former Illinois Gov. George Ryan and newspaper magnate Conrad Black. In each case, about three times as many TV cameramen jockeyed for position with sound men, photographers and reporters, with another media gaggle waiting outside.
“We were tripping all over each other,” one of the cameramen recalled Tuesday, the second day of jury selection in the Rezko trial.
There are a number of reasons why those cases might have garnered more attention than Rezko’s trial. Those defendants were marquee attractions, and Obama is playing only a bit role in this case. Still, his inability to knock out Hillary Rodham Clinton in Tuesday’s primaries will surely provide her campaign with more opportunities to call attention to Obama’s relationship with Rezko.
He has pleaded not guilty to charges he solicited campaign cash, including $10,000 for Obama’s 2004 Senate campaign, and bribes in exchange for help doing business with the state of Illinois. Though the trial likely will get more coverage if Obama’s name is invoked as expected, few following the case dispute that, so far at least, the media spotlight on Rezko’s case — and his relationship with Obama — has been less than white hot.
In some respects, though, the case is becoming something of a proxy for the intense media-bias battle being waged behind the scenes in Obama’s struggle with Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination.
The trial comes as the national media are increasingly grappling with the question — raised by everyone from Clinton to media critics and “Saturday Night Live” comedians — of whether Obama has gotten less press scrutiny.
Though Obama has not been implicated in any wrongdoing in the Rezko case, the trial could yield new details about his ties to the Chicago businessman and political fundraiser who also helped him buy a home. Fresh information about their relationship could trip up Obama in what has been a remarkably rapid ascent in national politics. Or Obama could hurdle it, as he has other controversies.
Much could depend on the tenor and intensity of the media coverage, which likely won’t become clear until opening arguments begin Thursday.
Obama professes to be unconcerned that the trial will reveal anything that could sully his carefully crafted image as a post-Abramoff-era crusader for ethics in government and politics. Still, his campaign sent an aide Monday to monitor the start of the trial.
Cameras and sound equipment aren’t allowed in the courtroom. And Obama spokesman Bill Burton said the aide was there to “gather information because of all the media inquiries we’re getting.” But, he added, she “won’t be there for the whole trial.”
Clinton’s campaign also intends to send someone to the courthouse to monitor the trial. And the Republican National Committee is closely following — and publicizing — the developments, as it girds for a potential general election showdown between Obama and Arizona Sen. John McCain, the Republican nominee-in-waiting.
As for the press, regulars at Chicago’s Everett McKinley Dirksen Federal Courthouse said this week many more media descended on their beats to cover the jury selection proceedings for the trials of Ryan and Black.
Coverage of court proceedings for Ryan — now in federal prison after his 2006 conviction on 18 corruption-relatedcounts, including taking bribes for state business and doling out campaign funds to relatives and to pay personal expenses — filled Illinois papers and newscasts for more than two years. Black’s trial, which led to his conviction last year for bilking investors, was comprehensively chronicled by the press in Britain and Canada, where he owned papers.
Though Ryan and Black, also now in prison, had higher profiles than Rezko — a real estate developer and fast-food franchise owner — the collateral damage in Rezko’s case could be greater.
A major behind-the-scenes player in Illinois politics, Rezko raised cash for prominent Democrats including Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich and Obama, who also benefited from a 2005 land deal with Rezko’s wife that expanded the newly purchased $1.65 million Obama homestead in a way the senator’s family otherwise would not have been able to afford.
Obama’s campaign says it has donated to charity about $150,000 in contributions linked to Rezko. And Obama has repeatedly said he regrets the perception created by the real estate transaction, which he called “a boneheaded move.”
That shouldn’t satisfy voters, say Clinton aides. In targeted telephone calls and open teleconferences, they have chastised national reporters, who, they charge, have failed to hold Obama accountable for his dealings with Rezko.
Howard Wolfson, the bulldog communications director for the New York senator’s campaign, challenged reporters in a Friday conference call to answer a list of questions about Obama’s ties to Rezko:What has the Obama campaign done to root out straw donations from Rezko? How many fundraisers has Rezko thrown for Obama? How much money did Rezko bundle for Obama’s campaigns? How many events did Obama attend on behalf of Rezko?
“As good as the press corps on this call is, I bet that most of you don’t know the answers to those questions,” Wolfson said. “But I bet at some point, all Americans are going to know these answers to those questions if he’s our nominee.”
Wolfson asserted the Clinton campaign faced more scrutiny over — and was also more proactive and forthcoming in dealing with — its own troubled fundraiser, Norman Hsu (alternately pronounced “soo” or “shoe”), a fugitive convicted on grand theft charges years ago. The campaign gave to charity $23,000 contributed by Hsu and identified and returned more than $800,000 in contributions he bundled for Clinton.
“I can guarantee you that if the shoe were on the other foot, so to speak, no pun intended,” Wolfson said, “I would have been getting those calls, those questions, left and right, and having to come up with answers that were satisfactory to a very serious and dogged press corps.”
In fact, a Nexis search of major world newspapers Tuesday yielded 2,568 hits for the words “Clinton” and “Hsu” versus only 426 for the words “Obama” and “Rezko.” Expanding the search to include all media outlets, the Clinton/Hsu query produced more than 3,000 hits, while Obama/Rezko turned up 1,741.
Early this week, about 20 reporters occupied the long wooden benches in the 12th-floor courtroom where U.S. District Judge Amy J. St. Eve interviewed potential jurors for the Rezko trial. Another handful of reporters watched the proceedings via simulcast in a nearby courtroom. The New York Times, The L.A. Times and The Washington Post all had reporters in Chicago — if not in the courtroom — for recent write-ups of the Rezko case. And Chicago-based reporters for The Associated Press and Bloomberg have advanced the story at stages.
ABC, NBC and CNN had producers from their Chicago bureaus in the courtroom, but neither producers nor correspondents from their political or investigative units. CBS di not have anyone in the courtroom, but spokeswoman Sandra M. Genelius said, “We are closely monitoring [the trial] and will cover it as news warrants.”
All were relying on local affiliates to provide video as necessary and said they expected to ramp up their coverage if the trial touched Obama in any meaningful way.
National Public Radio is dividing coverage duties between its Chicago-based reporter, Cheryl Corley, and Chicago Public Radio, according to NPR Washington editor Ron Elving.
“Local NPR stations generally do a lot with the legal travails of state officials, while national NPR generally does not,” he said. “But the potential involvement of a presidential candidate is obviously another matter, and that’s why we have reported on this case on national programs as it progressed to trial and twice on the first day of the trial.”
The heavy lifting on the Rezko-Obama relationship has been done mostly by the Chicago media. However, the many column inches and broadcast minutes chronicling the complicated pay-to-play scheme involving Rezko — but not Obama — hasn’t gotten much traction outside the Windy City. Still, the Chicago press corps has doggedly pursued Obama for more information.
Obama bristled Monday after a campaign stop in San Antonio when a pack of Chicago reporters peppered him with questions about the land deal and Rezko’s fundraising activities and suggested he has been less than forthcoming with details on those matters.
“I don’t think it is fair to suggest somehow that we have been trying to hide the bone on this,” Obama told Lynn Sweet of the Chicago Sun-Times.
“There have been several hundred stories written on this issue,” he said, asserting the only reason the story is on anyone’s radar is that the trial started and Clinton’s aides “have decided to make this a theme the past couple days.”