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Appearing at a rally in behalf of Franklin Roosevelt in 1932, humorist Will Rogers said in introducing the Democratic presidential nominee that he would keep it short because he didn’t feel like wasting too many words on a "mere candidate." The American press should take note.
It is still early in the presidential race but more and more it seems clear that a large number of those reporting on it, print, electronic and online, have decided the winner is Barack Obama or should be. And his own denials notwithstanding, the presumptive Democratic nominee appears to believe that himself, acting more and more like what happens in November is a mere punctuation of what already has occurred.
In 48 years of close up observation of presidential campaigns, it is difficult to remember when the coverage has been less balanced, including the 1964 race where the press seemed at odds with Republican Barry Goldwater and vice versa nearly every step of the way. The animosity became so open then that it prompted the wholesale use of tape recorders as a reportorial tool for the first time in the history of American journalism. The lingering anger ultimately spilled over even into the National Press Club elections a year later when successful opposition formed to the normal ascension to the club presidency of a candidate accused of helping draft a speech for Goldwater.
But even that pales next to the excessive coverage of the Illinois senator as he prepares formally to become the first African American to accept the nomination of a major political party. His European trip drew media attention usually reserved for heads of state and left the Republican Sen. John McCain looking like a wannabe guest excluded from the party. The Obama show was masterfully orchestrated to convince voters that their fear of his inexperience in foreign affairs was unwarranted and a big slice of the American media, including the three anchors of the leading television networks, bought it hook, line and sinker. Well, so much for all those denials about bias.
The other day at a newsstand I counted five national magazines with Obama on the cover and that didn’t include a number of less circulated publications with similar exposure nor those I found waiting for me on my desk when I returned from an extensive trip. The speech in Berlin was clearly designed to mimic John F. Kennedy’s famous appearance there with, of course, one exception — Kennedy was president when he made it not, as Rogers said, a "mere candidate." Emphasizing the wonder of it all was the Iraqi president’s endorsement of Obama’s plan for withdrawal of American troops that seemed calculated and timed to boost the Democrat’s cause.
Ironically, some of the same journalistic fascination once attached itself to McCain when he was running against George W. Bush for the 2000 Republican nomination. At that time his "Straight Talk Express" captured the fancy of much of the press who couldn’t get enough of the Arizona senator. Unfortunately for McCain this time he had to soften his disagreements with party doctrine to appease the GOP’s conservative base and win the nomination, losing much of the maverick aura becoming in the process just another old time politician with emphasis on the old.
At the same time, however, much of the press was giving only small attention to the fact that Obama was doing the same, moving rapidly toward the center after a primary campaign aimed at the party’s liberal base. He abandoned a series of primary pledges, including his promise to accept public financing, and hedged his immediate Iraqi withdrawal statements. The decision to skip the public financing did receive a flurry of coverage that disappeared quickly.
Whether this all will be enough to convince voters that Obama’s youth compounded by his utter lack of experience is nothing to worry about remains to be seen. But certainly the one-sidedness of the coverage, if it continues, could be a major factor. That could be highlighted by the television treatment he receives at the Democratic convention in Denver next month. The decision to move his acceptance speech from the convention hall to the Denver Broncos’ 75,000 -seat stadium offers television the kind of spectacular it loves. It will be interesting to see how much time is devoted to it in an era where TV coverage of these essentially party pep rallies has dwindled to only a few hours of prime time.
Extended coverage of the Democratic convention would cost the networks plenty considering the same amount of time would have to be allocated to the Republican affair.
(E-mail Dan K. Thomasson, former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service, at thomassondan(at)aol.com.)