COMMENTS: Obamania Down the Drain

April was indeed the cruelest month for Democratic candidate Barack Obama.

If he turns out to win the Democratic Presidential nomination, the explanation "media darling" from the early months of the primary season will turn out to be inoperative. Obamania was epitomized back then by the famous comment by Hardball's Chris Matthews: hearing Obama's oratory gave him a "thrill going up my leg." Now, if Obama wins, it will be despite his coverage in the mainstream media, not because of it.

Proof comes from Tyndall Report's analysis of the most mainstream of the mainstream media, the broadcast networks' weekday nightly newscasts. In April, the tone of the coverage of Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton was roughly equally negative--but Obama suffered twice as much of it.

It is easy to trace the gradual spread of negative questions about Obama's candidacy. They started on YouTube with soundbites from sermons from his longtime pastor Jeremiah Wright. Those clips spread to cable with Fox News Channel in the vanguard. Then Obama's reference to bitter and clinging small town voters surfaced in The Huffington Post's own Off the Bus section. They were all wrapped up together on ABC News' so-called Gotcha Debate in Philadelphia with its notorious first 45 minutes of issue-free questioning.

What is notable is that April was officially the month when these themes finally crossed over to the mainstream media, to those most risk-averse venues for establishment journalism, the broadcast network news. When Barack Obama had a thoroughgoing negative month on the evening newscasts then he can by no stretch be dubbed a media darling. CBS' Dean Reynolds stated it flatly as he rounded out his network's coverage on the last day of April: "Obama's campaign has had a rough spell, from his big loss in Pennsylvania to the reemergence of his outspoken former pastor."

April was a busy month of news, what with Gen David Petraeus' testimony on the Iraq War and the visit of Pope Benedict XVI and the raid on the Yearning for Zion ranch in Texas and the 40th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King. Yet Campaign 2008 still attracted almost four hours of coverage on the three broadcast networks' weekday evening newscasts (228 min total--ABC 80 min, CBS 82, NBC 66), accounting for 18% of the three-network newshole.

The simplest way to divide campaign coverage during April is into three broad categories: the candidates' campaigns--112 min; the primary contests--93 min; everything else (issues, demographics, tactics, horse race, polls etc)--23 min. Obviously Pennsylvania (83 min vs 10 for NC-Indiana) dominated the primary coverage. As for the candidate coverage, Barack Obama attracted more attention than Hillary Rodham Clinton and John McCain combined (62 min v Rodham Clinton 26, McCain 24).

This is the key to understanding why April was so cruel to Obama. These two grids (Obama here and Rodham Clinton here) list the angle chosen each time any of the networks decided to assign a reporter to file from either of the two candidates' campaigns. A perusal of the story topics (click any thumbnail in the grid to see the news videostream itself) reveals that, generally speaking, neither candidacy was considered newsworthy unless something bad was happening. Rodham Clinton's troubles in April ranged from a lack of funds, to a staff shake-up, to arguments with her husband about that sniper fire fib. Obama's troubles overwhelmingly concerned the Rev Wright. The key difference between the two is not a contrast in quality but in quantity. Each suffered from a negative tone. Obama suffered from twice as much of it.

Similarly, the angles chosen to cover the primary in Pennsylvania during April can be checked here. Sure enough, much of the coverage was of the travelogue variety, features explaining the demographics of the commonwealth. But again, whenever the networks chose to focus on the political controversies at stake in the primary, what they found newsworthy were the aspects that made Obama look negative: the interrogation he received at the hands of Charles Gibson and George Stephanopoulos at the ABC News debate in Philadelphia; and the vox pop reaction to his bitter-&-clinging comments.

Partisans for Obama may see in these numbers evidence of media bias and journalistically unethical accusations of guilt-by-association with Pastor Wright--although it is worthy of note that questions about Obama's association with onetime Weatherman Bill Ayres have not crossed over as a mainstream topic on any of the three newscasts.

At Tyndall Report, we have an explanation other than bias--although the ethics questions about guilt-by-association seem plausible. Our explanation rests on the new style of political coverage we have called Reality Gameshow Journalism, a style that sees the Presidential campaign as an elimination contest between larger-than-life personalities, that focuses on the character rather than the ideology of each, that is interested in socio-psychological factors more than issues, that believes that character is most clearly revealed when a candidate is subjected to the ordeal of near elimination.

Under the rubric of Reality Gameshow Journalism, questions about a pastor's words are transformed from guilt-by-association to insights into judgment and loyalty. Under this rubric, the frontrunner would naturally receive twice the attention of the second place candidate since the closer one comes to victory the more scrutiny one deserves. And under this rubric, any coverage that helps tighten the race makes a possible elimination primary all the more compelling and dramatic.

Barack Obama received all the benefits of the Reality Gameshow style of coverage in January and February, when Hillary Rodham Clinton was the frontrunner and he was the obvious challenger to test her fitness for victory. In April he suffered the downside in spades--setting us all up for Tuesday's contests in North Carolina and Indiana.

I wonder who will get thrown off the island.


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