The economy or campaign politics? The networks cast a split decision on a day when both CBS News and NBC News published their latest national opinion polls on the status of the Campaign 2008 horse race. At the same time, the Federal Reserve Board cut short-term interest rates again, now down to 2.0%. And the Commerce Department published Gross Domestic Product statistics showing growth, barely discernable growth, but growth nonetheless, in the first quarter of the year--so no recession yet. NBC led with the GDP. ABC led with the Fed. CBS led with Campaign 2008 and the fallout from Barack Obama's repudiation of the Rev Jeremiah Wright was Story of the Day.    
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video thumbnailCBS2008 Barack Obama campaignLost momentum, support during month of AprilDean ReynoldsIndiana
video thumbnailNBC2008 Barack Obama campaignWas not quick to repudiate his longtime pastorAndrea MitchellWashington DC
video thumbnailABC2008 Hillary Rodham Clinton campaignClaims on jobs outsourcing to China correctedJake TapperWashington DC
video thumbnailNBCEconomy expansion slows: recession risks assessedMinimal 1Q08 GDP growth, continuing problemsErin BurnettNew York
video thumbnailABCCorporate CEOs receive lavish remunerationForbes magazine lists worst performing bossesDan HarrisNew York
video thumbnailNBCIraq: US-led invasion forces' combat continuesSadr City street fighting kills many civiliansRichard EngelBaghdad
video thumbnailCBSUSArmy barracks at Fort Bragg are squalidSoldier's father posts protest video on YouTubeDavid MartinPentagon
video thumbnailABCNFL Super Bowl XLII won by New York GiantsHonored at White House with legless co-captainCharles GibsonNew York
video thumbnailCBSTornado seasonGreensburg rebuilds using eco-friendly methodsHarry SmithKansas
video thumbnailNBCParkinson's Disease coverageDance therapy helps patients recover movementJohn LarsonArizona
JEREMIAH WRIGHT FALLOUT The economy or campaign politics? The networks cast a split decision on a day when both CBS News and NBC News published their latest national opinion polls on the status of the Campaign 2008 horse race. At the same time, the Federal Reserve Board cut short-term interest rates again, now down to 2.0%. And the Commerce Department published Gross Domestic Product statistics showing growth, barely discernable growth, but growth nonetheless, in the first quarter of the year--so no recession yet. NBC led with the GDP. ABC led with the Fed. CBS led with Campaign 2008 and the fallout from Barack Obama's repudiation of the Rev Jeremiah Wright was Story of the Day.

CBS had Dean Reynolds start its newscast from the campaign trail with Obama in Indianapolis. Reynolds reflected that April has been "a rough spell" for the Obama campaign, with his loss in Pennsylvania and the emergence of minister Wright, whom Obama referred to as "a perpetual distraction." Reynolds talked to Obama's handlers about whether Tuesday's expression of outrage had ended the candidate's vulnerability by association: "They concede they have no more control over the reaction to Jeremiah Wright than they do over Jeremiah Wright himself."

Both candidates granted high profile interviews in the run up to Tuesday's primaries in Indiana and North Carolina. Both were asked about--who else?--Jeremiah Wright. "He made his views clear--finally," was the little dig Hillary Rodham Clinton made about her rival to Bill O'Reilly of FOX News Channel, quoted by CBS' Reynolds. Obama himself agreed that he delayed, as quoted by NBC's Andrea Mitchell: "If I had wanted to be politically expedient I would have distanced myself and denounced him right away," he told Meredith Vieira on NBC's Today, with a little dig at his rival. "That would be the standard stock political advice." Mitchell also aired an FNC O'Reilly soundbite from Rodham Clinton that appeared to escalate her stance beyond mere criticism of the words of minister Wright to outright condemnation of Trinity United Church of Christ itself: "I would not have stayed in that church. I think it is offensive and outrageous."

Reynolds noted that Obama's unfavorable rating in the CBS News poll had risen from 14% to 20% in the last four weeks. Over that same timeframe, Tim Russert told us that NBC News' poll found a dwindling proportion of voters believing that Obama identifies with their values (45% down from 50%). NBC News' poll found two major concerns voters have about Obama: that he is "out of touch" with them (34%) and that he has ties to minister Wright (32%). The major concerns about Rodham Clinton are that she changes her positions (36%) and is dishonest (31%).

CBS News also found that Rodham Clinton trounces Obama among white working class Democrats (61% v 23%). Cynthia Bowers went off in search of vox pop to account for the disparity, speculating about Obama's "professorial style" and his "fiery pastor." Yet when Bowers characterized the two Democratic candidates as "desperate to win over average Joes," she muddied the polling premise that set up her reporting. Confusingly, she ignored each candidate's strong point. "Average Joes" include working class voters of all races, yet Obama's weakness in the poll was confined to whites. "Average Joes" refers to male working class voters, yet Rodham Clinton's strength is concentrated among women.

SMART MAGNETS ABC left Barack Obama alone, to deal with a couple of other campaign angles. Jake Tapper fact checked a Hillary Rodham Clinton ad running in Indiana that criticizes President George Bush for allowing production at a Valparaiso plant that makes smart magnets for munitions to be outsourced to China, losing 200 jobs in the process. Tapper pointed out that Rodham Clinton had "conveniently forgotten" that Magnequench was sold to Chinese interests in 1995 when Bill Clinton was President and "his administration approved the deal despite national security concerns."

Tapper's colleague David Wright (embargoed link) looked at the summer vacation plan, proposed by Republican John McCain, seconded by Rodham Clinton, opposed by Barack Obama, that motorists should enjoy a three-month holiday from the 18c-per-gallon federal gasoline tax. "Great politics but apparently terrible economics," was Wright's conclusion, arguing that lower tax-free prices would increase demand for gasoline, thereby raising prices. "Cutting the gas tax goes against the long-term energy goals all three candidates have embraced--cutting pollution and reducing our dependence on foreign oil."

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.

RECESSION FORESTALLED Potential headlines about the start of a recession--two consecutive quarters of economic contraction--were forestalled as the GDP eked out 0.6% growth in the first three months of the year. CBS' Anthony Mason saw a "struggling economy barely running in pace" while CNBC's Erin Burnett called the numbers "weak" on NBC. "The economy may not actually be shrinking but it feels that way to many." Burnett told us the "#1 thing" that must happen before strong growth resumes: "House prices--they need to stop falling."

ABC's Betsy Stark (embargoed link) concentrated on the Federal Reserve Board's efforts at monetary stimulus. The economy has "essentially flatlined," she declared: "Consumers are spending less; the job market is soft; housing is weak; financial markets are under stress; inflation is on the rise." Apart from that, as they asked Mrs Lincoln, how did you like the play? Short term interest rates have been cut to 2.0% from 5.25% in just eight months but mortgage rates "have barely budged." That same time span has seen the US dollar lose 12% of its value, driving up the cost of imports: "The twin threats of recession and inflation have left the Fed in a terrible bind."

MOTORISTS BEWARE Not surprisingly, economic news inspired economic features. CBS' Life and Debt in America sent Michelle Miller to Buffalo NY where "debt collection has become a top industry." The empty office cubicles of Northstar, currently specializing in credit card delinquencies, are expected to fill up this summer, as motorists fall behind on their auto leasing payments. CBS also had John Blackstone file a feature on siphoning scams in response to the high cost of diesel and gasoline. Motorists beware! When you put a self-service hose in your car's gas tank do not leave the pump running and walk away. Somebody may drive up while your back is turned, keep the gasoline pumping, transfer the hose and fill up, return the nozzle to your car before you return--you get one tank for the price of two.

ABC's A Closer Look publicized a Forbes magazine analysis of the most overpaid corporate executives in America. Compared with 1980, Dan Harris pointed out, every CEO is overpaid: back then a chief executive earned 40 times the income of an average worker; nowadays that ratio is 433. Harris cited critics of the system: "All too often boards of directors, which set CEOs' pay, are filled with the CEO's cronies." Forbes' worst offender was Angelo Mozilo of Countrywide Financial, paid $66m annually "while his company nearly collapsed" losing 9% of its market value in an average year.

BATTLE OF SADR CITY The month of April saw a US military death toll of 49 in Iraq. Intense fighting against the militias of Baghdad's Sadr City was the "main reason," NBC's Richard Engel told us. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki vowed "no compromise and no negotiations" with the militias: "Weapons must only be in the government's hands," Engel quoted him. Engel reported that the decision to take on the militias is "quite popular" in Baghdad, this despite an Iraqi death toll for April of 900, with a further 2,000 injured. Engel did not divide those totals between guerrillas and civilians, although he did illustrate those numbers with footage of a funeral of a two-year-old boy, killed in the rubble when his home was destroyed.

BRAGG BARRACKS GO VIRAL The State Department issued its annual report on the state of the Global War on Terrorism but none of the three newscasts deemed it newsworthy enough to warrant a reporter. Instead, the Pentagon correspondents at NBC and CBS picked up on a hit posted by Edward Frawley, the father of a sergeant in the 82nd Airborne. The son's unit returned from fighting in Afghanistan to barracks in Fort Bragg: "After going without showers for weeks they found showers that were unspeakable," as CBS' David Martin put it. Frawley added what NBC's Jim Miklaszewski called a "scalding narration" to his video documentation of blocked plumbing, raw sewage, omnipresent mold and peeling paint. The video received 250K hits in a single week and "the barracks were repaired immediately," Martin reported, "which only makes it harder to explain why it could not have been done before the soldiers got home."

WEST POINT SPORTS The public relations squad at West Point has had a spectacular week. Monday, ABC's George Stephanopoulos publicized a profile on ESPN's E:60 of Army footballer Caleb Campbell. When Campbell was drafted by the NFL's Detroit Lions, the brass switched his military assignment from warrior to recruiter. Tuesday, NBC anchor Brian Williams previewed Army's alumni lacrosse game against Navy by sitting down with Lt John Fernandez, a former captain of the West Point team, who now plays on prostheses. Fernandez had both his legs blown off by friendly fire in Iraq five years ago and is now an activist with the Wounded Warrior Project. Navy won the alumni game 10-6. Wednesday, ABC anchor Charles Gibson narrated videotape of the annual ceremony at the White House where President George Bush congratulated the winners of the NFL Super Bowl. A non-playing co-captain of the New York Giants is former West Point linebacker Col Greg Gadson, who also lost both of his legs in war. Gibson made Gadson an ABC Person of the Week before the Super Bowl. Now he has a winner's ring.

BROWNING OF AMERICA CBS offered evening cross promotion to the morning efforts of its Early Show to publicize the Tragedy to Triumph at Greensburg Ks on the first anniversary of its being wiped out: "A category five tornado ripped the town asunder," Early anchor Harry Smith reminded us. ABC had Bob Woodruff file an update last summer when Greensburg decided to capitalize on its name by using green architecture to rebuild. Now Smith shows us recycled bricks and sustainable lumber and a community arts center that "will actually create more power than it uses."

Energy policy was the topic of NBC's continuing series on infrastructure, dubbed Falling Apart. Chris Jansing looked at aging power plants, oil refineries, natural gas pipelines and electric grid lines. "D" was the grade that the American Society of Civil Engineers has assigned to the state of the national grid. Jansing stated that there is "not enough new construction to keep up" as additional coal generation of electricity is nixed on environmental grounds. She pointed to predictions that a decade from now demand for electricity will increase by 20% while supply will grow by 10%. The result: price hikes and brownouts.

DANCE TO THE MUSIC NBC's closer followed in the footsteps of ABC's Barbara Pinto last month and CBS' Michelle Miller a couple of weeks ago to examine therapy that keeps Parkinson's Disease patients mobile. Pinto chose boxing and Miller chose dance. NBC's John Larson traveled to Sun City to follow the dance theory: "Doctors think that maybe the part of the brain that processes dancing bypasses Parkinson's or it could be that dancing releases endorphins, which somehow affects the Parkinson's." Either way, dance overcomes rigidity.

MENTIONED IN PASSING The network newscasts do not assign correspondents to all of the news of the day. If Tyndall Report readers come across videostreamed reports online of stories that were mentioned only in passing, post the link in comments for us to check out.

Today's examples: as mentioned above, the State Department issued its annual report on the Global War on Terrorism…and a heartwarming college sports story was picked up by CBS and NBC. Softball player Sara Tucholsky's knee snapped as she was rounding the bases after hitting a home run for West Oregon University. Immobilized, she was carried home by Central Washington's first baseman and the short stop so her score could count. Their sportsmanship cost them the game WOU 4 CW 2.