campaign desk

A Man Made of Teflon and Rubber

Why bad press refuses to stick to Obama
February 20, 2008

Has the press been too easy on Barack Obama? With his increasingly impressive wins and the talk last night already turning to the general election and a presumed match-up between him and John McCain, it’s a question journalists are bound to ask themselves. But it’s also a question only journalists would ask. There is an anxiety that seeps in when too favorable a light shines on one candidate in a political race. The assumption is that the press is doing something wrong, is not scrutinizing sufficiently, not afflicting the comfortable quite enough.

Ana Marie Cox, the original Wonkette and now a blogger at, asked a potent question during an episode of Bloggingheads, a series of online dialogues via webcam between two usually thoughtful pundits (they call them “diavlogs” – I know, it’s lame). Cox was speaking with Jon Fine from Businessweek. She had spent time with the McCain campaign and was self-admittedly seduced by their openness and accessibility. The word she got from McCain’s people was that they hoped, come the general election, that the media would begin to take a deeper look at Obama. This was their trump card, she said, this belief that once the press regarded him more negatively, Obama would be reduced from, as she put it, “awesome superstar guy” to “just rockstar.”

But Cox questioned the premise of this hope. “If the press is going to somehow turn on Obama or if the press, as the McCain people like to say, begin to do their job on Obama, what is the job that they need to do?” she asked, almost rhetorically. After going through a list of all his potential vulnerabilities, from inexperience (“no one seems to care”) to intimations of shady dealing with Chicago slumlord Rezko to his youthful use of cocaine, she concluded that nothing has seemed to stick. She was saying, basically, that the press had their shot, and they couldn’t bring him down a notch. Furthermore, journalists don’t like to admit negligence, Cox said, so, “the more generous coverage they give Barack Obama now the less likely it will be that they give him more critical coverage later.” In other words, if journalists and editors don’t find anything really ugly now during the primaries, are they going to feel comfortable presenting fresh material that smears Obama during the general election, thereby admitting that they missed something or held their fire while he was on his way there?

All this begs the question, for me, of whether it’s the press who haven’t done their job, as McCain will surely argue and a red-faced Bill Clinton has many times, or whether Obama – because of his short record and the persona he has created in his political life – just doesn’t have that much dirty laundry to pull out of the hamper. The assumption that every politician who reaches a point of power must have a dead prostitute or a shady land deal in his past just waiting to be discovered seems a cynical view, born out of a particularly journalist-centric view of the world. Not that Obama shouldn’t be scrutinized. But maybe, before the expected backlash commences, it’s worth considering that he is succeeding not because he is hiding something, but because he’s done something right.

Gal Beckerman is a former staff writer at CJR and a writer and editor for the New York Times Book Review.