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Obama's Margin of Victory: The Media

How Barack Obama Could Not Have Won the Democratic Nomination Without ABC, CBS and NBC

Hailing Obama On the Road to Des Moines

Between the effective launch of his presidential campaign on January 16, 2007 and the Iowa caucuses on January 3, 2008, Obama was featured in 91 network evening news stories and mentioned in 305 additional full reports or anchor briefs. This was substantially more intensive coverage than he had received in the previous two-and-a-half years, but the networks largely maintained their positive approach. More than half of the 91 stories featuring Obama (52%) carried a positive spin, although the large number of stories carrying a neutral mention of the candidate dropped his overall level of good press to 30 percent. Still, the positive stories outnumbered the handful of negative stories by a five-to-one margin. Among the smaller group of stories focusing mainly on Obama, positive stories dominated by a 10-to-1 margin.

2007-01-16-CBS-EN-ObamaCoverage of the first weeks of Obama’s campaign mirrored the adulatory treatment that had become customary since the 2004 convention. On ABC’s World News, which devoted more than four minutes to Obama on January 16, fill-in anchor Kate Snow trumpeted how "Democratic rising star Barack Obama takes a major step toward a run for the White House." She soon touted how "the presidential race got a major jolt today. The man who could become the first African-American President took a major step toward becoming a candidate." Snow even spun a negative into a positive: "His political resume is rather thin, but in the 2008 race, that could be a plus."

"Just two years ago, Obama was a novice mounting a national stage, a young Illinois state senator with a great story: the son of a white mother from Kansas and a black father from Kenya, raised in Hawaii with his grandparents, who wound up as the editor of the Harvard Law Review and eventually in the U.S. Senate," CBS’s Gloria Borger enthused on the Evening News that same night. "But here’s the biggest question: Is America ready for an African-American President?"

Chart6On March 4, all three networks covered Obama’s participation in events commemorating the 42nd anniversary of a 1965 march for voting rights in Selma, Alabama. The networks presented the day’s events as a showdown between Obama and Hillary Clinton, who was also taking part in the commemoration. "It may not mean a thing, but the line to hear Obama is several times longer than the line to hear Hillary Clinton," ABC’s John Cochran observed. "Some said they admire her, but have been more impressed by Obama.

TextBox3But none of the broadcast networks pointed out that in his speech Obama had claimed that his parents "got together" because of "what happened in Selma." Obama was born in August 1961, three years before the march occurred. In a speech broadcast live on CNN that afternoon, Obama claimed of his parents: "There was something stirring across the country because of what happened in Selma, Alabama, because some folks are willing to march across a bridge. So they got together and Barack Obama, Jr. was born." (See text box.)

ABC and NBC acted as if the gaffe hadn’t happened while CBS’s Borger only obliquely referred to it: "In March of 1965, Barack Obama was just three years old. Even so, he says, he’s still the product of Selma." The brief soundbite CBS ran left it unclear whether Obama was speaking figuratively, not literally: "This is the site of my conception. I am the fruits of your labor. I am the offspring of the movement." (CBS finally got around to reporting the gaffe thirteen months later, in an April 2, 2008 report about candidate mistakes prompted by Hillary Clinton’s claims of ducking sniper fire in Bosnia.)

Later that month, Obama’s hometown Chicago Tribune published a long investigative story questioning whether the stories about his early life that Obama presented in his memoir, Dreams from My Father, could be trusted. "Several of his oft-recited stories may not have happened in the way he has recounted them," the Tribune’s Kirsten Scharnberg and Kim Barker reported in their March 25 article, "The not-so-simple story of Barack Obama’s youth."

"Some seem to make Obama look better in the retelling, others appear to exaggerate his outward struggles over issues of race, or simply skim over some of the most painful, private moments of his life," the Tribune discovered. The reporters investigated Obama’s anecdote about being deeply affected by a Life magazine article about a black man scarred in an effort to lighten his skin. "In fact, the Life article and the photographs don’t exist, say the magazine's own historians."

As with the gaffe Obama made at the Selma march, none of the evening newscasts bothered to mention the Tribune investigation showing potential falsehoods in Obama’s memoir

Over the course of the spring and summer of 2007, much of the coverage was focused on a series of debates between the Democratic contenders. Obama drew mixed reviews after he declared in a CNN debate on July 23 that he would meet "unconditionally" with the leaders of virulently anti-American states, including Iran and North Korea. And his declaration a week later that he would be willing to attack terrorist targets inside Pakistan without that government’s permission was portrayed as a rookie mistake. In an August 1 report, ABC’s Jake Tapper highlighted an expert from the Council on Foreign Relations who explained the potential consequences of such a unilateral act: "You could have a fall of the government. You could have radical extremism. You’ve got nuclear weapons there that are controlled by the government. Who would control them when that was done?

But the networks quickly moved past the gaffes. Indeed, while reporters were impressed with Obama’s record-breaking fundraising, their main focus remained on frontrunner Hillary Clinton, sparing Obama the intense scrutiny that he might have faced if he had been the frontrunner. During the first 10 months of 2007, Obama was mentioned an average of once every six days by one or another of the evening newscasts. That rose as the actual primaries and caucuses arrived, to about four times per week during the final run-up to the Iowa caucuses, and then shot up to an average of nearly three stories per night for the remainder of the primaries, or about one story for each newscast. (See chart.)

Chart7b

During the last weeks before the Iowa caucuses, the networks provided Obama with another crucial burst of good press. Over the weekend of December 8-9, talk show host Oprah Winfrey joined Obama on a trip to Iowa, South Carolina and New Hampshire. Rather than dismissing it as a celebrity photo-op that shed no light on Obama’s substantive platform, the networks gave the Oprah tour huge play. All three networks mentioned it on their Friday newscasts, provided full reports on Saturday, Sunday (ABC and NBC only; CBS was pre-empted by football) with additional wrap-up stories on Monday — 13 stories in all.

Every newscast led with Oprah and Obama on Saturday December 8: "Oprah Winfrey shared top billing with the man she has endorsed for president at the biggest rally of his campaign," CBS reporter Dean Reynolds announced. "She can turn a book into a best seller, but can she turn a politician into our next president?" ABC anchor David Muir wondered.

NBC led with Oprah again on December 9, coupled with a new poll showing Obama pulling even with Clinton in early states. Correspondent Lee Cowan included half a dozen soundbites from Oprah promoting her candidate: "For the first time, I’m stepping out of my pew because I’ve been inspired....Dr. King dreamed the dream, but we don’t just have to dream the dream anymore. We get to vote that dream into reality."

The next night, Cowan was still thrilled by Oprah: "Her gravitational pull is pretty hard to ignore. Here in New Hampshire, she brought in the largest pre-primary crowd any candidate has ever had. And that, at least, is a picture of momentum that no campaign could ever buy."

A Double Standard on Cocaine Use. A few days later, the networks rallied to Obama again, this time after a Clinton campaign surrogate suggested Obama’s admissions of once using cocaine could be exploited in a general election. The networks’ approach was to put the onus on Clinton for engineering a dirty trick. "The Clinton team denied it was an authorized attack and is now trying to contain the damage," argued NBC’s Andrea Mitchell on the December 13 Nightly News. "But despite the Clinton campaign’s denials that they intentionally brought it up, their allies have been frustrated at the lack of attention to Obama’s adolescent drug use, leading Obama aides to say tonight this whole episode was deliberate."

While in his July 2004 profile NBC’s Tom Brokaw had asked Obama about drug use — "In a book that you wrote before you decided to get into politics, you talked about your errant adolescence. You talked about drinking, smoking some dope, and even doing some blow, it’s cocaine. Aren’t the Republicans going to come after you on that?" — the network evening newscasts pretty much buried the topic of Obama’s cocaine use in their presidential campaign coverage.

Besides the stories suggesting the Clinton campaign was out of line for raising the issue in December, CBS’s Gloria Borger on January 16, 2007 briefly referred to the admission in Obama’s "candid memoirs that the 45-year-old Senator tried cocaine as a confused high school student." And in a March 9, 2007 story about candidates revealing problems themselves before they can be discovered by others, CBS’s Jim Axelrod noted Obama’s "admitting to using cocaine in his autobiography" as well as admitting to a few unpaid parking tickets.

Other than those scant references, the last of which was on December 13, 2007, the network evening newscasts never specifically referred to Obama’s acknowledged use of cocaine, preferring less informative language about Obama’s past "drug" use. Nor did they give any hint that they had asked Obama specific questions about how old he was when he quit using such drugs and whether he could truthfully pass a standard background check for a sensitive government position.

But eight years earlier, back in August 1999, network reporters aggressively pushed Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush to reveal whether he might have used cocaine (he has never admitted doing so), and whether he could have passed a background check when his father took office in 1989.

Filling in as NBC anchor on August 19, 1999, Brian Williams called it "the question that will not go away," while ABC’s Charles Gibson said the issue was "dogging" Bush: "Did Texas Governor George W. Bush ever use cocaine, or didn’t he? The question is dogging his otherwise smooth campaign." Unlike their approach with Obama in 2007, the networks in 1999 gave no sense that publicizing such allegations was a disreputable smear, even CBS correspondent Eric Engberg noted at the time that for Bush it was both "the press and opponents" who were trying to force the issue into the headlines.

Highlighting Voters for Obama. In the days immediately before the Iowa caucuses, network reporters — and the anchors who parachuted into the Hawkeye State — spent time interviewing likely voters, and those citizen soundbites almost universally praised for Obama. On the day before the caucuses, for example, ABC’s David Wright showed Diane Franken, a "political newcomer" at an Obama rally: "He’s the first one I’ve been excited about in 30 years." Over on NBC, Andrea Mitchell spotlighted Monica Green, "a life-long Republican who twice voted for George Bush now canvassing for Obama." Green’s testimonial: "I just keep saying, ‘Look at the problems in the world, and look at who you think is going to be able to solve those problems.’" And CBS’s Dean Reynolds also found two "Republican converts" for Obama. Bob Hamilton explained, "I think he’s very genuine," while Shirley Berger said simply, "I like Obama."

In their coverage prior to the caucuses, the network evening news quoted 30 regular citizens voicing their opinions about Obama; 29 were supportive while just one was critical. The sole negative voice belonged to a caller to a black radio program in Chicago highlighted on the February 9, 2007 Nightly News — the woman complained that Obama "has never really stood on any black issues." The almost unanimous praise for Obama from ordinary citizens was yet another aspect of the positive network coverage that aided Obama prior to the Iowa caucuses.

Chart8Over the remainder of the primary campaign, the voters selected to provide soundbite opinions on Obama stayed positive, although not quite so positive as in the early phases of the campaign. Overall, the networks highlighted 114 positive soundbites on Obama from voters, compared to just 28 that were critical and five that were mixed. Again, NBC was the most positive, with 83 percent of voter soundbites favoring Obama, vs. 79 percent positive for CBS and 73 percent positive for ABC. (See chart.)

It is possible, of course, that Barack Obama could have won the Iowa caucuses on January 3 if the national networks had approached him in a more traditional, adversarial manner. But the fact is that Obama received highly positive national press coverage going into Iowa, which could only have given him an advantage over his rivals.

If he had lost the Iowa caucuses, Obama would have seen the campaign momentum shift to Hillary Clinton, who at that point enjoyed leads in the rest of the early contests. If he had lost Iowa, Obama would have almost certainly have lost the nomination. But by winning Iowa, Obama was able to seize the momentum and began climbing in New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina polls. Looking back, Obama’s January 3 victory gave him an edge over Clinton that he never really lost for the remainder of the primaries. Over the next five months, the biggest threats to his claiming the nomination would not be the former First Lady’s formidable campaign, but controversies from his past that might have sunk another candidate.

Yet once again, Obama would get even more help from his friends in national media.