Both Obama and Clinton received favorable press coverage from December 2007 to last month, according to a study by the Center for Media and Public Affairs: 83% of Obama and 53% of Clinton stories were positive. But just before the Texas and Ohio primaries some reporters became rambunctious, and we should expect to see more of that.
Why? Alexis de Tocqueville wrote, "It is an axiom of political science in the United States that the only means of neutralizing the effect of newspaper is to multiply their numbers."
A generation ago the number of news outlets in America was the lowest ever in proportion to our population, and liberal reporters who virtually monopolized media could write and say the darndest things with little risk of public chastisement. In the Internet and talk radio age, much has changed.
Exhibit 1: the turnabout of MSNBC's Chris Matthews, who early in February reacted to one Obama victory by saying, "I felt this thrill going up my leg…. [Obama] seems to have the answers. This is the New Testament." Widely ridiculed for such over-the-top treatment, Matthews regained some reportorial prestige just before the Texas primary by aggressively questioning Kirk Watson, a former Austin mayor who is now a state senator and an Obama supporter.
"What has he accomplished, sir?" Matthews demanded. "You say you support him. Sir, you have to give me his accomplishments. You've supported him for president. You are on national television. Name his legislative accomplishments." The poor politician's answer was instructive: "Well, I'm not going to be able to name you specific items of legislative accomplishments."
Clinton supporters would probably have had the same problem, but Matthews pressed on: "Can you name any? Can you name anything he's accomplished as a congressman?" Watson, appearing as dumb as Sherlock Holmes's Watson: "No, I'm not going to be able to do that tonight." Matthews: "Well, that is a problem isn't it?"
Yes, it is, and the press adulation that Obama received until recently may have created a backlash. A candidate benefits when reporters give him messianic status, but when they start to report that others are treating him as a messiah, the worm has turned. A Lexis-Nexis search showed an average of 11 articles per month with "Obama" and "messiah" in them during 2007, 48 during January 2008, 56 during the first half of February, and 153 during the second half of the month.
Late last month the discomfort of liberal columnists became increasingly evident. Time's Joe Klein: "Something just a wee bit creepy about the mass messianism. ..." The Los Angeles Times' Joel Stein: "the Cult of Obama." The New York Times' Paul Krugman: "The Obama campaign seems dangerously close to becoming a cult of personality." ABC's Jake Tapper: the "Helter-Skelter cultish qualities" of "Obama worshipers."
NBC's Saturday Night Live also made fun of mediacrats who kiss up to Obama. And the unkindest cut of all, from The Tonight Show's Jay Leno on the eve of the Texas and Ohio primaries: "If you believe the media, Barack Obama was born in a manger." Obama's free lunch may be over.