Richard Reeves

The Way the Press Really Works

LOS ANGELES -- "Media 101 With Professor Obama" was the headline the Los Angeles Times put over a short story about Barack Obama's walk to the back of his campaign plane to scold reporters for going "squishy" on Hillary Clinton.

"Squishy" was the Times' word. What Obama actually said was: "There's no doubt Senator Clinton went very negative over the last week. The kitchen-sink strategy I'm sure had some impact, particularly in a context where many of you in the press corps had been persuaded that you had been too hard on her and too soft on me."

No. No. No.

True, Clinton has been whining for weeks -- months, even -- that the press was favoring Obama over her. But that is not true, either.

This is the real Media 101: The press was not soft on Obama; they were soft on the Obama STORY! A smart, likable, unknown young black guy was overturning the established order, clobbering the very symbol, the dynastic symbol, the unbeatable symbol of establishment Washington. We would have been writing all the same good stuff about Obama if he had been running against Abraham Lincoln.

It was a great story. And what we do is look for great stories and write or say most anything that makes them even greater. It didn't matter that Hillary Clinton, the presumed and presumptuous Democratic nominee, treated the press, the unwashed, in the same manner as does Elizabeth the Queen. Obama, the commoner rising, was just a better story than "Former President's Wife Claims Crown."

Now, to Media 201. A very wise editor named Byron Dobell, who cared little for the news of the day and, in fact, has since become a successful painter, once held up a story I had just written and said: "I get it. I never understood political reporting. But now I get it. You see everyone is going the same way, so you go the other way. Then they start going your way, and you turn again ..."

The day to turn was just last week, Feb. 27, when The New York Times "Political Memo," by Adam Nagourney, began: "They are certainly premature, but the postmortems are beginning to roll in on Hillary Rodham Clinton's presidential campaign. ... Should her candidacy ultimately fail, there will be a lot of blame to spread around."

Within a couple of days, Newsweek's Jonathan Alter, like Nagourney a talented old pro, wrote a full-page column under the headline: "Hillary Should Get Out Now."

Turn. Turn. Turn.

That is what is happening now. The queen was knocked into the gutter by this brash (read "inexperienced") newcomer, and she got up muddy but unbowed, and fought her way back in Ohio and Texas. Gritty girl! We weren't suddenly "soft" on Hillary. There was suddenly a real mass-market Hillary STORY!

Next, Media 301: They're all bums! The story becomes dirty politics as usual.

Forgive possible bias, but the Clintons' have traditionally been very good at this. One of their more professional slingers is the senator's spokesman, Howard Wolfson, who responded for Clinton or the Clintons by digging up the name of Bill Clinton's former persecutor, the special prosecutor Kenneth Starr, whose name is practically synonymous with the "vast right-wing conspiracy" the former president's wife has always said was out to get them.

These were Wolfson's words: "When Sen. Obama was confronted with questions over whether he was ready to be commander in chief and steward of the economy, he chose not to address those questions, but to attack Sen. Clinton. I for one do not believe that imitating Ken Starr is the way to win a Democratic primary election for president."

On the same day, a story surfaced in, of all places, Glasgow, in The Scotsman, where an Obama foreign policy adviser but political amateur, the author Samantha Power promoting her newest book in London, "blurted out," according to the paper, that Senator Clinton was "a monster ... stooping to anything." (Power later resigned from the Obama campaign.)

So it goes. Finally comes Media 401: The winning! Unfortunately, I don't know anyone qualified to teach that course.

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