AUGUST 13, 2008
Around midnight on July 16, New York Times chief political correspondent Adam Nagourney received a terse e-mail from Barack Obama’s press office. The campaign was irked by the Times’ latest poll and Nagourney and Megan Thee’s accompanying front-page piece titled “Poll Finds Obama Isn’t Closing Divide on Race,” which was running in the morning’s paper. Nagourney answered the query, the substance of which he says was minor, and went to bed, thinking the matter resolved.
But, the next morning, Nagourney awoke to an e-mail from Talking Points Memo writer Greg Sargent asking him to comment on an eight-point rebuttal trashing his piece that the Obama campaign had released to reporters and bloggers like The Atlantic’s Marc Ambinder and Politico’s Ben Smith. Nagourney had not heard the complaints from the Obama camp and had no idea they were so steamed.
Later that afternoon, Nagourney got permission from Times editors to e-mail Sargent a response to the Obama memo. But the episode still grates. “I’ve never had an experience like this, with this campaign or others,” Nagourney tells me. “I thought they crossed the line. If you have a problem with a story I write, call me first. I’m a big boy. I can handle it. But they never called. They attacked me like I’m a political opponent.”
So much for “Obama Love.” That’s the title of John McCain’s new web ad, which strings together clips of cable news pundits gushing over Obama like besotted teens. This romance has been a prominent story line of Obama’s entire campaign, and clearly elements of it are true: “I felt this thrill going up my leg,” Chris Matthews crows in one clip flagged in the ad. But scratch the surface, and you’ll find a lot of mixed feelings behind the Obama “love.” Reporters are grumbling more and more that the campaign is acting like the Prom Queen. They gripe that it is “arrogant” and “control[ling],” and the campaign’s own belief that Obama is poised to make history isn’t endearing, either. The press certainly helped Obama get so far so fast; the question is, how far can he get if his campaign alienates them?
Last year, when Hillary Clinton campaigned as a front-runner, Obama provided access to the press corps and won over the media. One night, during a campaign stop in Iowa, he met reporters for off-the-record drinks. He cooperated for magazine profiles and appeared on the cover of GQ. And Clinton’s relationship with the press wasn’t half as easy. “The difference is the Clinton people were hostile for no reason,” a reporter who has covered both Democrats tells me.
But, as Obama ascended from underdog to front-runner to presumptive nominee, the flame seems to have dwindled. Reporters who cover Obama these days grouse that Obama’s flacks shroud the campaign in secrecy and provide little to no access. “They’re more disciplined than the Bush people,” a reporter on the Obama trail gripes. “There was this idea of being transparent, but they’re not. They’re total tightwads with information.”
In June, there was something of a revolt after Obama ditched the press corps on his campaign plane for a secret meeting with Clinton at Senator Dianne Feinstein’s house in Washington, leaving the reporters trapped on the flight to Chicago. The D.C. bureau chiefs of half a dozen news organizations, including the late Tim Russert, sent an angry letter to Obama aides Robert Gibbs and David Plouffe and threatened not to reimburse the campaign for the cost of the flight. “The decision to mislead reporters is a troubling one,” they wrote. “We hope this does not presage a relationship with the Obama campaign that is not based on a mutual respect for the truth.” After the incident, the press corps decided that one pool reporter would keep Obama in sight at all times. “It’s a body watch,” one reporter jokes.
Meanwhile, there have been widespread complaints over the shortage of spots to accompany Obama on his tour of the Middle East and Europe. A few days before the tour departed, Time magazine was told it couldn’t send a photographer along, and, on July 22, NBC foreign affairs correspondent Andrea Mitchell complained on-air that the only images the press had received of Obama meeting with the troops was released by the U.S. military. (To be fair, congressional delegations to Iraq are kept secret for security purposes). And there’s been widespread grumbling that the campaign revoked New Yorker writer Ryan Lizza’s spot on the trip as retribution for the magazine’s recent satirical cover. These may or may not be legitimate complaints--the evidence is mixed--but the press is hardly inclined to give the campaign the benefit of the doubt.
Obama’s press liaison, Robert Gibbs, has built a particularly large reservoir of ill will. David Mendell, who covered Obama’s Senate campaign for the Chicago Tribune and authored the 2007 Obama book From Promise to Power, wrote about Gibbs as “the anti-Obama” and described him as “Obama’s hired gun, skillfully trained to shoot at reporters whose coverage was deemed unfair. Mendell tells me, “if [Gibbs] feels you’re necessary to achieve a campaign goal, he will give you access and allow you in. But, if he feels you’re not going to be of help, he can just ignore you.” Mendell has his own specific gripe: Apparently, the Obama team was less than pleased with his biography, on which they cooperated, and Gibbs has since refused to help with the second edition.
One reporter sniffs that Gibbs, a native Alabaman and veteran of John Kerry’s 2004 campaign, is the “communications director who doesn’t communicate.” “If you’re getting an interview, and they say ten minutes, it’s ten minutes,” adds Time’s Karen Tumulty, who scored an interview with Obama in June. “Robert Gibbs will cut it off.”
Much of this is certainly the run-of-the-mill complaining of campaign reporters who can’t get enough access. Still, the campaign hasn’t helped itself, approaching reporters with a sense of entitlement. “They’re an arrogant operation. Young and arrogant,” one reporter covering the campaign says. “They don’t believe in transparency with their own campaign,” another says.
Reporters who have covered Obama’s biography or his problems with certain voter blocs have been challenged the most aggressively. “They’re terrified of people poking around Obama’s life,” one reporter says. “The whole Obama narrative is built around this narrative that Obama and David Axelrod built, and, like all stories, it’s not entirely true. So they have to be protective of the crown jewels.” Another reporter notes that, during the last year, Obama’s old friends and Harvard classmates were requested not to talk to the press without permission.
As tensions escalate, the risk to Obama, of course, is that reporters will be emboldened to challenge his campaign ever more aggressively. At the same time, McCain has demonstrated a longstanding ability to deftly manage the press. After all, it wasn’t long ago that McCain, short on cash and trailing in the Republican primaries, re-launched his campaign in New Hampshire by courting the press, “my base,” as he once proudly put it. In June, the McCain camp unveiled its redesigned campaign plane, a Boeing 737 that recreates the Straight Talk Express bus, so reporters can assemble with McCain and shoot the breeze.
Now, Obama may be handing McCain a shot at winning back his “base.” Of course, making ads that paint the media as Obama’s stooges may not be the best way to accomplish that. But the press wants to put its love somewhere, and, right now, that love is up for grabs.
Gabriel Sherman is a special correspondent for The New Republic.
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By Gabriel Sherman