If Hillary Clinton last week wanted to work the refs—or argue with the press to generate more skeptical coverage of Barack Obama and maybe change the subject from her own problems—the evidence suggests it worked.
One of the more memorable moments last week occurred during the Feb. 26 debate, when Clinton—referencing a Saturday Night Live sketch—suggested the media had gone soft on Obama. (“If anybody saw ‘Saturday Night Live,'” the New York Senator noted, “maybe we should ask Barack if he's comfortable and needs another pillow.”)
With no primary contests to consume press attention, Clinton's charges of a pro-Obama tilt reverberated in the media echo chamber last week. Obama's life and record came under a heightened degree of scrutiny, with everything from his legislative career to his ties to Louis Farrakhan to his African attire getting a public airing. Obama was the top campaign newsmaker and a significant or dominant factor in 69% of the stories from Feb. 25-March 2, a period between the Feb 19 Wisconsin primary and the March 4 tests in Texas and Ohio. That was the highest level of coverage for any candidate in 2008. And part of it was news outlets—from Good Morning America to The New York Times—engaged in introspective inquiry aimed at answering this headline atop one Feb. 29 newspaper story: “Are the media giving Obama a free ride?”
Clinton finished second in the derby for media exposure last week, registering as a significant or dominant figure in 58% of the campaign stories, a high water mark for her as well. And after weeks of tough coverage, Clinton may been relieved last week to find the media narrative focused more on her attacks on Obama than her 11-contest losing streak since Super Tuesday.
Last week's campaign coverage also reflected what has become a one-party nomination fight. With the GOP battle widely considered over, Democrats generated more than four times the coverage of Republicans (68% to 15%). Presumptive Republican nominee McCain was at 28%, his lowest total in five weeks and a 10-point drop from last week. With McCain's nomination a virtual certainty, his coverage last week took some strange detours. That included his high-profile repudiation of a conservative talk host who launched a vitriolic assault on Obama and the mini-flap over whether McCain's birthplace—the Panama Canal Zone—ran afoul of eligibility requirements for a U.S. President.
Read the full report Press Takes a Harder Look at Obama—and Itself on the Project for Excellence in Journalism Web site.