If the week of Feb. 18-24 began with Barack Obama cementing his frontrunner status with the media in the Democratic primary fight, it ended with the New York Times coming perilously close to writing Hillary Clinton's campaign obit on page one.
Beneath the grim headline “Somber Clinton Soldiers On as the Horizon Darkens” was a story that offered this passel of pessimism on Sunday, Feb. 24: “Morale is low. After 13 months of dawn-to-dark seven-day weeks, the staff is exhausted. Some have taken to going home early — 9 p.m. — turning off their BlackBerrys, and polishing off bottles of wine, several senior staff members said.”
With their grueling primary battle possibly heading toward the endgame, Democrats dominated campaign coverage by about 2-1 in the period last week, which stretched from the day before the Wisconsin primary to three days after the big Texas debate. Obama, who ran his post-Super Tuesday winning streak to 11 primary contests, won the race for media attention last week. By appearing as a significant or dominant factor in 57% of all campaign stories, he attracted his highest level of coverage since the Campaign Coverage Index was launched in January. And although she trailed him, by registering in 50% of last week's coverage, Clinton generated her second-highest total.
But it was Obama's impressive 17-point win in the Feb. 19 Wisconsin primary that was expected to be competitive that determined the Democrats' media narrative last week. That narrative primarily wondered whether Clinton had anything left in her arsenal to impede Obama's path to the nomination. When the commentariat generally judged their Feb. 21 debate as a draw, that was widely viewed as a tactical win for Obama. The conventional wisdom now held that Clinton had to do something dramatic to shake up the race.
Even though the Republican contest was effectively resolved on Super Tuesday, John McCain was a significant or dominant factor in 38% of last week's campaign news. It's an impressive total that he owes largely to one story—the controversial Feb. 21 New York Times story bearing the headline, “For McCain, Self-Confidence on Ethics Poses Its Own Risk.”
McCain's counterattack against what he called a “smear campaign,” first launched the night before the story hit print, was soon followed by criticism of the Times in the media world itself, creating a separate and unintended story line. By the end of the week, the political press was wondering whether the Times had accomplished something McCain had been previously unable to do—rally disgruntled conservatives to his side.
Read the full report Clinton Battles the Obama Boom, McCain Battles the Times on the Project for Excellence in Journalism Web site.