Beware the passion of the hometown newspaper. It can seep from an editorial-page endorsement into news coverage, transforming campaign reporting into spin-infested idolatry. Such is the case with the New York Times, whose news pages of late have been stamped with Hillary-approved storylines and sources.
The most egregious case in point was a front-page feature on February 9 that, in essence, whined that Barack Obama had trumped up his drug use:
Mr. Obama’s account of his younger self and drugs, though, significantly differs from the recollections of others who do not recall his drug use. That could suggest he was so private about his usage that few people were aware of it, that the memories of those who knew him decades ago are fuzzy or rosier out of a desire to protect him, or that he added some writerly touches in his memoir to make the challenges he overcame seem more dramatic.
Reporter Serge F. Kovaleski chooses door number three, smoking out old college and high school acquaintances who didn’t remember Obama as much of a party animal. Then he dissects Obama’s drug use (which Kovaleski acknowledges takes up 1½ pages of a 442-page book):
Mr. Obama wrote that he would get high to help numb the confusion he felt about himself. “Junkie. Pothead. That’s where I’d been headed: the final, fatal role of the young would-be black man,” he penned in the memoir.
But, Kovaleski implies, there was really no such risk. Just listen to Obama’s old prep-school pal, Keith Kakugawa, who recollects: “As far as pot, booze, or coke being a prevalent part of his life, I doubt it.” (See, no chance of slipping down an ill-fated path. And what has Kakugawa been up to since those days? Well, Kovaleski reports, he “spent seven years in and out of prison for drug offenses beginning in 1996.”)
One can only imagine what the media line would have been had Obama not fessed up early in his ambitious career. Doesn’t he know he’s supposed to leave that stuff hidden, so enterprising reporters in dire need of scoops can uncover it?
The New York Times’ tack here is reminiscent of its efforts to jump on the memoir-debunking bandwagon in 2006. Inspired by the James Frey pile-on that followed revelations about the fictive liberties the author took in his one-time memoir, A Million Little Pieces, the paper’s arts section aired idiotic concerns about the importance of factual errors that were corrected in the new translation of Elie Wiesel’s Holocaust memoir Night:
In the previous translation, published in 1960, the narrator tells a fellow prisoner that he is "not quite 15." But the scene takes place in 1944. Mr. Wiesel, born on Sept. 30, 1928, would have already been 15, going on 16. In the new edition, when asked his age, he replies, "15."
The anti-Obama bias has seeped into other coverage as well. (Though there have been some valiant and nasty efforts among the paper’s columnists to counterbalance.) Take the lead story in the February 17 “Week in Review.” Veteran campaign-trail reporter Kate Zernike examines the perks and pitfalls of the “charismatic leader,” recruiting various historians to parse the Obama phenomenon. Eventually, she elicits this zinger:
“What is troubling about the [Obama] campaign is that it’s gone beyond hope and change to redemption . . . It’s posing as a figure who is the one person who will redeem our politics. And what I fear is, that ends up promising more from politics than politics can deliver.”
And who did Zernike tap for this scholarly assessment? Princeton historian Sean Wilentz, who, she parenthetically notes, is “a longtime friend of the Clintons.” Certainly there is a scholar somewhere in this nation’s Ivory Towers who—despite not having Bill and Hillary in their Rolodex—is nevertheless capable of throwing a few swings at Obama. There’s a substantive difference between the biased view of a supporter and the biased view of a friend. Transparency does not good sourcing make.
Now, the list of errant reporting can go on. (And would start with the breathlessly pro-Clinton blogging from reporter Katharine Q. Seelye during the CNN/Univision debate in Texas). But I’ll sign off with a roundup of news outlets’ poll positions that the Columbia Journalism Review’s Campaign Desk blog assembled in the run-up to the Potomac Primaries (to illustrate a different point about the media’s wrong-headed insistence on fortune-telling):
McClatchy: McCain, Obama favored to win Virginia
Agence France-Presse: Ragged Clinton campaign braces for more vote woe
UPI: Poll: Obama, McCain favored in Va., Md.
LA Times: Obama favored in Potomac primaries
Miami Herald: McCain, Obama look strong for ‘Potomac Primary’
Pittsburgh Tribune: Obama favored to sweep next 3 primaries
Wall Street Journal: Today, Sen. Obama is favored to win the “Potomac Primary” in neighboring Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia.
The Hill: Potomac primary losses could spark pressure on Huckabee to withdraw
ABC News’s The Note: Clinton’s gone cold at the wrong time, and she could wake up Wednesday staring at Obama from the other side of the standings.
New York Times: With primaries on Tuesday in Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia, Clinton advisers were pessimistic about her chances, though some held out hope for a surprise performance in Virginia.
That “some” holding out for victory? Clinton’s campaign denizens, donors, and the New York Times.