Chicago papers, radio, and television haven’t been hagiographic in their coverage of local-rising-star-turned-Democratic-nominee Barack Obama. They dug deep into Obama’s real-estate dealings with developer/felon Tony Rezko, and provided gavel-to-gavel coverage of Rezko’s trial.
But if one were to assemble a list of the revelations that have most damaged Obama’s efforts to win the presidency, two at or near the top would be the video of Obama’s pastor, Jeremiah Wright; and Obama’s long, working relationship with William Ayers, a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago and founder of the radical Weathermen domestic terror group, which planted bombs in public buildings.
Somehow those scandals — involving high-profile Chicago figures — were broken by national news organizations like ABC News and the Politico. In fact, when Obama’s connection to Ayers received real scrutiny from the national press, local columnists offered “so what?” reactions, insisting the relationship was “no big deal.” The Chicago Tribune’s editorial board insisted that Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn (his wife and fellow former Weatherman) “have done good work in Chicago.”
Former Tribune reporter David Mendell offers an interesting overview of Obama’s career-long relationship with the press in Obama: From Promise To Power. There are prickly moments, occasional stories that aren’t flattering to the senator, and (once in a great while) mountainous controversies made out of molehill-level misdeeds on Obama’s part. But for the most part the Chicago media were charmed by Obama’s considerable charisma, and acted more like Obama Girl than like Woodward and Bernstein.
Obama’s three years as a Chicago community organizer in the 1980s received little notice from the local media. (See Byron York’s National Review cover story for an examination of Obama’s Sisyphean efforts and modest achievements during those years.) His first appearance in the city as a political figure was in 1996, when state legislator Alice Palmer anointed him, a little-known lawyer, as her successor. But Palmer changed her mind about running for higher office, and sought to keep her seat, setting up a primary challenge. Obama’s successful effort to get Palmer off the ballot by challenging her nominating petition signatures received some mild scrutiny, “inside page grist” as Mendell describes it.
But the longest pre-political career profile came in the Chicago Reader, and was almost entirely laudatory:
What makes Obama different from other progressive politicians is that he doesn’t just want to create and support progressive programs; he wants to mobilize the people to create their own. He wants to stand politics on its head, empowering citizens by bringing together the churches and businesses and banks, scornful grandmothers and angry young. Mostly he’s running to fill a political and moral vacuum.
Once in the state legislature, Obama mostly dealt with reporters himself, and would later comment about how little attention he received — joking that only one reporter with the Chicago Sun-Times would talk to him, and that was only to be nice. His near-fistfight with another state legislator, Rickey Hendon, described in Mendell’s book, went unreported.
Obama faced somewhat greater scrutiny in his first seriously competitive race, a challenge to Rep. Bobby Rush in the Democratic House primary of 2000. Another Chicago Reader story treated Obama as the long shot that he was, offering some unfair attacks deep in the story: “Barack is viewed in part to be the white man in blackface in our community,” the paper quoted one critic as saying. “You just have to look at his supporters. Who pushed him to get where he is so fast? It’s these individuals in Hyde Park, who don’t always have the best interests of the community in mind.”
Also, running for Congress in a heavily black district, an endorsement from the Tribune — a symbol of the establishment, and conservative by South Side standards — was a mixed blessing for Obama. (Since then, the paper has endorsed him in every race he has run.) Still, it’s not every day that a major metropolitan newspaper endorses a two-term state legislator to replace a five-term Congressman. Instead of touting Obama as a “rising star,” the paper’s editors and correspondents could just have easily echoed Rush’s devastating rejoinder, “Just what’s he done? I mean, what’s he done?”
When the Chicago media did criticize Obama during his years in the state legislature, it was for comparably trivial misdeeds — particularly considering that Obama was attending Wright’s sermons and working with Ayers during this time. The Tribune rapped Obama on the knuckles when he missed a vote on a gun-control bill on December 29, 1999, because he hadn’t yet returned from his Christmas vacation with his family in Hawaii. Afterward, Obama pointed out that his daughter was ill at the time. Mendell describes his own critical coverage of Obama at the time, and whacking a man for missing a vote to stay with a sick toddler seems petty.
A year and a half later, Obama was already thinking of running for Senate in 2004. If there’s such a thing as backhanded compliments, the press seemed full of them during early discussions of the race. Lamenting Obama’s subpar support in the black community, Laura Washington wrote in the Chicago Sun-Times, “As a politician, the Obama character has a tragic flaw. He may be too smart, too reserved, and perceived as too elitist for regular black folk.”
No description of Obama’s relationship with the Chicago press can ignore the benefits of Obama’s ties to local strategist David Axelrod, a former reporter for the Tribune, a frequent source for local reporters, and on good terms with most of the paper’s editors. Fortuitously for Obama, Axelrod began the 2004 Senate primary cycle by engaging in early discussions with Obama’s best-funded rival, Blair Hull. Those discussions included Axelrod asking Hull to confirm or deny rumors of spousal abuse; Axelrod told Mendell that Hull offered a “glacial” and evasive answer. Unsurprisingly, Axelrod lost interest in Hull shortly after that.
As the primary heated up, a consultant for one of Obama’s rivals handed Tribune reporter Mendell a packet of opposition research on Hull — the documents noted that he had been divorced three times, and that his second wife had been granted a court order of protection from him.
That prompted the Chicago media to demand Hull unseal his divorce records, and his campaign ultimately showed them to Mendell. The contents were devastating — allegations of abuse and threats. Mendell makes clear in his book that a non-Obama candidate provided him with the research.
Oddly, within a few months, dogged efforts on the part of the local press would eliminate another Obama rival, this time in the general election. Republican Jack Ryan seemed to be out of central casting — handsome, independently wealthy, sharing the name of a Tom Clancy hero.
But once again, the Tribune and a local television station launched a crusade to unseal the candidate’s divorce records. Ryan, his ex-wife (actress Jeri Ryan, best known for playing a cybernetic bombshell on Star Trek: Voyager), and his supporters argued that his nine-year-old son ought to be spared the messy details of his contentious divorce. A California judge ordered the records unsealed, and the entire political world heard accusations that the candidate urged his unwilling wife to have public sex in clubs in New York and Paris. Ryan denied the allegations, but no candidacy could survive a revelation like that.
Months later, Ryan would note that no media organization ever sued to open John Kerry’s sealed divorce records, and that the Tribune seemed to be highly selective in its application of its self-described “matter of principle.”
Compared to these twin revelations, each the journalistic equivalent of a nuclear strike, the press criticism of Obama amounts to the smallest of potatoes — whether he’s “black enough,” why he missed a vote between Christmas and New Year’s, why a mailing from his state legislative office went out so close to election time, whether he violated an ethics law he wrote himself. A recurring complaint that his speeches were too cerebral, which sounds like a criticism of Obama but implicitly blames his audiences.
A comment by Obama, a week before his national debut giving the keynote address at the 2004 Democratic Convention, offers a revealing glimpse of how he thinks campaign journalism ought to work. On Meet the Press, the late Tim Russert asked Obama about a quote in a then-upcoming issue of the Atlantic Monthly, declaring that Democratic nominee John Kerry sometimes lacked the necessary “oomph” as a candidate. Obama said the interview had been conducted several months ago, and that in the interim Kerry had demonstrated great strengths as a candidate. The next day, the Sun-Times offered the tabloid headline: “OOMPH!”
Obama complained to Mendell, “Is that good reporting, good journalism — to take something I said months ago and print it now?” Obama seemed incredulous that a Democratic senator’s criticism of the man who would become the party’s nominee would be newsworthy.
If Obama somehow got the idea that a candidate’s comments have an expiration date, it would explain a great deal of his behavior on the campaign trail.