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How Should Journalists Cover a Charismatic Candidate? When the Subjective is Objective

08/04/2008 05:12 am 05:12:01 | Updated May 25, 2011

This week McCain and his campaign have complained about "Obama-love," arguing that fawning journalists are mirroring or fostering a fawning electorate. McCain's charge of press bias on Obama's overseas tour is a little hard to swallow on two counts. The first is that no one has enjoyed so little objectivity from the media as John McCain. He's been the darling of a very forgiving press for decades, which continues to use the word "maverick" to describe a politician whose stances on issues ranging from torture to Bush's tax cuts for the wealthy in wartime would make even John Kerry fall out of his flipflops. The second reason is that McCain is the one who suggested the trip, apparently not considering the possibility that it would elevate Obama's stature both on the world stage and at home, as Obama showed grace and gravitas with world leaders and demonstrated the same rock-star appeal with the troops he allegedly does not support (and even wowed them with his manliness and dexterity with a shot from the three-point line).

Although McCain this week has done himself little good this week by seeming like a whining, grumpy, impotent man who can only protest angrily as a young sprinter runs circles around him, he has done one thing successfully: "work the refs." Every journalist considering running a positively toned story about Barack Obama from now until November will now have that little bird chirping inside his or her head, asking, "Am I being objective?" Hillary Clinton's campaign effectively used this strategy when Obama had begun to run away with the race. In her case, there was more to the charge: The media didn't much care for her, and it showed. Just as they are now asking if Obama is acting too cocky or is "overstepping" when he hasn't yet been elected (a question they never asked when John McCain met with the same leaders and traveled a similar path), they attributed to Hillary Clinton the sentiment that there should be a "coronation" last fall when she broke the 50 percent mark with Democratic voters in the Gallup polls. In fact, the voice suggesting that she was poised for victory at that point was the voice of the people who answered Gallup's phone calls.

But charges of bias, particularly toward a charismatic candidate like Barack Obama, create confusion among journalists about whether they are acting as impartial observers or more like participant-observers. As a result, they often overshoot, as they did in the coverage following Clinton's charge that they were giving Obama a free ride (a charge that must have exempted the coverage of the Jeremiah Wright story or Obama's "elitist" remarks in San Francisco). The charge of bias against a charismatic contender can have a chilling effect on coverage, leading to an embargo on visual images that depict the reality of public response or an obligatory snarky comment or caveat following every story that describes something the candidate has done well. I saw the process in action during the primaries when Hillary's charge led to media concerns about airing footage that would seem too positive for Obama. On more than one occasion, a television producer would ask me for suggestions about film clips to illustrate the point I would be making on air a few hours later or a point they wanted to make, and would reject an appropriate clips because it was "too positive" or because it was from a victory speech. But a victory speech is hardly unfair to show simply because it shows the candidate victorious. That's what victory is.

Clearly journalists need to be on guard to prevent their biases from obscuring a real story, as they did in their propagandistic coverage of the lead-up to the Iraq War. Anyone who dared speak out against it--Al Gore, for example, who delivered a brilliant critique of the drumbeat for war that proved accurate in every detail--was pilloried, and he was one of the unlucky few who was covered at all. But it's easy to confuse biased reporting with accurate reporting about a candidate who inspires voters. Reporting on that inspiration, or simply showing crowd response, is no less "objective" than reporting on voters who aren't convinced that he shares their values or is enough like them to vote for him. Should the media have deleted the sounds and images of the throngs of Berliners spellbound by the potential American president after seven dark years of George W. Bush? What about the response of our own troops to a candidate who has been branded by the McCain camp as their betrayer?

The reality is that journalists are people, and people connect with Barack Obama in a way they don't with John McCain. He draws crowds that dwarf McCain's, and he excites enthusiasm both at home and abroad that McCain simply can't excite. And that's the news.

Drew Westen is professor of psychology and psychiatry at Emory University and founder of Westen Strategies. He is the author of The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation.