Hillary Clinton has convinced the media that it is biased against her, one of the great (and rare) successes of her presidential campaign, akin to her creation of the vast right-wing conspiracy responsible for conceiving a string of sexual and other disgraces in her husband's White House.
With classic chutzpah, Clinton would have us believe that in a campaign in which she has escaped the most basic scrutiny of her finances, her husband's business relationships and her claims of experience, she is hurting because of the media's favorable treatment of Barack Obama.
On the race itself, the media has time and again let itself be manipulated by a Clinton campaign deftly managing expectations, albeit in increasingly surreal ways. Only two weeks ago the consensus was that Clinton had to win Texas or Ohio by 20 point margins to have a shot at the nomination (at the time these margins still seemed plausible). In recent days, her campaign has put out the word that if Obama doesn't win all four contests this Tuesday, it will be a sign of trouble for him. Of course journalists, no matter how lazy or gullible, know this is stupid, but nonetheless, maybe in a failed effort at fairness, they now seem to accept that Clinton needs to win either Texas and Ohio by any margin. Suddenly gone is the original assessment that Clinton has to win big on March 4, despite the fact that it is mathematically verifiable that there will be too few contests after Tuesday for her to make up the delegate count if she doesn't put a big dent in Obama's lead now. This judgment has become more accurate daily as Clinton's superdelegate lead melts away.
Losing eleven contests in a row, mostly by far wider margins than anyone had anticipated, would doom any campaign (in fact, can anyone think of one major primary contender who has survived such a string of defeats?). Yet the media continue to portray Clinton as strongly viable, if not quite the frontrunner. Again, this is a remarkable feat by her campaign, and an utter failure by most journalists to accurately portray the state of the race.
Clinton has been able to twist these expectations because so many are still in awe of her and her husband, attributing near-mystical powers to their ability to come back from the dead (the latest example, we are told, was her narrow New Hampshire win two months ago). At the same time, she has set up the media as sexist and easily wooed by Obama. This may be true, but, if anything, this has lead the guilt-ridden mainstream press to soften its negative coverage of the Clintons. Nowhere is this more visible than in the complete lack of recent interest in the couple's finances: far more has been written about Obama and Rezko, despite the relative benignity of the charge, than about how Bill and Hillary have amassed the tens of millions of dollars that make up their fortune, starting with her Arkansas cattle futures deal and ending with his Kazakhstan connections. There is a rich vein of potential conflict of interest, corruption and misuse of power that the media should relish covering in great detail, but much of the discussion has been relegated to a few bloggers. A particularly opportune time for coverage should have been when Clinton pulled out $5 million seemingly out of nowhere, to finance her campaign, but we're still left to wonder how these long-time public servants have instant access to such sums, especially since no tax returns are available. In the meanwhile, journalists have been covering the cackle, the misty eyes and the pantsuit; Clinton should be eternally grateful for this, as it has distracted us from far bigger sins, made her look like a victim of the predominantly male political media's sexism, and rendered journalists insecure about their ability to cover her campaign objectively.
Of course, it doesn't help when Tim Russert interrogates her with that crazed look in his eye (he did this to Obama too, but it somehow didn't have the same effect), or John Edwards and Obama team up against her in a debate. Clinton is highly practiced at seizing such opportunities to prove her point: to this day, many credit her landslide win in her first Senate campaign to the outrage she fuelled about her male opponent invading her space and "yelling" at a debate.
On issues, too, she often gets a free pass, most gallingly on her empty and deceptive claim that her plans provide for "universal" health care. This is not the case. Journalists should know it, call her on it and report it, but it now seems accepted that her plan is "universal," despite the evidence. She also gets a free pass on the enforcement issue, which she has consistently refused to address.
On Iraq, Clinton also gets away with murder. In one recent instance, she asserted that Obama had decided that "George Bush wasn't doing such a bad job in Iraq after all." Again, this is stupid and yet it finds its way into the most mainstream of media, occasionally with a disclaimer that in fact Obama never said such a thing. But why is such drivel even reported on in the first place? In the meanwhile, Clinton's head is still spinning about an Obama mailer in Ohio that accurately questions her position on NAFTA.
Obama hasn't exactly been subjected to the third degree: this is not necessarily in the tradition of the US media, and he has skillfully sheltered himself from it anyway. But it is equally clear that Clinton has had at least as easy a time of it, making her claims of unfair coverage and of being tested and vetted sound particularly hollow. Much of the focus has been on what the Republicans will "do" to Obama come the general election campaign. A more accurate question would be what they would throw at Clinton, whose 35 years of experience include a succession of unsavory episodes and associations, many of them still unexamined, unexplained, and ignored by the mainstream media and the Obama campaign. Clinton should be grateful for this, but also fearful that John McCain would be unlikely to be as gracious an opponent as Obama has been.