Some years ago, a friend of mine who was then District Attorney of Los Angeles held a press conference on the beach with a couple of high-powered celebrities to trumpet efforts to use the criminal law to crack down on polluters. The press covering the event included representatives of the courthouse/political press corps and the entertainment/celebrity media. The difference was so stark that it made for a great story, which my friend told with relish. The political reporters were their usual selves: yelling questions, demanding answers, cynical, skeptical, giving nothing and showing no respect. Another day at the beach. The entertainment/celebrity reporters groveled, fawning and apologizing, grateful for the opportunity to be in the presence of the stars, eager not to offend, showing more courtesy than my political pal got from his own staff. The celebs themselves were appalled by how crudely and rudely behaved the political reporters were; my friend the politician couldn’t believe that the members of the entertainment press actually considered themselves to be “reporters.”
I can’t help but think of that story as I watch some of our nation’s finest — or at least our most famous — political reporters fawning all over Barack Obama like entertainment reporters covering a movie star. Is this good for them? Or for him, for that matter?
I certainly understand exactly why it is happening. Right now, Obama is bigger than any rock star. Right now, every reporter wants to be close to him, on his good side, at the front of the bus, or at least the front of the line for an interview. They are reporting what they are getting, which in many cases means what they are given, not exactly reporting by any definition. But who’s to complain? No one wants to offend a guy who just might be President. No one wants to be on the “bad” list, the list of the last to know, of people who don’t get the invites or the leaks or the tidbits that their editors and bosses back home are reading in somebody else’s blog or watching on someone else’s broadcast.
No one, or almost no one, attacks the press for tossing softballs. Oh, John McCain can complain about the coverage, but complaining makes him look smaller, not bigger; he gets attacked for whining, which may be one reason he has backed off from any such complaints and is now going out of his way to say that he is not making an issue of the press love-in with Obama. Andrea Mitchell made the point that the press is running video and pictures they are being given with no idea of what’s been edited in or out, but that certainly hasn’t stopped her own network from doing so. Katie Couric, in the nicest possible way (the old, “not that I’m criticizing you but people are scratching their heads trying to understand approach”) tried to pin Obama down on whether he now sees the surge as a success, whether he would still be against it if he knew then what he does now (sort of like, Hillary — was your vote for the war a mistake?), and what are people saying all over the Internet? Bad Katie. How dare she do that? How dare she push that way? How dare she do her job? Next thing you know, CBS will be joining FOX News on the “no interview” list.
The problem with all this fawning is threefold. First of all, the fact that the press doesn’t push doesn’t mean that, sooner or later, the Republicans won’t. They will. Every question the press doesn’t ask and Obama doesn’t have to answer will be the subject of a speech at the Republican convention, an ad down the road, a tirade by somebody that will ring truer than it should precisely because it hasn’t been addressed before. Do you really think McCain and his friends won’t push hard for Obama to admit he was “wrong” about the surge? Of course they will; every bit as hard as Obama pressed Hillary on her war vote. Better to deal with it in questions from Katie, get an answer down that puts the question to rest rather than leaving her hypothetical viewer scratching his head than waiting for it to come back in a debate. Attacking Katie is not the answer — Katie isn’t running for President.
Second, being the favorite of the press doesn’t necessarily win you votes. Most people don’t actually like the press. The friend of my enemy is not necessarily my friend. Being liked by the boys and girls on the bus doesn’t necessarily earn you the respect of the people back home. Standing up to them, giving as good as you get, all that helps. But if being loved by the press were a sure route to success, Hillary Clinton would never have carried all those big states after March 1. Ronald Reagan would never have gotten elected President. George Bush would have lost, twice.
Third, and perhaps most important, the American press corps is the most fickle lover you could ever have. They make my worst ex-boyfriend look like a paragon of loyalty and devotion, giving new meaning to the old expression, “love ‘em and leave ‘em.” Except the press doesn’t just leave, they destroy. The better the coverage at the outset, the worse it will almost certainly be later on. I can’t begin to count how many times I have warned politicians and candidates to worry as much about the good coverage as the bad, because the more air they put in your balloon, the bigger the target when they start shooting.
Maybe the media will remain as firmly in Obama’s camp as they seem to be right now, fighting for seats on the plane, celebrating his every move. But if so, he will really be a first. And it won't necessarily help him win.
Susan Estrich is currently the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the University of Southern California and a member of the Board of Contributors of USA Today. She writes the "Portia" column for American Lawyer Media and is a contributing editor of The Los Angeles Times. She was appointed by the president to serve on the National Holocaust Council and by the mayor of the City of Los Angeles to serve on that city's Ethics Commission. A woman of firsts, she was the first woman president of the Harvard Law Review and the first woman to head a national presidential campaign (Dukakis). Estrich is committed to paving the way for women to assume positions of leadership. Books by Estrich include "Real Rape," "Getting Away with Murder: How Politics is Destroying the Criminal Justice System" and "Dealing with Dangerous Offenders." Her book "Making the Case for Yourself: A Diet Book for Smart Women," is a departure from her other works, encouraging women to take care of themselves by engaging the mind to fight for a healthy body. Her latest book, The Los Angeles Times bestseller, "Sex & Power," takes an impassioned look at the division of power between men and women in the American workforce, proving that the idea of gender equality is still just an idea.