Eugene Robinson, arguably the best columnist writing in America today, posed a two-part question in his column this morning in The Washington Post:
"Are the news media being beastly to Hillary Clinton? Are political reporters and commentators... basically in the tank for Barack Obama?"
Gene's answer: no and no.
My view: yes and yes.
The coverage of Hillary during this campaign has been across-the-board critical, especially since she began losing after New Hampshire. She may have brought much of the negative reporting on herself, sometimes with the help of her husband. Able and articulate as she is, Hillary can be as polarizing among the media as she is with the public.
And her campaign has taken the tough-love approach with the reporters who cover it, frequently ostracizing those they think are critical or hostile. That kind of aggressive press-relations strategy may sometimes be justified, but it rarely effective. Reporters are supposed to be objective and professional. But they are human. They resent the cold shoulder, even if they understand the campaign's motivation.
The result is coverage that is viscerally harsh: her laugh is often described as a "cackle." Her stump speech is dismissed as dry and tiresomely programmatic. She is accused of projecting a sense of entitlement, as though the presidency should be hers by default, that it is somehow now her turn to be president. When she makes changes in her campaign hierarchy, she is described as "desperate."
Chris Matthews argues on MSNBC that Hillary "bugs a lot of guys, I mean, really bugs people -- like maybe me on occasion." Further, he has theorized that she has got as far as she has as a candidate only because of a sympathy vote, because "her husband messed around."
Is that misogynistic? Perhaps. Is it unfair? Probably. Is it crude? Of course. Is Chris on to something? Maybe.
But whatever the case, Hillary and her supporters have reason to complain about the tone of their press notices, if not the substance. Of course, when a front-runner begins to stumble, the coverage is always more critical. And reporters are as subject to Clinton-fatigue as anyone else. But the attacks on Hillary have seemed over-the-top in recent weeks. A barely-suppressed glee often creeps into the commentary when Hillary loses another primary or caucus.
By contrast, has the coverage of Obama been overly sympathetic? Have reporters romanticized the junior Senator from Illinois? Have they glamorized him and his wife? Did they exaggerate the significance of Ted Kennedy's endorsement? Have they given him the benefit of the doubt when it comes to his meager experience?
Of course they have.
His rise to front-runner is described as meteoric, his speeches as mesmerizing, his crowds as enraptured, his charisma as boundless. Obama is characterized as the second-coming of JFK, etc. etc. It is all a bit much.
What is behind this enthusiasm? It is not so much personal preference or political bias. It is this: Reporters love a good story, and Obamamania is as good as they come. There has not been such drama and excitement in a presidential race in years. Reporters are suckers for a story that writes itself.
Last summer, the astute National Journal reporter Carl Cannon argued in an Aspen Institute panel that the media were missing the significance of Obama's candidacy, failing to grasp the inherent newsworthiness of his rise from obscurity to the national scene. Carl was right then, but nobody is missing it now, and the result is coverage that is often just short of gushing.
In the end, the contrasting tone of the reporting in the Democratic race may not determine the outcome. But it will influence it. Bill Clinton is right when he angrily protests that "the political press has avowedly played a role in this election."
In his frustration and fury, Clinton probably doesn't understand the real motivation or comprehend what is behind the critical coverage of his wife and the fawning, sometimes cheerleading reporting of the Obama phenomenon.
But he is on to something.
Terence Smith is former media correspondent for The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. His website is terencefsmith.com