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Is the Obama Media Honeymoon Over?

Thursday, 21 Feb 2008 09:48 PM

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Barack Obama, the wunderkind of US politics, has long basked in adulatory press coverage for his historic White House bid -- but a media backlash appears to be building.

Hillary Clinton, Obama's bitter rival for the Democrats' presidential nomination, has long complained that the young Illinois senator is getting a free ride from journalists in thrall to his promise of change.

"Obama is the new story this year and reporters love novel plotlines," said Darrell West, a political scientist and media expert at Brown University in Rhode Island.

"But as it gets closer to the nomination, there is going to be more scrutiny of him. Reporters are going to examine his statements, his votes and his background," he told AFP.

Some Obama supporters fret already that his campaign has the trappings of a messianic cult, as thousands upon thousands pack auditoriums to bask in his uplifting oratory.

"Obamaphilia has gotten creepy," Los Angeles Times columnist Joel Stein wrote. "The best we Obamaphiles can do is to refrain from embarrassing ourselves."

But even seasoned Republican commentators have found something refreshing in the 46-year-old Obama's drive to become the first African-American president and turn a page on two decades of political rancor.

MSNBC presenter Joe Scarborough, a former Republican representative, has commented admiringly on Obama's ability to rally independents and even Republicans to his cause. "I've never seen anything like this before," he said.

For a fickle media pack always desperate for the next big thing, the Obama phenomenon has shone beside the tarnished luster of Clinton and her former president husband Bill.

That frustrates Clinton aides such as communications chief Howard Wolfson, who said his boss had been "vetted" thoroughly.

"There is a role that the press plays in vetting candidates and that role is presumably ongoing," he said, arguing that recent disclosures about Obama were better late than never.

The candidate himself denies that he has received an easy ride, noting that for much of last year the coverage was not so excitable when he was focused on nuts-and-bolts stump issues.

"We got good press (at first) because we raised more money than people had expected," Obama said late last month. "And then there was a big stretch of about six months when we couldn't do anything right.

"We were not complaining when other candidates were touted as inevitable and their campaigns were flawless and we were the gang that couldn't shoot straight. So I just think we have to keep it in perspective."

Obama has kept the press at arm's length, giving fewer on-the-record briefings than Clinton, the once "inevitable" nominee who has become more accessible as her campaign has faltered.

Still, Obama brings to mind the original "Teflon president," Ronald Reagan, to whom scandal failed to stick and whose talent for communication lives on in the Illinois senator.

The Clinton campaign has struggled to whip up media interest in Obama's financial links to a Chicago businessman, Antoin Rezko, who is due to go on trial for fraud next month.

The New York senator has gained traction more recently for her accusation that Obama has plagiarized other politicians' speeches, although that piece of spin did nothing to halt Obama's momentum in Wisconsin Tuesday.

Television networks cut away from Clinton mid-speech on the night of the Wisconsin primary as Obama stole her thunder at a victory rally in Texas, a small but telling sign of the shift in media attention from last year.

But Obama hasn't been immune to attack.

Fox News presenters last year relayed false claims by Insight, an online journal published by Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church, that he attended a radical Islamic school as a child in Indonesia.

Insight had said the Clinton campaign was preparing to assert that Obama had covered up this period of his life, but the New York Times said the report was "quickly discredited" and Fox backtracked.

However, Obama is now under broader fire as his chances of winning the Democratic nomination have surged with victories in 11 contests running.

In an article headlined "The Obama Delusion," Washington Post columnist Robert Samuelson said the senator "seems to have hypnotized much of the media and the public with his eloquence and the symbolism of his life story."

"The result is a mass delusion that Obama is forthrightly engaging the nation's major problems when, so far, he isn't."

Copyright © 2008 Agence France Presse. All rights reserved.

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