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Comic 'news' a force in '08 campaign

How the media coverage has shaped this presidential election cycle.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 7, 2008

Live from New York...: Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (r.) appeared on 'Saturday Night Live' March 1. Amy Poehler plays Clinton on the show.

dana edelson/nbc/ap

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New York

Barack Obama seemed truly disappointed. On his campaign plane this week he told reporters, "I didn't expect that you guys would bite on that."

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"That" refers to weeks of complaints by Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's campaign that the media were giving the Illinois senator a fairly free ride.

In fact, the media didn't "bite" right away. But after two "Saturday Night Live" skits satirizing the press corps as fawning over Mr. Obama – even ensuring that the actor playing him was comfortable during a debate – a raft of not-so-favorable headlines surfaced about the Illinois senator.

The relationship between the press and the politicians it covers inevitably becomes an issue in every campaign. But the shift in the news tone and coverage following the SNL Democratic debate skit points to how powerful the faux, comic news is becoming as a media critic and political force. That's particularly so because the expansion of broadband Internet now allows most Americans to replay almost any video clip they want.

"The least you can say is that Saturday Night Live's timing was exquisite – that it raised an issue that had been percolating out there," says Mark Jurkowitz of the Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ), which monitors press coverage of the campaign. "By any objective measure of press coverage, it did change and fairly abruptly."

In its index of campaign coverage, the PEJ found that in the week before the March 4 primaries in Texas and Ohio, Obama generated "the highest level of coverage for any candidate in 2008." Sixty-nine percent of the campaign news focused on him.

Much of it scrutinized Obama's legislative record in the Illinois statehouse, his ties to an indicted Chicago developer who was also a donor, and a flap over the North American Free Trade Agreement. In the case of NAFTA, the media reported that Obama's campaign couldn't get its message straight about whether or not it had assured Canadian officials that Obama's opposition to the trade agreement was just political grandstanding.

About the same time, the PEJ report notes the media started producing several self-reflective critiques with headlines such as: "Are the media giving Obama a free ride?"

Mr. Jurkowitz is quick to note that several factors could have led to the change in coverage. For one, since no other primaries were held in the week leading up to the "do or die" contests in Ohio and Texas Tuesday, the media didn't have any victories to parse.

"In almost any story of any serious magnitude, there's always a point at which the media's behavior becomes the story – briefly," says Jurkowitz. "Part of it was while sitting around waiting for 'crucial Tuesday' there was time to get introspective and to actually act on the perception that there was media bias...."

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