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Will the press hold Obama to account?

By Dave Cook / November 19, 2008

Jake Turcotte

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When the Obama administration takes office, will it be held to account by the news media despite what critics say was apparent press favoritism toward candidate Obama?

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Yes, says Dan Bartlett former counselor to President George W. Bush for communications.

“If the new administration starts slipping in the polls, everyone will start jumping on them,” he said Tuesday evening during a panel discussion about coverage of the 2008 presidential campaign.

“The pack mentality does not break down along ideological lines,” Bartlett said at the event sponsored by Vanity Fair magazine at Washington’s Folger Library. “It swings with the attitude of the public.”

The proliferation of on-line news sites covering campaigns means the story lines about individual campaigns “are more contested than in previous elections,” said John Marshall, editor and publisher of Talking Points Memo, one of the most influential left of center political blogs. Marshall won the 2008 George Polk Award or reporting on the scandal involving Justice Department firings of US Attorneys.

“More contested is, I think, a good thing,” he said.

While there are more voices commenting on campaigns, “the same motives are driving their habits,” Bartlett argued. “Online media is as dominated by the horse race” as the mainstream media.

And the mainstream media “still control the narrative of the campaign,” Bartlett said.

One reason, according to Marshall, is the relative size of their news budgets. He noted that “our budget is 1/600th of the New York Times” editorial budget. TPM’s total annual budget is about $500,000.

Cable news networks with programs that take a partisan point of view have affected how the public views journalism, said Frank Rich of the New York Times.

Rich writes a weekly 1,500 word essay for the Sunday Times op-ed page and has been strongly critical of President Bush.

“Two very popular, very partisan” cable outlets – Fox News and MSNBC “cast a reverse halo effect on news organizations” that try to provide objective coverage, he said. The 24/7 nature of political coverage on the Internet and cable TV “drives things so much that fine print, filigree gets lost.”

Despite the faster pace of this year’s coverage, there is “no change in the pit of your stomach” when a presidential campaign calls to complain to your boss about the facts in a story, said NBC News political correspondent Andrea Mitchell. “What has changed is the speed and intensity with which it happens,” she said.

Mitchell, who also hosts an hour long program on MSNBC argued that the “campaign this year was not appreciably meaner, just speedier.”

The panel discussion occurred against a backdrop of media self-examination. Washington Post ombudsman Deborah Howell recently wrote http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/11/14/AR2008111403057.html “The mainstream media were not to blame for John McCain's loss; Barack Obama's more effective campaign and the financial crisis were. But some of the conservatives' complaints about a liberal tilt are valid. Journalism naturally draws liberals; we like to change the world. I'll bet that most Post journalists voted for Obama. I did. There are centrists at The Post as well. But the conservatives I know here feel so outnumbered that they don't even want to be quoted by name in a memo.”

Vanity Fair national editor Todd Purdham, who moderated Tuesday’s panel, said the press often finds itself in the same place as the Fool in Shakespeare’s play King Lear: “They'll have me whipped for speaking true, thou'lt have me whipped for lying, and sometimes I am whipped for holding my peace…"