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After Four Months of Steady Dating, Washington Post Still Swooning Over Obama

By Richard Benedetto

WASHINGTON – Time and familiarity have a way of cooling even the hottest romances.  But so far, after nearly four months of steady dating, The Washington Post is still swooning over Barack Obama, and anything attached to him.

In fact, The Post has it so bad for the rookie president that it recently trumpeted a story on the front page of its Style section that touted him as a “One –Man Stimulus Package” because it says tourists are “flocking” to Obama-related sites in Chicago.

One day earlier, it devoted oodles of Style-section space and 10 photos to celebrities “surfing the Obama wave” at posh parties after the president’s much-ballyhooed first appearance at the annual White House Correspondents Association dinner.

“I was invited two years ago, but I didn’t want to go,” said Hollywood heart throb Rhys Myers, the insinuation being that he wouldn’t go when George W. Bush was president, a recurring theme of the Obama presidency:  I am not George Bush.

When the Obamas went to church on Easter Sunday, The Post ran not one, not two, but three color photos, and one of onlookers cheering.

When the Obamas got a new dog last month, The Post gushed with three days of coverage, including two front-page stories and photos, and three color photos inside of the Obama family and Bo taken the day he made his highly scripted media debut.

The dog explosion in The Post triggered one shell-shocked reader decrying the lack of “real news” on the front page to write, “Who cares?”

Well, The Post obviously does. It seems it can’t get enough of Obama, whether it is on the issues or the personal side. The White House knows it, and is all too happy to oblige with the soft stuff.

When Obama and Vice President Biden went out tp lunch in an obviously planned  “surprise” visit to a Virginia hamburger joint earlier this month , The Post ran a gee-whiz-he-eats- hamburgers piece and two photos on the outing,

“The world’s most powerful man, and the guy a heartbeat away, waited patiently in a single-file line and the lunch crowd gawked,” wrote Post reporter Philip Rucker

It’s all part of the White House building and honing the Obama image as a hard-working president who is everywhere addressing every problem and yet is honest-to-goodness, just-plain folks.

That’s all well and good, but when former president George W. Bush tried to project his human side, the media pooh-poohed it as phony, or worse, ingenuous manipulation. No such concerns now.  Where media folks never saw Bush as one of us, with Obama they apparently do. And it makes a big difference in the coverage.

The Post almost seems to welcome the manipulation. On May 4, the paper ran an Associated Press photo of Barack and Michelle Obama strolling hand in hand on the South Lawn after a so-called “date-night” dinner at a fancy Georgetown restaurant. The photo looks like they were “caught” by the camera in a very intimate moment. The fact is that no press photographers have access to the South Lawn unless the White House press office, with Secret Service permission, escorts them out. So much for intimacy.

  • White House Easter Egg Roll?  Huge Page One centerpiece photo of Obama cheering on a tiny red-haired egg roller. Headline: “Some Good Eggs, on a Roll.”
  • The Obama girls?   The Post loves them, too. A Page One story on April 18 was headlined, “Move Over Miley. In Washington, The Obama Girls Are the Latest Craze.”
  • And when it comes to First Lady Michelle Obama, The Post can’t seem to gush enough. From her visits to D.C. schools and soup kitchens to her White House herb-and-vegetable garden and unveiling of her wax figure by Madame Tussaud’s, admiring stories and photos abound.
  • “Gaga for Michelle,” read the caption on a Page One color photo of the first lady’s trip with her husband to Europe in early April.  Inside the paper, amid three color photos of her, two headlines read, “Just Like Their Queen, Britons Are Touched By Michelle Obama” and “Journalists Give The First Lady Full Marks at G-20.”

So you see, Obama love is not limited to The Post. Journalists everywhere, at home and abroad, are smitten like school kids. The Post just has it a little badder than most.

Richard Benedetto is a retired USA Today White House correspondent and columnist. He now teaches journalism and politics at American and Georgetown universities in Washington. D.C.


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Economic News Scary Enough Without Media Hype

By Richard Benedetto

Car sales didn’t drop in November, they “tanked.”

Mortgage foreclosures didn’t increase last month, they “skyrocketed.”

Stocks didn’t drop this week, they “plummeted.”

The unemployment rate didn’t rise last month, it “spiraled upward.”

And state and local budgets aren’t being cut or trimmed, they are being “slashed.”

Indeed, when it comes to reporting on the economy, the news media appear caught up in hype and exaggeration, all seemingly designed more to frighten you than inform you.

If a more-lively verb synonymous with “increase,” “decrease,” “rise” and “fall,”  has yet to be unearthed in this recent binge of economic-bad-news reporting, it would be difficult to guess what it might be. The same for hot adjectives and adverbs.

Listening to radio news, reading the newspaper headlines or watching the chatterboxes on TV jawbone on the economy, it would appear that desktop thesauruses are becoming thumbworn as reporters seek new words to make things sound as bad or as desperate as possible.

“New home sales in October fell a whopping 5.3 percent,” a network radio news report trumpeted. (Since when is 5.3 percent “whopping”?)

Even the usually more-staid Bristish financial press has joined the act. The Dec. 1 edition of The Financial Times used the word “plunge” in four economy-related headlines. Like this one: “New Star Shares Plunge Amid Bank Talks.”

But the hype phenomenon is not limited to big national and international newspapers or broadcast networks. The bug has hit the heartland, too.

“Indiana poverty rate soars as manufacturing jobs cut,” said a late-November headline in the Munster (In.) Times. (It actually increased five percentage points in the past eight years.)

Only when the economic news is somewhat good do the verbs tone down. Most recently, while average gasoline prices have certainly plunged from over $4 a gallon last summer to under $2 now, the news reports generally talk about “falling” gas prices. But when they were going up, they were skyrocketing, soaring and blasting off.

None of this would come as a surprise to journalist-media critic James Fallows, whose book, Breaking the News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy, outlined the phenomenon now barreling ahead full tilt.

“Economic news is typically presented in a way that makes people feel that they are helpless in the face of large-scale trends,” Fallows wrote. “A fatalistic, protect-what-I’ve got mentality is increased by reports making people feel more beleaguered than they should.”

To be sure, there are times when lively verbs, adverbs and adjectives are appropriate and necessary in economic news reports

If, for instance, the unemployment rate doubled in one month, then it would be accurate to say it “skyrocketed.” However, if it increased by 0.2 percent, from 6.5 to 6.7 percent, then “skryrocketed” is not the right word to accurately describe what happened. “Increased’ would be better.

Does it make the story less interesting or less likely to be read or listened to if there is less hype?  Maybe.  But at least it doesn’t leave people with the wrong impression, or worse, cause them more anxiety than necessary. After all, we in the news business are interested in accuracy more than hype, aren’t we?

Richard Benedetto is a retired White House reporter and columnist for USA Today. He now teaches politics and journalism at American and Georgetown Universities in Washington, D.C.. His most recent book isPoliticians Are People, Too”

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When It Comes to Photos, Washington Post Favors Obama


By Richard Benedetto


WASHINGTON – John McCain backers who believe he is not getting a fair shake in coverage from the Washington Post might have a case, especially when looking at photos.

An examination of the A Sections of The Post from June 4, the day after Barack Obama clinched the Democratic presidential nomination, to July 13, a time frame of 40 days, showed that the newspaper not only published more photos of Obama, but that photos of him were generally larger, more colorful, more flattering and better placed than those of McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee.

Consider these A-Section findings over the period:

Obama photos outnumbered McCain, 57-47.

Obama had more front-page photos, 6-5.

Obama had more color photos, 38-27.

– Obama had more large photos, three columns or wider, 31-19.

While numbers of published photos on the front page were nearly equal, those of Obama were substantially larger than pictures of McCain. Moreover, five of the six Obama pictures on the front page were above the fold. Three of the five McCain photos were played below the fold, a less conspicuous spot.

My examination further left me wondering whether photographers devoted more effort and time to composition of Obama photo shoots, rather than simply opting for a head and shoulders image. Obama photos seemed more candid, personal, asrtistic, and flattering.

For example, on June 22., a dramatic nearly quarter-page color photo of Obama on Page 4A had a background of what appeared to be heavenly stars reminiscent of the American Flag. On the same page, below the fold, was a tight one-column mugshot of McCain, about one-twentieth the size of the Obama portrait.

On June 5 (Page A7) , the newspaper published a full-page-width photo of a heroic-appearing Obama speaking from the back of a truck in Iowa. Post photographer Linda Davidson had to have been on her knees or stomach to capture that angle.

And on July 5 (Page A-4), there was a four-column photo of the full Obama family – Barack, Michelle, Malia and Sasha- waving flags and smiling broadly during at a Fourth of July parade in Montana. No picture of McCain in The Post that day.

Also, on June 14, the day after NBC’s Tim Russert died, the Post managed to find and publish a file photo of Russert interviewing Obama on Meet The Press. McCain appeared on Russert’s program several times, but the Post featured no photo to show that.

There were few artistic photos of McCain during the 40 days. Most were traditional campaign shots of the Arizona senator candidate speaking at a lectern or shaking hands with supporters. One exception was a shot of him speaking with the yellow glow of an ornate chandelier in the background. Another showed him talking to reporters on his plane.

In most of the Obama pictures the candidate is smiling. In most of the McCain photos his expression ranges from serious to sour. One might argue that Obama just smiles more than McCain. That’s probably true. But the contrast is noticeable.

Is all this an accident, or an effort by The Post to boost Obama, consciously or unconsciously? The discrepancies raise questions.

Some might label my 40-day comparison as coincidence, and that if we look at the photos over a longer period they would tend to balance. Maybe so. It would be interesting to check the figures at the end of the summer.

There is no rule nor regulation that says a newspaper must devote equal space in news columns and equal numbers and quality of photos to presidential candidates. Ralph Nader is running and barely receives coverage. But the principle of fairness, pertaining to photos, should apply to the top candidates,

Take note that this is not to accuse Washington Post photo editors of a bias toward Obama. But I am saying that editors need to be more discerning in their picture selections and ask themselves if they are giving the two candidates an even break. Right now, they are not.

Richard Benedetto is a retired White House correspondent and columnist for USA Today. He now teaches politics and journalism at American and Georgetown Universities in Washington, D.C.






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Is the Declining U.S. Death Toll in Iraq Front-Page News? Should It Be?

By Richard Benedetto

       WASHINGTON – Those who argue that the media play up bad news from Iraq and play down good news picked up some added ammunition for their arguments last week when many major news organizations buried or ignored the news  that U.S. troop deaths in Iraq in September  were at their lowest monthly level since March 2006.

        None of the top newspapers played it on their Oct. 31 front page, the day after the reports were released.  Many, including The Washington Post, Chicago Tribune and USA Today played it well inside the paper.  But some, including  The New York Times, Boston Globe and Los Angeles Times, didn’t mention it at all, trumpeting instead bad news from Iraq.

        The Los Angeles Times reported on Oct. 31 that “Three American soldiers were killed Tuesday southeast of Baghdad when their patrol struck a roadside bomb.”   The Boston Globe had a story that led, “The Iraqi government approved a draft law yesterday to lift immunity for foreign security companies including Blackwater USA…”

         The news-play situation was far different last May when the monthly number of U.S. troop deaths in Iraq hit a high for the year in April:

 “April Toll Is Highest Of ’07 for U.S. Troops,” said a Page One headline on May 1 in The Washington Post.  Many other newspapers followed suit, putting the story on their  front pages.

         That’s fine.  But when the news that the U.S. death toll in October was the lowest in 17 months, The Washington Post buried it on page A-14.  On Page One that same day there were two Iraq-related stories, both negative – one about the “frayed alliance” between the U.S. and Pakistan and one on how President Bush’s nominee for attorney general  was losing Democratic support because of his  “unsure” stand on waterboarding, a controversial interrogation technique used on suspected terrorists.

       Meanwhile, the New York Times, which ignored the lower-troop-deaths story on Oct. 31, did have on its front page a seemingly less newsworthy Iraq story that said the U.S. military will oversee private security contractors such as Blackwater USA, which has been accused of recklessly killing Iraqi civilians.

        So what kinds of stories deserve Page One treatment?  Well, we first have to decide if it is news. And what is news?   That’s a difficult question.  In the American University  journalism and political science classes I teach, we talk about that all the time. To be sure, defining news is more art than science.  And in the new Internet age, definitions of news seem to change faster than the click of a mouse.

          But there are some criteria that endure. For example, news editors ask if the item is common or rare, usual or unusual, holy cow or ho hum?   In other words, is it a dog-bites-man story or a man-bites-dog story? Man bites dog?  That’s news!

         Putting that test to the story of declining U.S. deaths in Iraq, most might agree that given the long stream of reports about increasing U.S. deaths, it is unusual rather than usual, and therefore meets one of the main criterion for defining news. Yet, some papers ignored it. Others buried it. What might we conclude?

       We discussed the media’s handling of the declining-death story during my Politics of Mass Communications class at American University last week and most students, many of whom are war opponents, still came down on the side of playing the reort on Page One.

         “If you are going to put stories on Page One when the U.S. death toll goes up, it is only fair to put them on Page One when the deaths go down,” one student said.

         I then asked the class if burying or ignoring the story indicated an anti-war bias on the part of the editors or their papers. While some students said yes, especially the conservatives, most attributed it to poor news judgment.  They were being generous.

          Richard Benedetto is a retired USA Today White House correspondent. He now teaches journalism and politics at American University. His latest book is Politicians Are People, Too.

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