Politico’s Kenneth Vogel wonders whether the editorial choices made in covering Barack Obama will change now that he has reversed himself on public financing of the general-election campaign. Many newspapers consider that to be a key reform issue, and Obama had received over 100 endorsements in the primary on the basis of his reform message. This week’s responses to his abandonment of public financing reflected a great deal of anger at the betrayal, and it could signal a sharp turn in tone from the print media:
Of the editorial boards that opined Friday about his breaking the pledge, most of those that endorsed him during the primary were aggressive in their criticism.
The Philadelphia Inquirer’s called the decision “as disappointing as it is disingenuous,” while the Boston Globe’s wrote it “deals a body blow … to his own reputation as a reform candidate.” And The Baltimore Sun’s editorial called it “a major disappointment for those struggling to restrain the pernicious influence of special interests in American politics.”
The New York Times’ editorial board, which endorsed Clinton after allegedly leaning toward Obama, wrote that “Obama has come up short” of “his evocative vows to depart from self-interested politics.”
Obama attempted a preemptive defense of his new position by arguing that his massive base of small online donors constitute a “parallel public financing,” and that he needed to exit the program to defend himself from the independent spending of 527 groups, long a bugaboo of campaign finance reformers. Many editorial boards, though, have been outright dismissive of this argument.
The Washington Post opined that Obama’s “effort to cloak his broken promise in the smug mantle of selfless dedication to the public good is a little hard to take.”
And USA Today, which also did not endorse any candidates, said Obama put “expediency over principle,” was “disingenuous about his reasons for opting out of public financing” and proved he’s not a “real reformer.”
Vogel notes that the print media has provided “fawning” coverage of Obama during the campaign. They seemed enchanted by Obama to the point where they didn’t bother to see whether he was too good to be true. Now that he has turned his back on reform, that may change. Even more damning may be the reasons why he claims to have abandoned the public financing system, in essence charging the GOP with forcing him into it through what turns out to be non-existent 527 efforts and PAC/lobbyist contributions that amounts to less than 2% of the Republican totals — when Democrats raised 10% of their 2004 funds from the same sources.
If Obama can’t keep to his principles under fire, when would he ever keep to them?
Plus, for some of these editors, the issue has become personal. Obama spoke to several of these editors in meetings during the campaign and insisted that he supported the public financing system, including and especially the Washington Post. They now know he flat-out lied to them, personally, and nothing quite gets the blood boiling than that kind of betrayal.
The print media doesn’t have the same clout it once did, but it can still drive overall coverage. If they start digging into Obama, the television and radio media will pick up on it; they use print media as a source for their own coverage. One only has to look at the New York Times’ hit piece on John McCain in February to see how newspapers can grab national attention for their political efforts. If the editors decide to turn their cannons on Obama, the ride could get bumpy, and not just from Obama tossing more people under his own bus.
Many people will conclude that the print media will come back around to Obama after venting their spleen this week. Don’t be so sure. They believe in the public financing system — the Washington Post’s Watergate reporting practically invented it. If Obama wins, that system is dead. John McCain may look a lot more palatable now.