It almost never happens that there are two media favorites in one political race — and yet this year, there are.
Republican Sen. John McCain and Democratic Sen. Barack Obama have both received pretty positive press in their years in the Senate and during grueling months on the campaign trail. But the two men achieved that status in very different ways.
McCain — a longtime lawmaker from Arizona, a former Navy pilot and prisoner of war in Vietnam — is widely considered a charming rogue in Washington, D.C. By 2000, he had clashed with his own party's leaders on such issues as campaign finance, tobacco litigation and health care. He was also considered a maverick — and the fight is something reporters like.
During the 2000 GOP primaries, McCain was traveling around in a bus named The Straight Talk Express, feeding reporters a stream of quotable one-liners that often tweaked his fellow Republicans.
"John McCain's life is basically a press availability," says ABC News senior political correspondent Jake Tapper.
McCain has revived the Straight Talk Express bus for this campaign — and he he's just unveiled a new airborne version: a Boeing 737 with specially designed benches for the press corps. Between campaign stops, McCain ambles over to the reporters, plops down and invites them to fire away.
Tapper says, "At a certain point, you're like, 'OK, Sen. McCain, we need to write our stories now. So, if you don't mind going back up to the front.' "
On the campaign trail, reporters are usually stuck following around candidates who cling to talking points or navigating endlessly complex travel arrangements. They also have to deal with handlers keeping them at bay.
"I remember on occasion wondering whether I was too hungry to sleep — or too sleepy to eat, and being too exhausted to see my way through the next day. But you get up and do it anyway," says veteran political reporter Gwen Ifill, the moderator of PBS' Washington Week.
So the political pack appreciates anyone who makes its job easier or more interesting, and McCain did both.
This time around, McCain has become a bit more reserved, but he's still accessible. When the senator was aggrieved by a New York Times story earlier this year that suggested an inappropriately cozy relationship with a female lobbyist, he called a press conference and gritted through every single question reporters had to ask.
By doing that, McCain won points for being accessible in good times and bad — and the Times ended up taking heat for its anonymously sourced story. So it's fair to say McCain is a media favorite.
The Draw Of The New
Obama is also a media favorite, if for very different reasons.
He is fresh, which is another way to say that he's still largely unknown to many reporters, as he's served in the U.S. Senate just shy of 3 1/2 years.
What journalists do know is that he's an extraordinary orator who can electrify crowds. Yet for the media, Obama is not especially accessible.
"With Obama, it's more the story of the man than the man himself," says Mark Silva, a Washington correspondent for the Chicago Tribune. "He's had an amazing trajectory, coming from nowhere, launching an improbable campaign at a time when it seemed that Hillary Clinton was unbeatable."
Obama has also run a different campaign. It is truly based on the power of the Web to organize a grass-roots network, to raise money, to draw in young supporters and to energize black voters.
"The media loves new, and Barack Obama — warts and all — is new," Tapper says. "John McCain was new eight years ago — and he's not new anymore. And I think that affects the general tone of the coverage."
Is One Media Darling Usurping The Other?
Tapper believes the new media darling is beginning to crowd out the old one. And one of the key questions about being a favorite of the press is whether that status truly does influence media coverage. Just ask John McCain about the lobbyist Vicki Iseman, or Barack Obama about the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
The Boston Globe just published this lengthy look at investors in dilapidated public-housing developments with ties to Obama, while the press is starting to give close examination to the lobbyists running McCain's campaign. The New York Times recently ran this article on it.
But Ifill says this time around, media interest is not piqued solely by scandal. "We are always biased in favor of a good story," Ifill says. "And this year, Republicans and Democrats both have served up candidates which give us good stories."