The news that the three television network anchors are expecting to accompany Barack Obama on his travels abroad in the coming days has renewed questions about whether the networks are lavishing too much attention on the Democratic candidate in comparison to his opponent.
"This is a completely unusual, asymmetrical treatment of two candidates who are normally given equal footing," says Andrew Tyndall, the nonpartisan consultant behind the TyndallReport.com.
His database shows 41 stories by the three network newscasts on Obama between May 2 and July 2; in comparison, there are 17 stories about Republican Sen. John McCain.
All three major anchors are negotiating to sit down with Obama for in-person interviews on consecutive nights in different countries. Tyndall says it is mystifying and inappropriate.
"This is entirely unprecedented — that in the middle of a presidential campaign, one of the two candidates should be afforded coverage that is normally reserved for the incumbent president in office, not for someone who is vying for that office," he says.
Tyndall's database goes back to 1988, and he says the sheer volume of coverage of the election is unprecedented. But by far the most attention has gone to Obama — both in the primary against Hillary Clinton and now in the general election season.
The networks say Obama got more coverage until mid-June because of the drawn-out Democratic primary struggle between him and Clinton. And they're unapologetic about being responsive to the pitch from Obama aides to come along for an interview.
"It is all part of the same game," says Paul Friedman, senior vice president of CBS News.
He says it's pious posturing for critics to think networks should dictate terms of interviews, instead of negotiating with candidates to determine where and when interviews occur.
"'Twas always thus! It is what candidates do, public figures do, presidents do," Friedman tells NPR. "Very seldom do we get to say, 'Sit down and talk now.'"
McCain has traveled abroad a lot, but he hasn't been accompanied by a network anchor during this election season. That can affect how much attention he gets. An anchor's presence magnifies the importance of an event — and if there are throngs of well-wishers or protesters for Obama during this trip, that can only help draw more viewers — and voters at home.
Jon Banner, executive producer of ABC's World News Tonight, says Obama's record needs the attention.
"He's got a pretty significant deficit when it comes to the public opinion of him being able to lead a foreign crisis and his foreign policy experience," Banner says.
Banner says ABC News takes great pains to ensure such coverage will even out for the McCain camp over time.
"We know this trip puts us in a difficult position," he says. "We've discussed it with their campaign. We intend to give them the opportunity to do something similar. You know, there's a long time between now and Election Day."
Banner notes that last month, ABC's Charles Gibson interviewed Obama in New York after the senator clinched the nomination and then flew the next morning to Florida to interview McCain. News executives say McCain himself upped the ante on the Obama trip by jabbing at Obama for talking strategy before going overseas.
"In my experience, fact-finding missions usually work best the other way around," McCain told an audience in Albuquerque, N.M. "First, you assess the facts on the ground. Then you present a new strategy. So this is certainly somewhat a departure from certainly what I have usually done."
But make no mistake, Obama's moves abroad will likely be scrutinized in exacting detail. In fact, Tyndall says, though Obama has received much more coverage, it hasn't been more positive; it's just been more voluminous. He says this is not really a race between two equal candidates.
"Obama is the center of attention in this election, and we can just predict that will happen all the way through to November," he says. "This is a test for Obama to see if he has the chops to become president."
But network executives such as CBS' Friedman say Obama's trip is newsworthy.
"This is a new candidate. Many people have more questions about him than about his opponent," he says. "He's clearly been challenged on the issue of what he knows about foreign policy and national security policy. He's making this trip in response, to a large degree, to this kind of criticism. It's our job to go cover him."
Though specifics have not been formally announced for security reasons, the trip is expected to begin Friday — anchors in tow.