The political price of being a media celebrity

August 4, 2008

Apparently Barack Obama sells. According to the New York Post, the July 21 New Yorker magazine issue with the satiric cover cartoon of Barack as an Islamist and wife Michelle as an armed militant sold 75,000 newsstand copies, compared with an average 43,000.  Time magazine, the leading newsweekly, says its five covers this year featuring Obama, Hillary Clinton or both sold either “significantly” above average or above average. (Its single John McCain cover sold below average.) Time’s 2006 Obama cover posted the second-biggest newsstand sales that year. Us Weekly expects its Obama cover to sell as many as 200,000 more than its usual 800,000 copies.

The emergence of Barack Obama as a marketable celebrity brings a new dimension to the perennial discussion of media political bias.

Usually, the reasons advanced for why the media lean this way or that fall into familiar patterns: journalists themselves are liberal and swing coverage to reflect personal ideology; news organizations are owned by conservatives who want anti-corporate politicians marginalized; media try to mirror the prejudices of audiences and advertisers, which means supporting entrenched privilege – such as being male or being white; media like to stir things up, so they tilt towards the sensational and the discordant. And so on.

But one dimension of media behavior that doesn’t get enough attention is the self-serving one: Media like what helps them prosper. If Obama draws bigger crowds, let’s have more Obama coverage. The current outsized attention Obama’s getting – notably the three TV networks anchoring their news coverage from his recent international tour — seems a market-savvy response to audience interest.

Now, the Obama political coverage hasn’t been particularly favorable. Researchers at George Mason University’s Center for Media and Public Affairs, which has been tracking network news since 1985, analyzed the first six weeks of the general election campaign and concluded, “Media Bash Obama:” Negative statements about him constituted 72 percent of judgments delivered, compared with 43 percent for McCain.

But it may not be the political coverage that matters most. As CNN commentator Glenn Beck suggests, when the Associated Press is moving stories about Obama’s exercise regimen and workout attire, we’re entering a different realm. My interest here is in looking at how the media’s applying journalistic habits derived from celebrity coverage may affect the way the electorate views its political choices. And my hunch is that the easy conclusion that heavy and breathless Obama coverage will work to his advantage is probably wrong.

First, celebrity popularity is fickle. People tire of them, they get over-exposed. Worse, their claim to public attention depends on fresh new drama. To be boring is lethal. As a presidential candidate, however, the last thing Obama wants are reporters looking for any more surprises.

Second, celebrity appeal usually turns on personality attributes – who’s cruel, who’s faithless, who’s stuck-up. Lately we’re hearing that Obama’s “elitist” or “presumptuous.” That’s a half-step from “conceited,” which matters when you’re picking a homecoming queen, not voting for president. Making supposed personality foibles pivotal to a candidate’s appeal introduces a quirky and bizarre element into electoral calculation.

Third, celebrities must keep it light. Stardom has been defined, accurately I think, as status without influence. When Hollywood stars get principled, they harm their careers. Oprah endorsed Obama and her ratings fell. I don’t believe Obama’s campaign has any less substance than McCain’s, but I do suspect his luster as an audience-pleaser is dimmed when the media dwell on that substance. His prominence, in that respect, comes at the cost of downplaying his seriousness.

Finally, when McCain’s campaign says Obama has more fans than Paris Hilton, it’s opening a powerful line of attack. All presidential candidates move to the political center after the primaries; all avoid specifics if they can get by with rhetoric. But not every candidate has to live down the impression that they are, as Glenn Beck puts it, all sizzle and no steak – an impression, ironically, deepened if not created by the determination of the media themselves to cover the sizzle.

Wow. Could upstart Obama’s newfound stardom cost him the presidency? Now that’s a plotline worthy of a world-class celebrity.

Correction: My last column contained an error. The Edict of Tolerance restoring civil rights to France’s Protestants was issued in 1787 by Louis XVI, not Louis XV. Sorry.

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