NEW YORK - Television news' royalty will fly in to meet Barack Obama during this week's overseas trip: CBS chief anchor Katie Couric in Jordan on Tuesday, ABC's Charles Gibson in Israel on Wednesday and NBC's Brian Williams in Germany on Thursday.
The anchor blessing defines the trip as a Major Event and — much like a "Saturday Night Live" skit in February that depicted a press corps fawning over Obama — raises anew the issue of fairness in campaign coverage.
The news media has devoted significantly more attention to the Democrat since Hillary Clinton suspended her campaign and left a two-person contest for the presidency between Obama and Republican John McCain, according to research conducted by the Project for Excellence in Journalism.
News executives say there are reasons for the disparity, such as the continuing story about whether Clinton and Obama's supporters can reconcile. They even partly blame McCain. By criticizing Obama for a lack of foreign policy experience, McCain raised the stakes for Obama's trip, "especially if he winds up going in to two war zones," said Paul Friedman, senior vice president of CBS News.
Obama will visit Jordan, Israel, Germany, France and England. The Illinois senator has promised to visit Iraq and Afghanistan this summer, but it's not clear when that will be. Network anchors stayed home during McCain's recent foreign excursions.
"The question really needs to be posed. Is this type of coverage fair?" said Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va. "This is nothing but a political stunt."
Talk show host Rush Limbaugh said none of this should be a surprise.
"My prediction is that the coverage of Obama on this trip will be oriented toward countering the notion he has no idea what he is talking about on foreign policy and defense issues and instead will prop him up as a qualified statesman," Limbaugh told The Associated Press. "McCain, on the other hand, is a known quantity on these issues and his position does not excite nor fit the mainstream media's narrative on Iraq and Afghanistan, so they simply ignore it and him."
Along with newsworthiness, the question of fairness was discussed within ABC News before it was agreed Gibson would travel, said Jon Banner, executive producer of "World News." Also, if one network anchor decides to hit the road for a big event, chances are the others will follow.
"We have already been in discussions with the McCain campaign to try to afford them the same or a similar opportunity," Banner said. "We have gone to great lengths to be fair and provide equal time to both campaigns."
Shortly after Obama clinched the Democratic nomination, Gibson flew to Miami for a McCain interview, he said.
For each of the weeks between June 9 and July 13, Obama had a much more significant media presence. The Project for Excellence in Journalism evaluates more than 300 political stories each week in newspapers, magazines and television to measure whether each candidate is talked about in more than 25 percent of the stories.
Every week, Obama played an important role in more than two-thirds of the stories. For July 7-13, for example, Obama was a significant presence in 77 percent of the stories while McCain was in 48 percent, the PEJ said.
Sure, there are some weeks Obama's going to make more news, said Tom Rosenstiel, the project's director.
But every week?
"No matter how understandable it is given the newness of the candidate and the historical nature of Obama's candidacy, in the end it's probably not fair to McCain," he said.
The Democrat has proven an attractive commodity; TV debates involving Democrats this campaign consistently drew more viewers than the Republicans. A Time magazine cover with Obama in 2006 was the second best-selling of the year and a Men's Vogue cover outsold every issue but the debut, according to circulation figures reported by Portfolio.com. Newsweek has done six covers with Obama over the past year, two with McCain. A Rolling Stone cover with Obama stopped just short of adding a halo.
If the attention gap continues, the campaign will essentially become a referendum on Obama, Rosenstiel said. While that may serve McCain's purpose — it beats a referendum on President Bush — it could leave the nation electing a president while the media is paying attention to someone else. Past press infatuations, like Howard Dean in 2004 and McCain in 2000, didn't turn into long-term affairs.
TV executives noted that Obama has courted attention, particularly for the overseas trip, more so than McCain. There's some danger involved, too. One Obama gaffe while overseas, or the appearance that he's not ready for an international spotlight, and the media's elite will be there to judge him, said Bob Zelnick, Boston University journalism professor.
Friedman cautioned against reading too much into things like PEJ's coverage index, noting that it's a long campaign. Yet it's an open question about whether Obama is simply a more interesting candidate at this point, partly because McCain has been on the scene longer.
While fairness is the goal, "what are we supposed to do, go gin up some story about McCain to get some rough equality of airtime?" he said. "I don't think so."
NBC News President Steve Capus said he finds it funny this is an issue considering how much people have accused the press corps — and still do — of being too cozy with McCain. The Arizona senator had been a frequent guest of "Meet the Press."
"We're just trying to do our jobs," Capus said. "There's no question that there's great news value in Sen. Obama's trip overseas. That's why we are doing this."