Obama Speech Cuts Into Opponent’s Prime Time
By Howard Kurtz / Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 21
If it were a basketball game, the refs might have blown the whistle on Barack Obama for elbowing Hillary Clinton out of the way.
Clinton was seven minutes into her speech Tuesday night, shortly after being projected to lose the Wisconsin primary, when Obama bounded onto a stage and all the cable news networks — after a brief split-screen moment — cut away from her to him.
“Take it now!” Fox News anchor Brit Hume was heard saying. The freshman senator proceeded to speechify in a Houston arena for 46 minutes, hijacking the television spotlight and — in a move he seems to have perfected — upstaging his Democratic rival.
As Obama went into overtime — while the rest of Sen. Clinton’s speech in Youngstown, Ohio, went unheard by the country — her aides were stewing over what they see as media favoritism toward the Illinois senator. And political analysts marveled at Obama’s ease in capturing a sizable chunk of prime time on one Tuesday night after another.
“Whatever happened to equal time?” Clinton spokesman Phil Singer asked yesterday.
Obama spokesman Bill Burton denied any Machiavellian plotting, noting that Clinton had been scheduled to speak an hour earlier. “We hit the stage on time,” he said. But he did not minimize the importance of such speeches: “When you have the opportunity to broaden your audience outside the four walls that contain your event, it’s an important moment.”
While this sort of power move is not unprecedented, Clinton aides grumble that Obama is rudely dispensing with the niceties that have usually prevailed on primary nights, in which candidates stagger their speeches and the winners go last. By delivering the longest victory remarks of the primary season — Sen. John McCain, who carried Wisconsin on the Republican side Tuesday, spoke for all of 12 minutes — Obama found a way to get a swollen version of his stump speech, in its entirety, onto the three cable news channels.
Radio commentator Laura Ingraham questioned yesterday whether Obama was being “mean.” MSNBC’s Chris Matthews asked a former Hillary Clinton spokeswoman, Lisa Caputo, if Obama was guilty of “bad manners.” Caputo hesitated before calling Obama’s maneuver “smart political tactics.”
Could it also be smart television? Could Obama, an accomplished orator who has generated plenty of excitement while wresting the front-runner’s mantle from a former first lady, be good for ratings? After all, cable outlets routinely dump out of long speeches by politicians so their pundits can pontificate.
“I don’t think it was much of a decision,” said Phil Griffin, the NBC News senior vice president who runs MSNBC. “Obama won. You of course go to the winner. I’m sure the Clintons are disappointed, and we would have preferred to stay on her throughout her speech. But he’s the story.”
Asked if Obama’s speechmaking skills made it easier to stick with him for three-quarters of an hour, Griffin said: “Doesn’t hurt.”
Sam Feist, CNN’s political director, said the decision not to break away from Obama, who barely mentioned his Wisconsin victory, rested on an assessment of the speech’s newsworthiness. He noted that his network aired a recorded five-minute excerpt of the most newsworthy part of Clinton’s speech after Obama had finished.
“We thought that was an appropriate way to handle it,” Feist said. “We can’t always control the timing of what the candidates choose to do.”
“I suppose,” Fox’s Hume told viewers, “that this primary night coverage that the cable news channels give to these candidates, they’ve turned into a platform for these speeches, which have gotten longer and longer and longer.”
In more than one control room, executives talked about pulling the plug if Obama kept talking. “If he’d gone on for another hour, we would have faced a decision to move on and probably would have,” Griffin said.
As for Clinton, she has not even mentioned her defeats on the last two primary nights, raising the question of whether hers are concession speeches at all.
On Feb. 12, the cable networks carried Clinton’s speech after she lost the Potomac primaries, but broke away after 12 to 13 minutes, with MSNBC co-anchor Keith Olbermann observing there was “nothing in the speech” about her losses that night. When Obama made his victory speech in Madison, Wis., a short time later, the networks stayed with it for 21 minutes. Only then did they break away to cover McCain, who had already started speaking to a small crowd in Alexandria, and carry the last 10 minutes. Several commentators observed afterward that the McCain event seemed anticlimactic after Obama’s larger, more boisterous crowd.
The math was similar on Super Tuesday, Feb. 5. The networks gave Clinton 11 minutes and McCain 8, then immediately switched to Obama, who held forth for 20 minutes.
Craig Crawford, a Congressional Quarterly columnist, said the networks had no choice but to cut away from Clinton Tuesday night after Obama forced the issue.
“That was a definite violation of the etiquette of these election night dramas, where people take turns giving their speeches and don’t step on each other,” he said. “When you break a rule like that, it’s a very hostile gesture.”