Networks Spurn Clinton-Obama Spat over Character and Values

Over the Easter weekend, the Clinton and Obama campaigns went to all-out verbal war, each challenging the values and character of the rival candidate – and the media are averting their eyes in horror.

Rather than exploring charges that Clinton is dishonest or Obama is unpatriotic, the nets are wringing their hands about the damage the Democrats are doing to their presidential prospects in November. 

During a Friday conference call with the media, Obama campaign manager David Plouffe assailed Hillary Clinton's “character gap,” saying, “She is not seen as trustworthy by the American people. She has consistently, in this campaign, engaged in political calculation to mislead voters.”

On Saturday, ABC World News Saturday reported that not only had Hillary Clinton challenged Obama's credentials to be commander in chief, Bill Clinton had questioned Obama's patriotism:  “It would be a great thing if we had an election where you had two people who love this country and were devoted to the interest of the country and people could ask themselves, who's right on these issues.”

The outraged Obama campaign replied by outraging the Clinton team.  On stage next to Obama at a rally in Oregon, Obama campaign co-chairman, retired General Tony McPeak, said Clinton's remarks “smacked of McCarthyism.”

The candidates have clearly placed character and values front and center in the campaign.  How are the network news media reacting? 

On Friday night, covering Plouffe's Friday conference call with the media, Jake Tapper of ABC World News with Charles Gibson sounded the partisan alarm: “This nastiness is having an impact. Polls indicate a sizable minority of Clinton supporters have developed resentments towards Obama, and vice-versa.” 

Tapper interviewed Time Magazine Washington Bureau Chief Jay Carney, who explained what's at stake for the squabbling Democrats:  “Intensity matters. And all it takes is a few percentage points of people, voters, to sit on their hands, stay at home, and not vote at all, or switch sides and vote for John McCain, and that could cost you a swing state like Ohio, or even Pennsylvania.”

ABC anchor Charlie Gibson observed, “I must say I don't think I've seen that level, I don't know, of bitterness or vitriol between the campaigns in a while. This seems it's getting to be pretty nasty.”

With distinct concern in his voice, Tapper responded, “It's getting nasty. And it's having an effect on the voters.  You see voters for Hillary Clinton, voters for Barack Obama saying they would vote for John McCain instead of the other Democrat. Now it's not a majority yet, it's still in the minority, but that could make a difference.”

Over on NBC's Nightly News on Friday, reporter Lee Cowan was covering former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson's endorsement of Obama. Cowan ended his story by making the partisan point clearly while paraphrasing Richardson: “Richardson said the most important thing now is to move on and to unify the party. While he didn't suggest that Hillary Clinton should drop out of the race, he did say that at some point the party is going to have to stop all this infighting if it has a chance of beating John McCain in November. Lee Cowan, NBC News, Portland.”

On Saturday, ABC Senior Correspondent John Cochran wasn't worrying about patriotism and McCarthyism, he was worrying about electoral prospects: “A growing number of worried Democrats wonder when Obama and Clinton will stop slamming each other and helping John McCain.”  

Said Cochran, “polls now show words from both camps are causing serious damage. An increasing number of Clinton supporters would not vote for Obama in November … and vice versa.”

On Monday morning's The Early Show, CBS anchor Harry Smith gave Richardson a soapbox to call for Democratic reconciliation once again:   “And instead of talking about the war and the economy, it seems the candidates are bickering, they're getting personal. The campaign's gotten very negative. … I want to do what I can to bring the party together, stop the bickering, talk about solutions like Iraq, what are we going to do about the economy instead of this constant fighting that's taking place right now.”

Brian Fitzpatrick is senior writer at the Culture and Media Institute, a division of the Media Research Center.