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updated 6/12/2008 2:02:42 PM ET 2008-06-12T18:02:42

Now that Hillary Clinton has ended her bid for the presidency, political journalists are suddenly deprived of one of their favorite stories: When is she going to drop out?

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A study shows the only campaign topics that got more attention the past two months were Barack Obama's talkative former minister, the Pennsylvania primary and the fallout from President Bush's remarks about appeasement while in Israel.

More time was spent talking about when Clinton might call it quits than about how the candidates might deal with the war in Iraq, the high price of gasoline, home foreclosures or the sputtering economy. Or about anything that presumptive Republican nominee John McCain said or did during April and May, according to the Project for Excellence in Journalism's analysis of political coverage in newspapers, on Internet sites and on television news.

This doesn't even count the frenzied days after the Iowa caucuses in January, when there was so much media discussion about whether Clinton's campaign would end if she didn't win in New Hampshire that many experts believe a backlash against it was a factor in her victory.

Anchors at odds
The coverage embittered the Clinton campaign and, in the eyes of one veteran journalist, should provoke some soul-searching.

"It was inappropriate, for journalists especially, to try to cut the process short," NBC News' anchor emeritus, Tom Brokaw, told The Associated Press. "It was an appropriate issue for people to report on, in context, but there was an awful lot of commentary disguised as reporting that gave the impression that people were trying to shove her out of the race."

Brokaw's old-school attitude often put him at odds with Chris Matthews and Keith Olbermann when he joined them for primary night coverage on MSNBC this year. One example was last Tuesday. Brokaw was talking about the contrasts between McCain and Obama when Olbermann interjected about "a third one trying to shoehorn her way" into the coverage.

"Well, I think that's unfair, Keith," Brokaw replied. "I don't think she shoehorned her way in. When you look at the states that she won and the popular vote that she piled up, and the number of delegates that she has on her side, she's got real bargaining power in all of this."

Brokaw called all the discussion about Clinton's exit a product of "too much time and too little imagination."

Americans have taken a deep interest in the campaign and the media, particularly cable news, has responded to strong ratings by giving them more, more, more. It encouraged a predictive culture, fueled by opinion polls. It was not enough to report what was happening; people needed to prove themselves by talking with assurance about what will happen.

Return of the ‘Gong Show’?
There was also an overwhelming need for closure, odd for a very close race even in the context of recent history, when Gary Hart and Ted Kennedy took losing nomination fights to the summer conventions. As one veteran political reporter wondered recently: why would journalists seem so eager to see the best story of their life end?

"I've always felt that it was not the job of reporters to be like 'The Gong Show' and hoot candidates off the stage," said John Harris, editor in chief of the Politico Web site.

Between the fascination of many reporters with Obama and constant counting of his slow march toward the required number of delegates for the nomination, the Clinton campaign has some legitimate gripes about the way they were covered, he said.

It was hard for the Clinton campaign to stay off the defensive, when so much time was spent on stories about the hopelessness of her situation, said Lisa Caputo, a former White House aide and an adviser to Clinton's campaign.

"You can't count people out before they're out," she said. "Let the process play out. There was an awful lot of not letting the process play out on its own merits but trying in some respects to influence the process."

Focus on the horse race
It's a variation of a criticism faced by political journalists for a half-century now: too much emphasis on the horse race and not enough on issues. Coverage was issue-oriented at the start of this campaign, but degenerated into a lot of stories about process, said Bob Schieffer, host of CBS News' "Face the Nation."

"We get criticized for it," Schieffer said. "But when you come right down to it, that's what campaigns are about — trying to win."

This is truly the first full campaign of the online age, where something can be old news before it's printed in a newspaper. Many reporters are overworked trying to follow the story, report for their publications and write for blogs.

This seemed to increase, not decrease, the tendency toward pack journalism.

Other factors inevitably drove the coverage, said Mark Jurkowitz, associate director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism. It was a lengthy primary process that was quickly reduced to two candidates who had relatively few differences on the issues, he said.

Gaffe-watching contest
That was reflected in how coverage essentially became a gaffe watch, he said. The 103 stories on whether or not Clinton should get out were nearly matched by the 100 stories on Obama's remarks about bitter people turning to guns and religion, according to the PEJ's index. There were 243 stories about Obama's former pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

For some time, it was obvious to those counting that Clinton was not going to be able to earn enough delegates to win, Harris said. That's both hard and wrong for reporters to ignore, he said.

"I don't see a real remedy for it," he said, "other than that all of us at this point should try to write original and provocative stories and not try to follow the pack of conventional stories."

Now that one dependable story is gone, dozens of opinion polls are ready to take its place.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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