Obama's Blago Story on A3, But His Exercise and 'Chiseled Pectorals' On Page One

December 26th, 2008 7:47 AM

Here’s a textbook definition of bias by story placement in a newspaper. On Christmas Eve, the Washington Post placed the release of the Obama’s transition team’s report on contacts with Gov. Rod Blagojevich on page A3 – headlined "Obama Report Clears Dealings with Blagojevich." Centered right underneath the headline in this four-column story was a gray two-column box with a sidebar headlined in capitals "OBAMA ATTENDS SERVICE FOR GRANDMOTHER." But on Christmas Day, this Obama story was on Page One of the Post: "As Duties Weigh Obama Down, His Faith in Fitness Only Increases."

The December 25 front-pager, written by Obama-friendly Post reporter Eli Saslow, began by showing how devoted the new president will be to the people’s business:

Being elected president forces a man to take inventory of his life, so Barack Obama has trimmed his schedule to the bare essentials. He’s not in the White House yet, but gone are the hours he once spent reading novels, watching television, and obsessing over the daily transactions of Chicago’s sports teams. He eat out only once every few weeks. He visits friends rarely, if at all.

But one habit endures: Obama has gone to the gym for about 90 minutes a day, for at least 48 days in a row. He has always treated exercise less as recreation than requirement, but his devotion has intensified during the last few months. Between workout during his Hawaii vacation this week, he was photographed looking like the paradigm of a new kind of presidential fitness, one geared less toward preventing heart attacks than winning swimsuit competitions. The sun glinted off his chiseled pectorals sculpted during four weightlifting sessions each week, and a body toned by regular treadmill runs and basketball games.

The story continued inside with the headline "Gym Workouts Help Obama Carry the Weight of His Position." It’s accompanied by a large picture of Obama playing basketball against a University of North Carolina player named Jack Wooten.

Placed clumsily next to the photo is another gray two-column text box with the headline "OBAMA SPEAKS OF AMERICAN COURAGE." Post reporter Philip Rucker wrote what amounts to a nice press release for Obama’s holiday radio address: "President-elect Barack Obama released a sobering message for the nation on Christmas Eve, recognizing the sacrifice of the country’s service men and women while calling on Americans to find inspiration in a founding father to overcome current economic struggles." It was George Washington, as Obama recalled crossing the Delaware on Christmas 1776.

Rucker continued: "On a day when the nation’s unemployment fiings reached a 26-year high, Obama turned to Washington to stoke hope in the battered American workforce." There was no mention of a Republican rebuttal, and it’s obvious the Post wasn’t offering any kind of balance to these stories carrying the servile tone of transition-team public relations.

Saslow’s front-page fitness story is a classic example of the kind of story Democratic presidents get, thick with the relentlessly positive evaluations of close friends, and sentences like this: "Even Obama's closest friends said they marvel at how he has maintained his commitment." The Post offers only infomercial-style evaluations of Obama’s good health:

"It's something he takes seriously, and that's why he's in great shape," said Alexi Giannoulias, a friend of Obama's and a former professional basketball player. "When people picture him running or whatever, they might think he's just going through the motions. But he goes hard. He's fit. He could convince you he's half his age."

The tribute to Obama’s fitness cannot continue without the reporter noting how Obama makes the reporters feel like a lazy collection of out-of-shape losers:

For the small group of reporters tasked with following Obama's every move, his fitness has become a running joke repeated in the stories they file. They sit at McDonald's while he exercises in Hawaii. They eat calorie-rich scones while he sweats at Regents Park. One reporter for the Christian Science Monitor, filing his report about one of the president-elect's gym trips last month, noted: "While Mr. Obama worked at maintaining his lithe look, your pear-shaped pooler spent quality time at a local coffee shop."

Obama still suffers from one vice -- smoking -- although he has worked hard to quit since he started the presidential campaign. He's down from three or four cigarettes each day to what he terms the occasional "slip."

With this sneaker-polishing story appearing on Christmas Day, some readers might wonder about Obama’s almost religious observance of exercise against his quite irregular church attendance (but Saslow’s already done the soft-shoe story on Obama’s obnoxious former church). Saslow concluded the story by suggesting that Obama’s devotion to exercise offers a story of salvation by gym works:

It's a schedule he started as a 22-year-old student at Columbia University in New York, and it immediately transformed him. In his 1995 autobiography, "Dreams From My Father," Obama said he was a casual drug user and an underachiever until he decided to start running three miles each day. He stopped staying out late, fasted on Sundays and became a voracious reader, spending most of his time alone in his apartment reading classic literature and philosophical texts.

Physical fitness yielded mental fitness, Obama decided, and the two concepts have been married in his mind ever since.

"It's always been a priority in his daily routine," said Christopher Lu, a marathon runner who worked as Obama's legislative director in the Senate and was named Cabinet secretary last week. "I think it's an example of how disciplined he is. It's one of the things that really keeps him balanced."

Obviously, the Post doesn’t seem to make any kind of attempt to keep itself balanced. It shows few signs it’s paying any attention to departing ombudsman Deborah Howell’s advice to stop tilting the news in Barack’s direction. They look too distracted by the glint off his "chiseled pectorals."