Senator John McCain’s trip to Iraq last spring was a low-key affair with his ordinary entourage of reporters following him abroad. NBC News anchor Brian Williams reported on his arrival in Baghdad from New York, with just two sentences tacked onto the “in other political news” portion of his newscast.
But when Mr. Obama heads for Iraq and other locations overseas this summer, Mr. Williams is planning to catch up with him in person, as are the other two evening news anchors, Charles Gibson of ABC and Katie Couric of CBS, who, like Mr. Williams, are far along in discussions to interview Mr. Obama on successive nights.
And while the anchors are jockeying for interviews with Mr. Obama at stops along his route, the regulars on the Obama campaign plane will have new seat mates: star political reporters from the major newspapers and magazines who are flocking to catch Mr. Obama’s first overseas trip since becoming the presumptive nominee of his party.
The extraordinary coverage of Mr. Obama’s trip reflects how the candidate remains an object of fascination in the news media, a built-in feature of being the first African-American presidential nominee for a major political party and a relative newcomer to the national stage.
As for the heavy coverage planned for Mr. Obama’s upcoming trip, news executives said in interviews that, once again, the Democratic candidate was potentially benefiting from being a newer, untested politician. To that end, his first visit overseas since becoming the party’s presumptive nominee would be an opportunity for voters to see how Mr. Obama handles one of their major concerns: his ability to handle national security matters and foreign affairs.
“If this was John McCain’s first trip to the war zone, that would be a story and we would cover it big time,” said Paul Friedman, the senior vice president of CBS News. “This is Senator Obama’s first trip — his positions and the public’s perception of him on national security issues are important.”
Mr. Friedman said Mr. McCain and the Republicans have helped make the visit a bigger story because they have repeatedly questioned Mr. Obama’s credentials, keeping a running count of the number of days that have passed since Mr. Obama last visited Iraq, in 2006.
The presidential race in general has been a ratings boon for cable news outlets. But for the broadcast networks, the contest seems to have, at best, slowed annual declines in viewership.
Chuck Todd, the political director for NBC News, said Mr. Obama’s ability to draw media interest should not be surprising. “This is the way all of the new guys are treated — whether it was Ronald Reagan, Michael Dukakis, Bill Clinton or George W. Bush,” Mr. Todd said. “There’s always a candidate who gets more ‘new guy’ treatment versus the other one, and it’s not always positive.”
The large news media contingent that will travel with Mr. Obama will be a help if the trip goes wonderfully. But any gaffes will take place before a larger megaphone.
Michelle Obama will not be travelling with Senator Obama to Afghanistan, Iraq, Israel, and Europe – she’ll be staying home with Malia and Sasha.
It has also been revealed that Michelle does not plan to deliver policy speeches during the presidential campaign nor will she have a policy role in the Obama administration.