NEW YORK—Hailed by media critics as the fluffiest, most toothless, and softest-hitting coverage of the presidential candidate to date, a story in this week's Time magazine is being called the definitive Barack Obama puff piece.
"No news publication has dared to barely scratch the surface like this before," columnist and campaign reporter Michael King wrote in The Washington Post Tuesday. "This profile sets a benchmark for mindless filler by which all other features about Sen. Obama will now be judged. Just impressive puff-journalism all around."
The 24-page profile, entitled "Boogyin' With Barack," hit newsstands Monday and contains photos of the candidate as a baby, graduating from Columbia University, standing and laughing, holding hands with his wife and best friend, Michelle, greeting a crowd of blue-collar autoworkers, eating breakfast with diner patrons, and staring pensively out of an airplane window while a pen and legal pad rest comfortably on his lowered tray table.
According to political analysts, the Time piece features the most lack-of-depth reporting on Obama ever published, and for the first time reveals a number of inconsequential truths about the candidate, including how he keeps in shape on the campaign trail, and which historical figures the presidential hopeful would choose to have dinner with.
"The sheer breadth of fluff in this story is something to be marveled at," New York Times Washington bureau chief Dean Baquet said. "It's all here. Favorite books, movies, meals, and seasons of the year ranked one through four. Sure, we asked Obama what his favorite ice cream was, but Time did us one better and asked, 'What's your favorite ice cream, really?'"
Time managing editor Rich Stengel said he was proud of the Obama puff piece, and that he hoped it would help to redefine the boundaries of journalistic drivel.
"When the American people cast their vote this November, this is the piece of fluff they're going to remember," Stengel said. "Not the ones by Newsweek, Harper's, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New Republic, The Economist, Nightline, The Wall Street Journal, or even that story about lessons Obama learned from his first-grade teacher we ran a month ago."
The article, which follows Obama for 12 days during his campaign, was written by reporter Chris Sherwood, and is relentless in its attempt to capture the candidate at his most poised and polished. Sherwood said the profile easily trumps all other fluff pieces in its effort to expose the presidential candidate for who he really is: "an awesome guy."
"My editors told me that if I wanted to uncover the most frivolous, trivial information on Obama, I had to be prepared to follow the puff," Sherwood said. "That meant that not only did I have to stay and watch Sen. Obama play endless games of basketball with city firemen to show readers how athletic and youthful he is, but I also had to go to NBA shooting experts to learn what aspects of his jump shot are good and what parts are great."
Sherwood said he was granted full access to the candidate, and was permitted by chief strategist David Axelrod to ask any question he desired—an opportunity the reporter used to lob the easiest softballs at Obama yet, ranging from how happy he felt when he met his wife to what songs are currently on his iPod playlist. Sherwood was also fearless in his effort to paint the candidate as someone who is "surprisingly down to earth," a phrase that is used a total of 26 times throughout the feature.
"If we were going to get the story we wanted, it was my responsibility as a journalist to ask the really tough questions to his two young daughters," said Sherwood, who grilled Malia and Sasha Obama, 9 and 7, about whether they were "proud of [their] daddy." "I also had to capitalize on every opportunity to compare the story of Obama's upbringing and rise to power to that of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s and John F. Kennedy's, no matter how suspect those parallels really are."
According to the Time reporter, work on the profile was often harder than he had anticipated, with Obama at times dodging questions about whether or not he played a musical instrument, and about what Monopoly piece he thought best represented his candidacy and why.
"Situations like these are when you have to get on the phone and talk, not only to his mother, but to his aunt, his uncle, a Boy Scout leader, or maybe even one of his camp counselors growing up," Sherwood said. "And if they don't return your call, you turn to Sunday school teachers and former babysitters—anyone who is willing to go on record and say that Barack Obama was a really good kid who was destined for great things."
Added Sherwood, "It's all about getting the factoids out in the open."
Readers have so far responded favorably to the piece, with sales of the latest issue of Time nearly tripling that of an issue last month featuring a 36-page exposé that tore apart and vilified former candidate Hillary Clinton's health-care plan.
"I'm not quite sure how he intends to turn around the economy or get us out of Iraq," said California resident Geoff Mills, an ardent Obama supporter who read the Time story. "But any man who prefers his steak cooked medium-rare has my vote."