Dana Edelson, NBC
Fred Armisen as Barack Obama and Amy Poehler as Hillary Clinton on "Saturday Night Live."

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — There was something sort of fun about watching the folks at CNN squirm when they were asked a slightly tough question.

"Why did it take a skit on 'Saturday Night Live' to change the tone of the Democratic primary coverage?" asked a member of the Television Critics Association.

"Did it take a skit to change the coverage?" replied David Bohrman, the head of CNN's Washington bureau who heads up the network's political coverage.

Well, after an "SNL" sketch depicted a debate in which Hillary Clinton was asked tough, unfair questions while Barack Obama was tossed softballs, things did seem to change.

"I think the skit on 'Saturday Night Live' made us take a look at ourselves," CNN political analyst Gloria Borger said. "But I would also argue, however, that Barack Obama didn't get as soft coverage as everybody thought. ... I think, however, you took a look at that skit and you started asking some questions about being fair to both candidates."

So, it did take an "SNL" sketch to change the tone of the coverage, though CNN executives, anchors, reporters and analysts tried to explain it away.

"The underdog always gets sort of a little easier treatment 'til the underdog becomes the front runner and then gets the tough treatment," Borger said.

CNN reporter Susan Malveaux argued that Obama coverage was "kind of a natural development," with the tougher treatment coming when "people started to take Barack Obama more seriously. ... I think that, naturally, the scrutiny got a lot tougher and that you kind of saw that progression that happened throughout the months."

So ... Malveaux excused what happened by arguing that it's "natural" for the press in general and CNN in particular to only do their jobs when they feel a candidate has a chance to win.

I must have missed class the day they taught that in journalism school.

Anchorman John King took an even more unusual route to excusing what happened — he blamed Clinton.

"We have to cover the game at the moment," he said, "and the Clinton campaign started by presenting itself almost as the incumbent. 'We are inevitable. We are a powerhouse. We have more money. We have more organization. We have a stronger, more tested candidate. The Clintons are coming back to power.'

"So, we covered them as the fortress Clinton. And it does bring tougher questions. It does bring a more skeptical coverage."

So ... you only ask tough questions of candidates who think they're going to win? Or, perhaps, of candidates who seem arrogant and annoying?

Gee, I must have missed that day at journalism school, too.

King acknowledged that the "SNL" sketch was "a wake-up call," but he went on to echo Malveaux's comments — essentially excusing being tougher on Clinton than on Obama as just the way things go.

"I think that because Obama was such a surprise and such a new presence, it seems more dramatic," he said. "But I think if you go back in time through history, you will see other examples of the pendulum of coverage swinging as the race shifts."

So ... because coverage has been unfair in the past, it's understandable that it can be unfair today.

Yup. Missed that day, too.

It's also true, however, that every candidate feels unfairly put-upon by the press at one time or another.

"If you ask Barack Obama whether he was treated with kid gloves, he would probably tell you no," said Borger. "And if you asked Hillary Clinton, she would probably tell you, yes, he was. So I think, like anything, it gets in the zeitgeist and you kind of take a look at it and you look at yourself, and you say, 'Gee, maybe there's a little truth to that. Maybe we can improve.' However, I don't think there was a radical turn or radical shift in the coverage after that."

Ah, that's the best defense of all. Deny anything ever happened.

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