WASHINGTON — Senator John McCain’s trip to Iraq last March was a low-key affair: With a small retinue of reporters chasing him abroad, the NBC News anchor Brian Williams reported on Mr. McCain’s visit there from New York, including it in the “in other political news” portion of his newscast.
But when Senator Barack Obama heads for Iraq and other places overseas this summer, Mr. Williams is planning to catch up with him in person, as are the other two network 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 seatmates: star political reporters from the major newspapers and magazines who are flocking to catch Mr. Obama’s first overseas trip since becoming the presumptive Democratic nominee. A “Meet the Press” interview is also being planned.
The extraordinary coverage planned for Mr. Obama’s trip, though in part solicited by aides, reflects how the candidate remains an object of fascination in the news media, a built-in feature of being the first black presidential nominee for a major political party and a relative newcomer to the national stage.
But the coverage also feeds into concerns in Mr. McCain’s campaign, and among Republicans in general, that the news media are imbalanced in their coverage of the candidates, just as aides to Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton felt during the primary season.
“In every campaign, time is a finite resource, so it is unproductive to spend it worrying about the way Obama is covered,” said Jill Hazelbaker, a spokeswoman for Mr. McCain. “That being said, it certainly hasn’t escaped us that the three network newscasts will originate from stops on Obama’s trip.”
Executives at the three traditional networks say they generally devote the same resources to the candidates. But they do not dispute that Mr. Obama has received more coverage this year, not only because of the historic nature of his campaign and his newness to the political scene relative to Mr. McCain, but also because of the protracted nature of Mr. Obama’s primary battle with Mrs. Clinton, which was at a peak when Mr. McCain last went to Iraq.
The imbalance has appeared in various analyses of the news coverage. The Tyndall Report, a news coverage monitoring service that has the broadcast networks as clients, reports that the three newscasts by the networks — which have a combined audience of more than 20 million people — spent roughly 114 minutes covering Mr. Obama since June. They spent about 48 minutes covering Mr. McCain, who made the rounds of the evening newscasts in satellite interviews last week.
As for the heavy coverage planned for Mr. Obama’s trip, the network 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 two of their major concerns: national security and foreign affairs.
“If this were John McCain’s first trip to the war zone, that would be a story and we would cover it big time,” said Paul Friedman, 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 had helped make the visit a bigger story because they had 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 news industry’s fascination with Mr. Obama has carried over to general-interest magazines, with the candidate landing on considerably more covers in recent months than has Mr. McCain. In the last couple of weeks Mr. Obama has graced the front of Rolling Stone for the second time this year, and the cover of Us Weekly (both of which are owned by the company of a prominent Obama supporter, Jann S. Wenner). Beth Jacobson, a spokeswoman for Wenner Media, said the issues were among the better-selling magazines of the year.
Ned Martel, the deputy editor of Men’s Vogue, said, “He’s what is called in the magazine world an ‘interest driver.’ ” The magazine put Mr. Obama on its cover in 2006 and recently dispatched the photographer Annie Leibovitz to produce another spread for a coming issue. It did a feature on Mr. McCain in 2006 as well that did not make the cover.
The race in general has been a ratings boon for cable news outlets, but not necessarily for the network newscasts.
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.
Nonetheless, network executives said, Mr. Obama’s campaign has proven itself particularly adept at courting that megaphone for big-event road trips. For instance, Mr. Obama’s campaign invited the major anchors to interview him overseas. Referring to Mr. McCain’s background as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, one news executive said, “If McCain went to Vietnam, all three anchors would jump at the chance to go with him.” This executive requested anonymity to speak candidly.
Details of the talks between the anchors and the campaign, first reported on the Web site of The Washington Post on Wednesday, had not been finalized as of the afternoon. And some networks were chafing at what the executives at all three described as an uncompromising approach to when and where Mr. Obama would grant the anchor interviews, which are to take place outside the war zone. But few doubted that ultimately, most, if not all, of the anchors would accept the terms.