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Washington Times kicked off Obama plane

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DEVELOPING STORY:

The Washington Times, N.Y. Post and Dallas Morning News -- three newspapers that recently endorsed John McCain -- have been kicked off Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama's plane in the final days of his campaign.

The Obama campaign informed The Washington Times Thursday evening of its decision, which came two days after The Times editorial page endorsed Senator John McCain over Mr. Obama. The Times editorial page runs independently of the news department.

"This feels like the journalistic equivalent of redistributing the wealth. We spent hundreds of thousands of dollars covering Senator Obama's campaign, traveling on his plane, and taking our turn in the reporters' pool, only to have our seat given away to someone else in the last days of the campaign," said Washington Times Executive Editor John Solomon.

News organizations pay campaigns for the cost of traveling on the candidate's planes.

Read The Washington Times' editorial on the endorsement of Republican presidential hopeful John McCain.

Obama spokeswoman Linda Douglass said the changes on the plane had "absolutely nothing" to do with the organizations' coverage, an explanation echoed by Obama advisor and communications chief Anita Dunn.

"Demand for seats on the plane during this final weekend has far exceeded supply, and because of logistical issues we made the decision not to add a second plane. This means we've had to make hard and unpleasant for all concerned decisions about limiting some news organizations and in some cases not being in a position to offer space to news organizations altogether," Ms. Dunn wrote in an e-mail to The Times Thursday night.

However, the Politico reported Friday that political considerations also were part of the decision. Bill Burton, another Obama spokesman, said the seat shuffles were an effort by the campaign to "reach as many swing voters as we can."

Swing voters aren't likely to change results among The Dallas Morning News' Texas readership or the New York Post's audience, but The Washington Times is widely read in Virginia, a battleground state where the race could still break either way.

"The Times won't be deterred by the Obama decision from continuing to cover the campaign fairly and fully for the final days," Mr. Solomon said. "Its reporters will fly commercial and drive to keep its coverage of Obama complete.

"I hope the candidate that promises to unite America isn't using a litmus test to determine who gets to cover his campaign," Mr. Solomon said.

Times reporter Christina Bellantoni, who has covered the Democratic campaign since 2007, was first told of a possible shortage of seats on Saturday, but was permitted to continue to fly this week.

The Times' McCain endorsement ran Tuesday, and Ms. Bellantoni was informed Thursday evening that she would not have a seat for the final 72 hours starting Sunday.

In defending its decision, the Obama campaign said it respected Ms. Bellantoni's reporting and simply ran out of seats on the campaign plane for the finale because of high demand. It also noted that the Obama campaign is allowing some news media critical of the Democrat to travel, including Fox News.

Dallas Morning News reporter Todd J. Gillman also was excluded from the Obama campaign plane after an Oct. 18 editorial in the newspaper endorsed Mr. McCain.

"We were informed last week there wouldn't be room," said Bob Mong Jr., editor of The Dallas Morning News. "We protested, we continue to protest. We believe that a paper of our size and stature ought to be on the plane. We noticed that they allowed some friendlier media on the plane."

Mr. Mong said he could not prove the Obama campaign acted in reprisal for the endorsement of Mr. McCain.

"We don't have any evidence of that," Mr. Mong said. "We're obviously asking the question."

The New York Post endorsed Mr. McCain Sept. 8.

"We are happy to be on the outside looking in." said New York Post Editor-in-Chief Col Allan. "It's what makes The New York Post special. We are not in the news business to be liked."

Obama spokeswoman Douglass told reporters on the plane Friday morning that adding a second plane to accommodate more traveling press would cause the campaign to lose one city per day due to logistical considerations.

She added that Michelle Obama is joining the plane, which will require more Secret Service agents to be on board as well.

The Times formally protested the decision, noting that it has one of the 20 most-trafficked newspaper Web sites in the country, distributes its print edition in the key battleground state of Virginia, and has had its stories repeatedly cited by Mr. Obama and other Democrats throughout the campaign.

"Sen. Obama himself demonstrated he appreciates the importance of The Washington Times and its news coverage. In June, he wrote a letter citing a Times' investigative project that highlighted government mistreatment of our veterans. Sen. Obama requested an investigation by Congress and the administration, both of which confirmed the problems and led to corrective action at the VA. In his August acceptance speech, Sen. Obama also prominently mentioned our interview with Sen. Phil Gramm and the now infamous comments about a 'mental recession' and a 'nation of whiners'," wrote Mr. Solomon in an e-mail to Obama campaign manager David Plouffe.

"There are simply no more seats on Senator Obama's plane," Ms. Dunn, Obama communications chief said.

"There are press seats available on Senator Biden's plane for travel this final weekend and The Washington Times is encouraged to include our vice presidential nominee in your coverage plans for this final stretch," she added.

Meanwhile, the campaign of Republican presidential candidate John McCain responded to The Times being kicked off the plane as "... not surprising."

"The least-transparent and the least-vetted candidate in history is now the least accessible -- not surprising," said McCain spokesman Tucker Bounds.

The McCain campaign also has been struck by allegations of revenge in booting a journalist from their plane.

Maureen Dowd, a liberal columnist for The New York Times, was excluded from the McCain campaign airplane in late August after writing about a McCain-Palin rally in Washington, Pa.

"It was disappointing because I didn't think John McCain would ever be as dismissive of the First Amendment as Dick Cheney," Ms. Dowd said in a statement.

Time Magazine writer Joe Klein was also kept off the McCain-Palin plane.

Other times, a lack of seating was undisputed as the issue that resulted in some reporters being excluded from campaign airplanes.

Dallas Morning News reporters were excluded from a McCain campaign airplane as more journalists clamored to cover the final days before the election.

"For what it's worth, we've had the same trouble with the McCain campaign," a Dallas Morning News blog entry said Friday. "One of our reporters dropped off earlier this week when space became an issue, and we're only getting back on with McCain tomorrow for the final weekend because they, unlike the Obama campaign, are adding a second plane."

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