NEW YORK — Oh, man. One little joke about Barack Obama and that Middle Eastern fellow with the rhyming name, and her inbox is piled high with squawky offended e-mail. It's enough to make make Jeanne Moos wish she were back interviewing three-legged pantyhose or even two-headed turtles.
''I'm used to doing dog stories,'' says CNN's queen of quirk, shaking her head as she leafs through outraged denunciations ranging from not particularly bright to how low can you sink? "Dogs don't write in. I've never gotten any angry e-mails from dogs.''
If there's one lesson Moos has learned in the 12 months since becoming a regular on Situation Room, the network's daily campaign roundup, it's that political activists have much less of a sense of humor than the average canine. Whether she's musing on John McCain's difficulties using a teleprompter or Hillary Clinton's befuddlement at the technology of convenience-store coffee machines, Moos has drawn almost daily fire.
This morning's e-blizzard of insults was prompted by a Moos piece on body language of the various candidates — particularly their strange, compulsive habit of pointing off into the distance while addressing the crowds at campaign rallies.
''Since we usually can't see who the candidates are pointing at,'' Moos intoned during a voiceover, ''we'll just have to use our imagination.'' Footage of Clinton waving her finger in the air was intercut with her husband's former Oval Office playmate Monica Lewinsky; of McCain, with his conservative bete noir, Ann Coulter; and Obama, with the sound-alike with whom he is perpetually entangled in verbal slips by TV anchormen, Osama bin Laden.
Result: The lefty watchdog group Media Matters for America issued a scathing statement saying Moos ''associates'' Obama with Osama, and a chorus of liberal bloggers joined in.
''I thought it would be Hillary and Monica that would get me in trouble,'' sighs Moos. "I was going for nemeses — Hillary and Monica, McCain and Coulter, Obama and you-know-who. I thought it was funny, but everybody now is touchy, touchy.''
It's a peculiar and sometimes disheartening situation for the 54-year-old Moos, who's used to making her viewers laugh rather than foam at the mouth. Her divertingly oddball reports about everything from a convention of sword-swallowers (Moos: ''What's it taste like?'' Sword swallower: ''It tastes like a fork.'') to politically correct Christmas carolers (''Have yourself a merry little visitation of the three wise men to the birth of Christ . . .'') over the past 27 years have made her one of CNN's most enduring stars.
''She is an institution,'' observes network president Jon Klein fondly, "and possibly belongs in one.''
From fake testicles for dogs who've been neutered (''Ohhh, for the days when dogs fetched balls rather than had them implanted,'' she lamented) to the strange and possibly sinister fact that watches and clocks in advertisements are always set at 10:10, there's practically nothing too weird or whimsical for Moos to report on.
''I did a story on flying debris in New York City, following around some piece of trash on a windy day to see where it came from and where it went,'' she recalls. "I did a story on the life of a traffic cone: 'They die for us' -- we had pictures of a crushed one -- 'but at least they get laid' -- we had pictures of me laying down a bunch of them on a street . . .
"I like to do pieces that, forever after, you'll say, 'Oh, yeah!' -- stories that will stick with you. I did a story on McCain's problems with teleprompters earlier this year, and a guy wrote me, 'I can never watch McCain now without following his eyes.' ''
Among her favorites over the years were the stories on three-legged pantyhose (one leg is rolled up and stored in a little pocket, to be deployed in case of a run) and the two-headed turtle.
''The thing I remember about that turtle story was that if one head yawned, the other did, too,'' Moos says. "Contagious yawning. Animal stories are always good. I said I never got a letter from an angry dog. Well, I have, I guess. Almost, anyway. I get angry letters from animal rights people. The worst were after the hippo story. I did a piece on a slobbery hippo at the circus, and it almost took my arm off when I was wiping its mouth. Everybody thinks hippos are so cute. Not always.''
Even hungry hippos can't compare with the carnivorous critics Moos has encountered since moving to Situation Room. She's obviously doing a sort of video equivalent of a personal column rather than regular news reporting, filing stories on things like the YouTube epidemic of home movies of babies whose only word is Obama. (A speech therapist explained the candidate's name is "perfect baby-babble.'')
But in the hot-button world of presidential politics, she's found, a quip can quickly become a quagmire. Media Matters for America has excoriated her for everything from a piece about candidates' fashion that noted Hillary Clinton's deepening décolletage to one making fun of some of the incoherent questions viewers submitted to her own network for a Republican presidential debate.
''Media Matters is after me all the time,'' Moos sighs. "I did a funny piece on the whole Obama/Osama thing, just observing what was going on in the culture. They put out a press release. . . . I was doing a piece on people confusing the two, and they put me in the press release as if I had confused them. It's PC to the nth degree.
''It has a chilling effect, a very systematic one. Everyone becomes paranoid. Look what happened to David Shuster (suspended by MSNBC after suggesting Clinton might be "pimping out'' her daughter Chelsea on the campaign trail) or Chris Matthews (forced by MSNBC to apologize for saying Clinton won sympathy votes because "her husband messed around''). Everyone becomes gun-shy. I don't want to be gun-shy. I want to have a sense of humor.''
At Media Matters, though, nobody is laughing. ''What is being brought to the table here?'' says Karl Frisch, the organization's communications director. "Conversations about candidates' names and cleavage? Or things that people actually care about, like health care and the war in Iraq? Funny or not, when Jeanne Moos does these types of fluff pieces, she is advancing these attacks, doing real damage. This is CNN, not Comedy Central.''
Not that Moos doesn't retain her fans, many of them inside the television news business. A big one: her boss, who brushes off the poison-pen letters. "If Jeanne Moos isn't provoking some response from the audience, she's not doing her job well,'' Klein says. "Nobody's going to rein her in.''
Veteran TV newswoman Terry Anzur, now a Los Angeles-based consultant who coaches reporters and anchors, says every station in America should have a Jeanne Moos on staff.
''The most important things in a TV newscast are the first story and last,'' Anzur says. "The first one decides whether viewers will stick with the newscast or flip the channel. The last one decides if they'll come back again. If you can end with a great writer like Jeanne Moos, who takes a story everybody knows and puts a reverse spin on it, they're always going to come back. She's like dessert, and as long as you're serving a well-balanced meal, there's always room for dessert.''