The Mainstream Media's Trivial Pursuit of Campaign 2012
Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, greets supporters at his caucus night rally in Des Moines, Iowa, Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2012. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
Pity the poor American campaign journalist. The 2012 election, says Politico’s Dylan Byers, quoting The New York Times Magazine’s Mark Leibovich, has been characterized by a “devastating ‘joylessness.’” “Until the candidates restore joy, it’s impossible for us to be joyful,” adds NBC News senior White House correspondent Chuck Todd. “If these candidates were comfortable, the campaign might be joyful to cover.”
Heart-rending as these laments may be, they strike one as decidedly misplaced with regard to the actual victims of this campaign. After all, the reporters are being paid pretty well for their self-pity parties, to say nothing of the meals, mini-bar drinks and soft-core porn they can usually expense to their employers. For the consumers of American journalism, a k a “voters,” however, this campaign has not merely been joyless; it’s been all but substanceless—when it hasn’t been deliberately deceptive. For despite the participation of tens of thousands of journalists spending tens of millions of dollars using a dizzying array of communications technology devoted to covering the campaign, the system ultimately fails to justify itself in its most essential purpose: to ensure accountability for citizens and their leaders and to offer the kind of information necessary to help voters make an educated choice for the future of their country.
The problems are myriad and often difficult to disentangle, but two of them are most salient. First is the role that the relentless focus on campaign trivia plays in the coverage. Save fundraising, which is usually done privately, nothing much happens for most of the time that reporters are assigned to cover campaigns. The result is that most end up filing stories so trivial and ultimately meaningless it’s hard to imagine that even their authors could today defend their relevance or significance. Oftentimes, such stories are justified as investigations into “character” and resemble entertainment reporting. Later on in the process, the reporters tend to tie themselves to horse race coverage and focus alternately on the internal processes of the campaigns or the temporary state of the polls, calling to mind the sports pages. Then again, quite a few campaign stories are simply stupid and unrelated to almost anything.
The second, and related, dynamic involves the inability of mainstream reporters to admit to, and account for, the radicalization of the Republican Party—whether it involves the candidates’ commitment to extremist ideology, or their refusal to allow observable reality to compete with their economic theories, their scientific ignorance, or their loyalty to billionaire funders like the Koch brothers and Sheldon Adelson. So intense is journalists’ belief that they must find a way to blame “both sides” for whatever one candidate happens to say or do—whether it’s telling an outright lie, making a 180-degree change in position, or refusing to accept a simple economic or scientific fact—that the Republicans have largely been given a pass for the consequences of their Tea Party takeover. Writing to New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan, reader Richard Joffe described the situation with admirable acuity:
According to the media, both sides are equally to blame for refusing to make compromises, both sides are equally to blame for threatening political violence, and both sides are equally to blame for lying…. Although the Republican Party has grown increasingly indifferent to speaking truthfully, it has paid no price, just as it has paid no price for the violence of its language, and its refusal to compromise, because regarding each of these tendencies, the media continues to blame both parties equally.
This tendency not only creates a false “center” between the two parties—one in which ideologically driven, reality-denying and frequently paranoid conspiracy theories, together with outright, deliberate lies, are treated as perfectly legitimate positions from which members of the punditocracy feel compelled to demand “bipartisan” compromise from Obama and the Democrats. It also pretends that the ultimate contest will be fought out between two relatively moderate individuals, one who governs from center-left and one who can be expected to do so from center-right, as if President Romney will somehow not be answerable to the radicalized party he represents.
First, the trivia. Remember the George Pataki presidential candidacy? Neither does anyone else outside the campaign coverage bubble. A guy without much to do since he announced that he would not seek re-election as governor of New York six years ago, Pataki has been entirely out of step with his party on pretty much every significant issue. He had no visible means of political support, fundraising or organization, and yet he was able to generate story after story about his prospective presidential campaign. How many stories? Heck if I know, but when I Googled the words “Pataki, Republican nomination, president” I got, I kid you not, more than 400,000 results.
What about the John Bolton candidacy? Remember that one, wherein the famously undiplomatic diplomat with the walrus mustache—who has never run for anything, anywhere, and can be found most weeks writing op-eds on right-wing websites demanding that the United States bomb someone, somewhere—was going to be an important factor in the race? It never happened, of course, but even so, Bolton’s name garners 517,000 results when combined with the words “Republican nomination, president.”
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Politico has come to dominate the field in terms of trivial, issueless political reporting. That publication’s up-to-the-millisecond coverage (originally pioneered by then ABC’s and now Time’s star reporter, Mark Halperin) pays next to no attention to the implications of anything it reports on—up to and including war—save in the narrow political terms of how it will affect who’s up and who’s down. Whether in Michael Allen’s not-to-be-missed “Playbook,” which sets the agenda for much of the media each morning, or in the reports that follow later in the day, Politico consistently offers a kind of legitimacy to story lines that might otherwise not be judged sufficiently serious or important to make it into mainstream reporting. And it almost always does so without offering any judgment about whether what its sources are saying has any validity beyond the confines of the tiny coterie of political insiders at whom the publication is aimed.
This combination of thoughtlessness and obsessiveness helps explain reporters’ semi-insane focus on the role of Donald Trump in the 2012 campaign. The degree to which the political press, led by Politico, has proved willing to play Boswell to the megalomaniacal vulgarian has been truly mind-boggling, whether it was Trump’s masturbatory musings about toying with a third-party candidacy or his bait-and-switch (and ultimately catastrophic) endorsement of the Romney candidacy in the end.
This mindlessness was not limited to the insider media. Remember Condoleezza Rice’s vice presidential candidacy? It was based on nothing more than an anonymous item appearing on the Drudge Report, transparently designed to change the subject from Romney’s refusal to divulge decades of his tax returns. Once again, it was an obvious nonstory from the start: Rice has never run for office, disagrees fundamentally with her party on any number of nonnegotiable issues, including reproductive choice, and insisted that she has no interest in the job under any circumstance whatsoever. And yet, merely because of a late, unsourced Thursday-afternoon Drudge dump, my Google search for the terms “Rice, vice president, Romney” yielded more than 5 million results. (This was before Rice’s appearance at an event with Paul Ryan drove that figure up to 91.5 million.) This phony-baloney media bait was covered in all the major newspapers and network news programs, garnering responses from Sarah Palin, Peggy Noonan, Paul Ryan, etc. Fox News wasted time and money on a poll that found Rice to be “the top choice for Mitt Romney’s vice presidential running mate among both American voters overall as well as among Republicans,” shortly before the story died of its own stupidity.
This orgy of mindlessness was possible only because of the media’s refusal to take the Republican radicalization seriously. This refusal has, in turn, invited a virtual tsunami of informational and ideological sewage to swamp America’s political ecosystem for much of the election season, with barely a hint of truth-telling to disinfect it. Recall that in August of 2011, a reported 800 journalists descended on the meaningless Ames, Iowa, straw poll, the vast majority proving willing to pretend that the mentally disturbed Michele Bachmann might one day be president of the United States. During Bachmann’s moment in the sun, she was able to claim that the founding fathers ended slavery, that the Revolutionary War began in New Hampshire, and that the HPV vaccine causes mental retardation. From Bachmann to Rick Perry to Herman Cain to Newt Gingrich to Rick Santorum, with each new Republican front-runner, the crazy train rolled on unimpeded by much in the way of reality checks from those charged with ensuring the honesty and integrity of America’s political debate.
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During this campaign season, “news” outlets such as Fox, the Wall Street Journal editorial page, the Daily Caller, and other sources of conservative misinformation and propaganda ramped up their efforts to abuse the truth in support of their political and economic interests—in Fox News’s case, by booking guests who regularly lie about the president, and by hiring Republican operatives and fundraisers like Karl Rove and Dick Morris as “analysts” without disclosing their true professional identities. Perhaps the network’s most effective effort came during its infamously deceptive editing of the videotape in which Barack Obama proclaimed, “You didn’t build that.” Viewed in context, Obama was clearly referring to the infrastructural investments that underlie successful commerce and economic growth. This is hardly a remarkable view, or even one that anyone could challenge on its merits: just try opening a Walmart, for instance, without a road to get to it. And yet today my Google search of the phrase turns up about 19 million hits. Owing to the willingness of so many media organizations to cave in to pressure from the right to invite its ideological foot soldiers into their precincts, this statement was perverted in pretty much every mainstream outlet, even those whose fact-checkers objected to its use. Among the many possible examples, there’s The Washington Post’s right-wing attack dog, Jennifer Rubin, insisting that Obama “revealed a level of resentment toward the private sector that was startling, even to his critics.” Meanwhile the paper’s alleged “fact-checker,” Glenn Kessler, termed Obama’s statement a “gaffe” (while simultaneously admitting that what he had said was perfectly reasonable in context).
Even within the uppermost reaches of the mainstream media, reporters demonstrated a lack of interest in questions of governance in favor of those devoted to personality and strategy. When Mitt Romney appeared on Face the Nation in June, CBS’s Bob Schieffer thought it relevant to ask, “So I hear you’ve got an Olympic athlete in the family”—which is an awfully odd way to describe the owner of a million-dollar horse, as Romney’s wife Ann is, but it gave the candidate an opportunity to talk about what a lovely woman he’s married to. On Meet the Press, NBC’s David Gregory failed, during pretty much his entire interview, to pin the candidate down on a single issue of substance, instead peppering him with questions like: “As a candidate now, when was the last time you really got to spend some—some quality time with somebody who is out of work, and what did you get from them?” And when Romney appeared on ABC’s This Week with George Stephanopoulos, the host used his valuable time to inquire why, in Romney’s view, Barack Obama was the choice of more Americans as a potential dinner companion. Romney manfully admitted that, yes, he really did enjoy dinner with kids and grandkids. Stephanopoulos followed up with this piercing inquiry: “Let’s talk about the debates. They’re coming up, first one on October third. Big moment, right? Make or break?”
Indeed, it was just this kind of superficial focus on the horse race/personality-driven aspect of Romney’s candidacy, together with a willingness to ignore almost every other relevant factor, that created the opening for Romney to pivot from liberal Republican to far-right Tea Party wannabe and (finally) at least part of the way back again during his first debate with Obama, without any sense of accountability for anything he has said or done previously. A man with no past and no party in a contest where no facts exist is nothing more than a sitcom. Not even a reality show—a sitcom in which the main characters can write their own surprise endings and the press, like so many teenage television fans, will go along for the good of the story. And because Romney gave what pundits universally agreed was a “good performance” in that debate, the entire nature of the presidential race was pronounced changed. Romney’s unchallenged lies during the first and potentially pivotal debate were described in my last column [see “All the (Political) World’s a Stage,” November 5]. Whether those misstatements concerned his previous experience as Massachusetts governor, the positions he’d taken during the course of the campaign, or the assessments of outside experts regarding his arguments, Romney received virtually no pushback from either the somnolent moderator, PBS’s Jim Lehrer, or the mainstream media in the post-debate analysis.
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Take a look at Lehrer’s allegedly nonpartisan, nonideological questioning. The topics ranged exclusively from “jobs” and “taxes” to the federal deficit and entitlements, with a nod toward “healthcare,” “regulation,” “the role of government” and, finally, “education.” At no point did the moderator challenge Romney on any of the specifics in his answers, regardless of whether they proved consistent with the public record of Romney’s career, the plans put forth by his campaign or the famous economic plan of his vice presidential nominee, Paul Ryan, or reality as generally understood outside the confines of Republican ideology. The only point in which Lehrer tried to demand any specifics from Romney regarded the candidate’s position on the report of the Simpson-Bowles commission, which called for steep reductions in the deficit by means of a roughly 2:1 ratio of spending cuts to revenue increases. But the commission never presented its final report, mainly because its own members (including Paul Ryan) refused to approve it. Romney’s position: “The president should have grabbed” it, but he personally opposed it.
During the vice presidential debate between Ryan and Joe Biden, moderator Martha Raddatz of ABC News played a much more energetic role than Lehrer had, but in doing so reflected the same reliance on issues of largely insider concern and right-wing bent. During the foreign policy portion of the debate, she focused exclusively on the Middle East, ignoring the rest of the world, as well as on issues unrelated to military security. When asking Ryan about Romney’s criticism of alleged “apologies” for US foreign policy, Raddatz allowed him to insist “that we should not be apologizing for standing up for our values,” without bothering to ask when, in fact, anyone in the Obama administration—much less the president himself—had ever done so. (This phony line of attack has been one of the most prominent of the uncorrected lies to pass through the balance of the mainstream media’s reporting without comment or correction.) Regarding Iran, Raddatz based one of her questions on Bibi Netanyahu’s cartoon presentation of Iran’s alleged nuclear progress and demanded to know how each ticket would “solve this” within two months—as if that were the genuine, agreed-upon timeline for Iran’s being able to create a bomb. (It isn’t; in fact, it’s not even close.)
Raddatz then pivoted to the economy, which she also, rather bizarrely, addressed as a “national security issue.” She demanded to know when the Obama administration would make good on its commitment to bring unemployment “below 6 percent,” without allowing for the fact that the 2008–09 economic crisis turned out to be far more serious than anyone understood when the Obama administration first posited that as a four-year goal. As Lehrer had with Romney, Raddatz didn’t try to correct any of the (necessarily) fantastical statements Ryan made to support his and Romney’s economic assumptions. But she did adopt a right-wing Republican talking point (and a demonstrably false one, at that) when, in raising the issue of entitlements, she asserted that “both Medicare and Social Security are going broke.”
In yet another intervention that reflected Republican attacks on the administration, Raddatz countered Vice President Biden’s factual assertion that America’s top military leaders, including particularly the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had signed on to the decision to leave Afghanistan by 2014 with the argument that the “military follows orders. They—I mean, there—trust me. There are people who were concerned about pulling out on the fighting season.” The claim was an empty one, since there are always people “concerned” about anything and everything a president does. If Raddatz had evidence of high-level military dissatisfaction with the departure, she declined to mention it. Finally, while Raddatz won kudos from her colleagues for her tough-minded questioning relative to Lehrer’s narcoleptic performance, even this hard-nosed, national-security-obsessed moderator couldn’t resist the temptation to descend into the kind of maudlin meaninglessness that characterizes so much of the media’s coverage. Her final question (“If you are elected, what could you both give to this country as a man, as a human being, that no one else could?”) would have made Oprah proud.
We got this kind of syrupy shmaltz in lieu of any discussion of the scope of planned Republican cuts under the Ryan budget—cuts that Thomas Edsall, writing on the New York Times’s campaign blog, called “stunning in their breadth”—to the basic functions of government. How can it be that neither moderator thought it worthwhile to ask about housing in the midst of a horrific foreclosure crisis? And what, for goodness’ sake, about the future of the American judiciary, especially when you consider that, owing to the advanced age of several Supreme Court members, as many as four new justices may be appointed by the next president—and this at a time when, as the Associated Press has noted, “decisions on many of the hot-button issues in recent years have been by 5-4 votes,” including “upholding Obama’s health care overhaul, favoring gun rights, limiting abortion, striking down campaign finance laws, allowing consideration of race in higher education and erecting barriers to class-action lawsuits.” This lack of focus on the Supreme Court is true not just in terms of the debate questions, of course. According to a Media Matters study, the issue received less than a minute of coverage on CBS, NBC, ABC and CNN combined between April 10, the day Romney secured the nomination, and September 24, when the study was completed.
Or what about climate change? Virtually the only time this issue has inspired any debate was when pundits argued over the effectiveness of Romney’s foolish and nonsensical convention-speech quip: “President Obama promised to begin to slow the rise of the oceans and to heal the planet. My promise is to help you and your family.” As Climate Progress blogger Joe Romm observed on Current TV in mid-October, “It would be great if a member of the media actually asked even one question on what most of us think is the story of the century, which is that we are in the process of ruining this livable climate of ours. And we can still solve the problem if we act now. But, obviously, if no one talks about it, it’s very hard to solve the problem.”
And for all the talk of the so-called 47 percent, try to find any decent discussion of the federal government’s role in reducing poverty during the next four years. Fairness and Accuracy in Media examined 10,489 campaign stories to find out how many considered the problem of poverty in any remotely substantive fashion. All told, PBS ran a single piece. The New York Times included substantive information about poverty in 0.2 percent of its election stories. ABC World News, NBC Nightly News, NPR’s All Things Considered and Newsweek, added together, ran none at all. And this at a moment when fully 16.4 percent of American families are experiencing “low food security,” according to the Agriculture Department, and 46 million are officially poor.
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Should Mitt Romney become America’s next president, liberals and centrists will no doubt find many potential culprits on whom to hang responsibility. But one point appears inarguable: a vigorous, serious and unstinting focus on Romney and the Republicans’ plans for the country, coupled with sharp and sustained analysis of the disjunction between their actual views and the ones they profess for the purpose of winning elections, would demonstrate that they are well outside the consensus of American voters. Yet because the mainstream media cannot be depended on to provide even the rudiments of an accurate portrayal of the two parties’ positions on the major questions facing the nation, the United States now stands on the brink of four years of catastrophic misrule.
Tellingly, the only time any of the issues discussed above were raised during the debates so far came during the second presidential debate, when “real people” got a chance to ask the questions. Even then, the most controversial moment of the evening came when moderator Candy Crowley corrected Romney on a matter of undeniable fact: that Barack Obama had used the term “act of terror” in his Rose Garden address on the day following the assault on the American consulate in Benghazi. Conservatives squealed like a pen full of stuck pigs over this allegedly unfair intervention. Daily Caller editor Tucker Carlson compared Crowley, somehow, to Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth, adding that what she had done was “fundamentally dishonest” and “exactly what moderators are not supposed to do.” On Fox Business News, contributor Doug Schoen, allegedly an “influential Democratic campaign consultant,” called it “the single most outrageous thing I’ve seen in thirty-odd years of watching presidential debates.” The station even ran a graphic of Crowley in flames.
Hysteria aside, the whiners had a point. Given all the shameful reporting in the 2012 election, the last thing any Republican thought Romney would have to worry about was being faced with the truth when making one of his countless false and fantastical statements during a presidential debate. But there it was, alas; almost certainly too late to matter.
In Eric Alterman’s most recent The Liberal Media column he describes how the first presidential debate, the media follow-up focused almost exclusively on its theatrics and the implications for the “horse race.”