Midterm Media Meltdown

Midterm Media Meltdown

The election results reflect a complex reality; the press prefers simple narratives.


While many in the mainstream media are occasionally willing to take note of imperfections in America’s democratic practices, virtually none are willing to ask whether the system has simply ceased to function at all. No matter what may be odd or perhaps even unfair in this or that race, goes the argument, the central narrative remains unquestioned: Republican dominance of both houses of Congress represents a rightward turn on the part of the country as a whole—just look at the results.

But if you look more closely at some of the contradictions underlying those results, then you suddenly have what Ricky Ricardo used to call “some ‘splainin’ to do.” How is it that four states that gave victories to Republican Senate candidates also happened to approve ballot initiatives calling for an increase in the minimum wage? And how is it that this election ended in a GOP sweep, even as Americans, according to The Washington Post’s Zachary Goldfarb, routinely told pollsters that they share the Democrats’ views not only on the minimum wage, but on virtually every issue across the board: raising taxes on the wealthy, addressing global warming, repairing (rather than repealing) Obamacare, supporting same-sex marriage, you name it?

One problem with the answers to the above is that they reside in phenomena that are complex and multifaceted, while our media insist on a narrative that is simple and straightforward. To be fair, some of the weaknesses of our system fall into the category of “It was ever thus.” Turnout is always anemic in midterms; the president’s party almost always loses in his sixth year. And while it’s true that Republican state legislatures have shamelessly gerrymandered their election maps to the party’s advantage, the distribution of the population would likely ensure a Republican House majority anyway, given the way that conservatives spread themselves across the rural areas and liberals crowd themselves into the cities.

What these same reports tend to ignore, however—or just as frequently wish away—are the deliberate efforts undertaken by Republicans and their supporters to undermine the democratic process. For instance, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, fully $127 million in dark money—funds spent by groups that do not disclose all of their funders—supported the winning candidates in ten competitive Senate races in 2014, eight of whom were Republicans.

Second, Republicans conducted a surprisingly successful campaign to undermine the right to vote in many states by adopting onerous registration rules designed to disenfranchise the young, minorities, recent citizens and hourly wage workers. While the mainstream media did cover these court cases, they often left out the crucial context necessary for readers to make sense of what was actually taking place.

Take, for instance, Trip Gabriel’s front-page New York Times report on October 8, in which he explains: “The legal fights are over laws that Republican-led state governments passed in recent years to more tightly regulate voting, in the name of preventing fraud. Critics argue that the restrictions are really efforts to discourage African-Americans, students and low-income voters, who tend to favor Democrats.”

“Critics”? How is it that neither Gabriel nor his editors thought to interject into this nonsensical “he said/she said” exchange some actual evidence? Nowhere in this report of more than 1,200 words does the story mention the fact that in none of these states is voter fraud a genuine phenomenon. (If you wanted decent coverage of this issue, you would have had to rely on the “reporting” of Jon Stewart and The Daily Show rather than Gabriel and The New York Times.)

Finally, the 2014 election coverage suffered even more than usual from the mainstream media’s inability to admit the degree to which the Republican Party has been captured by a fringe element with an unshakable commitment to ideological fantasy. As Heather Digby Parton notes in Salon, Iowa’s new senator-elect, Joni Ernst, professes to believe “in the fringe constitutional theory called ‘nullification,’ has told audiences that she’s ready to take up arms against the government, and thinks a 20-year-old U.N. resolution to encourage nations to use fewer resources called Agenda 21 is a threat to the American way of life.” (A spokesperson has denied that Ernst supports nullification.) But as Norm Ornstein reports, The Washington Post almost completely ignored her nutty notions: “A Nexis search shows that the Post has had four references to Ernst and Agenda 21—all by Greg Sargent on his blog from the left, The Plum Line, and none on the news pages of the paper.” Receiving far more coverage was her opponent’s argument with his neighbor over some chickens. The Times, too, made no mention of Agenda 21, but seven of the chickens. (On MSNBC, Luke Russert’s issueless reporting explained Ernst’s appeal with the assertion that she was “trying to ride this popular charisma” into statewide office.)

As Ornstein demonstrates, Ernst was hardly alone in benefitting from her bizarre beliefs being whitewashed for her by the mainstream media. Tom Cotton of Arkansas said in a telephone town hall: “Groups like the Islamic State collaborate with drug cartels in Mexico, who have clearly shown they’re willing to expand outside the drug trade into human trafficking and potentially even terrorism. They could infiltrate our defenseless border and attack us right here in places like Arkansas.” In this case, the Post did run a fact-check column by Glenn Kessler on Cotton’s assertion, but not a single news story. The Times made no mention of it whatever.

The whitewash was especially thick this year because the narrative of the night was that the Tea Party had been defeated and the GOP was back in the hands of its far more responsible “establishment.” In fact, much closer to the truth is that the lunatics are now running the asylum… and, rather frighteningly, both houses of Congress.

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