By Rich Noyes
Fox News and other media outlets have projected that President Obama has been reelected to a second term. If, in celebrating his victory Obama wanted to give credit where credit is due, he might want to think about calling some of America’s top journalists, since their favorable approach almost certainly made the difference between victory and defeat.
Reviewing the 2012 presidential campaign, here are five ways the media elite tipped the public relations scales in favor of the liberal Obama and against the conservative challenger Mitt Romney:
1. The Media’s Biased Gaffe Patrol Hammered Romney: The media unfairly jumped on inconsequential mistakes – or even invented controversies – from Romney and hyped them in to multi-day media “earthquakes.” Case in point: the GOP candidate’s trip to Europe and Israel in late July. A Media Research Center analysis of all 21 ABC, CBS and NBC evening news stories about Romney’s trip found that virtually all of them (18, or 86%) emphasized “diplomatic blunders,” “gaffes” or “missteps.”
Conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer blasted the news coverage in an August 2 column, calling the trip “a major substantive success” that was wrapped “in a media narrative of surpassing triviality.”
Similarly, when the left-wing Mother Jones magazine in September put out a secretly-recorded video of Romney talking to donors about the 47% of Americans who don’t pay income taxes, the networks hyped it like a sensational sex scandal. Over three days, the broadcast network morning and evening shows churned out 42 stories on the tape, nearly 90 minutes of coverage. The tone was hyperbolic; ABC’s “Good Morning America” called it a “bombshell rocking the Mitt Romney campaign,” while ABC “World News” anchor Diane Sawyer declared it a “political earthquake.”
None of Obama’s gaffes garnered that level of coverage. After the president in a June 8 press conference declared that “the private sector is doing fine,” the ABC, CBS and NBC evening newscasts gave it just one night’s coverage, then basically dropped the story – nothing further on ABC’s “World News” or the “CBS Evening News” in the weeks that followed, and just two passing references on the “NBC Nightly News.”
And, when Obama infamously declared, “You didn’t build that,” ABC, CBS, NBC didn’t report the politically damaging remark for four days – and then only after Romney made it the centerpiece of a campaign speech.
2. Pounding Romney With Partisan Fact Checking: There’s nothing wrong with holding politicians accountable for the honesty of their TV ads and stump speeches, but this year the self-appointed media fact-checkers attacked Republicans as liars for statements that were accurate.
For example, a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter writing for PolitiFact branded VP candidate Paul Ryan’s convention speech anecdote about the closing of the General Motors plant in his hometown as “false,” even though Ryan was correct in all of his details. The slanted review became TV reporters’ talking points; the next day on NBC, correspondent Chuck Todd grumped that while what Ryan said “was technically factual, by what he left out, [he] actually distorted the actual truth.” Matt Lauer greeted Ryan the following week in an interview on Today: “There are some people who are claiming that you played a little fast and loose with the truth….”
The same thing happened when Mitt Romney talked about Obama’s “apology tour” during the final presidential debate. While in 2009 Obama had, in fact, criticized the United States as “arrogant,” “derisive” and having “too often… set [our] principles aside,” the networks said to call it an “apology tour” was “false” because, as CNN’s John Berman tenuously insisted, “even if he was critical of past U.S. foreign policy, he issued no apologies.”
Writing in the New York Times August 31, correspondent Jackie Calmes scolded that “the number of falsehoods and misleading statements from the Romney campaign coming in for independent criticism has reached a level not typically seen.” That’s not true, either; Romney’s team was, at worst, guilty of highlighting those facts that best illustrated their points (something done by all politicians), and the Obama campaign certainly put out their share of tawdry TV ads and dubious campaign claims.
But with “truth cops” who mainly policed just the GOP side of the street, the media used “fact-checking” as another club to tilt the playing field in favor of the Democrats.
3. Those Biased Debate Moderators: Upset liberals scorned PBS’s Jim Lehrer for taking a hands-off approach in the first debate on October 3, with MSNBC analyst Howard Fineman slamming him as “practically useless” for not jumping into the debate on behalf of President Obama.
Such criticism may have encouraged the activist approach taken by ABC’s Martha Raddatz in the vice presidential debate October 11, and by CNN’s Candy Crowley in the October 16 town hall debate, as both of those journalists repeatedly interrupted the Republican candidate and larded the discussion with a predominantly liberal agenda.
Crowley earns extra demerits for taking the media’s penchant for faulty fact-checking to new heights when she jumped into the October 16 town hall-style debate to validate President Obama’s claim that he called the attack in Benghazi, Libya, “an act of terror” the very next morning. Crowley endorsed Obama’s story, telling Romney: “He did, in fact, sir, call it an act of terror.”
Not according to the transcript, which had Obama only speaking generically about how “no acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this nation,” not assigning that label to the violence in Benghazi.
Wrong though she was, Crowley became a heroine to many in the liberal media; ABC’s Matt Dowd, for example, cheered: “What Candy Crowley did, I actually thought, was laudable….I hope we get to do more of that in this discourse.”
Moderators are supposed to ensure both sides get a fair hearing, not pick sides. By leaping into the fray, Candy Crowley epitomized the media’s itch to tilt the scales this year – again, in Obama’s favor.
4. The Benghazi Blackout: Right after the September 11 attack in Libya, the networks proclaimed that the events would bolster President Obama – “reminding voters of his power as commander-in-chief,” as NBC’s Peter Alexander stated on the September 14 edition of “Today.” But as a cascade of leaked information erased the portrait of Obama as a heroic commander, the broadcast networks shunted the Benghazi story to the sidelines.
News broke online in late September, for example, that Team Obama knew within 24 hours that the attack was likely the result of terrorism. That starkly contradicted claims from White House press secretary Jay Carney, U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, and President Obama himself that the attack was a “spontaneous” reaction to an anti-Muslim video posted on YouTube. Yet, ABC took nearly two days to bring this story to viewers, while CBS and NBC held off for three days.
This was, shamefully, the broadcast networks’ pattern in October: New developments exposing the administration’s failure to provide adequate security, or contradictions in their public statements, were either given stingy coverage or buried completely. The puzzle pieces revealed a disturbing failure of Obama’s national security apparatus, but the networks flitted in and out of the story, never giving it any traction.
Instead of an “October Surprise,” the networks engineered an “October Suppression” – keeping a lid on the boiling Benghazi story until Election Day. Who knows how voters might have reacted if the media had covered this story as tenaciously as they did Romney’s “47% gaffe”?
5. Burying the Bad Economy: Pundits agreed that Obama’s weakness was the failure of the US economy to revive after his expensive stimulus and four years of $1 trillion deficits. But the major networks failed to offer the sustained, aggressive coverage of the economy that incumbent Republican President George H.W. Bush faced in 1992, or even that George W. Bush faced in 2004 – both years when the national economy was in better shape than it is now.
According to a study conducted that year by the Center for Media and Public Affairs, from January through September of 1992, the networks ran a whopping 1,289 stories on the economy, 88% of which painted it in a dismal, negative light. That fall, the unemployment rate was 7.6%, lower than today’s 7.9%, and economic growth in the third quarter was 2.7%, better than today’s 2.0%. Yet the media coverage hammered the idea of a terrible economy, and Bush lost re-election.
In 2004, the economy under George W. Bush was far better than it is today – higher growth, lower unemployment, smaller deficits and cheaper gasoline – yet network coverage that year was twice as hostile to Bush than it was towards Obama this year, according to a study by the Media Research Center’s Business and Media Institute.
When Republican presidents have faced reelection, network reporters made sure to spotlight economic “victims” – the homeless man, the woman without health insurance, the unemployed worker, the senior citizen who had to choose between medicine and food. But this year, with an economy as bad as any since the Great Depression, those sympathetic anecdotes have vanished from the airwaves – a huge favor to Obama and the Democrats.
Given Obama’s record, the Romney campaign could have overcome much of this media favoritism and still prevailed – indeed, they almost did. But taken together, these five trends took the media’s historical bias to new levels this year, and saved Obama’s presidency in the process.
Rich Noyes is research director for the Media Research Center.
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