Nov 1 2011

GOP Reality TV

Running for president--or dancing with the stars?

After kicking off the race for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination by devoting serious time to real estate developer Donald Trump’s publicity-stunt non-campaign (FAIR Blog, 4/26/11), corporate media election coverage had nowhere to go but up—right?

Never underestimate the power of establishment media to make electoral coverage ever more trivial and undemocratic.

Early coverage of this cycle’s Republican candidates looks less like an effort to observe and evaluate potential presidents and more like a semi-scripted reality TV show, where media “judges” pick participants according to entertainment value, express disappointment with the cast and desperately troll for new characters or storylines to liven up the race. As in the past (Extra!, 9-10/03, 7-8/07), media help winnow the candidate pool by their own particular definitions of “top tier candidates”—which have surprisingly little to do with popularity among voters.

Michelle Bachmann--Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/Gage Skidmore

Michelle Bachmann–Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/Gage Skidmore

In June, the quiet race was shaken up by the entry of Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, a Tea Party favorite who was declared a serious candidate after exactly one debate performance (6/13/11). To the New York Times (6/15/11), Bachmann’s triumph was in “avoiding the gaffes that have sometimes emerged from her strident, passionate persona…. Bachmann toned her rhetoric down a bit and offered herself as a competent, knowledgeable insider.”

Mark Halperin (6/16/11), Time magazine’s Beltway scorekeeper, wrote, “With her impressive New Hampshire debate performance, Bachmann has gone from a conservative Sarah Palin-lite curiosity to a potential game changer.” Halperin went on: “Bachmann appeared polished, serene and in command,” her performance “complete with zinging anti-Obama applause lines and sunny-side-up conservatism.”

Elsewhere in Time (6/16/11), columnist Joe Klein observed: “Bachmann is often linked with Palin as a Tea Party pinup, but she is a different breed of cat: She knows her stuff. She actually gives factual, informed answers. She lacks Palin’s bitter, solipsistic edge.”

This would be the same Michele Bachmann who claimed at that very debate that the Affordable Care Act “will kill 800,000 jobs”—a falsehood she attributed to the Congressional Budget Office (Think Progress, 6/14/11)—and whose jobs plan consisted of eliminating the Environmental Protection Agency, which “should really be renamed the Job-Killing Organization of America.”

Soon afterwards, a Newsweek profile (8/7/11) generated a firestorm of criticism on the right over an unflattering, wide-eyed cover photo. The actual story, though, was just one more example of Bachmann praise: Her “simple, black-and-white distillations of complex problems are cheered as refreshing and tough,” while a campaign speech is a “folksy assault on a bloated federal government.” The magazine pointed out:

Just months ago, Bachmann was the butt of jokes on late-night TV for her flawed grasp of U.S. history. But all that changed one night this spring when she took the stage at the first major GOP presidential debate with the middle-aged, drab men running for the nomination, and set herself apart with poise and precision. When others meandered or waffled, she shot back with answers that reduced Washing-ton’s dysfunctional gridlock to understandable soundbites.

Then came the Ames Straw Poll, a mid-August fundraiser for the state Republican Party where a small number of participants are treated to a day of music and food and then told to vote for one of the candidates paying for their entertainment. The ritual produces a smattering of media self-criticism pointing out that the results of such a process are utterly meaningless—which is buried under a mountain of analysis of What the Straw Poll Means.

Bachmann, running in her native state, finished on top—just slightly above media non-entity Rep. Ron Paul (see sidebar)—launching the narrative that Bachmann had cracked the “top tier.” “GOP Now Has ‘Three-Person Race’ After Poll,” said USA Today (8/15/11). “Top Tier Puts GOP Contest in Focus,” declared a Washington Post headline (8/15/11). On Meet the Press, NBC reporter Chuck Todd announced (8/14/11):

Well, it was a shake-up, and we have a top tier. It is Mitt Romney, Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann. There are a couple of other candidates that can make some waves. Ron Paul proved that he can do that; he’s going to be a nuisance to the field.

No sooner had Bachmann been crowned a contender than the media breathlessly latched onto a new rising star, Texas Gov. Rick Perry—who entered the race the day of the Iowa event. The new narrative was perhaps best captured by a Time magazine profile (9/26/11):

When you look at Perry, it’s easy to picture him in an old Western. His late arrival in the primary field in August certainly felt like that moment when the big stranger steps through the swinging saloon doors and all heads pivot and the plinky-plunk piano dies away.
Rick Perry--Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/eschipul

Rick Perry–Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/eschipul

Time enthused that “Perry doesn’t mind kicking over idols in the high church of conventional wisdom.” The idol in question would be Social Security, which Perry derided as a “monstrous lie” and a “Ponzi scheme.” That rhetoric—inaccurate and exaggerated every which way—was a virtue:

Social Security is called the third rail of American politics, which is, of course, a reference to the electrified portion of a subway track. Touch it and you die. But there aren’t any subways where Rick Perry comes from.

Perry’s wild attacks on Social Security were treated like serious policy criticism in much of the media. After his first debate, NBC Nightly News’ Andrea Mitchell (9/8/11) said: “Perry proved he could throw a punch and take one. And he was unapologetic about attacking Social Security as a monstrous lie.”

On MSNBC, Time editor Rick Stengel explained (9/15/11): “I also think he’s on to something, I mean even with Social Security, right? I mean, you know—do Americans really realize that there’s no such thing as the Social Security trust fund?” And Washington Post liberal Ruth Marcus (9/9/11) wrote: “On the substance, Perry’s point about Social Security-as-Ponzi scheme has some grounding in reality.” (None of this is true, of course, but treating the country’s main retirement program as an unsustainable con game is one of corporate media’s favorite deceptions—Extra!, 10/10.)

When not straining to demonstrate that Perry was right, some media were declaring that the facts did not matter. A Washington Post story (9/18/11) about Perry and Mitt Romney argued that for the candidates, Social Security was

serving as a proxy for the narrative each is trying to establish about himself.For Perry, standing by his brash statements on Social Security—he has called it a “Ponzi scheme” and a “monstrous lie”—presents a chance to show that he’s a straight-shooter unafraid to confront the nation’s toughest challenges.

This wasn’t the only issue where the press seemed to be bending over backwards to amplify Perry’s campaign themes instead of interrogating them. Perry’s campaign has been premised largely on the economic record in his home state—the Texas “jobs miracle” that, as Perry announced anywhere and everywhere, meant that about 40 percent of the jobs created in the United States in the last two years were created in Texas. Given Texas’ large population and heavy influx of immigrants, that number is not as impressive as it might seem.

But don’t tell that to the corporate media. As Andrea Mitchell announced on NBC Nightly News (8/16/11):

Perry’s Texas swagger is his calling card, bred of a hardscrabble boyhood on the family farm and Aggie roots at Texas A&M. Perry’s chief claim to challenging President Obama is the Texas jobs record. Perry says his state produced 40 percent of all the jobs created across America in the last two years, with an unemployment rate at 8.2 percent, well below the national average.

The national unemployment rate was, at that point, about 9 percent—so Texas was not “well below.” In fact, Texas was about in the middle of the pack in joblessness when compared with other states.

But many in the media were as enthusiastic about the Texas miracle as Rick Perry. A front-page article in USA Today (9/19/11) by Susan Page touted the fact that Perry is “not worried” about being scrutinized, because job creation is the “one issue [that] really matters to Americans in this election.” And, according to Page, Perry “can cite job-creation statistics in Texas that are the envy of the nation’s other 49 governors.” It’s hard to imagine governors in the 26 states with lower unemployment rates would really want to switch places with Rick Perry.

As Perry rose, Bachmann fell. Some media accounts had to make this sound as if it were simply a fact of life they were observing. As the Washington Post described the candidates’ debate (9/8/11):

Meanwhile, any momentum that Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.), who won the Iowa straw poll in August, may have had from that victory has been extinguished by Perry.The debates have been a forum in which Bachmann has shone, but she was sidelined on Wednesday night.She was not asked a question until 14 minutes into the debate, and during an exchange on healthcare, she shouted for a chance to speak—only to be told that it was [Gov. Jon] Huntsman’s turn.

This should serve as a reminder that “momentum” in electoral politics is basically just how much attention the press decides to grant a given candidate. Then when the media want to pay less attention to your candidacy, they can observe that they had no choice—you lost your “momentum.”

Indeed, as the debates continued and Perry’s apparent weaknesses were exposed, the media turned a hopeful eye towards new contestants. There was chatter, once again, about Sarah Palin—Time’s Mark Halperin (9/26/11) wrote hopefully about a Palin run, since she “remains more interesting to listen to than any other candidate” and has a “pox-on-both-parties, anti-Establishment message.” But she took a back seat to another name.

“Rick Perry on the ropes,” declared ABC host Christiane Amanpour (This Week, 9/25/11). “Can the new frontrunner come back from a shaky debate performance? Or is Chris Christie waiting in the wings to steal his thunder?”

The next day (9/26/11), the New York Times boasted a headline: “After Perry’s Debate Showing, Eyes Turn Toward Christie.” The Washington Post (9/26/11) reported:

Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s recent stumbles—his rambling attempt at last week’s GOP presidential debate to attack former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s flip-flopping is a prime example—have renewed speculation that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie might rethink his “no go” decision on the 2012 race.

The media storm failed to convince Christie to actually become a candidate, leaving campaign reporters with seemingly little to do. Except, perhaps, to cover the actual candidates who are running in what looks to be a massively important election.