Tropes, tricks and tics of campaign journalism
Every four years, U.S. media spend untold time and energy covering the presidential campaign. And every election cycle there are certain media themes that keep coming back. Extra! has compiled a guide to the most popular recurring tropes, as well as some new additions to keep an eye on in 2012.
In 2008, journalists gave us McCain the maverick vs. Obama the snob (Extra!, 5–6/08, 7–8/08): easily digestible caricatures that the candidates’ every action could be forced into. It didn’t matter that McCain toed the party line more than your average Republican, or that Obama’s middle-class, community activist background seemed much less suited to the “snob” label than your typical millionaire senator.
Caricatures tend to reveal more about how journalists feel about candidates than about the candidates themselves. Today, while journalists seem almost bored with Obama the aloof socialist and Romney the stiff-but-competent businessman, they’ve been unable to contain their enthusiasm for Paul Ryan the budget wonk—a media darling long before his ascension to the GOP ticket (Extra!, 6/11).
Indeed, if you learned anything about Paul Ryan during his first few weeks in the campaign spotlight (Media Advisory, 8/14/12), it’s that the Republican vice presidential pick knows his numbers. A Washington Post profile by Michael Leahy (8/20/12) credited him with “a staffer’s zeal for voracious research, for charts and PowerPoint presentations, and a facility for budget numbers that he recites with a savant’s glee,” as well as “a professorial absorption with fiscal issues.”
In the New York Times, Michael Barbaro (8/19/12) called Ryan “a clean-cut numbers guy who favored the cold-eyed truths of actuarial tables over ideology for its own sake,” describing a meeting between him and Romney as “a pair of policy mavens out-geeking each other over esoterica.” Another Times article by Annie Lowrey (8/18/12) got the scoop on Ryan’s depth from presumably knowledgeable sources: “The reputation for wonkiness is merited, people close to Mr. Ryan said. He goes home with a stack of white papers. He calls economists when he has questions about their budget projections or ideas.”
Time magazine (8/27/12) called Ryan “as deep as Palin was shallow,” with “an almost unsettling fluency in the fine print of massive budget documents.” In fact, the magazine’s Michael Crowley claimed, “Ryan is to budget math what Carl Sagan was to the science of the cosmos.”
What profiles of this “everyman with extraordinary charm” (Washington Post, 8/12/12) usually omit is any examination of the financial plan that cements his reputation—and no wonder. As economist Paul Krugman (New York Times, 8/20/12) writes:
Ryanomics is and always has been a con game…. What Mr. Ryan actually offers…are specific proposals that would sharply increase the deficit, plus an assertion that he has secret tax and spending plans that he refuses to share with us, but which will turn his overall plan into deficit reduction.
Krugman rightly observed: “Mr. Ryan’s true constituency is the commentariat.” When he chose Ryan as his running mate, Romney was well aware that once journalists have latched onto a caricature of a candidate, it’s very hard to make them let go—regardless of the facts.
Media that spent the last two years praising Ryan’s intellect had a hard time squaring their version of him with the vice presidential candidate whose high-profile convention speech was notable for several distortions of fact (Talking Points Memo, 8/30/12). What could journalists do? NBC’s Tom Brokaw (9/2/12) preferred to call them “overreaches,” while the New York Times’ Alessandra Stanley (8/31/12) harshly criticized liberal-leaning MSNBC for referring to Ryan’s lies as “lies.” The preferable approach, she argued, was to say that Ryan “finessed the facts.”
More often, journalists’ aversion to calling a lie a lie means dubious campaign claims simply go unquestioned. That business regulations kill jobs, for example, has been a popular theme for Republican campaigners since Barack Obama moved into the White House in 2009. Looking at four leading press outlets from 1984 to 2011, academics Peter Dreier and Christopher Martin (“‘Job Killers’ in the News,” 6/12) found that more than half of the appearances of the “job killer” trope occurred during the first three years of the Obama presidency.
The claim is actually false. An Economic Policy Institute study (4/12/11) found regulations responsible for less than 1 percent of layoffs since 2007. At the same time, many regulations have higher economic benefits than costs, which means more money for jobs.
But more than 90 percent of media references to the “job killer” theme made no attempt to verify its accuracy. As Dreier and Martin concluded: “The news media’s chronic lack of factchecking has only encouraged ramped-up use of the ‘job killer’ allegation as a political strategy against the Democrats in recent years.”
The failure to factcheck has been ubiquitous this election cycle. When the Romney campaign claimed the Obama White House was getting rid of the work requirements in the 1996 welfare law (“They just send you the welfare check,” a TV commercial put it), independent fact-checking operations weighed in to explain that this was a gross distortion. The charge earned a “Pants on Fire” from PolitiFact (8/7/12), which pointed out that the Obama administration was granting waivers to states seeking different ways to implement work requirements—not eliminating them. What’s more, Romney himself supported an even broader waiver program as governor in 2005 (Huffington Post, 7/19/12).
But instead of setting viewers straight, the PBS NewsHour (8/9/12) provided a debate between one expert, Georgetown’s Peter Edelman, who accurately pointed out that work requirements were not being loosened, and Robert Rector of the right-wing Heritage Foundation, who said Romney’s false claims were true. Host Judy Woodruff did nothing to clear things up. She had opened the segment by noting that poverty is rarely discussed on the national stage, which is true (Extra!, 9/12)—but the way PBS discussed it is hardly better than silence.
Sometimes when news outlets do try to factcheck, it’s just as bad. An AP report card on Bill Clinton’s DNC speech strained to find claims that could be cast as dishonest, finally throwing a Hail Mary by countering Clinton’s accurate quote of a Romney pollster, “We’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by factcheckers,” with this:
THE FACTS: Clinton, who famously finger-wagged a denial on national television about his sexual relationship with intern Monica Lewinsky and was subsequently impeached in the House on a perjury charge, has had his own uncomfortable moments over telling the truth.
If that’s the standard, then nothing that Clinton said in his speech—or ever, really—could possibly be believed. So what’s the point?
CNN’s website provided another factcheck failure, publishing a column (7/16/12) by veteran pundit David Gergen about Obama’s attacks on Romney’s record at Bain Capital, headlined, “Facts Don’t Support Obama’s Charges Against Romney.” But you don’t have to read too far into Gergen’s piece to find out why he shouldn’t have written it:
Let me acknowledge upfront what I have said several times on CNN: I have a past relationship with the top partners at Bain that is both personal and financial. I have worked with them in support of nonprofit organizations such as City Year. I have given a couple of paid speeches for Bain dinners, as I have for many other groups. I was on the board of a for-profit childcare company, Bright Horizons, that was purchased by Bain Capital. It was a transaction with financial benefits for all board members and shareholders, including me.
Gergen’s style of “factchecking” was exactly what one would expect from someone with such deep insider ties:
When the story first broke Thursday in the Boston Globe suggesting that Romney and Bain had fudged, CNN asked if I would do some reporting. I reached two of the top people whom I know in the company and, on back-ground, they told me the same story that Bain sources told CNN’s John King.
So CNN asked someone who’s financially benefited from his ties to Bain Capital to factcheck Obama’s claims about Bain Capital. In CNN’s upside-down world, apparently, the closer you are to the corporation under attack, the more qualified you are to “report” on the veracity of its claims.
On the rare occasions when what looks like a successful factcheck occurs in corporate media, there’s little chance it won’t be undermined moments later by another journalist. CBS anchor Scott Pelley (8/30/12) questioned Ryan directly on why he blamed Obama for Standard & Poor’s downgrading of U.S. credit when the agency itself had actually cited the Republican Congress; CBS veteran Bob Schieffer, however, followed up by completely ignoring that surprisingly direct factcheck, instead telling viewers that Ryan’s speech “showed that a policy wonk can be a pretty fair attack dog.”
Perhaps the most jarring aspect of media factchecking is that many reporters see it as someone else’s job. “I marked at least seven or eight points I’m sure the factcheckers will have some opportunities to dispute if they want to go forward,” CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer (8/29/12) declared after Ryan’s convention speech—as though it would be inappropriate for a news anchor to separate fact from fiction.
Factcheck fails often bleed into another form of media malpractice: false balance.
“Objective” journalism emerged as newspapers realized that they were alienating potential readers by describing themselves as presenting the news from a particular political perspective. Why be a Whig paper or a Tory paper, in other words, when you could be an independent paper read by both Whigs and Tories? Particularly when your main source of revenues—commercial advertisers—were hoping to sell to Whigs and Tories alike.
In practice, this meant that if those parties were disagreeing about something, you were obliged to report what each was saying without taking sides–even if, as it happened, it seemed like the truth was on one side or the other. Note that not only is this not the same as philosophical objectivity, it’s pretty much the opposite: Journalistic objectivity means that you can’t report what really happened, you can only report what both sides said happened.
You can see how this plays out in coverage of Barack Obama’s most notorious “gaffe.” Obama said in Roanoke, Virginia (7/13/12):
If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business—you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen. The Internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet.
The words that were singled out, of course, were, “If you’ve got a business—you didn’t build that.” Now, if you’ve got rudimentary language comprehension skills, you can see that the word “that” there doesn’t refer to “business”—it refers to “roads and bridges” in the previous sentence.
But the Romney campaign claimed to believe that Obama was telling business-people that they hadn’t built their businesses —turning this misrepresentation into a prominent campaign ad, and even making it the theme of the first night of the Repub-lican convention. And media people routinely refused to call this claim the lie that it was. Here’s Peter Baker in the New York Times (7/19/12):
Suddenly his critics had proof that he does not believe in individual success or the free market. Mitt Romney scrapped much of his stump speech on Wednesday to focus on the line and sent surrogates to reinforce the point. Mr. Obama’s aides said he was taken out of context, that he was referring to the value of public structures like bridges and roads in the nation’s commerce.
Either way, putting aside the predictable partisan crossfire and the inevitable Internetfueled distortions, even in proper context the president’s remarks crystallize a profound disagreement that defines this year’s campaign.
“Either way”—we don’t take sides here between the Whigs and the Tories!
The other way to maintain your “objectivity,” aside from believing both sides, is to paint both sides as equally dishonest. See Washington Post fact-checker Glenn Kessler’s July 2 piece headlined, with quintessential fairness: “On Healthcare Law, Both Candidates Exhibit Selective Reasoning.”
Chicago Tribune blogger Eric Zorn (7/20/12) cited the Romney “you didn’t build that” ad as an example of how campaigns “seize on their opponents’ unfortunate snippets of verbiage and loop them into attack ads.” He equated the Republicans’ misuse of Obama’s quote with Democratic criticism of a Romney statement: “I’m not concerned about the very poor. We have a safety net there.” Zorn explained that Romney “was saying, in an admittedly unartful way, that he has confidence in the social safety net and is focusing his policies on alleviating the problems of middle-income earners.”
Really? The fact that Romney pointed to the existence of a safety net—one that does not, of course, eliminate widespread hunger, homelessness and death by medical neglect, and one that his policy proposals would virtually eliminate (Huffington Post, 5/1/12) —doesn’t mean that he wasn’t actually saying, as he appeared to be, that compared to the problems of the middle class, the problems of the poor are not worth bothering about. But because Zorn stuck up for Romney against the Obama campaign and for Obama against Romney, no one can say he’s not “objective.”
‘Move to the Right’
In corporate media, some political arguments are treated as indisputable fact. One of the most important: Democrats win by moving to the right (Extra!,1–2/95, 7–8/06). In the New York Times (5/3/12), Peter Baker offered an example:
Mr. Obama, who campaigned on Sunday with Mr. Clinton, seems to be following his Democratic predecessor’s playbook. After a generation of Democrats alienating voters with liberal domestic positions, Mr. Clinton moved the party toward the center on issues like trade, welfare and deficit spending.
It’s not clear which liberal positions are supposed to have alienated a generation of voters, but Clinton’s “move to the center” on trade, welfare and deficit spending—more of a move to the right than to the center—would seem to have been the most alienating behavior: Democrats lost big in the 1994 midterm election after Clinton pushed through the generally unpopular NAFTA and tried to enact a corporate-friendly, HMO-based healthcare reform instead of a progressive single-payer plan (Extra!, 1–2/94).
Polls showed that the electoral losses were caused by Democratic voters staying home on election day (Extra!, 1–2/95)—not what you’d expect if Clinton’s policies had appealed to his left-leaning base. Revisionist media history, however, insists those electoral losses were from Clinton veering too far to the left.
It’s a lesson media love, no matter how wrong. In 2010, when Democrats suffered similar losses, journalists again chalked it up to a Democratic president who hadn’t learned the lesson and governed too far to the left—when, as in 1994, exit polls showed Democratic voters failing to cast ballots (FAIR Media Advisory, 11/4/10).
Heading into the Democratic convention the shadow of Clinton the Centrist loomed large. A Newsweek cover story (“Why Barack Needs Bill,” 9/10/12) was one more call for Obama to move right. The magazine’s Peter Boyer wrote:
Clinton’s brand of liberalism was designed to win elections, and brought Democrats back after a generation in the wilderness; Obama’s brand of liberalism produced the line that became the Republicans’ favorite refrain last week in Tampa: “You didn’t build that.”
Clintonism won elections for Clinton, but not for the party in general (Extra!, 1/11). That the Republican convention advanced a tendentious argument based on a deliberately deceptive edit of Obama’s remarks hardly seems like an indictment of Obama-style liberalism, whatever that might be.
Newsweek offered a crash course on the drift of the Democratic party: After 2000, it
took an ever-more-stridently leftward turn, and by 2004, what Howard Dean called “the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party” was in full ascent. The energy in the party resided in the antiwar left.
If that’s true, what did this turn produce? Dean as head of the Democratic National Committee achieved a Democratic majority in
Congress in 2006 and won the White House in 2008—a useful counter-argument to the piece’s promotion of Clintonian centrism. But Newsweek sticks to its Obama-move-rightward argument: “Clinton Democrats embraced business; Obama attacked private equity.”
What does “centrism” mean to reporters, anyway? New York Times reporter John Harwood (1/12/12) tells readers not to worry much about the far-right and far-left campaign rhetoric they’re hearing, since the candidates will move back to The Middle soon enough:
Dramatic oratory aside, Messrs. Romney and Obama are seeking ways to position themselves as reasonable centrists in a general election. Mr. Obama on Wednesday announced that he will offer new business tax breaks for companies that return jobs to the United States. Mr. Romney has defended Social Security against Mr. Perry’s ideas for transforming it, and criticized Mr. Gingrich for suggesting a weakening of child labor laws.
The implication, of course, is that only centrism is reasonable. Aside from supporting child labor laws—a position shared by virtually the entire political spectrum—Romney’s centrism here consists of failing to join in an attack on Social Security. But as the Christian Science Monitor (11/4/11) reported, Romney’s actual Social Security plan would “gradually raise the retirement age to reflect increases in longevity”—not a particularly popular idea (ABC News/Washington Post, 3/10–13/11).
As for Obama, is calling for corporate tax breaks really what a “reasonable centrist” would do? Actually, Obama’s supposedly left-wing proposal to raise taxes on the wealthy to finance jobs programs is much more broadly popular (Think Progress, 9/6/11; Hill, 1/3/11)—even by the New York Times’ own polling (FAIR Blog, 10/26/11).
But when corporate media say “centrist,” they don’t mean policies that a majority of people support—they mean policies that don’t upset the status quo.
The Invisible Challengers
The New York Times (7/13/12) published a long profile of presumptive Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein that gave readers a rare look at a third-party political candidate.
Stein actually debated Mitt Romney in the 2002 Massachusetts gubernatorial race, and reporter Susan Saulny notes that many viewers thought she’d won. (“It’s easy to debate a robot,” Stein explained.)
Barring a miracle, she’s not going to get another chance to beat the robot. Saulny tried to explain why:
She longs to be included in the nationally televised debates, a high hurdle for any third-party candidate. According to the Commission on Presidential Debates, a candidate must have “a level of support of at least 15 percent of the national electorate” as determined by five national polling organizations.
Ms. Stein’s problem, then, is of the chicken-and-egg variety: To get national name recognition, she needs television exposure in debates. But she does not qualify for debates because of a lack of national name recognition.
She thinks that is by design, to benefit major parties.
“If they actually have to debate a living, thinking, informed person, it’s very hard for them,” Ms. Stein added, referring to Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney. “They have kind of a mutual agreement, which you can see evident in the nature of their debate right now. If it’s important, they won’t go there. Many issues are not on the table.”
Though the idea that the debates are rigged is presented as Stein’s opinion, it’s actually a matter of record: The Commission on Presidential Debates was set up by the parties themselves in 1987, in order to take control of the debates from the League of Women Voters and “strengthen the two-party system”—meaning keep out third-party candidates (Baltimore Sun, 9/28/00). The parties write up a secret contract, defining to their liking moderators, debate formats—even the height of the podium (OpenDebates.org).
TV networks have followed along with the CPD structure, but there’s no reason they have to. And newspapers rarely cover third parties either; Saulny’s piece was the only profile Stein received from January through August 2012 in the Times, Washington Post or USA Today. The Post did briefly mention Stein’s candidacy a handful of times—but most of those were in the Style section, which was more interested in poking fun at former television star Roseanne Barr’s hypothetical Green VP spot (7/10/12) or noting the “batik prints and grizzly beards” at the party’s nomination conference (7/15/12) than in discussing their ideas.
Campaigns in Control
by Jim Naureckas
The New York Times (7/16/12) acknowledged a disturbing new journalistic trend: Political sources demanding—and receiving—control over what they are quoted as saying in news stories. This is not factchecking, mind you, but giving the source “final editing power over any published quotations.” Reporter Jeremy Peters disclosed that this was standard practice for the Obama campaign, and Romney advisers also “almost always require that reporters ask them for the green light on anything from a conversation that they would like to include in an article.”
Peters says journalists don’t like it, but “most reporters, desperate to pick the brains of the president’s top strategists, grudgingly agree.” Here’s a thought: Maybe journalists should refuse to let their sources edit their copy—and if the sources don’t like it, campaign reporters could cover something other than campaign strategy for a change.