The media-created narratives that derail election coverage
Corporate media coverage of election 2008 has fallen into the well-documented pattern (Extra!, 5-6/08) of reporting on the election as if it were a horse-race rather than a democratic process in which real issues were at stake. Not only do journalists organize the election story around the question–not terribly helpful to voters–of who’s up and who’s down, they largely base their evaluation of the race on shallow image-based narratives that the media construct themselves: Barack Obama is an “elitist” who might not “get the way we live” (Extra!, 7=8/08), while John McCain is a straight-talking “maverick” (Extra!, 5=6/08). Though these tropes are treated by establishment news outlets as self-evident, they usually fail to stand up to any kind of scrutiny.
More often than not, those narratives do little to serve the needs of the citizens whose votes will decide who is in the White House next year. The following list, while by no means exhaustive, is a collection of some of the most enduring and problematic themes of the current campaign.
1. John McCain, Straight-Talking Maverick
John McCain’s political identity as a straight-talking maverick was cemented by an adoring press corps during his 2000 presidential bid, and the press has clung fiercely to the label in 2008: U.S. News & World Report (4/7/08) declared that “McCain is nothing if not a maverick,” Time magazine (1/21/08) dubbed him “a free-ranging, fence-jumping, kick-the-corral maverick,” while CBS host Bob Schieffer (7/15/07) called him the “most famous maverick of the last half of the 20th century.”
The real McCain bears little resemblance to the media portrait. For a brief time during Bush’s first term, he did somewhat fit the “maverick” bill, but he has sharply reversed course on several key issues: Once an opponent of the Bush tax cuts, he now supports them and pushes for their extension; the former critic of religious right intolerance has cozied up to the movement’s leaders. In recent years, McCain has been anything but a nonpartisan independent, with a voting record that makes him one of the Senate’s most conservative lawmakers (Extra!, 5-6/08).
Rather than rethink their judgment of him, though, the press more often explains away McCain’s flip-flops, with the logic that is often hard to follow. Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen (6/24/08) rationalized away his shifting positions:
Here is the difference between McCain and Obama–and Obama had better pay attention. McCain is a known commodity…. We know his bottom line. As his North Vietnamese captors found out, there is only so far he will go, and then his pride or his sense of honor takes over.
Many journalists have likewise long argued that the “real” McCain is more honorable than his political behavior. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof (2/17/08) excused his reversal on ethanol subsidies because “he was so manifestly insincere and incompetent in this pandering that the episode was less contemptible than amusing.” Kristof concluded: “In short, Mr. McCain truly has principles that he bends or breaks out of desperation and with distaste. That’s preferable to politicians who are congenital invertebrates.”
As McCain’s campaign tactics turned increasingly negative, many pundits struggled with how to reconcile this “new” McCain with the one they thought they knew. Newsweek‘s Jonathan Alter (8/11/08) wrote with some disappointment that these tactics were “out of sync with the real guy,” that the true McCain wouldn’t be able to carry out such a campaign, “because McCain is patently insincere when his heart’s not in it, like a little boy who eats his peas when his parents tell him to but remains transparently unhappy about the experience. It’s not clear how committed McCain himself is to this latest assault on Obama.” For the media, falling out of love is clearly difficult.
2. Barack Obama, Elitist Snob
The “elitist Obama” line (Extra!, 7-8/2008) has been one of the most common tropes media have promoted throughout the campaign–and one of the more puzzling. In this narrative, a multi-racial former community organizer raised by a single mom is the “elitist” candidate–not his Republican opponent, the son and grandson of four-star admirals and the husband of a multimillionaire.
The case against Obama seemed to gain traction based on two minor incidents: Obama spoke to Iowa farmers about the price of arugula at Whole Foods, and at a fundraiser in San Francisco he described “bitter” working-class voters who might “cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them.” After that, all sorts of routine events could be transformed into elitism-revealing “gaffes”: Obama’s low bowling score at a Pennsylvania campaign stop, his ordering orange juice at a diner (MSNBC Hardball, 4/10/08), and even playing a game of pool (MSNBC Hardball, 5/13/08) were all just more evidence of Obama’s elitism.
When Obama went on vacation to Hawaii to visit his grandmother, ABC pundit Cokie Roberts declared (8/10/08): “Going off this week to vacation in Hawaii does not make any sense whatsoever…. I know Hawaii is a state, but it has the look of him going off to some sort of foreign, exotic place. He should be in Myrtle Beach, you know.”
At times, the main point of such coverage seemed to be to remind voters that Obama is not like most Americans. As New York Times columnist David Brooks put it (PBS NewsHour, 4/18/08), “The larger issue is, what kind of guy is Obama? Is he someone who bowls a 37 and doesn’t know anything about the way American people actually live, or does he actually get the way we live?” Maybe it’s elite pundits who don’t get ordinary Americans, though: Obama came out well ahead when a USA Today/Gallup poll (6/15=19/08) asked which candidate better “understands the problems Americans face in their daily lives” (54 percent to 29 percent) and which “cares about the needs of people like you” (52 percent to 30 percent).
3. The ‘Smearing’ of Sarah Palin
The myth of a “liberal” media is primarily the work of right-wing pundits and activists who have for years “worked the refs” (Extra!, 10=11/92), complaining about media bias in order to try to get the press to take their arguments more seriously, or to cow journalists into backing off. With the nomination of Alaskan Gov. Sarah Palin, this technique has been perfected; almost as soon as she was introduced to the public, her supporters (inside and outside the McCain campaign) began railing against an elitist media that has supposedly maligned her experience, looks and family background.
The crusade is remarkable because it rests on so little actual evidence. When former Massachusetts Gov. Jane Swift held a press conference to denounce the media smearing, L.A. Times reporter James Rainey asked her to name the offending outlets. She singled out one blog–Daily Kos–and then wandered away (L.A. Times, 9/4/08).
The complaints sometimes border on paranoia; Fox News host Bill O’Reilly (9/15/08) declared that the New York Times was “hysterical” because the paper “ran a front-page story that said while she was an elected official in Alaska, Governor Palin rewarded her friends and tried to marginalize her enemies. Can you imagine a politician doing that? Somebody gets elected and helps her supporters? How outrageous.” Should Palin’s political career go unexamined by the media? That would seem to be the argument.
But media seem to buy the notion that there’s something unusual about all of this: “No national candidate in modern history, not even Hillary Clinton, has ever been lambasted and lionized in quite the way Palin is,” wrote Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz (9/15/08). In reality, Palin has been treated critically primarily over her decision to repeat, over and over again, the claim that she opposed the Bridge to Nowhere project–which is a lie.
At the same time, plenty of media accounts of Palin have been rather glowing; a Newsweek cover story (9/13/08) declared that Palin “both represents average women and transcends them,” and that she “is like an action figure: breast pump in hand, baby on her hip, dressed in a power suit and standing at a microphone, giving Democrats hell: Gals can do anything!”
4. John McCain, ‘National Security Pro’
Sen. John McCain is treated by many in the media as an expert on foreign affairs and the military. During the February 2 Democratic candidates’ debate, NBC anchor Brian Williams referred to his “vast foreign policy expertise and credibility on national security.” The New York Times (3/5/08) similarly dubbed McCain a “national security pro.”
Of course, if you measure one’s expertise by looking at the key foreign policy decision of our era–the Iraq War–McCain would not seem to be much of an expert at all. McCain’s judgments and predictions about the war have frequently been way off base (FAIR Action Alert, 2/28/08)–like predicting an “overwhelming victory in a very short period of time” (CNN Late Edition, 11/29/02). On MSNBC (Hardball, 3/24/03), he predicted that “we will be welcomed as liberators.” When Fox News‘ Neil Cavuto suggested on June 11, 2003 that the conflict might not be over, McCain retorted, “Well, then why was there a banner that said ‘mission accomplished’ on the aircraft carrier?”
After war broke out between Russia and Georgia, much of the media discussion stressed that this would be to McCain’s advantage, though it was not at all clear why McCain’s more bellicose rhetoric would be evidence of particular expertise. The New York Times wrote (8/15/08) that the “fluency with which Mr. McCain, the presumed Republican presidential nominee, discusses Georgia, citing the history of the region and the number of times he has visited, lends an aura of commander in chief.”
And Time‘s Mark Halperin wrote (8/14/08): “The Vladimir Putin-backed conflict with Georgia was a three-fer for John McCain: It reminded voters how dangerous the world is, allowed the Republican nominee to distance himself from the more accommodationist Bush administration and let him reinforce his maverick image.”
After McCain claimed that the Shiite government of Iran was sending militants to support the militantly Sunni Al-Qaeda in Iraq, NBC political director Chuck Todd said the media’s underplaying of the gaffe had a lot to do with McCain’s reputation (MSNBC, 3/19/08):
5. Shifting to the Right Is ‘Smart Politics’
For years, the media’s advice to Democratic politicians has remained the same: Move to the right to win (Extra!, 7=8/06). Much of the media enthusiasm for Obama has come when the candidate has made real or perceived rightward shifts, on issues like FISA wiretapping or trade policy (Extra! Update, 8/08). While some were critical of Obama for “flip-flopping,” for others in the press it was simply smart politics.
The Associated Press (7/3/08) put it: “The likeliest path to the White House cuts through the center of the electorate.” CNN congressional correspondent Jessica Yellin (7/2/08) said that Obama could be “expanding his views, trying to reach more people.” CNBC chief Washington correspondent and New York Times reporter John Harwood argued that abandoning progressive stances would be the key to Obama’s success (MSNBC, 7/1/08):
Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus (7/2/08) celebrated Obama’s shift on FISA as “smart politics, yes, but also sensible as a matter of substance…. If Obama is edging toward the center on this, or on free trade, we should praise the flip, not hate the flopper.” NPR‘s Mara Liasson (6/27/08) explained that Obama’s apparent softening on NAFTA, along with some mixed messages on corporate tax cuts and capital gains taxes, was part of the “time-worn trek to the political center…. He’s sending a message that he is pragmatic and non-ideological.”
6. Obama Wins, Sharpton/Jackson Lose
Since Obama emerged on the national political stage, some media figures have looked favorably at his ability to sideline African-American political figures the pundits just don’t like. As Peter Beinart put it in the New Republic (2/5/07): “Today, it probably helps Obama that Al Sharpton, with his 2004 presidential run, became the ‘president of black America.’ For many white Americans, it’s a twofer. Elect Obama, and you not only dethrone George W. Bush, you dethrone Sharpton, too.”
ABC pundit George Will (Nightline, 1/3/08) said after Obama’s Iowa caucus victory, “The big losers, two big losers tonight are probably Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, representative of those who have a sort of investment in the traditional and, I believe, utterly exhausted narrative about race relations in the United States.” Will said months earlier (11/25/07): “On the matter of race, which I think is the least important aspect of him, his election, that’s the end of Al Sharpton. It’s the end of Jesse Jackson. Great getting-up day in this country.” Will also declared (7/13/08) that “this campaign…is closing the parenthesis on the Jesse Jackson/Al Sharpton school of racial politics…. I wager there are millions of votes who are going to go to Obama simply to close that parenthesis.”
For other pundits, Obama was just a distinctly different, and preferable, kind of black politician (Extra!, 3=4/07). As NBC host Chris Matthews (1/21/07) declared:
I don’t think you can find a better opening-gate, starting-gate personality than Obama as a black candidate…. I can’t think of a better one. No history of Jim Crow, no history of anger, no history of slavery. All the bad stuff in our history ain’t there with this guy.
More recently, a cover story in the Sunday New York Times magazine (8/6/08) posed the question, “Is Obama the End of Black Politics?” The question itself is bizarre, but many in the corporate media have eagerly answered in the affirmative.
7. No War (in Campaign Coverage)!
The Iraq and Afghanistan wars have all but disappeared from the media’s campaign coverage. In part this is due to the fact that media have adopted the notion that the troop “surge” in Iraq has worked, and thus what little time is spent discussing that war is spent challenging Obama for having opposed the “surge” (Extra!, 9=10/08). The narrative of surge success has carried over to Afghanistan, where both candidates call for sending additional U.S. forces to that country–all but eliminating an actual debate in the press about whether this is a good idea or not.
At other stages of the campaign, media have seemed bent on coaxing Obama away from his pledge to withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq. When the press wrongly declared Obama had changed his mind on Iraq troop withdrawals in July, this non-decision was seen as a smart move. On ABC‘s This Week (7/6/08), Ted Koppel explained that U.S. troops in Iraq must stay there, and Obama
has come to that realization. He’s come to realize you cannot pull all the troops out of Iraq, unless you put them somewhere else. You talked a little bit about Iran and about the dangers in Iran. This is not a time to be saying, yes, we’re going to pull all the U.S. troops out of there come what may.
The Washington Post editorial page (7/8/08) cheered Obama’s “small but important step toward adjusting his outdated position on Iraq to the military and strategic realities of the war he may inherit.” NPR‘s Mara Liasson declared on Fox News Sunday (7/6/08) that if Obama was backing away from a 16-month phased withdrawal, it would be “what the American people want a commander in chief to do. That might not be what his left-wing base does.” Actually, most polls on the subject suggest Obama would have been doing exactly the opposite of what “the American people want”–unless “the American people” is defined as the American corporate media (FAIR Media Advisory, 7/15/08).
8. False Balance
One of the most pernicious forms of election season media bias is “false balance,” the media’s tendency to dish out criticism of dueling politicians in equal measure, no matter the facts. In recent elections, media “fact-check” reporting often bends over backwards to choose an equal number of falsehoods or distortions from each side–which can give voters a misleading impression of the prevalence of political lying when one side is obviously more guilt of exaggerations.
In this election, it is beyond question that that the McCain/Palin campaign has been more aggressively lying in its campaign ads and rhetoric than the Obama/Biden camp. Nonetheless, the overriding media tendency is to blunt that disparity and see the campaign as a series of back-and-forth attacks, as in the USA Today front-page announcement (9/11/08): “Uncivil Wars: White House Campaign Takes Nasty Turn; Charges, Rebuttals Ratcheting Up.”
Fact-checking the vice-presidential debate with faux evenhandedness, NBC‘s Andrea Mitchell (10/3/08) said that Biden “exaggerated” when he “suggested most Americans would be worse off under John McCain’s healthcare plan” because “Biden didn’t mention that many of the self-insured would benefit under McCain’s proposal.” Six percent of the non-elderly population has private insurance not provided by an employer.
New York Times columnist Paul Krugman (9/11/08) pointed out the media dynamic:
Why do the McCain people think they can get away with this stuff? Well, they’re probably counting on the common practice in the news media of being “balanced” at all costs. You know how it goes: If a politician says that black is white, the news report doesn’t say that he’s wrong, it reports that “some Democrats say” that he’s wrong. Or a grotesque lie from one side is paired with a trivial misstatement from the other, conveying the impression that both sides are equally dirty.
They’re probably also counting on the prevalence of horse-race reporting, so that instead of the story being “McCain campaign lies,” it becomes “Obama on defensive in face of attacks.”
Some prominent media voices have more recently begun to speak more forcefully about McCain’s record of distortion, including Richard Cohen of the Washington Post (9/17/08) and Time‘s Joe Klein, who admitted (9/29/08) that the press is generally ill-equipped for this sort of fact-checking:
Usually when a candidate tells something less than the truth, we mince words. We use euphemisms like mendacity and inaccuracy…or, as the Associated Press put it, “McCain’s claims skirt facts.” But increasing numbers of otherwise sober observers, even such august institutions as the New York Times editorial board, are calling John McCain a liar.
While media progress on this front is commendable, there’s still a long ways to go. When CNN reporter Candy Crowley was (9/15/08) asked if the exaggeration was equal on both sides; she said, “I’m not going to be the one to tell you whether it’s equal or not.”
9. Misreading the Polls
Corporate journalists are notoriously obsessed with horse-race polls that attempt to predict the outcome of elections, even though the minor fluctuations in such polls weeks or months before the election are largely meaningless. At the same time, opinion polls are a useful if limited tool for understanding public opinion–yet media seem to have little interest in actually using polls to check their speculations about what people are thinking.
There is, for example, very little polling data to support the “elitist Obama” narrative (Extra!, 7=8/08) or the idea that Obama has “trouble” wooing white working-class voters (Extra!, 9=10/08). Many in the media contend that voters still feel like they don’t “know” Obama (e.g., Philadelphia Inquirer, 8/28/08; L.A. Times, 8/27/08; USA Today, 1/28/08), yet as the Post‘s E.J. Dionne wrote (8/11/08): “Despite McCain’s longevity in the public eye…a CBS News poll last week found a third of voters still undecided in their opinion of McCain or saying they didn’t know enough to form one. (Roughly the same proportion said this about Obama.)”
And as campaign coverage in September revolved around the supposedly remarkable popularity of Sarah Palin, reporters might have paid more attention to polls suggesting that she was hardly the phenomenon the media had made her out to be. Among 11 major polls that compared the popularity of the major White House contenders between August 29 and September 21 (PollingReport.com), Obama had a higher favorability rating than Palin in 10 of them (the other one was a tie); McCain’s favorability beat Palin’s in all 11 polls. Even Joe Biden came close to Palin’s popularity–within a couple of percentage points of her favorability rating or even surpassing it in most of the polls (e.g., ABC News poll, 9/4/08). Thankfully, we were spared the media’s analysis of Bidenmania.
10. Obama’s Money
For all the complaints about an alleged pro-Obama bias in the national media, one of the clearest examples of the exact opposite came when Obama made the decision to forgo public financing for the general election, which would leave him free to raise as much money as possible. Many reporters and pundits saw this as a reversal from Obama’s supposed pledge to take public financing (his actual promise was not as definitive as reporters made it out to be), and he faced significant backlash from the press. Obama was “rigging the system in his favor,” according to the Washington Post‘s David Broder (6/26/08). NPR‘s Scott Simon (6/21/08) said Obama’s decision “raises fair questions about the sincerity of his campaign promises,” while ABC‘s Sam Donaldson (6/22/08) was more succint: “Gag me with a stick.”
Reporters who lined up to express such outrage were far less interested in the details of McCain’s campaign fundraising, which relies on a system where donors make large contributions through various Republican Party channels (primarily state parties and the Republican National Committee), much of which ends up paying for campaign advertising on behalf of John McCain. The technique (perhaps best explained in the July 3 Wall Street Journal) means that Obama’s projected fundraising advantage–which some media suggested could be millions of dollars–might end up being no advantage at all. This is actually something the McCain campaign has predicted (Washington Post, 7/11/08), though these boasts attracted little media attention.
Months later, their prediction seemed to be coming true, as the Post reported (9/17/08) that Obama’s perceived financial advantage seemed to be non-existent; Obama must aggressively raise money in order to maintain something close to parity with his Republican rivals. According to one study of campaign advertising (Washington Post, 9/18/08), the campaigns spent the same amount in one week–$15 million– but while Obama paid for 97 percent of his ads, McCain’s campaign paid for less than half of his advertisements, with the Republican National committee picking up the rest of the tab. But on this the pundits who excoriated Obama for his cynical decision months ago are, for the most part, silent.
11. Obama’s Dubious ‘Associates’
When it comes to Obama’s dubious “associates,” it would seem there is no connection too peripheral–or even nonexistent–to merit national media attention.
Much ink has been spilled in recent weeks over assessing Obama’s “links” with William Ayers, a Chicago academic well-known in education policy circles, who carried out a handful of nonlethal bombings in protest against the Vietnam War as a member of the Weather Underground. (Federal charges against Ayers in connection with the bombings were dropped in the 1970s.) This despite the fact that Obama has had only passing contacts with Ayers over the years, mostly via the board of a small non-profit; Obama once held a fundraiser in Ayers’ house.
This is not the first time that the press has jumped on a story of Obama’s dubious “associates” (FAIR Media Advisory, 3/14/08). After the Rev. Louis Farrakhan endorsed Obama’s candidacy, Obama was grilled over the issue in a Democratic debate by the late NBC host Tim Russert, even after the senator stated that he denounced Farrakhan’s anti-Semitic comments as “unacceptable and reprehensible,” “did not solicit this support” and gave assurances that his campaign was “not doing anything, formally or informally, with Minister Farrakhan.”
The issue of Obama’s stance on Farrakhan also attracted national newspaper attention (New York Times, 3/2/08; L.A. Times, 2/27/08; Newsday, 3/3/08; Time, 3/6/08). The press similarly went to great lengths to push Obama to renounce the words of his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, and devoted considerable attention to Obama’s “links” with Tony Rezko, a Chicago real estate developer on trial for corruption, with whom Obama had once had a routine real-estate transaction.
Corporate media have shown far less interest in examining figures from McCain’s current political life–people like the televangelist John Hagee, who called the Catholic church a “false cult system” and a “great whore” (FAIR Media Advisory, 3/14/08), and the talkshow host G. Gordon Liddy, a Watergate felon who has instructed his listeners on the best way to kill federal agents (Extra!, 7-8/05).
While many journalists have looked askance (e.g., NBC‘s Today show, 10/7/08) at the McCain campaign’s effort to focus attention on the issue of Obama’s “association” with Ayers, others (USA Today, 10/7/08; Washington Post, 10/8/08) have found a strange equivalency in the Obama campaign’s recent efforts to highlight McCain’s status as one of the Keating Five–U.S. senators who received large campaign contributions from savings and loan executive Charles Keating, then later intervened in federal efforts to investigate what turned out to be Keating’s criminal activities.
The difference is that McCain can legitimately be criticized for his own actions in support of Keating–a Senate investigation cited McCain for “poor judgment” in the incident–whereas Obama can’t be held responsible for Ayers’ wrongdoing, which occurred when the future candidate was in grade school.