If there was one consistent media message about the Obama inauguration ceremony, it was the idea that he was announcing a clear shift to the left. But coverage failed to provide much background on the president's actual policies, which would have challenged that impression.
"The president called for an ambitious liberal agenda in his inaugural address yesterday," said CBS Evening News anchor Scott Pelley (1/22/13). On the PBS NewsHour (1/22/13), Gwen Ifill said, "President Obama's forceful new focus on progressive ideals echoed across the nation on the day after the inauguration." The headline across the front page of the New York Times (1/22/13) read, "Obama Offers Liberal Vision."
The supposed move to the left unnerved some pundits (FAIR Blog, 1/22/13); corporate media generally prefer Democratic presidents when they're talking about compromising with their Republican opponents.
Much of the attention to this progressive shift came due to Obama's comments about climate change:
We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations. Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms. The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult. But America cannot resist this transition; we must lead it.
The inclusion of climate change was treated as a particularly big deal, given that inaugural addresses seldom dwell on policy. "Speech Gives Climate Goals Center Stage" read one headline in the next day's New York Times (1/22/13). But that story, and much of the media commentary on his climate comments, failed to even mention the Keystone XL pipeline, currently under State Department review.
The carbon-intensive project, bringing tar sands oil from Canada to the Gulf Coast, would be a major source of heat-trapping greenhouse gases (NRDC, 1/17/13). (The Alberta tar sands contain as much as 240 gigatons of carbon, or almost half the total it's estimated humans can add to the atmosphere without dangerously raising global temperatures--Rolling Stone, 7/19/12.)
It is hard to fathom how meaningful action on climate change would be possible if Keystone were approved, but the White House has not spoken out in opposition to the pipeline (Nation.com, 1/22/13). Leaving out Obama's most important upcoming climate policy decision when covering his climate agenda is a media failure.
Part of the inaugural address discussed immigration policy as well, when Obama said this:
Our journey is not complete until we find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity; until bright young students and engineers are enlisted in our workforce rather than expelled from our country.
On the PBS NewsHour (1/22/13), host Gwen Ifill introduced that soundbite by saying that Obama "also raised immigration reform, an issue that went unaddressed for much of his first term." And the New York Times (1/22/13) reported that for Latinos the inauguration was "an occasion to savor newfound political clout," though it was tempered by the "sense that Obama had better make good on the promises he failed to keep during his first term, including an immigration overhaul."
That's one way to look at it. But the reality is that Obama did have an immigration policy in his first term, and it was an extraordinarily punitive one. That policy record was mostly missing from discussions. An exception came from NPR correspondent Ted Robbins (1/21/13):
He and his administration have deported more than a million and a half people, which is a record, and he spent $18 billion, according to the Migration Policy Institute last year, on enforcement. And implemented Secure Communities, which is a local law enforcement sharing data of people they arrest with federal immigration authority.
And CNN's John King (1/21/13) told viewers: "It was the Obama administration that angered many Latinos, and especially Latino interest groups, by increasing the number of deportations."
Since the significance of Obama discussing policy is that the policies themselves affect the world and people's lives, reporters covering the speech would have served the public better if they had clarified how the president's rhetoric matched up with his record.