By R. Alan Clanton
Thursday Review Editor
October 16, 2012: Mitt Romney’s strong debate performance against President Obama in early October once again exposed a long-held suspicion—hotly contested for decades by partisans on both sides of the political aisle—that there is inherent bias in the mainstream media. This accusation is time-honored and as old as contemporary politics: few presidents and fewer candidates have managed to avoid some grievance against the Fourth Estate during their time in the arena, from Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson, to Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, to Bill Clinton and George W. Bush—all have had their reasons to grouse bitterly over their press mistreatments, real or perceived.
For most of these presidents and presidential candidates the prevailing conditions were self-inflicted: LBJ resented inquiries into the moral sustainability of the Vietnam War by liberal reporters who he felt were distracted from the great progress found in his sweeping social programs; Gerald Ford felt unfairly bound to the national wounds left by Nixon’s wrongdoings, unable to forge a reputation in his own right among reporters still obsessed with all things Watergate; Carter, likewise, ruminated over his unlucky lot—an already bad economy sinking further into stagnation and recession at the same moment American military and diplomatic prestige had reached its lowest ebb.
Throughout his political life Nixon remained famously at war with reporters, and in truth preferred it that way. The Clintons formed a tag-team of sorts, and still bristle when reminded of some of their darkest interactions with what they regarded—then and now—as a largely hostile media. Reagan, the sunny optimist rarely given to genuine anger, boiled in private when he discovered he was misquoted or when offensive concepts were attributed to him by liberal reporters or columnists. And candidates as far-ranging as Ted Kennedy and Gary Hart, Bob Dole and Howard Dean, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich have felt the searing discomfort of having things go very badly in a protracted news cycle.
In over 60 years only two figures have hovered weightless above this fray: John F. Kennedy and Barack Obama, each so imbued with star caliber and charisma that they seemed at times sainted by the larger community of scribes, storytellers and town criers. Kennedy’s gifts were clear and unmistakable—a grace and panache and easy rapport with journalists—qualities which endeared him to the press from his earliest arrival to Congress in 1946.
Obama, however, took many by surprise, springing from the Illinois State Senate into the role of keynote speaker at the 2004 Democratic National Convention even before he had been sworn in as a U.S. Senator. The labels rolling most easily off of the word processors of the day—even before he completed his much-watched speech that summer—included transformative and post-partisan, and his star power quickly put him on a fast track to the White House. During the bitter primary campaign of 2008, Bill Clinton, campaigning for his wife, spoke derisively and sarcastically of candidate Obama as the chosen one, and even Saturday Night Live portrayed a press corps willing to migrate in lemming-like uniformity behind Obama’s soaring language and shepherding charisma.
Once inside the walls of the White House, the Obama team met resistance from political opponents, quickly applying the time-honored label obstructionist to the other party, and journalists and analysts of every stripe fell into line. Battles in Congress were left to Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid to fight, allowing the President to hover above the nastiness. Even the Tea Party’s surge and ascent in 2010, which did more to realign the GOP than the larger electoral template, did little to sway the media from the view of Obama as politically imbued. The Tea Party, rightly, was viewed more as a backlash than a package of political solutions, and the GOP takeover of the House was seen as a temporary nuisance—as well as a handier tool for blaming opponents.
But recently, despite some good news on the economy (August saw the creation of 115,000 new jobs, the best uptick in several years, and, with the exception of California, gas prices fell again slightly) President Obama seems to have slammed into a ceiling. From reactive and botched responses to the recent targeted violence in Libya and a dozen other Arab nations, to persistent sluggishness in offering effective support to democratic rebels in Syria, to deepening strains in our relationship with Israel, to continuing problems along our border with Mexico—not to mention persistent frustration by many Americans over the state of the U.S. economy—many journalists once smitten by the President’s undeniable charm now find themselves reporting instead on an insular White House disconnected from the harshest realities.
The experience has been a reality check for both the President and for his legion of supporters and backers, as well as like-minded reporters. Romney’s convincing performance in the Denver debate—coupled with Obama’s faltering effort—has seemingly leveled the playing field. In the recent VP debate, Joe Biden and Paul Ryan battled to a virtual tie, and produced little except for energy from their respective base flanks. Some new polls now show Romney and Obama in a virtual tie, while others show Romney with a growing advantage. Even Ohio and Florida, until two weeks ago considered a possible losses for the GOP, are now back in play.
The reaction from some quarters has been a strange one indeed. Polls conducted by CNN and NBC/Wall Street Journal showed Romney gaining in various areas, but it was a poll by Pew Research ten days ago which first indicated the full strength of the Romney surge, showing the former governor gaining across the board and pulling slightly ahead of Obama nationally. Democrats were quick to pounce with the accusation that the Pew numbers reflected a heavy emphasis on calls driven into pro-Republican zip codes and prefixes, as well as a deliberate attempt in some cases to question only those who identify themselves as Republicans. Pew officials responded tersely: they don’t ask about party affiliation, only the respondent’s candidate preference, and they take great care to avoid any possible tilt in the demographic and geographic balance of their survey.
Days later, when polls conducted by The Tampa Bay Times/Miami Herald showed Romney with a seven point lead in Florida, top Obama spokesmen cried foul, with David Axelrod and others questioning the methodology and accuracy of the figures.
Some Democrats and liberal interest groups criticized the press coverage of the new numbers, complaining loudly that the current obsession with Romney’s debate gains will skew the narrative away from the issues (as if it is truly possible for the conversation to any more removed from what’s really important) and suggesting—horrors!—that the poll numbers and debate talk amount to a feeding frenzy, with reporters as the sharks and Obama as the wounded whale. Ironic, since only two weeks ago it was Romney whose campaign had been declared dead-in-the-water. The debates were seen as a formality, the governor’s last opportunity to remain afloat, but—more likely—the moment when Obama would send Romney’s carcass adrift amidst its mortal wounds. Nothing of the sort transpired, and Romney walked away with a clear win.
This turnabout has inspired shock and denial. With little else in their arsenal, concerned liberals, and the President himself, concentrated their heavy artillery on what’s not at the heart of this election—the defense of PBS and National Public Radio. So, we move along down the path, from Romney’s unfortunate 47% quote to the preservation—or the forced extinction—of a six foot tall bird.
To add irony to the mix, last Tuesday’s airing of a much-anticipated edition of Frontline, PBS’s premier venue for investigative reporting and a widely cherished vehicle for alternative (read: progressive) journalism, produced a visceral shock for some viewers with its somewhat unflattering portrayal of Obama and his breathtakingly swift rise to the national scene. The Frontline special, titled The Choice, 2012, also produced a relatively sympathetic narrative of Mitt Romney, in the long shadow of his father George Romney, as someone driven toward success through his long understanding of business competitiveness and the real-time adaptations which must often occur in the marketplace. Frontline seemed to conclude with the image of a Barack Obama unprepared for his sudden projection the top of the national political conversation—a leader hoping to enter a kinder, gentler bi-partisan Washington, but, unprepared and unwilling to make those real-time adjustments, finding instead a polarization for which he may have been at least partly responsible.
Frontline’s Exhibit A was his sweeping health care bill, passed narrowly by Capitol Hill Democrats but without the support of a single Republican; Exhibit B was Obama’s brazen shift from his trademark conciliatory language to the rhetoric of divisiveness, a perhaps inevitable consequence of—and an adaptation to—having so deeply misjudged the effectiveness of his oratorical skills as a remedy for the problems of Washington.
This will no doubt make for circuitous reasoning for many liberals over the next few days as they seek to simultaneously downplay the import of the Frontline special, while also defending to their last breath the right of PBS to receive public funding for just such journalistic activities.
So, tonight’s much-anticipated debate in Hempstead, New York, to be moderated by Candy Crowley of CNN, is sure to be watched by millions. Obama, we have been told frequently, plans to go on the offensive—discarding his veneer of politeness and head-nodding agreeability in favor of total offense. The flexible, more fluid town hall format may serve the President well, but it may also prove a surprisingly effective venue for Romney, especially after his six months or more of mostly direct interaction with voters and the public.
But Romney may suffer a few unexpected blows as well, not so much from the President as from Crowley, who has said—over the backchannel objections of both campaigns—that she will take a more proactive role in this debate. We can surely expect her redirect to include an insistence on specifics, not mere broad strokes. All voters benefit from this, but Romney may not have the same luxury to control the pace and tone as he had in the first debate—nor to hide behind vague sketches—especially if Crowley exceeds Martha Raddatz’s performance as she becomes a third debater on the stage.
Will Crowley’s more aggressive approach alter the template or change the direction of the conversation? And if so, will this change of style by a media facilitator actually alter the balance in what is already a close election?
[More on this topic will follow in a second installment to be posted on Thursday Review this weekend]