Friday, March 27, 2009

Media and Obama: The Past as Prologue?

When I ran across Deborah Howell's not me[a] culpa in the Washington Post the Sunday after the election, I had just finished reading a collection of post-election profiles of pro-abortion President-elect Barack Obama so sugary sweet you gained pounds just by eyeballing them. Whether they appeared in the same Sunday "Outlook" section that Howell's Ombudsman column ran in or the major news magazines that ran rivers of mushy/gushy stories about Obama, they represented a kind of exclamation point on Howell's conclusion that the Post's campaign coverage had demonstrated a "tilt" toward Obama.

The point of Howell's analysis was to concede the obviousthe Post did everything but carpet bomb the McCain campaign while throwing flower petals in the direction of Obamabut not at the expense of suggesting her colleagues had any ulterior motives.

For those old enough to remember Watergate, her unintentionally amusing musings bring to mind John Ehrlichman's infamous "modified limited hangout." For those who don't immediately get the reference, it became a derisive, all-purpose putdown for years afterwards.

The gist is that when you know your cover story is no longer operative, what do you do? Volunteer part of the truth in the hope that the audience will be satisfied (or so surprised) that you never have to own up to the far more damaging truth safely tucked away.

So, Howell tells us that the Post editorial page ran two and a half times as many laudatory opinion pieces on Obama as McCain and that "Stories and photos about Obama in the news pages outnumbered those devoted to McCain." That quantitative measure does not begin to measure the impact of the mounds of praise heaped on Obama in the stories and opinion pieces or the vitriolic and dismissive tone of so much Post coverage of McCain.

In places like the Project for Excellence in Journalism, they also quantify the negative stories. And, of course, there were far more negative stories about McCain than Obama. But mere numbers hardly do justice to the intensity of the assault. If 10 firecrackers are dropped on Obama and 15 nuclear weapons on McCain, are you conveying the full impact when you merely say McCain was on the receiving end of more attacks?

And at the same time the Post did its best to eviscerate Gov. Sarah Palin, there were so few mentions of Obama's vice president, Sen. Joseph Biden, we almost forgot he was still on the campaign trail. Look at the contrast.

As Howell wrote, as soon as McCain chose Palin as his running mate, reporters were booking their flights to Alaska. No one suspected they did so in order to write puff pieces about the first female governor in Alaska's history, an intuition richly borne out by experience.

Biden's first presidential campaign in 1988 had exposed him as, shall we say, ethically challenged. Virtually nothing was mentioned about how that pattern of behavior had extended long past that first disastrous run. More important, neither did the Post see fit to highlight the seemingly limitless string of gaffes and (to be polite) erroneous statements that flowed from Biden's lips these last few months.

And then there's this "no-kidding" observation that came near the end: Howell acknowledges that Obama "deserved tougher scrutiny" about his undergraduate years, his start in Chicago, and his controversial associations.

What a coincidence. The same week Obama is safely elected you discover your paper had kowtowed to Obama. To your surprise, you discover that the Post's coverage is so inadequate that Obama is still almost a blank slate the day he is elected our 44th President.

A story by Jennifer Harper appeared in the next day's Washington Times. Unlike Howell, the public had long understood perfectly that the media was tilted.

"A Pew Research Center survey released in late October found, for example, that 70 percent of voters agreed that the press wanted Mr. Obama to win the White House; the figure was 62 percent even among Democratic respondents," Harper writes. On the general topic of bias, "A current Harvard University analysis revealed that 77 percent of Americans say the press in politically biased; of that group, 5 percent said it skewed conservative," Harper added.

As this edition of National Right to News goes to press, there is considerable discussion about just how long and how harmonious the honeymoon will be. Consider these two factors.

1. On the one hand, the mainstream media has an enormous investment in Obama. On the other hand, when reporters, as inevitably they will, come down from their self-induced euphoria, they will have intermittent pangs of guilt for having sold their integrity for a mess of pottage. The former will win out over the latter for some time. But at the same time

2. You don't have to be a pro-lifer, a Republican, or even a skeptic to realize that Obama possesses a very healthy ego and has not shown particular patience with the institutional media, otherwise known as the dinosaur media. He benefited enormously from the Old Guardthe hit pieces on Palin, the recycled stories about McCain from decades pastbut Obama readily circumvented them whenever it served his purposes, which was most of the time. As Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post observed, Obama built up a formidable digital outreach, choosing bloggers and places like to announce breaking news.


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