Not once in the past twelve months has President Obama logged a seven-day stretch where his positive press coverage outweighed the negative, according to Pew Research analysis. And based on recent media trends, that streak is in no danger of being broken as the Beltway press continues to pile on the Democratic president with routinely negative and increasingly misleading coverage, while at the same time giving his Republican rival a pass.
Whether it's in response to the right wing's incessant whining about unfair campaign coverage, or the product of the media's innate desire to create a close, competitive (and marketable) presidential contest to market, the resulting storyline is clear: Obama's faltering!
From a late-May Politico campaign analysis piece ("Obama Stumbles Out of the Gate") that read like it had been cribbed from a Karl Rove column the previous week ("Obama's Campaign Is Off to a Rocky Start"), to the recent congestion of sound-alike refrains, the "liberal media's" narrative has become set in stone and conservatives must be pleased since it echoes their own anti-Obama message.
There's nothing wrong with chronicling the ups and downs of campaigns. And nobody's suggesting the Obama re-election run hasn't had stumbles. All of them do. (Although note, Obama's Gallup approval rating has remained constant in the high-40s for a few months now, and even climbed to 50 percent last week.) But the feverish, one-sided coverage in recent weeks signals that a clear, GOP-leaning script has been adopted by the Beltway media. And yes, it makes a mockery out of the tired chant of a left-wing newsroom bias.
No surprisingly, the current wave of coverage is cresting on some shoddy journalism. (See fabricated oral sex jokes and botched Bill Clinton reporting.) Just look at the remarkably lazy and dishonest handling of Obama's comment about private sector job growth being "fine." The coverage represents a sterling example of how the press has had its thumb on the scale this spring.
The Obama quote:
The truth of the matter is that, as I've said, we've created 4.3 million jobs over the last 27 months, over 800,000 just this year alone. The private sector is doing fine. Where we're seeing weaknesses in our economy have to do with state and local government.
As Slates's David Weigel noted, "This isn't even particularly clumsy phrasing." That's why CNN media critic Howard Kurtz stressed there wasn't "a journalist in the country" who heard Obama's "fine" comment and didn't know exactly what he was talking about. That's because Obama explained exactly what he was talking about at the time; job growth.
Yet reporters rushed out ahead of Republicans and seized on the Obama phrase and announced that "fine" (when ripped out of context) was going to be a problem for the White House and a "gift" for Romney. But since when are campaign reporters supposed to act as opposition research scouts for the GOP, tipping them off to potentially embarrassing comments by Democrats? Aren't they supposed to report and fact-check on GOP attacks, not initiate them?
One week removed from the kerfuffle and the press has stopped making even the slightest attempt to report the "fine" comment in the context it was used. Instead, the press now routinely uses the truncated version of the quote circulated by the Romney campaign. Here's the Wall Street Journal doing it, and here's the Washington Post doing it twice on two days. The examples are boundless. It's now a Beltway conventional wisdom that Obama announced unequivocally that the private sector is doing "fine."
He did not.
Note that that same day, June 6, while responding to Obama's "fine" comment about public-sector job losses, Romney mocked the president, claiming "he wants to add more to government." Said Romney: "He says we need more firemen, more policemen, more teachers. Did he not get the message in Wisconsin? The American people did. It's time for us to cut back on government and help the American people."
A presidential candidate suggesting more first responders and schoolteachers are a bad thing? Doesn't that qualify as a buzz-worthy gaffe?
Between June 8 and June 13, a search on TVeyes.com for on-air discussions that include the key words "Obama private sector" produced nearly 260 matches on the three all-news cable channels, plus ABC, CBS and NBC. A search over that same time period for "Romney firefighters" produced less than half the mentions; 120. (Half of those references appeared on MSNBC.)
Obama saying private sector job growth is "fine" became a very, very big news story, in part because excited journalists announced it would become a very big news story once Republicans spun it. By contrast, Romney saying the country doesn't need more cops and firefighters and teachers was mostly greeted with a muted response on TV.
As is the case with so much campaign coverage, the press gets to decide which "gaffe" stories to chase and amplify. In this case, the chase was an easy win for the GOP. Note that the Democratic Party appeared to push the Romney "cops" story just as urgently as the Republicans pushed the Obama "fine" story. It's just that, narrative-wise, the press was much more attuned to the former.
Here's another telling example of how the press is applying two different standards to its day-to-day coverage; standards that benefit Republicans. When Obama aide David Axelrod hosted an outdoor campaign event in Boston last month to target Romney's record as Massachusetts governor, Axelrod was met by Republican operatives who heckled the Democrat and disrupted the event. The spectacle was treated as big news, and mostly portrayed as a stumble for Obama.
Fast-forward to last week and Romney appeared in Council Bluffs, IA, for an outdoor event and was "continuously" heckled, according to a local press account. But there was almost no suggestion from the national press that the rude outburst in Iowa reflected poorly on the candidate.
Meanwhile, despite the barrage of "flailing" chatter, the White House has actually received some good news lately. On Tuesday, Democrats won a special election in a Republican-leaning district against a Tea Party candidate in the deeply red state of Arizona.
But pundits and reporters spent very little time covering the outcome or suggesting the good-news-for-Obama event was of lasting significance. (The election results weren't mentioned once on any of the network Sunday morning talk shows this week.) On the day after the Democrats easily won the Arizona special election, the opening line of a Washington Post campaign article asked, "Is it time for Democrats panic?"
At the same time, some of the bad news eagerly touted by the press hasn't really been that bad. Take this week's Reuters article, headlined "Obama's Ratings Sink on Economic Doubts."
This was the ominous sounding lede [emphasis added]:
President Barack Obama's approval ratings have dipped to their lowest level since January on deep economic worries, wiping out most of his lead in the White House race over Republican rival Mitt Romney, a Reuters/Ipsos poll showed on Tuesday.
So Obama's sinking approval rating has fallen to his "lowest level" since January. Right, except what Reuters never detailed was that since January, Obama's "level" in the Reuters poll has ranged from between 47 and 50 percent; just three percentage points, which also happens to be the margin of error for the Reuters/Ipsos poll.
So in six months time, Obama's approval rating has dipped a statistically insignificant three points. Yet that's the angle Reuters used as the news hook in its article about the president's sinking ratings.
With journalism like that now routinely being practiced, the yearlong streak of the "liberal media" pounding the Democratic president remains very much in tact.
Crossposted at County Fair, a Media Matters blog.