There have been many moments of media malpractice in recent election years. One thinks of the Killian Memos from 2004 — Microsoft Word documents purported to be 1970s typewritten draft-dodging requests for Bush. Or the 2008 election, when Barack Obama and Joe Biden received over twice as many favorable media evaluations as John McCain and Sarah Palin, according to the Center for Media and Public Affairs. The Killian memos got Dan rather fired — the 2008 bias helped get Obama hired.
Here are three from this campaign cycle which, if there is justice in the universe, should have consequences, too.
1. The media set up a situation where Mitt Romney himself became the Republicans’ October surprise.
Even conservative commentators are fond of saying that one of the reasons Romney won so big in the first debate is that “Obama’s ads” had so successfully painted Romney as an out-of-touch rich villain. When a halfway decent guy showed up at the debate, that story collapsed and the momentum shifted.
But that’s silly. I know all about those anti-Romney ads because I follow politics, but I don’t think I have ever seen one on television. Not during the Olympics. Not during football games. Not in Kansas.
Obama’s ads weren’t ubiquitous enough to change the whole perception of Mitt Romney. But one thing is: The media.
If the media hadn’t boom-echoed the “Thurston Howell-Romney III” caricature (even 171 days ago), Obama’s ads wouldn’t have had that effect.
When Romney surprised everybody, it didn’t just reveal that Obama had successfully demonized him: It showed that the media had conspired in that process.
2. The media’s refusal to cover for Republicans might mean they actually have to act boldly.
Bernie Goldberg first noticed that the major media had two different ways of covering the economy. In his book Bias he points out how the enormous homeless problem covered so thoroughly in the Reagan and Bush I years disappeared magically when the administration changed to Clinton.
The rule he noticed – that the media covers Republicans’ records with a critical eye while covering Democratic spin with a kindly twinkle – might actually do some good, if it doesn’t succeed in changing the outcome of the election.
In the run-up to 2008, story after story covered the Bush deficits and how they had wrecked the economy. Obama’s deficits are bigger, and doing worse things, but are rarely mentioned. Like the media’s biased coverage of Catholic scandals, which was unfair but helpful in forcing the Church to change its ways, the media’s coverage of Republicans’ mess-ups may also be both unfair and helpful.
If Romney wins, he will have no choice but to actually do good things economically. There will be no media safety net for his failures.
3. Could Univision’s Operation Fast and Furious scoop embarrass the media into doing their jobs?
The 2006-2011 ATF sting operations put American guns into the hands of criminals on both sides of the U.S./Mexican border, with deadly results.
ATF agent John Dodson tesitified he was ordered to watch gun-smuggling operations but not to intervene.“I cannot begin to think of how the risk of letting guns fall into the hands of known criminals could possibly advance any legitimate law enforcement interest.”
Under Bush, this would have been one of the major stories of the year. Under Obama Fast & Furious remained just a Vin Diesel movie on the $7.50 rack at Wal-Mart.
That is, until Univision, a normally reliably pro-Obama Spanish-language cable network covered it. They reported that American guns were used gun down 16 teenagers and wound 12 more. They put Obama on the spot in an interview.
In other words, they spoke truth to power the way the media used to do. ABC and others finally covered the story – albeit with a “Wow. Mexicans Really care about this thing where Mexicans died!” angle.
But at least it was a start. And if it costs Obama votes at the polls, the deaths of a border patrol agent and a party of teenagers might actually become news.