By Denise Tessier
After the vice presidential candidate debate, there was much ado in the press about Joe Biden’s rolling eyes and white teeth:
Joe Biden did absolutely roll his eyes, snort, laugh derisively and throw his hands up in the air whenever (Paul) Ryan trotted out his little beady-eyed BS-isms.
But he should have! He was absolutely right to be doing it. We all should be doing it. That includes all of us in the media, and not just paid obnoxious-opinion-merchants like me, but so-called “objective” news reporters as well. We should all be rolling our eyes, and scoffing and saying, “Come back when you’re serious.”
That’s what “obnoxious-opinion-merchant” Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone wrote at the time of the debate. And Tabbai, too, was “absolutely right” about the media’s seeming reticence to report hard on the policies – or lack thereof – during the presidential campaign. Summarizing at the end, Tabbai wrote:
Sometimes in journalism I think we take the objectivity thing too far. We think being fair means giving equal weight to both sides of every argument. But sometimes in the zeal to be objective, reporters get confused. You can’t report the (Barack) Obama tax plan and the (Mitt) Romney tax plan in the same way, because only one of them is really a plan, while the other is actually not a plan at all, but an electoral gambit.
In my previous post on election coverage, I lauded Journal reporters for providing a service to readers in trying to articulate candidates’ positions in pretty much all the races meriting attention, pointing out inconsistencies and shortcomings when they could.
But alongside their efforts, national wire stories and one-sided headlines enjoyed prominence on the front page and on the Journal’s Election 2012 page (which debuted Sept. 18), many of which gave the Romney campaign not only gloss, but a façade of momentum.
Papers nationwide, including the wire story run by the Journal, cast the first debate as a win for Romney, making hay over Romney’s assertiveness (and Obama’s reticence to challenge some of Romney’s claims and pronouncements):
The former Massachusetts governor virtually lectured Obama at one point after the president accused him of seeking to cut education funds. “Mr. President, you’re entitled to your own airplane and your own house, but not your own facts,” he said.
Too often for the old-school journalists’ taste, news stories tend to interject wire reporter input, but here reporters were unwilling to interrupt the narrative of this Oct. 4 story to point out that Obama could have said the same of the challenger. Instead, the story continued with:
Romney said he had plans to fix the economy, overhaul the tax code, repeal Obama’s health care plan and replace (it) with a better alternative, remake Medicare, pass a substitute for the legislation designed to prevent another financial crash and reduce deficits — but he provided no new specifics despite Obama’s prodding.
At least the story noted that Romney provided no specifics. And the Journal performed a service by putting on the Election 2012 page both a Fact Check of the debate and a New Mexico reaction, the latter of which summarized that both men came off OK, although that was not reflected in the headline (“Experts: Romney Assertive While Obama Defends Record”). This “Romney wins” impression then was picked up by voters who did not see the debate and were relying on press accounts to tell them what to think.
That impression was cemented by the “Analysis” that ran on the Journal front page Oct. 5, headlined with the largest type on the page: “Romney Showing Reshapes Contest: Debate Performance Generates Momentum.” It told readers:
It’s a new race for the White House. Mitt Romney changed the game with his aggressive, confident performance in Wednesday’s Denver debate, and erased the specter of doom that has dogged his campaign for weeks.
. . . the Romney whom viewers saw Wednesday was the one his friends have long known: the conversational, smart, decent-on-his-feet guy, eager to defend his views vigorously and declaring that his yen for cutting taxes and changing seniors’ health care systems made sense.
Readers had to continue reading to the jump on A6 to get what followed, an “on the other hand” view not reflected at all in the headlines:
An even cursory dig into the details of those Romney plans — details that are often elusive — will continue to give Democrats ammunition against him, and Obama could recover quickly by relentlessly pressing Romney on those points.
Obama also can take solace in history, which shows that incumbent presidents often falter in first debates — see George W. Bush in 2004 or Ronald Reagan in 1984 — and then come back and win.
A follow-up Analysis (Oct. 11), also on A1, pronounced the vice presidential debate that night to be crucial because of the “advances Romney has made since the first presidential debate” – advances largely due to favorable media coverage for the challenger. The Journal’s Election 2012 page that same day had another “Analysis,” in headline type larger than the Page One story, saying: “Demonizing of Romney Could Backfire.” Here, the impression is that Obama was being unfair to Romney, a bit different from the “Obama Sharpens Attacks on Romney” headline given the story by its wire service source, McClatchy Newspapers. The story was about Obama challenging Romney on his credibility, or lack thereof. From the story, as the Journal ran it:
Despite his gains last week, Romney’s favorability rating is not all that high, and Pew said that only 39 percent found the Republican “honest and truthful.”
Romney is fighting back. He says his tax plan would not cost $5 trillion over 10 years, as the Obama campaign insists – an assertion hard to prove or disprove, since Romney won’t provide more specifics.
The independent Tax Policy Center said the plan would cost about $480 billion in 2015. But, it added, “Because Gov. Romney has not specified how he would increase the tax base, it is impossible to determine how the plan would affect federal tax revenues or the distribution of the tax burden.”
So there was reportage pointing out the lack of plans, but reporters were loathe to lead with that in their coverage, producing glossy impressions of the challenger for readers who scan headlines and opening paragraphs to get the gist of how the campaign was going.
One would expect stories from the conservative pundits, like Cal Thomas “Biden Behavior Beneath Contempt” (Oct. 16).
But the Journal gave three-quarters of a page to letters packaged under the huge headline “Biden’s Big Debate Bomb ” (Oct. 18) – a move so over the top that Editorial Page Editor Dan Herrera issued a rare “To Our Readers” message the next day explaining letters policy, saying the Journal had published all it had received on the debate, and they ‘were almost unanimously critical of Vice president Joe Biden’s performance.”
As if to make up for that appearance of partisanship (with help from readers no doubt motivated to rebut the Biden letters page), the Journal ran three-quarters of a page of letters Oct. 21 after the second presidential debate with the headline: “This Time It’s Obama, Hands Down.”
But from this reader’s standpoint, the most striking “fact-check” report during the campaign was the half page package that appeared in the Journal two days after the second presidential debate. Using staff and wire reports, the Journal put together a package addressing a single debate claim – Romney’s assertion that Obama took 14 days to call the Sept. 11 attack on the Benghazi consulate an “act of terror.” Obama had countered that he had called it in Rose Garden remarks the very next day.
The Journal package included the claim (made by Romney), the counterclaim (by Obama), the background and a full transcript of Obama’s remarks made in the White House Rose Garden Sept. 12. The transcript included Obama’s statement: “No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation . . .” The reader is left to parse that as s/he will. It was a good move, running the transcript and illuminating what had been a striking point in the debate.
But one could make the case the Journal later abetted the GOP in its continuing efforts to politicize the Libya event as a failing for Obama.
Those who follow the news know the reports in the wake of the attack. Politicization started almost immediately with Romney, who pronounced that the president was apologizing to terrorists, which was disputed in media reports, including a Journal local story).
Then, the GOP hammered away at questioning the Obama administration’s portrayal of the cause of the attack, demanding information intelligence experts warned could compromise investigations and reveal sensitive information.
At this point in the investigations, unfolding stories generally were found on the inside pages of the Journal (this was before the recent questioning of Susan Rice and former CIA Director David Petraeus). Significantly, however, the Journal put Libya back on the front page twice in the week running up to Election Day.
“Libya Details Could Fuel GOP” was the headline on Oct. 25.
Then on Oct. 27, in the same A1 slot, editors ran an “Analysis”: “Libya Questions Still Unanswered.” Giving these types of stories such prominence seemed to foreshadow a Romney endorsement, building up Obama criticism on Page One as a lead up to the endorsement that indeed followed.
Interestingly, two years ago Los Angeles Times reporters Paul Richter and Christi Parsons predicted Libya would be a problem for Obama in this year’s election campaign. The Journal ran their predicting story, under the headline “Libya a Political Risk for Obama.” At the time it seemed odd and even going out on a limb for the reporters to be projecting future problems — not for the U.S. as a whole, but for the president as a candidate. Now, one marvels at their prescience, and the Journal’s willingness to fall in and continue that meme.