What is the media’s role in covering a two-year presidential race? You’d think it might involve producing newsworthy stories about the candidates and fact-checking the claims they make about their campaigns. But what most reporters tend to do is buy into a single, jointly agreed-upon narrative about each candidate that is understood by all sophisticates to stand in for the actual person who is trying to be president.
The campaign tries to define that narrative from the start, and if it fails to live up to it—or screws up in other ways—the reporters use it to bring the candidate down. When the narrative works, however, reporters describe themselves as literally incapable of resisting it. And when the facts don’t fit, so much for the facts.
So in the spirit of fact-checking the appointed fact-checkers, here’s a spot-check of the leading four candidates, their stories, and the media’s stories about those stories.
Leading in this latest poll among Republican primary voters with twice as much support as any other candidate, Rudy’s spin is that he’s America’s competent, can-do 9/11 mayor. Marc Santora’s New York Times article, “Giuliani Says Nation at War Requires Him,” gives a glimpse of the mayor’s attitude: “What they say in Washington is not going to affect the fact that there are terrorists around the world that are planning to come here and kill us,” Gilulani said. “It is something I understand better than anyone else running for president.” How does the journalist respond? For much of the piece, Santora plays along. Questions about Rudy’s actual screw-ups during the period leading up to 9/11—locating the city’s emergency response unit inside the likely target, for instance, and failing to ensure communication capabilities between the police and firemen—go unmentioned.
Instead we get, “Sept. 11 was a constant backdrop, and as Mr. Giuliani promoted his vision of a forceful foreign policy that calls for the United States to continue slugging it out in Iraq, he let his audiences know that his was an outlook forged by fire.” We also get a little piece of playing to base by, um, lying, as the candidate “casually lumped Iran with al-Qaeda.”
“Mr. Giuliani was asked in an interview to clarify that, inasmuch as Iran had no connection to the Sept. 11 attacks. Further, most of its people are Shiites, whereas al-Qaeda is an organization of Sunnis. ‘They have a similar objective,’ he replied, ‘in their anger at the modern world.’ In other words, he said, they hate America.” Score one for fact-checking reporters. But shouldn’t this article have been headlined, “9/11 Mayor Not Sure Who Did It?”
Senator John McCain
The New Republic’s Eve Fairbanks recently catalogued John McCain’s fall from grace as frontrunner in the running. But, The L.A. Times retells once again McCain’s Vietnam experiences—without spending too much time on the war itself, of course—and paints McCain as still being Mr. Maverick of 2000. “I’d rather lose the campaign than lose the war,” McCain said. “So I recognize what’s at stake, but I can’t worry about it. The second thing is, how can you really with a straight face walk into a town hall meeting and not talk about the issue that is costing American lives even as we speak?” True, but it matters what one says about the war as well. There is no mention, for instance, that McCain—incredibly to anyone familiar with the place—insisted he could walk through Baghdad without a military escort, faced media criticism media in Iraq and from Iraqis themselves, and shortly thereafter walked through Baghdad with 100 troops as bodyguards.
Ditto The Politico in an exclusive preview of a McCain speech entitled “McCain: Dems’ Iraq Stance ‘Reckless.’” (If you weren’t one those smart editors of The Politico, you might actually think it relevant to mention his trip to Iraq…)
For anyone still buying McCain’s straight talk image, take a look at Adam Nagourney’s recent New York Times blog post where he talks to McCain about AIDS and elicits this insight from the man who would be president:
“Q: ‘But you would agree that condoms do stop the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. Would you say: “No, we’re not going to distribute them,” knowing that?’ Mr. McCain: (Twelve-second pause) ‘Get me Coburn’s thing, ask Weaver to get me Coburn’s paper that he just gave me in the last couple of days. I’ve never gotten into these issues before.’”
That talk is about as straight as one of Mark Foley’s emails… Now on to the Democrats.
Senator Hillary Clinton
The Clinton juggernaut has been a key narrative in the media for a long time now, and it seems to work. Clinton’s campaign has encouraged the air of inevitability about her nomination, and if you read this Wall Street Journal article, you can see that investment paying off.
At the same time, Clinton wants to portray herself as an outsider and a trailblazer, which led the Associated Press to print the spin, “Clinton advisers insist her conflicting identities are a sign of strength.”
But after Barack Obama’s fundraising success in the last quarter, the Clinton/inevitability narrative began to lose its proverbial steam. “[Obama’s] strong fundraising numbers have shaken the idea that Clinton is unbeatable, perhaps freeing her to engage more spontaneously on the campaign trail.” Or as they say out in the Valley, “it’s all good.”
A more subversive Clinton meme is that she is a panderer, hedging her bets with every vote she takes and statement she makes, most particularly in national security and most explicitly with her 2002 vote on Iraq. But Michael Crowley wrote an eye-opening piece upsetting this story by arguing convincingly that Hillary’s been a hawk all along. And it’s time for us to deal with that fact, for better or worse.
Senator Barack Obama
We are witnessing a battle between the campaign and the media to portray Obama as a new kind of politician, once whose relative lack of experience is actually an asset since he is not caught in the web of Washington’s ways. Yet Greg Sargent catches the problem with the lack-of-experience meme over at The Horses’ Mouth.
An AP article asked, “Is Obama all style and little substance?” “Yes,” the article seems to conclude, but it does so without even considering the policy speeches Obama’s given or the two books he’s written. (More, perhaps than George W. Bush has even read.)
As for Obama’s other story, that he’s beyond ideology, well, what does that really mean? His Americans for Democratic Action record is 95, which is pretty damn liberal. (And believe me, I mean that in a good way.) In fact, Obama does have a case for difference. It’s not just his upbringing, growing up black without his father in Hawaii and Indonesia, but also his history on the ground in Chicago as a community organizer.
The New Republic’s Ryan Lizza traced this history to demonstrate Obama’s commitment to getting things done. And The National Journal’s Hotline catches Obama intervening in an city council race to pay back a Chicago pol who had his back during his Senate run. In other words, he’s not the neophyte much of the media narrative would have us believe.
With political experience as with political journalism, it’s the quality, not the quantity, that counts. Let’s hope things improve during the next two years. Lord knows, America can’t afford the kind of coverage that allowed swing voters to decide that George W. Bush would be a moderate and steady presence, ruling by consensus—a narrative that Karl Rove managed to sell reporters not once, but twice.
Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow of the Center for American Progress and the author of six books. His popular blog, “Altercation,” has moved from MSNBC.com to Media Matters. The new URL is http://mediamatters.org/altercation/.
Research assistance: Tim Fernholz