In keeping with the list-making mania of this time of year, Politico’s Dylan Byers made his own list of the “Top 10 media stories of 2012.” Because Politico has, almost by popular acclimation, become the most influential publication that covers—some might say that “over-covers”—the ins and outs of insider politics in Washington, it strikes me as a useful exercise to examine the underlying assumptions determining what makes a story “important” in the mind of a Washington insider. After all, it certainly doesn’t appear to be a story’s implications for policymaking or even its informed discussion of the issues that determine its value and ranking on Byers’s list. Still, a story’s designation as “important” does offer a window into what drives the coverage of Washington politics—and, if only by extension, policy itself.
Here are Byers’s choices of the past year’s top 10 stories, followed by what I hope are insightful explanatory comments of my own. Coming in at number…
10. John King invites the wrath of Gingrich
“CNN’s John King opened January’s Republican primary debate in Charleston, S.C. pledging to stay out of the way,” notes Byers. But he failed to do so by asking Newt Gingrich to respond to his ex-wife’s accusation that he had asked her for an open marriage. Gingrich, according to Byers, “responded with a fierce attack that saved his own reputation—he would go on to win the South Carolina primary—while dealing a considerable blow to the moderator.”
Gingrich Press Secretary R.C. Hammond claimed King’s question was an example of the “gotcha journalism” routinely employed by the mainstream media. Gingrich himself added that, “I think the destructive, vicious negative nature of much of the news media makes it harder to govern this country, harder to attract decent people to run for public office. I’m appalled you would begin a presidential debate on a topic like that.”
But ask yourself: Why in the world does this exchange between King and Gingrich qualify as a top story of 2012?
In a more sensible country—or even a sensible political party—Gingrich might have had a point, but in this case, all he had was a great deal of chutzpah. While it’s true that a candidate’s love life has no bearing on the kind of president he or she might be, we live in a country where politics has become a tributary of the entertainment industry, and as such, we feel entitled to eavesdrop on the love lives of the stars. Moreover, Byers does not mention that Gingrich famously attacked President Bill Clinton for his adulterous activities while partaking in some of his own as House Speaker. As the Clinton impeachment episode demonstrated, and virtually every 2012 Republican presidential candidate agreed, the private lives of presidential candidates became fair game for the media and for other candidates long ago.
Finally, for all the success ascribed by Byers to Gingrich’s attack, nowhere was King accused of inaccuracies. Once again we see conservatives attacking journalists for reporting on what they themselves have previously raised as an issue. But this flap did not matter a whit as far as who was going to be America’s next president. Newt Gingrich was never going to be president or nominee or anything like that. His entire campaign, similar to those of most of the GOP presidential hopefuls—particularly Herman Cain and Michele Bachmann—was just a media-fueled ego trip.
9. Brian Ross’s Tea Party error
“ABC News investigative reporter Brian Ross came under fire for the umpteenth time,” Byers notes, “after he reported that the suspect in the Aurora, Colo., theater shooting in July may have had connections to the tea party.” This claim, as it turned out, was erroneous.
One gets the distinct impression that either Byers (or his editors) must really have it in for Ross or they wish to demonstrate some extra special love for the Tea Party, because this is hardly one of the single most egregious inaccuracies of the year. What’s more, a relatively quick apology was issued for the misstatement. Yet Byers goes on to write that, “The episode not only added to Ross’s reputation as a reporter prone toward spectacular errors, it became a black mark for the network.”
In fact, a more significant error regarding the reporting of the Tea Party was the consistent overestimation of the popularity of its policy positions, to say nothing of their coherence—or, more accurately, their lack thereof. This was something that the mainstream media missed consistently, no outlet more so than Politico itself.
8. PBS capitalizes on Mitt Romney’s ‘Big Bird’ remark
We all remember when former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney invoked Big Bird during the first presidential debate, saying that, “I like PBS. I like Big Bird. I like you too,” he told PBS’s Jim Lehrer at the October debate in Denver. As Byers quickly points out, however, “[I]t was PBS that decided to seize on the remark and turn it into a promotional opportunity” with a series of statements and a media tour by Paula Kerger, its president and chief executive officer. President Barack Obama’s campaign then picked it up, too. Byers thinks that this “actually raised awareness and rekindled debates about the future of federal funding for public broadcasting.”
But, seriously, so what? So the candidates wasted their own and everyone else’s time discussing an issue that, according to its own reporting, constitutes about .00014 percent of the federal budget. Why in the world does Politico think this story is important, much less one of the top 10 media moments of the year? Heck if I know.
7. The celebrity of Nate Silver
Byers beats the drums awfully loudly here, claiming the following:
In 2012, no single media personality became a bigger antidote to liberal fears of a Romney victory than New York Times statistician Nate Silver. While reporters and pundits across the spectrum spent the final month of the campaign calling the race a coin toss, Silver’s projections, based primarily on his carefully curated aggregation of polling data, increasingly favored President Obama.
Furthermore, Byers sees in Silver’s defense of his method an apparently nefarious purpose: the promotion of his book, The Signal and the Noise. Byers goes on to note that, “The entertainment industry courted him for box-office analysis and public speaking gigs; he was feted at parties in New York and Los Angeles; President Obama even cracked a joke about him while pardoning the Thanksgiving turkey.”
Interestingly, Byers does not find room to mention that he was a vehicle for the know-nothing conservative attacks on Silver. Taking a bizarre swipe at what he called “the coffee-drinking NPR types of Seattle, San Francisco and Madison, Wis.” in an article titled “Nate Silver: One-term celebrity?” he reported that, “More than a few political pundits and reporters, including some of his own colleagues, believe Silver is highly overrated.” Byers never did explain what the flaws might be in Silver’s methods—nor what was so offensive about “NPR types.” Instead he chose to equate Silver’s deeply detailed mathematical calculations with the casual, uninformed attacks on Silver by the likes of MSNBC host Joe Scarborough—who insisted, without positing any evidence, that, “‘Anybody that thinks that this race is anything but a tossup right now is such an ideologue, they should be kept away from typewriters, computers, laptops and microphones for the next 10 days, because they’re jokes.’” When Silver’s predictions proved almost flawless on Election Day, it became clear where the true joke lay.
6. Roger Ailes tries to enlist Gen. Petraeus
Byers notes that in early December:
Bob Woodward revealed that Fox News president Roger Ailes had tried to recruit Gen. David Petraeus to run for president in the 2012 elections, offering a clear-cut and intriguing example of a media player trying to influence the political process. Had Petraeus jumped in to the race, Woodward reported, Ailes would have considered resigning as head of Fox to run the campaign while Rupert Murdoch, the chairman and CEO of News Corp, which owns Fox News, may have even chipped in some of his money.
Byers is right; this was indeed a big story. And give him credit for being right about why. True: Byers assertion that, “Woodward’s report was met with a collective shrug. Even Woodward’s Washington Post, which published the exclusive, relegated the story to its ‘Style’ section.” Even truer: Byers’s assertion that, “Had it been the president of any other news outlet, it would almost certainly have been a front-page story resulting perhaps in the end of a career due to the crossing of the observer-participant ethical line in journalism.” But we all know that Fox has no interest in such lines, as it is not really a news station—that, however, is something else entirely. The real question is why much of the time most members of the media pretend that Fox is a “real” news organization.
5. CNN, Fox News bungle the Obamacare ruling
“Throughout the year,” Byers notes, “there have been countless examples of news organizations falling on their face as they raced to break news milliseconds before the competition. But none was so memorable as CNN and Fox News’s bungled reports on the Supreme Court’s health care ruling in June, which epitomized how the media’s obsession with being first could come at the price of factual accuracy.” He notes that while CNN apologized and corrected its error, Fox News, which made the same mistake, “issued no such statement.”
Byers makes a good point regarding Fox. The real question here, however, is what makes reporting the news a few seconds sooner than the next guy so critical that reporters can’t be bothered to read the actual document upon which they are allegedly reporting? Journalism has always seen speed as being in conflict with accuracy, but when was it decided that the latter should be thrown under a bus in tribute to the former? And who made this decision? Certainly, it couldn’t have been the audience. Its members would have been happy to wait, say, 10 minutes in the service of being given true information about the health care law ruling.
4. Candy Crowley fact checks Mitt Romney
“CNN’s Candy Crowley inadvertently stole the spotlight at the second presidential debate,” according to Byers, “when she challenged Mitt Romney’s assertion about President Obama’s handling of the security situation at the U.S. diplomatic facility in Benghazi, Libya.” This was an unexpected move that drew fierce accusations of bias from Gov. Romney’s supporters. Byers adds that, “Like her colleague John King in South Carolina, Crowley quickly became the subject of the next day’s news cycle as footage of the exchange played throughout the night as Romney surrogates moved to work the refs.” He then goes on to quote those same refs as if they were credible sources: “‘She was wrong!’ Romney adviser Ed Gillespie told reporters in the spin room after the debate. ‘Candy Crowley had no business trying to fact-check in real time, because she was incorrect,’ Romney surrogate and former Gov. John Sununu told Fox News.” Weirder still, Byers insists that, “even Crowley seemed to acknowledge that she had erred.”
I have to admit, I don’t understand at all what Byers and Politico are trying to say here. That Crowley was wrong even though she was right? Is the argument using that infamous weasel word—“seemed”—to argue that Crowley acknowledged this? This is shameful nonsense. Crowley was correct; Gov. Romney was wrong. The real issue here is whether politicians should be allowed to lie at will without journalists having the right to inform their audience that a lie is a lie. Gov. Romney’s supporters were so used to most journalists playing the role of loyal transmission belts for their fibs that they forgot that not all of them were willing to play the game this way.
3. The rise of MSNBC
Byers thinks that 2012 “was the year that MSNBC cemented itself as the left’s answer to Fox News,” as it became “must-watch television for liberals around the country.” In insisting so, however, he ignores the following crucial point: Fox lies, and MSNBC doesn’t. I have no problem with opinionated news—or, one might argue, contextualized news, which is what I do here—but that is an important distinction between the two stations. MSNBC broadcasts 15—count ‘em, 15—hours weekly of the conservative former Republican Rep. Joe Scarborough, who, in the final moments of the 2012 election, became an increasingly unhinged Gov. Romney partisan. Tell me, how is that anything like Fox?
2. Karl Rove’s on-air meltdown
Byers writes, “The discord between fantasy and reality reached its climax on election night when Karl Rove repeatedly challenged Fox News after they called Ohio—the state that would decide the election—for President Obama, forcing Megyn Kelly to walk down a hallway in an awkward moment on live television to the Fox ‘decision desk’ where they explained their methodology on-air and informed her, once again, that Obama had won.”
True as far as it goes, but what Byers fails to note is that Rove’s conniption fit may have had something to do with all the down-ballot Rove-funded candidates he was hoping could be saved if Republican voters thought there might still be a chance for their main man. Rove may be evil, but he’s not stupid. And he’s not a journalist. Which, come to think of it, is another issue about Fox.
1. Sandra Fluke and Rush Limbaugh
According to Byers, “No single media story was as highly charged as the face-off between conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh and Sandra Fluke, the Georgetown law student who he called a ‘slut’ after she testified about birth control.”
A “face-off?” Really? When the world’s most famous radio host attacks, in virtually the most vulgar terms imaginable, a young woman who is merely testifying on behalf of public policy, I would humbly suggest that perhaps “drive-by shooting” would be a better metaphor. Then again, the media, especially the Politico-influenced media, sure do love conflict, and they would prefer to play up the personality angle of any story at the expense of the substance that lays behind it. Limbaugh argued that any woman whose health care plan provided birth control should be forced to provide pornographic videos of her sexual activities for his amusement. Is there a single better example of how low—whether morally, intellectually, or politically—conservatives have fallen in the Obama era? Can you find in any other story a more dogged commitment to the need of journalists to create a false equivalence between the two sides?
I know the above Top 10 list may be depressing, but it is, fortunately, only temporary—at least in its specifics. After all, remember when Sarah Palin ruled Politico’s world? What the heck ever happened to her?
Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a CUNY distinguished professor of English and journalism at Brooklyn College. He is also “The Liberal Media” columnist for The Nation. His most recent book is The Cause: The Fight for American Liberalism from Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama.