Media Matters

There We Went Again

Confronting a huge yet ignored lesson of Election 2012 -- the Obama media's enduring power. 

By and 11.16.12

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Most observers of the 2008 presidential campaign -- even including some liberals after the fact -- were shocked and appalled by the media's pro-Barack Obama sycophancy. Unfortunately, the intentional and unintentional advocacy of the media on behalf of Obama was even worse in 2012.

There are many reasons why the conservative movement failed to achieve electoral success this year, but perhaps one of the most significant is the enduring power and influence of the left-dominated "mainstream" media. The 2012 cycle demonstrated that left-wing journalists have far more sway on Americans' opinions than many conservatives have been willing to admit.

While the right's ability to access mass audiences has increased substantially in recent decades with the advent of talk radio, cable television, and the Internet, its audience reach is still tiny compared to the hundreds of millions who consume news generated by the liberal mainstream media.

It is true that the audience share of these supposedly objective outlets has decreased in recent years, but that hardly means they have lost their ability to persuade people, especially with working journalists now ever more willing to throw their self-styled proclamations of objectivity to the wind.

It was one thing for the press to refuse to vet Senator Obama after he threw his name into the ring in February 2007, largely ignoring his astonishingly weak record as both a state and U.S. senator while refusing to properly expose his connections to domestic terrorists Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn, his real estate dealings with the felonious Tony Rezko, and his many years sitting in the pews listening to the America-hating Reverend Jeremiah Wright.

It was also total malpractice the way the media blamed 2008's financial collapse on George W. Bush and Republicans while completely ignoring the two pieces of legislation that directly caused the housing and credit bubbles -- the Financial Services Modernization Act of 1999 and the Commodity Futures Modernization Act of 2000 -- both signed into law by Bill Clinton, as well as the Community Reinvestment Act's federally mandated lowering of lending standards.

But it's quite another thing how the press behaved once the man they aided and abetted during the campaign was sworn in. From that point, many in the media appeared to believe it was their job to assist him in advancing his agenda even if that involved their providing false information to the public or not bothering to report administration failures along the way.

Consider that within days of Obama's election, MSNBC host Chris Matthews made his intentions clear stating he believed it was his duty to aid the new president:

"I want to do everything I can to make this thing work, this new presidency work [...] Yeah, it is my job. My job is to help this country."

Within months of the new president's inauguration, a fine example of the press's complicity was demonstrated by how it initially ignored opponents of Obama -- a.k.a. the Tea Party -- and then dishonestly depicted its members as racists.

When a different, administration-backed movement emerged in 2011 advocating policies in line with the current White House resident, its members were fawned and gushed over as the violence and lawlessness that took place at their rallies went unreported.

At the same time as the Republican presidential nomination process was beginning, the media felt it was their responsibility to eviscerate and attack all the candidates.

Recall that after sexual harassment allegations were made against Herman Cain by Politico last November, ABC, CBS, and NBC ran more stories about this in the ensuing seven days than they did about Obama's connections to Ayers, Dorhn, Rezko, and Wright throughout the entire 2008 campaign.

But the most repugnant behavior by the media was yet to come.

In January, the White House released a new edict concerning companies -- including religious organizations -- being required to provide free contraceptives to their employees even if it violated their religious beliefs. Prior to this, there had been absolutely no discussion of birth control from Republican presidential candidates. Yet this set off a firestorm of media attacks on Republicans and their so-called "War on Women."

For the next ten months, the press pounded the previously non-existent issue right up to Election Day when 55 percent of women voted for Obama, likely giving him the extra votes he needed to win.

But even more egregious was how the press collectively ignored the changing story about what happened in our consulate in Benghazi when four Americans including our ambassador were killed. If Obama had been a Republican, the media would have demolished him on this matter, likely turning it into the October surprise that completely changed the direction of the campaign.

Yet because they believe it's their responsibility to cover for the President they helped get elected, they swept this story under the rug hoping that it wouldn't explode until after November 6.

And how about the way the press handled Hurricane Sandy?

Rather than expose the magnitude of the disaster and the clear failings of FEMA, Obama's media gushed and fawned over his handling of the situation, and were almost orgasmic when New Jersey Governor Chris Christie praised the President's response. Never mind the millions of people in the area that went without power for days on end. Even now, the devastation is immense. Residents in New Jersey and Staten Island are irate as they shiver in the cold while filling out reams of paperwork.

One might say this was Obama's Katrina. Arguably it was even worse, since the former mayor of New Orleans, Ray Nagin, refused to issue a mandatory evacuation order for residents and the then-governor of Louisiana dragged her feet at declaring a state of emergency until just two days before the storm made landfall.

Mistakes were made in dealing with both hurricanes and the federal bureaucracy is a beast which no president can instantaneously mobilize to aid citizens. In the case of Obama, however, the press has been uninterested in publicizing these mistakes and failures. For Sandy, once the media got the pictures of Democrat Obama in his situation room and meeting with Christie out, the suffering that continued was irrelevant.

Yet likely the most disgusting aspect of the press's Obama coverage has been related to the economy. Given the current unemployment rate as well as the staggering increases in food stamp usage and welfare recipients, it is almost inconceivable that Romney didn't win a landslide on Election Day.

Within the Romney campaign, there was a widespread awareness of the problem of liberal media bias. For the most part, the candidate and his staff tried to work around the issue, by hammering the economy issue almost non-stop. At every campaign stop and during every debate, Romney talked about the nation's poor state of affairs. Unfortunately for him, it was all for naught because he was utterly unable to get the self-styled mainstream media to tell the story to regular Americans.

Despite the Romney campaign's attempts to spotlight the economy and Obama's policies, the press lost all interest in the subject. In 2008 when gas prices spiked, the three television networks made sure to pin the blame on then-president George W. Bush. In 2011 when prices climbed sharply again, there was only one mention of Obama by the same networks. In the latter years of the Bush administration, the same journalists who now try to spin 7.9 percent unemployment as progress derided a 5 percent rate as a "jobless recovery." And forget about getting journalists to talk about the 35 percent decline in Americans' net worth from 2007 or the huge problem of underemployment, one of the worst effects of Obamacare.

No matter how you slice it, if Obama were a Republican, the press would have so savaged him for his failures that this year's Election Day would have ended very differently. Instead, our 44th president has been given four more years largely thanks to an adoring, servile media.

Of course, not everyone believes this is the case. MSNBC's Joe Scarborough said last week that Republicans need to stop blaming the media. This isn't at all surprising coming from someone who is now completely ensconced in that media. The Republican-bashing and Obama-loving that was commonplace on Morning Joe during this election cycle began to resemble the worst sycophancy broadcast on MSNBC during primetime.

BUT BENEATH SCARBOROUGH'S SELF-SERVICE, there is something Republicans should consider: Romney did indeed receive fewer votes than McCain in 2008 and fewer than Kerry in 2004. As Obama got about eight million fewer votes this year than he did in 2008, this was indeed an election was Romney's to lose.

Think about it as a football game where one team expected that if it could hold the opposition to a certain number of points, and given the strength of its offense, it would win. When you accomplish your defensive goal and still lose because of your turnovers and inefficiency when you have the ball, you've got to take some of the blame for the loss.

Election Day showed that the GOP knows how to win House seats, but is less competent at getting out the vote in Senate and executive branch races. This is likely because national media have a larger impact on statewide and national races than local House races where a favorably gerrymandered district is the strongest advantage a candidate can have.

This being the case, exposing liberal media bias and finding ways of reaching people who are not interested in the conservative "alternative media" structure have become even more critical to our political system.

Consider how close the votes were in many of the battleground states. More accurate and impartial press reports about the economy, the bogus War on Women, and Benghazi, for example, could have meant the difference in the final results.

Beyond this, the 2012 election cycle will go down as the one where old-fashioned television advertising didn't accomplish what it used to in the past. If it had, Obama would have been making the concession speech, not Romney.

Instead of attacking the left's media outposts and creating its own mainstream outlets, the right directed its main media expenditure on purchasing television, radio, and direct mail advertising. Exclusively doing this is a bad strategy for the following reasons:

  1. Every dollar in ad buys is a dollar into the hands of the very same media that attack conservative beliefs and candidates. There is no need to subsidize one's enemies.
  2. While advertising can be effective at communicating and persuading, it cannot be as effective as unlabeled news content that favors one candidate. People have not only become jaded about ads generally, but they are increasingly able to avoid seeing them at all thanks to the proliferation of DVRs and ad blocking technologies. Ignoring junk mail is as simple as tossing it into the trash.
  3. Money spent on ads is very short-lived. Once the campaign has been exhausted, its impact is virtually non-existent. By contrast, operating a mainstream news outlet like a local television station or news website can actually be profitable and therefore self-sustaining. More than a billion dollars on advertising was spent in 2012 trying to defeat Barack Obama. That money ended up earned virtually zero return.
  4. Over-relying on advertising is also a less effective way of developing media talent. News websites or TV stations need a lot of writers, editors, and technicians in order to function. Putting a political ad together rarely requires more than 10 people.
  5. Besides having a much lower return, ad buys cost far more than creating media properties, particularly online ones.

This is not to say that spending money toward maximizing base turnout doesn't have its place, but that such strategies have effectively reached the point of diminishing returns. Right-leaning donors might therefore want to devote more attention to creating more conservatives in addition to trying to motivate existing ones.

WHILE MILLIONS OF PEOPLE can now obtain news that is not hostile to right-leaning perspectives, they still must actively seek out such information because it can only be found in the "alternative media." Many on the right think having their own media is sufficient. It's not, given that the left not only has its own alternative media, but completely dominates the "mainstream" media.

Even though the influence and popularity of the mainstream media have fallen in its traditional venues of print and broadcast television, the left-wing media establishment is also in control of the rapidly growing Internet news market and the cable television market. Fox News and MSNBC aside, the cable market is entirely controlled by the left: CNN, HLN, Current, CNBC (news side), Comedy Central, and all the highest-rated entertainment channels that venture occasionally into politics lean leftward.

To some readers it may come as a shock to learn that the left owns and operates all of the most significant news sites such as Yahoo, MSN, Google News, and Wikipedia. The news side of the web is also dominated by the online presence of big-time traditional players such as CNN, the New York Times, ABC, and Politico.

The left dominates the social media scene as well. While it is true that some on the right have been able to use Facebook and Twitter effectively to push messages and spur activism, the ownership and top management of both companies lean hard to the left.

This has very real consequences such as the deep financial and technological collaboration that Facebook freely gave to the Obama presidential campaigns and the continued bias that Twitter demonstrates by directing new users to follow left-wing celebrities and politicians almost to the exclusion of their right-leaning counterparts.

The left's dominance of news production helps it in the social media environment as well since many of the stories that people post to Facebook are actually things they happened to read on another website. Since the left controls the vast majority of the most popular national and regional news websites, this filters back into the Facebook environment.

Unfortunately, the right's power elite has completely failed to understand the import of this situation. Too many conservatives think that because they have Fox News and a handful of major talk shows and websites, somehow the power of the liberal mainstream media is no longer relevant. Because they don't care what's in the New York Times they think the Grey Lady has become inconsequential.

Nothing could be from the truth. The painful reality is the right's tremendously inferior media reach means that conservative ideas remain irrelevant to most Americans. Once again, the 2012 election proved this point in spades.

Most Americans knew almost nothing about the attack on the U.S. consulate in Libya or the failed gun-running operation Fast and Furious, this despite the fact that these stories were talked about on an almost daily basis on the Fox News Channel, talk radio, and conservative blogs.

Because relatively few Americans are actually exposed to conservative ideas, it is fair to say that the 2012 elections were not a mass rejection of conservatism nor were they proof that Americans have somehow moved to the left. This is not a "changing electorate"; in truth, a plurality of Americans have favored Democrats and their policies since the days of FDR. The wins that Republicans managed to achieve since that time were primarily due to appealing candidates and a ground game that was better able to get right-leaning voters out to vote.

In 2008 and 2012, the left responded to those successes.

After the failure of Democrats to take back Congress in the 2002 midterm elections and the John Kerry loss in 2004, the left vowed that it would never again be disadvantaged at promulgating its ideas to the public. As we reported for the Capital Research Center two months before Obama was first elected president:

The left's inability to articulate a national message has frustrated its theorists and donors for many years, but especially following the 2000 and 2004 presidential election losses. Despite massively increasing the size of its financial pool, the left was not able to secure the White House for candidates Al Gore and John Kerry. After Kerry conceded in 2004, liberal frustration led to the creation of a fake map that mocked right-of-center America, deriding those parts of the nation that voted for President George W. Bush as "Jesusland." [...]

The financiers of the left were forced to reexamine their assumptions. Big donors such as George Soros, his friend Progressive Insurance chairman Peter B. Lewis, the savings and loan tycoons Herbert and Marion Sandler and other prominent figures, especially in Silicon Valley and Hollywood, faced up to their electoral defeats and reached a startling conclusion: Funding partisan politics may not be the best way to enact a political agenda.

The money men realized that while elections are important, they are only steps in a much longer process. Something more fundamental would have to occur before liberal candidates like Gore and Kerry could convince the public that their ideas were best for America. Americans would first have to grow accustomed to left-wing political messages-and that would require a more radical transformation of the media, one requiring massive capital investments in institutions that would create a media environment hospitable to far left ideas.

Their strategy clearly worked. Combined with the left's massive efforts to protect their own get-out-the-vote effort, the left has now won three of the four elections since Bush's defeat of Kerry. Because the demographics have always been against them, Republican candidates have much less room for tactical error. With the media environment stacked against them so heavily, it is fair to say that any one of the mistakes that have been identified could indeed be the proximate cause of Romney's loss. The ultimate cause for the Obama victory is that conservatives have failed to make themselves culturally relevant to low-information voters.

Liberals have learned from conservatives. The question now is whether the right can learn from the left. While imperfect, the right's policy and electoral efforts are far superior to its media and messaging institutions. Having more favorable media environments at the state and national levels will not guarantee victories for conservative candidates, but it will make their jobs of persuading the public much easier. People are not persuaded to ideas so much as acculturated to them.

Conservatives frequently complain about how America’s cultural institutions are inhospitable to their values yet they spend almost all of their money on think tanks and campaigns. If they wish for that situation to change, they need to change their priorities. Focusing solely on government is not the solution.

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About the Author

Matthew Sheffield is the president of Dialog New Media, a marketing and media firm specializing in building mass audiences for clients. He is the founder and editor of NewsBusters.org, based at the Media Research Center.

About the Author

Noel Sheppard is owner of Secure Legacy, a legal and financial estate planning firm. He is a freelance writer and the associate editor of NewsBusters.org.