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This Just In: Press Hates Obama, For Now

Kevin Drum at Mother Jones has a chart showing that in the last five months President Obama was hammered by the mainstream press harder than any of his GOP rivals; there was a 25 point gap between the percentage of his coverage that was positive and the negative stories.

These charts and other methods to referee the press are generally lame; assessing press coverage inevitably involved tricky qualitative questions.  How prominent was the story?  When something terrible happens, like Rick Perry’s debate performances or the Solyndra mess, is it ‘negative coverage’ when the press reports it?  Newspapers very friendly to JFK would have had to report on the Bay of Pigs, but they might have told the story less fully than outlets who opposed him, failing to nail down the extent of the President’s personal involvement and responsibility.  They would report, but not milk.  A negative story can have positive spin.

Even so, Drum is right; the media has soured on President Obama in recent months.  The liberal press in particular hated his approach to the budget negotiations; many journalists were more interested in writing about possible infringements of American civil rights than in celebrating the competence and judgement involved in the Yemen drone strikes.  The Carterization meme, that President Obama is out of touch and dithering rather than Olympian and visionary, has taken hold. Words that could not be mentioned in polite company in 2008 like “inexperienced” and “aloof” fill the air.  The truth that President Obama is more McGeorge Bundy than Mother Teresa has begun to sink in.

The problem is not, as Drum seems to imply, that the mainstream press is full of closet Republicans who can’t wait to turn on Obama the moment they sense weakness.  It is more that many in the press are convinced that Blue Liberal ideas and policies could solve all our problems if forcefully advocated and consistently applied.  When a Democrat gets into the White House and things aren’t going well, liberals are much more likely to blame the incompetence of the officeholder than the shortcomings of the ideology.  If he had tried harder, spoken more forcefully, negotiated less fecklessly, everything would be fine.

What you will not hear often in the torrent of liberal criticism now enveloping the White House, is that regardless of their intrinsic merit in a country in which self described liberals are a tiny minority (less than a fifth), liberal ideas don’t work very well as a governing platform.  A Congress seen as too liberal won’t get re-elected; a President seen as too liberal loses political authority and is steadily pushed to the right.

The mainstream media tone on Obama has lightened up since he decided to rebrand himself as a mild populist and ‘get tough’ with the GOP.  (Cynics seeing Obama do tough are reminded of Tom Lehrer’s “Fight Fiercely, Harvard” pep song, but that’s an issue for another day.)  If the poll numbers go up, we will hear much about the revived Obama presidency.  If they go down, the press will blame Obama for flawed execution, not the idea that populism could save his presidency.

Press bias is real in this country; Kevin Drum would not call it a left or even a liberal bias since from his point of view it is centrist and even a bit corporatist.  Fair enough.  It is also not monolithic.  The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, the three major networks and PBS/NPR are perceptibly different.  And any reporter, any paper, will gleefully toss ideology under the bus to secure a big enough scoop.

Efforts to measure bias are tricky, and none of them ever impressed me.  But if you want to predict how the tone of President Obama’s coverage will change, watch his success or lack of it at translating standard liberal ideas into law and policy.  The more he succeeds, the more he will be seen as ‘historic’, ‘visionary’ and, magic word of hope and wonder, ‘transformational’.  The progress will be hailed, the direction for the most part not questioned.

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  • Larry, San Francisco

    On press bias, have you looked at Tim Groseclose’s work Left Turn?
    Not without its problems but still pretty scholarly.

  • Glen

    “And any reporter, any paper, will gleefully toss ideology under the bus to secure a big enough scoop.”

    Unless, of course, that scoop involved Fast and Furious. The mainstream media (with the possible exception of CBS) is apparently so biased against armed self-defense that they will refuse to report any criminal government activity as long as government officials promise that their intentions were “honorable.”

  • Neil

    You say: “And any reporter, any paper, will gleefully toss ideology under the bus to secure a big enough scoop.”

    A few weeks ago I would have said the same thing. But watching the media’s lack of interest in the Fast and Furious scandal has me wondering. C’mon, a Cabinet-level operation that illegally ships firearms to Mexican drug cartels, then attempts to frame U.S. gun stores for it? The chance to bring down the Attorney General, possibly the (well-known) SecState, maybe even the President? How is this not a huge, interesting story?

  • Renfield

    Glen and Neil are correct. I don’t have the slightest doubt that if “Fast and Furious” had occurred under a Republican, the NY Times et alia would have assigned its bloodhound investigative reporters to bring back the President’s head on a platter.

    And what MSM reporter wouldn’t have jumped into the fray with relish? Bring a Republican President down, and you’ve found the Holy Grail. Right, Dan?

    I usually agree with WRM, but his assertion that reporters will jettison ideology to get a big enough scoop is no longer true. Most MSM reporters would look the other way even if they found out that Obama had trucked those guns to Mexico himself and then kept the cash.

  • Raul

    How about the fact that because he is *PRESIDENT* constantly making decisions he is open to more criticism than just a candidate. Especially when there are so many candidates that remove focus from one another.

    This is not to excuse Obama. I genuinely think he has been awful and will almost surely vote for whomever the opposition is. But the nature of the office makes any president, Republican or Democrat, the target of criticism. That makes surveys like this indicating media bias just plain ignorant.

  • T

    Dr. Mead,

    You wrote, “. . . any reporter, any paper, will gleefully toss ideology under the bus to secure a big enough scoop.” I must respectfully disagree.

    The press did not gleefully jump on the John Edwards affair while he was running for president and only reluctantly covered it after the story broke in the National Enquirer. Th same with Jeremiah Wright, Bill Ayers and even, to a lesser extent Tony Rezko. Nor are they rabidly following up on Gunwalker, Fast and Furious or Solyndra even though this latter is the subject of full fledged House investigation (not to mention that ANY of these aforementioned topics could create a new Woodward and Bernstein).

    I believe that you are correct in that liberals blame the messenger rather than the failure of liberal ideas, but I submit that the press have become so emotionally invested in Obama that even this dissension is but a pale version of what it would be if McCain (or perhaps even some “lesser” Democrat) were in the White House under the same current circumstances.

  • Tom Kinney

    This is so spot on it’s almost scary.

    Today Obama’s a populist, yesterday he was a centrist, and tomorrow, who knows, he may be an anarchist. He has more ideological disguises than a comic book spy has costumes. But which one is the real Obama? Is there a real Obama?

    Have you noticed the headlines for articles about Obama? Such as “Finally, Obama gets Tough–GOP in Big Trouble Now.” Then there’s that considerable section of the punditry that has morphed into unofficial Obama advice columnists: “What Obama has to do to Get America Back on His Side Is to_________.”

    Let’s add another element: when these modestly critical stories about Obama do come out, they’re almost always heavily salted with caveats. The caveats vary from, “but then look at how bad those Neanderthal conservatives are,” to “yeah but don’t forget the state of the economy when he took over.”

    As Mead points out, how can you measure for nuance like that?

    Neil, too, has a good point. Today’s liberal press is more notable for what it doesn’t report–especially what it doesn’t report with zest and zeal–than what it does report. Instead of being deliberately misleading, the media has switched gears and now ignores the stories it’s uncomfortable with. Or minimizing them into extinction. Both ploys give insufficient information, making it seem like these stories never happened. And that’s worked for them. Somewhat. But the new, contrary media has started to effectively deconstruct this ruse, exposing the MSM for the partisans they are.

    A good part of this new, mildly critical tone in the press is one of panic for fear of going down with Obama’s ship of state. Finally, some default wisdom from the MSM–however self-serving it might be.

    BTW, Drum is one of the most irritating writers out there, and Mother Jones is about as antiquated a publication as continues to exist this far into the 21st Century. Every article by Drum could easily bear the same title: Conservatives SUCK, Lefties RULE.

  • No one important

    As everyone said….F & F…..maybe it’s that the media is so biased…..that anything critical of obama feels like “hate”….

    Because if a republican had pulled something “felony stupid” like this….they would already have impeachment proceedings scheduled….

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