A rejoinder to today’s David Carr piece wondering why righties worry about the near-entirety of “nonpartisan” media covering for Obama’s failures when we have Rush Limbaugh and Fox News on our side. Real simple: Because millions of voters, especially those in the middle who tend to decide elections, don’t have the time or interest in politics to seek out overtly partisan news sources. They take what’s fed to them by major news brands (network news, top papers), virtually all of which profess objectivity. For all the grumbling we do here about MSNBC, a two-minute segment on the NBC Nightly News that pays more attention to Romney’s “gaffes” than to security failures at the Benghazi consulate probably does more damage to Republican chances — not to mention American national security — than an hour of Chris Matthews ranting about whatever. And for all our complaints about how a particular story is unfairly harsh to Romney, by far the more damaging bias, I think, is when the coverage is unduly disinterested in serious errors made by Obama. Walter Russell Mead makes the point with an especially glaring example:
If George W. Bush were president now, and had ordered the surge and was responsible for the strategic decisions taken and not taken in Afghanistan over the last four years, the mainstream press would be rubbing our noses in his miserable failures and inexcusable blunders 24/7. The New York Times and the Washington Post would be treating us to pictures of every fallen soldier. The PBS Newshour would feature nightly post-mortems on “America’s failed strategies in the Afghan War” and every arm-chair strategist in America would be filling the op-ed pages with the brilliant 20/20 hindsight ideas that our pathetic, clueless, failed president was too dumb and too cocky to have had.
There would be no end to the woes and the recriminations. There would be the most moving and eloquent examples of hand wringing in the New York Review of Books, elegantly demonstrating that the cretinous assumptions and moral failings that led Bush into his failed Afghan policy weren’t his alone, but reflected broader, deeper failings in America itself. One is almost sorry for the sake of the authors of these diatribes that Bush is gone; the failure of our Afghan strategy is so sweeping, so unavoidable, that it would be the best possible backdrop against which to paint a stirring portrait of a failed president misleading a flawed people. What works of polemical literature have been lost, what inspired jeremiads will never be penned, what scalding portraits of America’s inherent flaws will never see the light of day because W left the White House too soon.
He’s indicting the press twice there: Once for not being hard enough on O in matters of war and again for being overly hard on W, but both failings are explained by the same impulse. Same goes for Caddell’s point in the clip about Obama merrily jetting off to Vegas for a fundraiser the day after Chris Stevens was murdered in Benghazi. Under a Republican president, that’s worth three days of bloody-shirt waving in the press; under Obama, it’s five minutes of chin-pulling.
I think Joel Pollak is onto something in arguing that the media’s taken to treating Romney as the de facto incumbent, although I can’t decide if that’s something they’re doing consciously or by instinct. My hunch is that, for some of them, it’s less a deliberate strategy to put Romney on the defensive than it is a habit they’re falling into because they’re itching to return to adversarial/watchdog duty. Their partisan leanings have made that too difficult for four years, but now they’ve got a person on the other side who’s close to winning the presidency to whom they can speak “truth.” So President Romney’s statement the morning after the embassy attack is a Very Big Deal with Very Serious Implications for the race, but Obama blowing town to raise some money in Vegas later that night is “curious” or whatever. Rest assured, if Romney wins, Afghanistan will once again be a matter of pressing national interest subject to “grim milestone” watches on the news rather than the very minor foreign-policy subplot that it’s become. In fact, I doubt most members of the media would deny that. One thing I’ve noticed as media watchdogging has exploded online is that they’re much more open about admitting which way the press, as a whole, leans. There are too many examples of it to deny it, so why bother denying it? They’ll cop to it in the aggregate, so long as their own personal integrity isn’t questioned. Now if only they’d do something about it.