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Media Circles the Wagons Amid Accusations of Bias Against Romney

Politico may have ulterior motives for accusing the Washington Post and New York Times of bias against Romney. But they also have a point.

5:30 PM, May 31, 2012 • By MARK HEMINGWAY
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This morning Politico made the worst mistake a mainstream media outlet can make—acknowledging the blindingly obvious truth there is a pronounced media bias against Republicans, specifically Mitt Romney. Predictably, there has been some circling of the wagons. Woe be unto us if the the defenseless Washington Post and New York Times credibility erodes to the point where the center-left has less of an information stranglehold.

Oddly, GQ is the publication defending the sacred honor of America's two most influential media outlets with a piece titled, "Five Points About Politico's Hatchet Job On NYT and WaPo" by Devin Gordon. Before I start piling on, let me say that I read GQ and have liked Gordon's writing in the past. But, alas, this piece merits some special attention. From the first paragraph:

The evidence: The Times wrote a mean story about Ann Romney's equestrian hobby! And The Post wrote a mean story about Mitt Romney's teenage bullying of a maybe-gay kid! And they both ignored all those juicy weed-smoking details from the new David Maraniss biography! (Never mind that Maraniss works for the Post, and the Times did cover it...) GOP operatives smell bias, and goshdarnit, they're right!

If Maraniss works for the Postthen why didn't his own paper cover Obama's pot-smoking high school days? (I can only find the Post mentioning it in this blog post on their website.) Considering the fact they didn't highlight his reporting, isn't the fact Maraniss works for the Post even more damning? Especially in light of the Post front-paging a story on Romney's hazing of other kids in prep school nearly 50 years ago? As for mentioning that the Times did cover Obama's years as a stoner, you have to make a pretty concerted effort to dismiss the actual point Politico made in their article, which is that not all coverage is created equal:

On the front page of its Sunday edition, the New York Times gave a big spread to Ann Romney spending lots of time and tons of money on an exotic genre of horse-riding. The clear implication: The Romneys are silly rich, move in rarefied and exotic circles, and are perhaps a tad shady.

Only days earlier, news surfaced that author David Maraniss had unearthed new details about Barack Obama’s prolific, college-age dope-smoking for his new book, “Barack Obama: The Story” — and the Times made it a brief on A15.

So a front page story equals a brief on page A15. Never mind that Ann Romney's hobby is perhaps even less relevant to the election than Obama's high school days (though I don't think the fact Obama was a huge stoner in high school is all that big a deal to begin with). Moving on to point number one of five in the piece:

Any story about the relative fairness of candidate vetting that doesn't mention, even once, Jeremiah Wright or Bill Ayers (or even Obama's shady real estate pal Tony Rezco[sic]--remember him? Read all about him in The Times in March 2008!) cannot and should not be taken seriously. It displays right off the bat that its authors have fully swallowed the GOP meme that Obama's past wasn't sufficiently examined in 2008. So insufficiently, in fact, that even before Obama was his party's nominee he had to give a nationally televised speech disowning his former pastor. (Incidentially, The Times's Jodi Kantor wrote a long story about Obama's relationship with Wright in April 2007! A search of the Times's archives for Wright yields more than 2950 results.)

When GQ writes "Tony Rezco[sic]--remember him?" that's unintentionally revealing. I bet a lot of people do need a refresh on Rezko. In all the hyperventilating about Romney's wealth--Dressage! Car elevators!--how often does the media point out Obama's not only not poor, but that he lives in a $1.6 million house that he got through a series of really shady deals with a guy convicted on numerous charges of public corruption?

As for Ayers and the implication that Obama's relationship was fully reported on in 2008, that's undercut by the fact that at the time the New York Times swatted down reports that Obama and Ayers were more deeply involved the Obama campaign was letting on. No less than David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker, reported in his book The Bridge that, contra the Times's reporting, the original reports that Ayers played a key role in Obama's path to power were true. That revelation, of course, came after Obama was elected.

As for Jeremiah Wright, again Gordon makes the mistake of conflating the quantity and quality of coverage. The Jodi Kantor profile of Jeremiah Wright from 2007 doesn't report anything controversial. And if Obama was forced into giving a speech disowning his pastor, that wasn't due to pressure the Times put on him. It wasn't until September 28, 2008, months after Obama's speech distancing himself from Wright, that a Times news story ever printed the words "God damn America." And have the Times and Post followed up on Jeremiah Wright's recent revelations an Obama associate offered him a $150,000 bribe? Nope.

I'll grant Gordon point number two that the Times's expose of Obama's "kill list" is an example of tough but fair coverage of the president, except to say that it's criticism of the president mostly from the left and it hardly is enough to claim their coverage is balanced. Moving on to point number three:

Politico dismisses Washington Post reporter (and, full disclosure, occasional GQ contributor) Jason Horowitz's Romney bullying story with a wave of its hand, not even entertaining the reasons why it struck such a chord, and why it so spooked the Romney team that it responded within hours the morning it was published. The reason is simple: lots of people read the story and thought, "Wow, I did a lot of dumb crap in high school but I never would've done that." The incident spoke to a core suspicion some seem to have about Romney, and that the Romney campaign is clearly worried about: that he's a rich guy with a nasty streak, and that's who he's always been. We can debate how much stock readers / voters should place in such a long-ago incident, but that's for readers / voters to ultimately decide. Surely we're not debating whether the story should've been published, are we, Politico?

You know what? A lot of people are reading this paragraph thinking, "Wow, I did a lot of dumb crap in high school but I never would've been part of the Choom Gang." Yet, somehow Romney's prep school idiocy is on the front page of the Post while the same paper ignored new revelations that Obama was a pretty awful role model in his high school days.

Then we have this amazing sentence: "The incident spoke to a core suspicion some seem to have about Romney, and that the Romney campaign is clearly worried about: that he's a rich guy with a nasty streak, and that's who he's always been." Pro-tip: Whenever a journalist writes "some", just assume he's speaking in first person. I was under the impression that the rap on Romney was that he was a milquetoast Mormon -- a guy you literally couldn't have a beer with, not a guy with a nasty streak.

The ending of this paragraph is also a total cop out. "We can debate how much stock readers / voters should place in such a long-ago incident, but that's for readers / voters to ultimately decide. Surely we're not debating whether the story should've been published, are we, Politico?" So just print any old allegation, and readers can decide? Never mind that the whole gay bullying angle was clearly overblown and brings a great deal of modern day cultural baggage to an incident that's in all likelihood irrelevant to the current liberal cause celebre. As for "we're not debating whether the story should've been published," you know who did debate that? The family of Romney's alleged bully victim, who told ABC News the story was "factually incorrect" and "If he were still alive today, he would be furious [about the story]." And do I need to mention the shady way that the Post handled corrections to the story?

Ok, now point four of five:

More on the bullying story: one crucial reason to publish a story like Horowitz's is to see how a campaign will respond to it. The response tends to be as revealing as the story that spawned it. Politico knows this better than anyone. And one of the reasons that the prep-school bullying story lingered as long as it did was because of ... Romney's evasive response to it. First he said he had no recollection of the incident, then he apologized as though he did. It seemed slippery, vaguely dishonest, lacking conviction--and it came the day after President Obama spoke out in favor of gay marriage, a contrast that wasn't lost on anyone who writes about politics for a living. Which includes Politico! As the Poynter Institute's Andrew Beaujon notes, Politico sure did spend a lot of time covering that bullying story it so abhors.

Wait, what? Media outlets are justified in publishing unduly negative stories because forcing the campaign to respond is "revealing"? Excuse me? This is not journalism--this tactic has far more in common with the LBJ school of leveling accusations against political opponents for the sole reason of having your opponent deny them. As for Romney's response, I don't know where Gordon is coming from. Personally, I didn't think the story lingered that long, considering the initial splash it made, largely because a) the reporting was over-the-top and a bit slipshod and b) Romney's response was a model of how to handle the situation. He apologized immediately, even though he--quite plausibly--said he didn't remember an incident that occurred almost 50 years ago.

But maybe I'm inclined to give Romney the doubt because of my personal biases. Then again, if you doubt that Gordon isn't biased against Romney here, just go to the next sentence: "It seemed slippery, vaguely dishonest, lacking conviction--and it came the day after President Obama spoke out in favor of gay marriage, a contrast that wasn't lost on anyone who writes about politics for a living." Next to Romney's prompt apology, Obama's gay marriage reversal was a real profile in courage. As it happens, I write about politics for a living, and I seem to recall many journalists were appropriately cynical about Obama's expedient change of heart. But even if the press isn't always reflexively defensive of the president, does anyone think it's a coincidence that the Post's gay bullying story came out immediately in the wake of Obama's gay marriage reversal? And what does that say about Gordon's contention that it's unfair to suggest the media are biased against Romney?

Point five, I'll just note, is interesting and insightful, such that Josh Marshall at TPM also seized on this

Let’s get macro for a moment. This Politico story was written by Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen, two people at the very top of the organization’s masthead. It’s effectively an unsigned house editorial. And it levied a charge of journalistic malpractice at two of Politico’s biggest rivals. The house position of Politico, as evidenced by this piece, is that they are fair and their chief competition is not. It’s a thinly disguised, fundamentally craven argument for Politico’s superiority in the world of political coverage. Let’s call this article for what it was. It wasn’t journalism. It was business.

It's entirely true that VandeHei and Allen might have had ulterior motives for running this piece. They may well want to knock their rivals down a peg. I have little doubt that they would have published the same anti-Romney "scoops" as the Times and the Post had they stumbled on them first. They certainly covered those same stories in detail as Gordon rightly notes up above. But even if Politico is completely hypocritical on this issue -- and I hinted that this was the case earlier -- this is totally beside the point in many respects. What about the substance of VandeHei and Allen's contentions? Does putting Ann Romney dressage hobby on the front page, while burying Obama's heroic consumption of weed in high school in a brief on A15 amount to fair coverage?

All that said, at the very least Gordon's right to be rankled by Politico's underlying business angle for publishing this story. And issues of what constitutes journalistic balance are complex--it's hard to actually quantify how Obama was vetted vis a vis other candidates, even if there is a pretty good case to be made that he got off easy. For a different take on all this, I can't say I agree with much of what Dave Weigel says, but it's worth reading. Similarly, Michael Calderone has a great round up of the Post and Times's responses to Politico's accusations. The Post in particular makes note of some of their stories where they have been deservedly tough on Obama.

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