The Time cover story last week was headlined “The Mormon Identity.” The cover, featuring Mitt Romney in a stained-glass window, said in smaller type, “What Mitt Romney’s faith tells us about his vision and values.” Newsweek had President Obama on the cover, identifying him as “The Democrats’ Reagan” and heralding the story inside as “What Obama Will Achieve in His Second Term.”
Neither of the stories, to put it mildly, was helpful to Romney’s presidential campaign. The piece in Time was fair, but the timing, long after Mormonism had faded as a factor in the election, was suspect. In Newsweek, Obama was lionized, while Romney and Republicans were treated like hyperpartisan right-wingers.
My point in citing the newsmagazines is not that they’re colluding to reelect Obama. They don’t have to. It comes quite naturally to these pillars of the mainstream media to elevate issues with a pro-Obama tilt. And they’re not even the biggest contributors to the liberal bias that has dominated media coverage of the presidential race.
The bias has been so massive, palpable, and unprecedented that the scales have begun to fall from the eyes of a few stalwarts of the media establishment. Obama, Mark Halperin of Time noted last week, “has been covered as a candidate, rather than as an incumbent whose record needs to be scrutinized.” As you might suspect, this coincides neatly with the president’s reelection strategy.
The Huffington Post’s Howard Fineman has suggested the media have all but given the president a free ride. “Obama was such a cool and uplifting story to so many in the media in 2008 that they have essentially ceded ground to him that they have yet to reclaim,” Fineman wrote. The president has campaigned “without having to seriously and substantively defend his first-term promises or shortcomings, and without having to say much, if anything, about what, if anything, he might do substantially differently if he is fortunate enough to win again.”
The most explosive criticism of press bias has come from Patrick Caddell, the former pollster and adviser to Democrats George McGovern, Jimmy Carter, and Gary Hart. “We have a political campaign where, to put the best metaphor I can on it, the referees on the field are sacking the quarterback of one team, tripping up their runners, throwing their bodies in front of blockers, and nobody says anything,” Caddell said in a speech.
If you hadn’t guessed, the refs are the media, their victims Romney and Republicans. No fan of Romney, Caddell said Obama is protected by the media. Any other president who flew to Las Vegas for a fundraiser hours after the killing of the U.S. ambassador in Libya would have been “crucified,” he said. But Obama wasn’t. “It should have been the equivalent, for Barack Obama, of George Bush’s ‘flying over Katrina’ moment,” Caddell said. “But nothing was said at all and nothing will be said.”
Coverage of the Obama administration’s response to the Libyan attack also reflects the media’s double standard. Within 24 hours, Pentagon and intelligence officials had concluded the assault on the Benghazi consulate was an act of terrorism planned for the eleventh anniversary of 9/11, according to numerous reports. Yet five days later, Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, insisted it “began spontaneously” as a reaction to the Cairo demonstrations against a “hateful video.” White House press secretary Jay Carney continued to say the same.
An obvious question arises, or at least should. Was there a cover-up? If we had a Republican president—or even a Democratic president not named Obama—the press would be pursuing that possibility with great intensity. And the national news would be focused on efforts of the president and his aides to deflect blame for the eruption of assaults on American embassies in Libya and across the Middle East. But in Obama’s case, this hasn’t happened.
Kirsten Powers of the Daily Beast is one of the few journalists to doubt the administration’s motives. Its spin doesn’t make sense, she wrote, “unless it is seen as a deliberate attempt to mislead Americans into believing al Qaeda has been decimated, as President Obama has been known to assert.” But “most of the media herd was fretting” about Mitt Romney’s taxes, she added, thus too busy to probe a far bigger story that might embarrass Obama.
In the treatment of Romney and Obama, the double standard has become habitual. The hunt for gaffes is the defining trait of the media in regard to Romney. But the most egregious gaffe by Obama this year—“You didn’t build that”—was ignored for four days and reported only after the conservative press had created a mini-firestorm over the comment.
In September, Romney innocently joked in answer to a reporter’s question. “Look at those clouds. It’s beautiful. Look at those things.” This was turned into a running gag “for no other reason than to make Romney seem wooden,” wrote Gawker’s John Cook. “Imagine if Obama’s every ‘heh’ or ‘uuuhh’ made it into his quotes.”
Media “fact checkers,” too, have been notoriously one-sided, to the detriment of Republicans. Paul Ryan’s speech at the Republican convention was flyspecked in a novel way: He was faulted not for what he said but for what he didn’t say. Meanwhile, Joe Biden’s constant stream of misstatements, goofy comments, and gaffes are routinely tolerated. “From insensitively telling a wheelchair-bound state senator to ‘stand up’ to not recognizing how many letters there are in the word ‘jobs,’ the media have let Biden get away with gaffes that would have gotten GOP VP picks pilloried,” says Geoffrey Dickens of the Media Research Center.
Several months ago, a journalist with four decades of experience and I discussed the matter of media bias in the election. We agreed it would probably be worse than ever. And it has been. But we never figured it would be this bad and, a month before Election Day, still getting worse.
Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.