Why Does the Media Go Easy on Barack Obama?

February 9, 2013

Many conservatives think it’s evidence of liberal bias. But is it even true that conservatives are more willing to be adversarial on important topics?

By Conor Friedersdorf via Atlantic

Allegations of liberal media bias are almost constant in the conservative press, but their intensity has increased since President Obama and Hillary Clinton appeared together on 60 Minutes, where interviewer Steve Kroft posed “softball” questions that were almost comically obsequious. “Mr. Kroft, as embarrassing as his interview was, is merely symptomatic of a larger phenomenon: the unprecedented swooning and cheerleading by the press for Barack Obama,” Peter Wehner wrote in Commentary, echoing an argument voiced by many on the right. He posits that the rise of conservative media outlets like Fox News may have triggered a liberal backlash.

Matt Lewis agrees:

I’m beginning to rethink the notion that today’s conservatives have it better than The Gipper did. If the 2012 elections taught us anything, it’s that liberal media bias is alive and well — and effective. David [Freddoso] is out with a new book on the subject, called: “Spin Masters: How the media ignored the real news and helped reelect Barack Obama.” As he notes in “Spin Masters,” the establishment media seemed more concerned about Mitt Romney’s dog Seamus and allegations that Romney gave someone a forced haircut, decades ago — than about Benghazi — or the fact that an Obama-authorized drone strike killed a 16-year-old American.

You’d think that I would be sympathetic to this narrative. Besides writing the most widely cited criticism of the Kroft interview, I spent much of the 2012 campaign cycle loudly complaining that major center-left publications and prominent liberal writers were giving Obama a pass. Swooning? Cheerleading? Yes, I’ve seen Barack Obama benefit from that behavior.

But cheerleading and swooning remain atypical. If we’re trying to explain why the press is insufficiently adversarial, it’s important to grapple with typical press behavior rather than aberrations.

That grappling makes it clear that “liberal media bias” doesn’t explain the problem. It may shade media coverage of individual issues — religion, gun control, health care — but it’s possible to challenge a sitting president from any number of ideological perspectives. If liberal journalists are failing to be adversarial enough, pointing out that they’re liberals isn’t a sufficient explanation.

But let’s back up.

Is it even clear that the “mainstream media” does a poorer job of being adversarial than the conservative press?

Consider Lewis’s claim that “the establishment press” cared more about Seamus the dog’s rooftop journey than “the fact that an Obama-authorized drone strike killed a 16-year-old American.”

There’s something important missing from that analysis. Tom Junod wrote the definitive piece about that 16 year old, Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, in Esquire. I wrote about him here at The Atlantic on numerous occasions. The New Yorker covered the killing here. The New York Times and The Washington Post both published coverage of his death. Those stories and many others from publications in the “establishment press” treated Awlaki’s death far more critically than anything that I saw in any conservative outlet. And some of the most critical pieces written about Obama killing a teenaged American citizen were published by avowedly progressive writers like Glenn Greenwald in the liberal online magazine Salon and staffers at publications like Mother Jones and The Nation, often citing left-leaning civil-libertarian organizations like the ACLU or center-left international affairs academics.

On various subjects that ought to trigger automatic scrutiny from any adversarial press outlet, like apparent violations of federal law, actions that directly contradict a campaign promise, aggressive retaliation against whistleblowers, and unprecedented assertions of secrecy, establishment outlets like The New York Times, The New Yorker, and The Washington Post, along with avowedly liberal publications like Salon, Mother Jones, and The Guardian, did far more to uncover facts, raise awareness, and publish criticism of Obama than the conservative media.

To be sure, there was a schizophrenia to the coverage in some of these publications. The New Yorker must have dedicated hundreds of thousands of dollars to top-flight journalism about various Obama Administration transgressions against civil liberties, the rule of law, and good government. Its editors presumably submitted some of those stories for National Magazine Awards. The same can be said for The New York Times and the Pulitzer Prizes. Yet pre-election editorials in those same publications didn’t merely posit that Obama was the lesser of two evils — they left painstakingly reported transgressions unmentioned, as if they weren’t relevant, and issued glowing endorsements that read as if Obama is an especially noble president.

I’ve been an outspoken a critic of that seeming contradiction.

But when it comes to holding Obama accountable for those unusually consequential, unchecked acts, the conservative media is far inferior, partly because of the time it wastes on birtherism, Kenyan anti-colonialism, and a National Review contributor’s theory that Obama is allied with our Islamist enemy in a “grand jihad” against America; but mostly because much of the conservative movement behaves as if the War on Terrorism confers unlimited power to spy without warrants, to violate the War Powers Resolution, to extra-judicially kill American citizens, and to treat even the legal justification for executive branch actions as if they’re state secrets. On all those questions, they defer to the Obama Administration.

If “liberal media bias” explains the failure to challenge Obama adequately, why do center-left publications challenge him more on a whole range of national-security topics than center-right publications? Why are avowedly leftist publications often more adversarial than center-left ones?

Several explanations for the insufficiently adversarial attitude toward Obama fit the facts better than “liberal bias.”

  1. At the top, journalists who credulously convey the self-serving narratives of highly placed government officials or ask softball questions in nationally televised interviews are rewarded with better access.
  2. The press always shows more deference to the president in wartime, and the War on Terrorism has afforded successive presidents a way to spend their entire time in office on war footing.
  3. Many conservatives are ideologically committed to the proposition that the president should be almost totally unconstrained in the realm of foreign affairs. As a result, many of Obama’s most questionable behavior is ignored by the conservative press — and it is also ignored by the subset of the “establishment media” that uses partisan conflict to determine what to investigate, rather than making independent judgments about what is important to cover.
  4. Relatedly, the particular challenges to Obama’s foreign policy that the right has attempted have often been ill-chosen. Don’t expect to read them harping on his violating the War Powers Resolution, a secret kill list, and a war on whistleblowers. Instead, the conservative press wasted countless pixels arguing that Obama doesn’t really believe in American exceptionalism, accusing him of hating Israel, and insisting that he belongs to the Muslim Brotherhood. Even incidents like Fast and Furious or the killing in Benghazi, which merited investigation, were oversold from the beginning as if they were scandals that would bring down the Obama Administration in due course. As someone who is ready to think the worst of Obama’s foreign policy and to expose every untoward aspect of it, I confess that I don’t know what the right is hoping to get out of Benghazi.

I understand that some of the adversarial coverage I want, and that conservatives aren’t delivering, is rooted in disagreement about the prudence of an underlying policy. On drones, for example, I think transparency about the rules governing the program is important, whereas many conservatives think they are best kept classified. They’re entitled to that opinion, just as they’re entitled to champion wide latitude for the executive branch whenever it concerns the War on Terror. What they can’t do is concede to Obama sweeping power to exercise his discretion in secret; totally ignore the realm in which he does so; and then claim they’re more adversarial than an establishment press that does a much better job covering that whole range of subjects, even as it does a worse job, say, fleshing out the smartest objections to Obamacare.

It would be great if all of the media’s failures could be attributed to the fact that liberals and conservatives both have blind spots, and are unable to look critically at policies they earnestly believe to be right. But the tenures of Presidents Bush and Obama have shown us that supposedly conservative outlets routinely failed to challenge profoundly unconservative policies, and that liberal outlets routinely fail to challenge profoundly illiberal policies. Call it tribalism, call it excessive deference to power, call it the capture of the press by the establishment — just don’t try to explain it away by citing liberal or conservative bias. If only that were it.

Photo: CB Castro