Two recent snapshots nicely capture the commentary class and their bulwark on behalf of Republicans this campaign season.
Lamenting the "pitiful" state of the 2014 election season, New York Times columnist Frank Bruni this week denounced what he saw as the vacuous condition of political debate. Claiming America's raging problems were akin to a burning house, Bruni claimed "None of the candidates have spoken with the necessary urgency or requisite sweep."
Oh, what the columnist wouldn't have given to hear some "real substance" on the campaign trail. The beseeching seemed odd because Bruni later announced the "defining moment" of the election season came when Kentucky Democratic senatorial candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes declined to answer a question, during a newspaper editorial interview, about whether she had voted previously for Barack Obama, who is very unpopular in the Bluegrass State. The question had nothing to do with the burning issues facing America, as Bruni described them. Instead, it was an exercise in optics: How would a red-state Democrat deal with a sticky question about her White House allegiance?
Nonetheless, joining an army of pundits who expressed horror at Grimes' clumsy response, Bruni announced the Democrat had "tossed character, honesty and any kind of mature conversation with voters to the side." Left unmentioned by Bruni? Grimes' Republican opponent simply refused to answer any public policy questions posed by the same newspaper editorial board that hosted Grimes; the same board that heard the Democrat answer queries for an hour about the environment, gay marriage, campaign finance reform, the government sequester, abortion rights, and coal mining.
So much for the absence of campaign substance.
Still, Bruni's column illustrated a certain Beltway media symmetry this year: Pundits lament a lack of campaign seriousness, and then treat a trivial gotcha question as being deeply serious. Count that as a win for Republicans.
Meanwhile on CNN, during her interview with Vice President Joe Biden that aired Monday, and while discussing the midterm elections, Gloria Borger insisted Americans are "frustrated" and "fearful" and "angry" about key events, including the administration's handling of the Ebola virus' scare. Borger's point has been a favorite among Beltway pundits in recent weeks as they parrot Republicans: Ebola's just the latest Big Government failure.
But it's not true.
The news media reminders arrive almost daily now: President Obama's approval rating is low and going lower. McClatchy Newspapers highlighted the "dropping approval ratings," while the Washington Post declared "President Obama's approval ratings have plunged to record lows." The Christian Science Monitor noted the numbers have "plummeted." The Washington Examiner stressed the president's approvals were "sinking to historic lows," while an Atlantic headlined announced, ""Obama's Sinking Approval Could Drag Democrats Down With Him."
The portrait being painted by an array of media artists is unmistakable: Obama's approval ratings are not only weak but they're going down, down, down.
But it's not true.
The part about Obama's "dropping" and "sinking" polling numbers simply isn't accurate, not matter how many times it's repeated inside the Beltway echo chamber.
Does the White House wish Obama's job approval rating was higher? I'm sure his advisers do. Does polling indicate that Democrats face the possibility of deep losses next week in the midterm elections? Yes. Does that mean the press should just make up narratives about the president's approval rating simply because it fits in, again, with anti-Obama spin that Republicans are pushing?
It does not.
According to the cumulative ratings posted daily at Real Clear Politics, which averages together an array of national polls to come up with Obama's composite job approval rating, the president's approval on January 1, 2014 stood at 42.6 percent. The president's approval rating on October 30, was 42 percent. So over the course of ten months, and based on more than one hundred poll results in 2014, Obama's approval rating declined less than one point.
I can safely say Obama is only president in U.S. history whose approval rating dropped a single digit over a ten-month stretch and it was described as having "plummeted."
Newspaper editorial board meetings have always been a sort of midterm exam for candidates. Shopping for endorsements, it's where they are asked to discuss, in detail, their policy positions and to do so in a setting that isn't conducive to sound bites.
In Iowa last week, Republican Senate candidate Joni Ernst announced she wouldn't answer any questions from the Des Moines Register editorial board. After "much negotiating," according to a Register columnist, the Ernst camp pulled the plug on her scheduled Q&A with the daily, and also avoided meeting with a number of other Iowa newspapers.
Ernst wouldn't talk about the economy, healthcare, "personhood," national security, guns and the government, foreign affairs, or impeaching President Obama. Ernst wouldn't talk about anything. This was a classic dodge on Ernst's part; an aggressive stiff-arm to the mainstream press. It was an obvious refusal by a Republican candidate to sit and answer questions from local journalists on the eve of an election.
And so what was the Beltway media's reaction to Ernst's cancellation? Always on the lookout for campaign "gaffes" and relentlessly focused on the "optics" of elections, how did commentators react to Ernst's brazen evasion?
The press response was subdued and not very critical.
That low-key response stood in sharp contrast to the campaign fury that erupted in early October when when Kentucky Democratic senatorial candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes declined to answer whether she had voted for Barack Obama. That question came amidst her hour-long, October 10, interview with the Louisville Journal-Courier's editorial board, during which time the Democrat discussed the environment, gay marriage, campaign finance reform, the government sequester, abortion rights, and coal mining. (Her opponent, Republican Mitch McConnell, refused to be interviewed by the paper's editors.)
Grimes' substantive discussion was virtually ignored by the Beltway press, which turned her clumsy Obama question response into a days-long controversy. For instance, Washington Post blogs have referenced the Grimes story (i.e the "fiasco") more than 25 times; including 11 times in the first four days. (Post columnist Kathleen Parker wrote an entire column about Grimes' non-answer.) By contrast, the same Post blogs have mentioned the Ernst story only five times so far, according to Nexis, with writer Chris Cillizza actually complimenting the Ernst campaign for canceling its Register interview, suggesting the move was a "smart" one politically.
Overall, I found more than two-dozen television discussions or references to the Grimes story during a four-day span, from October 10-13, via Nexis. During a similar four-day span following news of Ernst's snub on October 23, I found no television discussions or references to that story. (Note that not every news program is archived by Nexis.)
So yes, the Democratic candidate who was accused of botching a question during an editorial board interview was pilloried in the press. But the Republican candidate who refused to sit for editorial board meetings was mostly given a pass. (Here's an exception.) Do double standards come any more tightly focused than that?
Republican Rand Paul certainly seems to be riding an extended wave of glowing press coverage, as reporters and commentators line up to dub the Kentucky senator a deeply fascinating man.
From Politico: "Rand Paul, The Most Interesting Man in Politics."
The Washington Post: "Rand Paul Is The Most Interesting Man In The (Political) World"
And now this week's cover story from Time: "The Most Interesting Man In Politics."
What the supportive Paul coverage lacks in originality, it makes up for in passion and admiration. We've learned Paul represents "the most interesting voice in the GOP right now." He boasts a "supple mind" and is a "preternaturally confident speaker." And from Time, Paul spoke to a recent crowd "with the enthusiasm of a graduate student in the early rapture of ideas."
There appears to be such a media rush to toast Paul as a Republican freethinker that the feel-good coverage sometimes confuses what he actually stands for. Note that Politico claimed the senator's "instinctive libertarianism, meanwhile, plays well with America's pro-pot, pro-gay marriage younger generation."
Fact: Paul opposes gay marriage.
Nonetheless, the glowing press clips pile up, with Time's cover story representing the most recent entry. In April 2013, the Kentucky senator graced Time's cover when he was dubbed one of the 100 Most Influential people in the World. (Paul's entry was written by Sarah Palin, who declared that his "brand of libertarian-leaning conservatism attracts young voters.")
What's especially odd about Time's most recent salute is that the magazine essentially published the same laudatory Rand Paul feature last year. It marveled at his political rise and suggested he might change the course of the GOP ("Can he reshape [the] party"), which is precisely what this week's cover story is about. ("Can he fix what ails the GOP?")
But there's something about Time's supportive Paul coverage that stands out. Indeed, the publication has morphed into something of a national cheering section for the Kentucky Republican, obediently covering his appearances, typing up as news his attacks on Bill and Hillary Clinton, and publishing his first-person essays.
Fox News continues to lead the conservative attack on Ron Klain, whom President Obama appointed as the administration's Ebola coordinator, termed by some a "czar," to help direct the government's response to the rare virus and its arrival in Dallas, Texas.
After days of demanding White House action on the issue (such as appointing a czar), conservatives, led by Republican Party leaders, immediately criticized the choice of Klain. Why? Because he has no medical background and because he's enjoyed a career as Democratic political insider, working as chief of staff for both former Vice President Al Gore and current Vice President Joe Biden.
On the recent Sunday morning talk shows, Republicans made sure to hammer their objections:
As Republicans seek to gain a partisan advantage by ginning up fear about the Ebola virus in preparation for the midterm election cycle, they're getting a major assist from the news media, which seems to be equally anxious to spread anxiety about the virus, and to implicate President Obama for the health scare. At times, Republicans, journalists, and commentators appear to be in complete sync as they market fear and kindle confusion. ("You could feel a shiver of panic coursing through the American body politic this week.")
The result is a frightening level of misinformation about Ebola and a deep lack of understanding of the virus by most Americans. Indeed, despite weeks of endless coverage, most news consumers still don't understand key facts about Ebola.
If the news media's job is to educate, and especially to clarify during times of steep public concerns, then the news media have utterly failed during the Ebola threat. And politically, that translates into a win for Republicans because it means there's fertile ground for their paranoia to grow. (Sen. Rand Paul: Ebola is "incredibly contagious.")
"They have all caught the Ebola bug and are now transmitting the fear it engenders to millions of Americans," lamented a recent Asbury Park (NJ) editorial, chastising the cable news channels. "It turns out that fear-mongering translates not only into dollars and cents for news-gathering organizations, but also allows talking heads to politicize the issue."
If Republicans want the media to remain relentlessly focused on the anxious Ebola storyline prior to Election Day, they're in luck. Last night, the homepage for the Washington Post featured at least 15 Ebola-related articles and columns. Already this week, the cable news channels have mentioned "Ebola" more than 4,000 times according to TVeyes.com; or roughly 700 on-air references each day. The unfolding crisis is undoubtedly a major news story, but so much of the coverage --particularly on cable news -- has been more focused on fearmongering than solid information. It's a drumbeat that eventually becomes synonymous with fear and uncertainty, which dovetails with GOP's preferred talking point this campaign season.
And for Republicans, it's not just Ebola. The election season scare strategy that has emerged revolves around portraying the virus as the latest symptom of an America that's in startling decline and without any White House leadership able to deal with the crisis. As the New York Times reported on October 9, what has emerged as the GOP's unifying campaign theme is "decidedly grim." It alleges "President Obama and the Democratic Party run a government that is so fundamentally broken it cannot offer its people the most basic protection from harm."
Message: Panic looms. We stand exposed. Nobody's in charge. It's worse than you think.
The truth? "The risk of contracting Ebola is so low in the United States that most people would have to go out of their way to put themselves in any danger," as Medical Daily noted this week. Added one Florida doctor, "I tell people you're more apt to be hit by lightning right now, than you are to get Ebola."
A new poll last week revealed disturbing trends about the increasingly dire media coverage of the Ebola story in the United States. Measuring the rising anxiety among news consumers, a Rutgers-Eagleton poll of New Jersey residents found that 69 percent are at least somewhat concerned about the deadly disease spreading in the U.S.
The truly strange finding was that people who said they were following the story most closely were the ones with the most inaccurate information about Ebola. The more information they consumed about the dangerous disease, the less they knew about it. How is that even possible?
Poll director David Redlawsk cast an eye of blame on the news media. "The tone of the coverage seems to be increasing fear while not improving understanding," Redlawsk told a reporter. "You just have to turn on the TV to see the hysteria of the "talking heads" media. It's really wall to wall. The crawls at the bottom of the screen are really about fear. And in all the fear and all the talking, there's not a lot of information."
While the Rutgers-Eagleton poll was a statewide survey, not a national one, it's reasonable to assume that the Ebola information phenomena documented in New Jersey is happening elsewhere, as a series of nationwide polls have highlighted just how little Americans understand about the rare virus.
"Reporters can be part of the problem or part of the solution," Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings announced at press conference on October 2, as the city began to deal with its local health crisis following the disclosure that an Ebola victim was being treated in a city hospital.
Two weeks later, what's the verdict?
Last week, in the tightly contested Senate race in Kentucky, both Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell and his Democratic challenger Alison Lundergan Grimes gave newsworthy interviews in which they seemed to stumble over basic questions. But only one of the awkward missteps was treated as big news--treated even as a campaign-ending debacle--by some in the Beltway press: the Grimes interview.
Pundits pounced after Grimes refused, during an interview with the Louisville Courier-Journal editorial board, to say whether she voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. (McConnell has spent most of his campaign trying to tie Grimes to Obama, who is unpopular in Kentucky.)
After a Republican opposition group posted the clip of Grimes' answer, the Washington Post immediately linked to it and mocked the candidate's performance as "painful." On MSNBC, morning host Joe Scarborough bellowed, "What a rookie mistake!" CNN commentators criticized Grimes for being "too scripted" and "evasive."
Keep in mind; the issue itself is of no practical consequence to Kentucky voters -- it doesn't affect their day-to-day lives. But the story revolved around campaign "optics," which Beltway commentators now thrive on, especially when it's bad Democratic optics.
"Is she ever going to answer a tough question on anything? You want to be a U.S. senator?" demanded Meet The Press moderator, Chuck Todd. "I think she disqualified herself. I really do. I think she disqualified herself."
Recall that query ("Is she ever going to answer a tough question on anything?"), and the way Todd described it as a disqualifying trait for a Senate candidate. Because the day before the Grimes interview, McConnell called into Kentucky Sports Radio to talk with host Matt Jones. Days earlier, the popular host had interviewed Grimes with the understanding the McConnell campaign had also agreed to an interview. But after Jones grilled Grimes on the air, McConnell's campaign refused to answer Jones' emails and phone calls with regards to finalizing an appearance.
After days of on-air pleas, McConnell, without advance notice, finally called into the show last Wednesday and spoke with Jones for 14 minutes. Among the actual topics covered (in the place of optics analysis) were climate change and gay marriage. McConnell basically refused to answer questions about either:
JONES: That's a yes or no question. Do you believe in global warming?
McCONNELL: No it isn't. It is not a yes or no question. I am not a scientist.
And here's how McConnell danced around the issue of gay marriage:
When asked if he supports gay marriage, McConnell answered, "I believe that marriage should be between one man and one woman." Asked why he believes that, McConnell again repeated he thinks marriage is "between one man and one woman." Again asked "why?" McConnell repeated the same line. Jones tried one more time. Again, "It is my belief that marriage is between one man and one woman."
To recap: If you're a Kentucky Democrat and you don't answer a straight-forward question, you may as well take your name off the ballot, according to Beltway journalists. But if you're a Kentucky Republican and you do the same thing, it's mostly crickets from the same pundits.
On Monday when the Supreme Court let stand appeals court rulings that allowed for same-sex marriage in five additional states, the right-wing media outbursts were predictably swift. Radio talker Mark Levin blasted the ruling as "judicial tyranny," while Breitbart's Ben Shapiro attacked the ruling and suggested the Court was wrong to have previously struck down laws decriminalizing gay sex.
Politically, RNC chairman Reince Priebus suggested marriage equality represented a threat to American's economy and national security. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee released a statement calling the court's decision "cowardly," while likely presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) blasted the court's move as "tragic and indefensible." He vowed introduce a constitutional amendment to ban the government or the courts from overturning marriage laws passed by states.
The court's decision on Monday means that "nearly two-thirds of same-sex couples in the United States will soon live in states where they can marry," according to the New York Times. That's a long way from 2004 when Republicans successfully used the issue of marriage equality as an election year wedge issue against Democrats.
Back then, Fox News served as a home base for the conservative offensive against marriage equality. "What do you say to when three people want to marry and four people want to marry and other situations? Are you accepting of that?" Sean Hannity demanded of a guest in 2004. That same year, Bill O'Reilly warned Americans that if marriage equality proceeded, "this is gonna be a totally different country than it is right now. Laws that you think are in stone -- they're gonna evaporate, man. You'll be able to marry a goat -- you mark my words!"
On Monday though, it was mostly crickets from Fox News. Not only were angry denunciations absent, but the Supreme Court action was barely mentioned all day and was virtually ignored during the evening programs. The story was newsworthy of course; it received detailed coverage on all three of the network newscasts Monday night. (It wasn't until Wednesday night that O'Reilly addressed the ruling, doling out a mild rebuke of the Supreme Court's actions.)
The look-away coverage continued a trend that Media Matters noted in June: Fox News simply doesn't cover marriage equality much any more. Not in any real sense. There's very little news coverage and there seems to be even less commentary about the social issue. It's as if there's been a Fox News edict issued from above: Ignore marriage equality. (In the wake of a major Supreme Court ruling, host Jenna Lee once opened a discussion by instructing her guests not to "start a conversation on the merits of same-sex marriage.")
Using the unfolding Ebola health crisis as vehicle for their constant attacks on the federal government, Fox News talkers are leading the right-wing media charge (with some assistance from Beltway pundits) in insisting Americans have lost faith in the government's ability to deal the infectious disease, as well as other challenges facing the country.
Pointing to what they claim to be previous bouts of Obama administration clumsiness, such as the terror attack in Benghazi, Secret Service woes, and the so-called IRS scandal, conservative commentators, as part of an increasingly unbalanced response to the Ebola story, claim Americans see the Obama administration as filled with utterly inept players who are unable to provide citizens with basic protections.
"The overriding impression is of disarray, confusion, bad management, failed communication, anomie, disillusion, corruption, and secrecy," announced Matthew Continetti at Washington Free Beacon.
The Ebola threat "is containable if government is still remotely competent," claimed the Wall Street Journal editorial page, which signaled its doubts by suggesting "these days government competence is all too often exposed as a fragile veneer."
And appearing on Fox News yesterday, Donald Trump agreed:
I think very few people trust our government as being competent," Trump told the hosts. "Let's not kid ourselves. I mean with the five billion dollar website for Obamacare, which is still not working frankly and it's a disaster. And so many other things: Benghazi, wars... IRS."
But a new Pew Research poll undercuts all of that:
The findings, released on Monday, indicate a majority of Americans, including 48 percent of Republicans, have faith that the federal government can deal effectively with the Ebola situation, and that only a small percentage of people are "very worried" about their well being.