Media menu: Scrutiny, with a side order of sound judgment

››› ››› JAMISON FOSER

The blogger Digby recently mentioned to me that the media, after years of deference to President Bush, are about to lurch back toward the excessively critical approach they took toward President Clinton:

The blogger Digby recently mentioned to me that the media, after years of deference to President Bush, are about to lurch back toward the excessively critical approach they took toward President Clinton:

Just as they treated Bush with extraordinary respect in reaction to their heinous behavior during the Clinton years, the villagers are now preparing to treat Obama with skepticism in reaction to the failures that resulted from their fawning obsequiousness.

Oddly, these lurches always seem to disfavor the Democrats.

Digby's concern is shared by many progressive media critics, this one included. Which is not to say that the media should treat Barack Obama the way they treated George Bush for much of his presidency. That's a key difference between progressive media critics and those on the right -- we want the media to do their jobs better, while conservatives are not particularly fond of the concept of journalism and won't be happy unless the media act as the propagandists of the conservative movement.

Take, for example, Brent Bozell, the founder and president of the conservative movement's premier media criticism organization, the Media Research Center. In 1998, at the height of the Monica Lewinsky soap opera, Bozell complained that the news media weren't devoting enough attention to the controversy. On the day Bozell offered that bizarre complaint, there were more than 500 news reports that mentioned Clinton and Lewinsky. Yet Bozell was upset that the media had "stopped" covering the story.

That isn't the legitimate complaint of an honest person who believes in the importance of a free and fair news media; that's a cynical ploy coming from someone who sees the media as a club with which opponents can be bludgeoned. Similarly, conservatives bent on shielding the Bush administration from scrutiny responded to media scrutiny by implying -- and sometimes saying outright -- that the journalists who dared raise questions were traitors.

Most progressive media critics, on the other hand, see a vibrant and functioning media as essential to democracy. We don't want to see the media treat Barack Obama with the overt scorn they directed at Bill Clinton, snooping around his bedroom and spreading lies large (Vince Foster conspiracy theories, for example) and small (the airplane haircut that didn't delay traffic at LAX) -- but neither do we want the media to obediently type up whatever he says without question, as they did during the run-up to the Iraq war.

So, yes, the media should be more vigilant -- and less compliant -- in their coverage of Barack Obama than George W. Bush. If, for example, memos are revealed that depict President Obama manipulating intelligence to take us to war against a nation that didn't attack us, the media should not ignore those memos. If he lies about everything from war to cheese, as his predecessor did, the media should make that clear.

So the recent announcement by PolitiFact.com, the St. Petersburg Times' political fact-checking operation, that it plans to closely track Barack Obama's progress in keeping his campaign promises is an encouraging sign that the news media will apply to Obama the kind of substantive scrutiny Bush too often escaped.

Unfortunately, PolitiFact's effort seems to lack a much-needed sense of perspective. PolitiFact has compiled a list of what it describes as 510 promises Obama made during his presidential campaign and plans to rate each a "Promise Kept," a "Promise Broken," or a "Compromise."

But PolitiFact does not distinguish between promises large and small, or between those that are urgent and those that might well be considered luxuries during times of economic crisis. Instead, it lumps them all together in a list of 510, topped by a box score tallying up the number of promises kept, broken, compromised, stalled, in the works, and with no action taken.

And so Obama's promise to "get his daughters a puppy" is given as much weight as his promise to "sign a 'universal' health care bill." His pledges to "push for a college football playoff system" and to "expand access to places to hunt and fish" are treated as though they are as important as his promises to extend unemployment insurance benefits and restore habeas corpus rights and end warrantless wiretaps. His promise to "expand the Senior Corps volunteer program" and his promise to "direct military leaders to end the war in Iraq" are given equal treatment.

President Obama has inherited a nation that faces serious problems. The news media will not serve their readers and viewers well if they obsess over whether Obama has kept 64 percent of his promises or 72 percent -- or if they pretend that a college football playoff system is as important as a successful economic recovery package.

To be clear: This is not an argument against holding Obama accountable; it is an argument for focusing such efforts on the things that matter most. Few Americans will mind if some of the less urgent promises go unfulfilled as long as the nation's economic conditions improve, the war in Iraq comes to an end, and we have a president who views the Constitution as something more than a list of optional recommendations. And few will be much impressed that Obama got his daughters a puppy if those other things do not come to pass.

The mess Barack Obama inherited constitutes a challenge not only for his administration and lawmakers of both parties, but for the media as well. Serious times require serious journalism -- an appropriate equilibrium between the outright hostility with which reporters covered Bill Clinton and the obsequiousness that marked their coverage of George W. Bush. But an appropriate level of scrutiny is not enough; it must be joined with sound judgment about where that scrutiny is most important.

Jamison Foser is Executive Vice President at Media Matters for America.

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