Back in 2001, conservative media figures were adamant. Democratic Party victories at the ballot boxes during the off-year elections had little national significance. Fox News contributor Dick Morris said at the time, "[I]f you have a Republican president, people are going to vote Democrat, and if you have a Democrat president, they're going to vote Republicans." Proffering further spin of the GOP losses, Fox News contributor Mort Kondracke said, "We have no way of knowing" how the 2001 outcome would affect the 2002 midterms, a sentiment echoed by conservative writer Michael Barone, who declared on CNN, "I don't think that the issues and personalities" in the Virginia and New Jersey races "are going to be congruent with very many" races in 2002 or 2004. Then there was Laura Ingraham on Fox News' Hannity & Colmes noting that "[b]oth sides are going to spin this," before offering her own spin: "[T]o call this some kind of watershed moment against Republican views is nonsense."
For anyone watching Fox News in the weeks leading up to this year's off-year election, it should have been apparent what was afoot on the conservative network.
In the two weeks leading up to their November 3 elections, Conservative Party congressional candidate Doug Hoffman (NY-23), New Jersey Republican gubernatorial candidate Chris Christie, and Virginia Republican gubernatorial candidate Bob McDonnell appeared on Fox News and its personalities' radio shows at least 16 times for live interviews lasting a total of 114 minutes and 36 seconds.
As leading Republican politicians and activists celebrated Fox News' role in pushing just the right message and helping their electoral chances, two Fox News employees spent time fundraising and recruiting volunteers in support of GOP-backed candidates. Fox News host Mike Huckabee used network airtime to collect email addresses for his PAC, which in turn used the addresses to recruit volunteers for GOP candidates on Tuesday's ballot, including McDonnell and Hoffman. Meanwhile, Fox News contributor Karl Rove was shilling for the Republican Governors' Association to help Christie's bid in New Jersey. All the while, Fox continued to feature his spin of that same election.
So, Fox News gave Republican candidates a huge platform to communicate with conservative activists and voters while Fox News employees recruited volunteers and raised money for them.
What else did Fox need to check off the list before Election Day? How about telling people how to vote and pre-spinning Democratic Party losses before a single ballot had been counted? Check.
One Fox News graphic actually stated that if the GOP were to win the gubernatorial races in Virginia and New Jersey -- races with no direct influence over congressional efforts to reform health care -- it would mean "no gov't-run option" in health care reform.
Sean Hannity, Fox News' apparent GOP get-out-the-vote captain, went all out advising his radio listeners how to cast their votes, telling one caller to his radio show, "Don't forget -- go vote for Christie tomorrow in New Jersey. All right?" and his New Jersey audience in general, "get to the polls" and "stop Obama-care in its tracks." On his Fox News program, Hannity told Hoffman, "I hope I'm on the air this time tomorrow night and I'll be able to declare you the winner." Marching to Hannity's tune, CNN's Lou Dobbs declared Hoffman was "change [he] can believe in" while Fox News' Bill O'Reilly piled on predicting a Hoffman win.
But what if -- right-wing media fear of fears! -- Democrats were to pull off a victory in New Jersey? Well, there'd be just one thing to explain it -- cue the ominous music -- Voter Fraud.
Rush Limbaugh warned his audience that "fraudsters" at ACORN, SEIU, and the New Black Panthers would try to affect elections on Tuesday and that "tomorrow's going to be a dry run for Democrat mischief and malfeasance, getting ready for 2010 and 2012." Andrew Breitbart's BigGovernment.com took the bait, baselessly -- and predictably -- accusing progressives of trying to "steal" the New Jersey governor's seat. As did Wall Street Journal columnist John Fund who fabricated evidence of voter fraud in New Jersey and anonymously sourced voter fraud innuendo. Completing the circle, Limbaugh echoed Fund's baseless accusation warning of an "ACORN factor" and a "vote fraud factor."
Fox News hosts and political analysts capped off Election Day celebrating and shilling for conservative and GOP candidates. When the dust settled, Republicans had won the Virginia and New Jersey gubernatorial contests while Democrats had won the open New York congressional seat -- a seat targeted by tea-partiers and not held by a Democrat in nearly 150 years.
While Fox News' Brit Hume acknowledged that "Barack Obama was not a central issue" in New Jersey -- exit polls decisively showed he wasn't an issue in any of the targeted races -- others in the conservative media were blind to the readily available exit polls. Hume's Fox colleague O'Reilly said the New Jersey governor's race was a referendum on Obama. El Rushbo dismissed the exit polls entirely, saying the governors' races were all "about Obama" and that the election results show "[t]here is no question this is an anti-Obama vote."
Fox & Friends graphics described the election results as "shockwaves," "winds of change," a "Republican revival," and a "blueprint for success." In a truly odd attempt at spin, Fox News declared that the results meant "Obamacare" was dead, while its sister network, Fox Business, claimed the markets "like[d]" "Big GOP Wins In NJ & VA."
So, exit polls said Obama had nothing to do with Democratic losses in New Jersey and Virginia, where, incidentally, the GOP nominees downplayed their right-wing positions -- and this is good news for Republicans?
What about Hoffman, the unambiguously right-wing Conservative party candidate in New York who conservative media types spent weeks hyping? How would Fox News and company spin his loss of a seat, again, not held by a Democrat in far more than 100 years?
In an attempt to paint Democratic Party victor Owens as a conservative, thus explaining away his win in a historically GOP district, right-wing bloggers sought to highlight the "under-reported fact" that he "campaigned against the public option" even though Owens had expressed support for a public option since September.
Limbaugh blamed "party bosses and these big thinkers like Newt [Gingrich]," who "screwed the whole thing up," while leaping to the defense of Sarah Palin, who had championed Hoffman. Limbaugh asserted that Palin "is not damaged at all" by the loss of her candidate. And in an about-face only fitting for someone of Limbaugh's ego - err ... stature -- the conservative talker switched his stance on "moral" victories, which he'd lambasted Democrats for in 2006, declaring Hoffman had a "good showing."
So, yes, if one thing is clear after the 2009 off-year election, it's this: Conservative media figures haven't a clue when it comes to election analysis.
Oh and one last note on Tuesday's election, did you hear the nasty anti-Obama election night story that Fox News concocted out of thin air? The conservative cable outlet reported, remember this is not true, that President Obama watched an HBO documentary about himself, rather than following the election results. A story so grand -- gosh the president is such a narcissist! -- that the fact-challenged liberal media bias hunters at Newsbusters wet themselves over it before eventually conceding that Fox News had "misreported" the incident -- a nice way of saying "made it up."
I guess, in addition to the analysis, they haven't a clue when it comes to reporting either.
This Week's Media Columns
This week's media columns from the Media Matters senior fellows: Eric Boehlert looks at the myth of Fox News' ratings spike; and Jamison Foser takes on Howard Kurtz's bogus conflict-of-interest defense.
Greg Lewis notes that for conservatives, $400 million buys them defeat at the ballot box in The Friday Rush, a review of Limbaugh's radio shows over the past week.
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This weekly wrap-up was compiled and edited by Karl Frisch, a senior fellow at Media Matters for America. Frisch also contributes to County Fair, a media blog featuring links to progressive media criticism from around the web as well as original commentary. You can follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube, or sign-up to receive his columns by email.