Media Matters: All over but the lying

by Jamison Foser published at

On Tuesday, Americans chose as their next president an African-American named Barack Obama who campaigned on a near-universal health-care plan, allowing the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy to expire, and a move away from the belligerent foreign policy of the past eight years. Republicans, and some journalists, had spent months (falsely) saying Obama is the single most liberal member of the U.S. Senate -- and maybe even a socialist. The American people responded by electing him in a landslide.

This, naturally, is very good news for the Republicans, according to many pundits. It proves once again that America remains a "center-right" nation.

Right about now, you're probably scratching your head, wondering how the election of the "most liberal" member of the Senate, a man who campaigned on a promise of near-universal health care, could possibly be described as evidence of a conservative country.

To be sure, it requires some creative thinking.

NBC's Tom Brokaw, for example, looked at county-by-county election results and concluded that counties carried by John McCain account for greater land mass than those carried by Barack Obama. This would be meaningful, if only fields and streams and rocks and trees were conservative voters. But they aren't: They are fields and streams and rocks and trees. They are neither liberal nor conservative; they tell us nothing about the nation's political leanings. People tell us something about the nation's leanings -- and more people voted for Barack Obama.

Then there's CNN's John King Wednesday night. Just try to follow his logic:

KING: Without a doubt, the electorate voted for Barack Obama, but still perceives him to be a liberal. And one thing you don't want to do when you win an election like this, a sweeping election like this, is alienate the people here in a place like Cincinnati. Why? George W. Bush carried that county four years ago. You don't want to drive them away.


So, Barack Obama is making inroads in communities that not too long ago voted Republican. The last thing you want to do if you want to keep them four years from now is to alienate them with a liberal agenda.

That simply does not make any sense. John King says Barack won a "sweeping election" even though the electorate "perceives him to be a liberal" -- so he better not pursue a "liberal agenda" or he will "alienate them."

Got that?

Later that same night, King added that Obama "does not get a mandate to be a liberal." Again, this is pure nonsense. John King says voters perceive Obama to be a liberal. John King says Obama won a "sweeping victory." And yet John King says that Obama's sweeping victory among an electorate that considers him a liberal does not constitute a mandate to be a liberal. This is illogical, self-discrediting foolishness.

At least King was considerate enough to debunk his own absurd conclusions in near-real time. Conservatives making similar claims were not so kind.

Media Research Center president Brent Bozell -- who does not get nearly the recognition he deserves for being one of the most clownish figures in the conservative movement -- took to Fox News to announce that Obama had won by campaigning as a "Reaganite" and a "fiscal conservative."

Couple of problems with that claim.

First, Bozell didn't explain what he meant by "fiscal conservative," but its typical meaning -- supportive of restrained spending and balanced budgets -- is so far removed from the actual governing performance of actual conservatives that the phrase ought to be retired from use.

Second, Bozell's claim that Obama won as a "Reaganite" is a little odd, given that it wasn't that long ago that conservatives were saying Obama was campaigning on a "redistribution of wealth" that constituted "socialism." And when I say "conservatives," I mean Brent Bozell. And by "it wasn't that long ago," I mean last week.

(How much of a fraud is Bozell? In 1998, Bozell claimed the media weren't paying enough attention to Monica Lewinsky -- at a time when there were 500 news reports a day on the topic. Now he's alternately claiming Obama is a "socialist" and a "Reaganite." And in his column last week, he complained that a recent Project for Excellence in Journalism study overstated the extent of negative coverage of Obama by including "talk-radio hosts from Rush Limbaugh to Randi Rhodes" who are supposed to "express an opinion." But that complaint is completely false. The study in question specifically excluded talk radio. It's right there in the study's methodology: "Talk radio stories, which are part of PEJ's regular NCI, were not included in this campaign study of tone." If Brent Bozell tells you the sun is shining, you better grab an umbrella.)

It isn't hard to figure out why Brent Bozell makes absurd claims about Obama winning as a "Reaganite" -- he's an ideologue with far greater commitment to his agenda than to the truth.

But why would Tom Brokaw and John King and Newsweek and countless other Beltway journalists and pundits continue to say things like "America remains a center-right country" and insist that Barack Obama's clear victory does not constitute a mandate for the progressive policy positions he ran on?

It might have something to do with the long-held assumptions of many journalists and pundits (and more than a few progressives) that progressives are inherently politically weak and conservatives are inherently politically strong.

Three of the most foolish pieces of punditry of the past several years reflect such assumptions.

Newsweek's Howard Fineman announced in late 2005 that Democrats were justifiably "gloomy" about their electoral prospects. It seemed preposterous, given that President Bush's approval ratings were in the tank, his mishandling of Hurricane Katrina had enraged the nation, and Republicans in Congress were being fitted for orange jumpsuits by the dozen. Still, Fineman insisted, it was true: Democrats were in trouble. One reason? A "Lack of star power." Fineman explained: "it's incontestably true that the Democrats simply aren't blessed with much charisma in the leadership ranks." The 200,000 people who stood in Chicago's Grant Park for Obama's victory speech would probably disagree. (Yes, Fineman said "leadership ranks," and Obama wasn't in the party "leadership" in 2005. But Fineman contrasted the Democrats' purported lack of "charisma" with Republicans who weren't, either, so that doesn't get him off the hook.)

Since Fineman argued that Democrats had good reason to be gloomy, they've picked up more than 50 House seats, 12 in the Senate, and the presidency. Republicans have won ... well, John Boehner has probably won a few rounds of golf, but that's about it.

Then there's NBC political director Chuck Todd. Shortly before the 2006 elections, Todd predicted that if Democrats won control of Congress, President Bush's approval rating would be above 50 percent by the following July. Democrats did win control of Congress -- and Bush's approval rating was at 30 percent the following July. And at this point, Bush wouldn't be above 50 if you added his approval ratings in the last two CBS/New York Times polls together.

And finally, the dean of the Washington press corps, David Broder: In September 2005, Broder predicted that Bush's handling of Katrina would help him regain his standing with the public. Things didn't work out that way, as Broder eventually acknowledged, but he continued to predict a Bush resurgence. In early 2007, Broder announced that "President Bush is poised for a political comeback."

It isn't just that these three predictions were wrong; people make incorrect forecasts all the time. Many of those incorrect predictions are based on reasonable analysis that just turns out to be wrong. But it has been pretty clear since mid-2005 that the Bush administration has been a spectacular failure, that the public has rejected the disastrous conservative policies President Bush had used to drive the nation into a ditch. There hasn't been any reason to believe the Republicans would rebound, other than blind faith. And that isn't something that is clear only in hindsight: It has been obvious for years.

Democrats have won the popular vote in four of the past five presidential elections. When the new Congress is sworn in, they will hold more than 250 seats in the House and at least 57 in the Senate. Public polling shows -- and has shown for quite some time -- that Americans back progressive solutions to the nation's problems. The current progressive ascendancy won't last forever, of course. But it's about time for the Beltway pundit crowd to let go of their tired old assumptions about the relative strength of the parties and the ideological leanings of the country. Unless, of course, they enjoy making fools of themselves.