David Freddoso’s new book, Spin Masters: How the Media Ignored the Real News and Helped Reelect Barack Obama, exposes just how far “in the tank” the media were for Obama during the 2012 presidential election.
I spoke with Freddoso this week about his book.
AIM: What is the best example of a story in 2012 that would have made a difference in the election had the media covered it fairly?
Freddoso: For certain, the biggest one would have to be Benghazi. When that happened and it became clear that the media was turning it into a Mitt Romney gaffe story instead of a story about foreign policy failure, that was a real milestone for everyone. There was so little follow-up to the causes or potential causes, there were so few people seriously asking questions about, until long after, the reason we had such poor security. In fact, the foreign press did a much better job covering it than the American press because they were obsessed with the way Mitt Romney mishandled the situation, as if that were the real story, and not the fact that we had an ambassador dead and a foreign policy that had utterly failed to win over the Islamic world, and a resurgent al Qaeda. The focus on that was just incredible, how it ended up that way.
And watching that develop and watching them turn that into a Mitt Romney gaffe story—that prompted me to write Spin Masters. I’d been taking a lot of notes on the campaign up until then, but that was so over the top that you put that together with the other pieces of the puzzle: the ad nauseum coverage of a phony contraceptive ban that no one actually wanted, advocated, proposed; the war on women, binders, Big Bird, Mitt Romney’s dog, Mitt Romney’s high school pranks. Those things took precedence over a lot of stories that you would hope most journalists would sell their souls to tell, to bring attention to themselves if for no other reason, to get good stories that are journalistically excellent. Instead we had a lot of frivolity. For all the complaints about the emphasis on horse-race coverage at the expense of substance, so much of that worked in Barack Obama’s favor this time that I find it incredible and depressing as far as news coverage goes.
AIM: Who do you think are the biggest spinners of news for President Obama?
Freddoso: Well there are several people on MSNBC, unfortunately, who seem to think their job is to shame conservatives out of participating in public life. To watch Chris Matthews say that conservatives basically just hate black people and that’s why they are willing to let Romney stray from conservative orthodoxy, just anything to beat Obama, it’s one of the most disgraceful things I’ve ever seen said on television. I was deeply offended by it, I think that a lot of these guys style themselves as civil rights heroes in their own minds, even though they’ve never had to face any of the pain that real civil rights heroes did, because it’s a lot easier to do that than it is to defend a failing president and his record. And to see Lawrence O’Donnell talk about how mentioning the president’s golf game is a racial slur, nothing can make me more upset than to see so-called journalists take those kinds of cheap shots and call them commentary. People who do that sort of thing don’t belong employed. That sort of coverage makes the entire nation dumber, it discourages people from participating in democracy, and, you know, when you talk about the decline in turnout this election, that’s the kind of thing that caused it.
And there were several others not involved with MSNBC, but writers, who did similar things: writing about how “You didn’t build it” even was supposedly racist. That’s true spin, being able to do that. But more broadly, I don’t think most of the media is guilty of that sort of thing. I think that you see the way issues are framed, that you see how… it was an interesting shift in this election that I cover in Spin Masters by which the left managed to reframe the abortion issue, which they’ve been losing, to a discussion instead about contraception, which they can win. The media helped them to do that, and it began with former Democratic White House aide George Stephanopoulos haranguing Mitt Romney for ten minutes about an imaginary contraceptive ban that nobody was actually advocating. How else do you get something like that that isn’t real into the public eye for ten minutes other than having somebody who is sympathetic bring it up that way? That’s the kind of thing that one person who is sufficiently or willingly trying to change the debate from real things to imaginary things—that’s what they did, and George Stephanopoulos succeeded there.
AIM: Will we ever have a spin-less media?
Freddoso: No, certainly not. What we just need is a media that we don’t have to ask the question whether the refs decided the game. That’s the real problem. And we’re never going to have a media that looks 100% like America, nor should we aspire to that. And we certainly don’t want a media that’s easier on “our side,” on the conservative’s side. But to ask for media that frames issues fairly and looks at real stories, where there is some editorial judgment being made that isn’t so blinded, blindered, by this monolithic and myopic view of the world, that isn’t being formed inside of this bubble. That would be something better. Where there is more involvement by conservatives, certainly, just because we often see stories that they don’t. I mean, how long did it take for the media to come around on Solyndra, and how little attention was given to the fact that Solyndra was just one of many cases demonstrating why a professor like Obama doesn’t have a place trying to shape industry and shape the productive sector of the economy. Because it doesn’t work, because government can’t do that.
That was a story that was really under-covered, even though they were forced to cover Solyndra. It’s a bit monumental, but the utter failure of everything they’ve done in that area of green energy, is a big story that’s barely told. Even when local news stations came up with big stories about the factory where the workers don’t do anything, which is typical of this kind of project directed by government, the local affiliates didn’t get picked up by the national networks. And it’s great to see the locals do great journalism, it’s depressing to see how national people don’t understand why that’s a much bigger deal than whatever they’re leading the newscast off with.
AIM: So, is this media bias or media corruption?
Freddoso: I think it’s kind of both. I mean, I think there is bias. There is bias because of the sort of insular and isolated liberal bubble world that most journalists live in. I mean newsrooms don’t look like America, politically speaking. Journalists’ political opinions are not even close to the American mainstream and survey after survey bears that out. I mean when you’re 90% voting Democratic and 90% liberal and 96% voting for Obama, that doesn’t look a lot like the actual election results. That doesn’t even look like the city of Cambridge, Massachusetts or San Francisco, both of which had higher percentages for the Republicans. So, if the news is being written by folks with those kinds of viewpoints, they can try to be fair, and maybe most of them are trying to be fair, but it’s inevitable that it’s not going to be written in a completely fair way when the opinions of the people writing it are so skewed. It’s just impossible, no matter how hard they try. And they don’t always try that hard. That’s where the corruption comes in.
Certainly, seeing CBS sit on footage that would’ve made for great ratings, right up until the election, footage that would’ve answered a big public question at the time, is a sign that something is very, very wrong, and that journalists maybe aren’t in it for the truth. When you see that sort of thing, that makes people trust the media less. And people notice, by the way, in this election, the Pew Center for People in the Press found that people noticed that this election had substantially less coverage of issues than the last one. And why? In the last one, you had Barack Obama running against a failed record of the George W Bush administration. In this election, you have people running against a failed record of Obama. So what happens? When you want to run against a president’s failed record, and you want them to win, you focus on the issues because they tell the story of how the president failed. This time, they’re not so interested in telling the story of how the president failed, so instead of issues, we got these non-stories repeated ad nauseum throughout the campaign.
Freddoso also told me that even though Obama isn’t very nice to the media, they love him anyway. But rather than hold Obama accountable for his abuses of power, they have actually cheered him on.
The 2012 elections were a huge disappointment for Republicans, and conservatives in particular. This is a welcomed book by David Freddoso, which helps explain just exactly how large a role the media played in those results.