W. Joseph Campbell

‘We’re trying to toughen you up': Never happened with Obama and news media

In Debunking, Media myths on October 7, 2012 at 8:39 am

“We’re trying to toughen you up.”

Remember that?

It was nearly six years ago when New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd made the comment to then-Senator Barack Obama, as his campaign for the presidency was unfolding.

Obama at the debate

Her remark was in reply to Obama’s criticism — uttered perhaps half in jest — about Dowd’s having mentioned his prominent ears. (She wrote in a column in October 2006: “He’s intriguingly imperfect: His ears stick out, he smokes, and he’s written about wrestling with pot, booze and ‘maybe a little blow’ as a young man.”)

“You talked about my ears,” Obama told her later, “and I just want to put you on notice: I’m very sensitive about — what I told them was I was teased relentlessly when I was a kid about my big ears.”

Dowd said in response:

“We’re trying to toughen you up.”

Of course, “toughen up” never happened. The mainstream U.S. news media rarely have treated Obama with anything but swooning deference. He and his policies seldom have been exposed to rigorous and critical assessment. Not in any sustained way, and certainly not during the 2012 election season.

As Andrew Klavan wrote recently in City Journal: “No other president could have … presided over such a crippled economy and such universal failures at war and in foreign policy and escaped almost without mainstream blame.”

The upshot of media deference was on vivid display Wednesday night, when Obama’s economic record was eviscerated by Republican challenger Mitt Romney in a debate stunning for its lopsidedness.

Not even Richard Nixon lost so utterly in 1960 in his debates with John F. Kennedy.

For the first time in his presidency, Obama was called to account publicly and prominently for the economic failings of his administration. And he had nothing in rebuttal: Romney’s unrelenting pressure left Obama looking flustered, hapless.

Since then, the mainstream news media have been inclined to blame Obama’s performance on Romney’s having told nothing but lies, on the clumsy moderation of Jim Lehrer of PBS, and (in Al Gore’s telling) on the altitude in Denver, the debate’s host city.

Even now, the mainstream news media are little inclined to “toughen up” Obama, even with two debates ahead and his presidency very much in the balance.

An inevitable reason for all this can be traced to the dearth of intellectual diversity at leading U.S. news organizations. The ideological imbalance in newsrooms is hardly a secret: News organizations themselves have called attention to this defect from time to time.

For example, the then-ombudsman for the Washington Post, Deborah Howell, wrote in a post-election column in November 2008:

“I’ll bet that most Post journalists voted for Obama. I did. There are centrists at The Post as well. But the conservatives I know here feel so outnumbered that they don’t even want to be quoted by name in a memo.”

Howell’s column quoted Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, as saying:

“The perception of liberal bias is a problem by itself for the news media. It’s not okay to dismiss it. Conservatives who think the press is deliberately trying to help Democrats are wrong. But conservatives are right that journalism has too many liberals and not enough conservatives.

“It’s inconceivable that that is irrelevant.”

More recently, in his farewell column in August, Arthur Brisbane, the New York Times public editor (or ombudsman), chided the newspaper’s “political and cultural progressivism” which, he said, “virtually bleeds through the fabric of The Times.

“As a result,” Brisbane declared, “developments like the Occupy movement and gay marriage seem almost to erupt in The Times, overloved and undermanaged, more like causes than news subjects.”

Rather than treat the “overloved and undermanaged” critique as a matter of serious consideration, the Times’ executive editor, Jill Abramson, rejected it out of hand, dismissing it as obviously erroneous.

Brisbane’s observations, the product of two years as the newspaper’s ombudsman, deserved a reception far more thoughtful and serious-minded than that. Especially given the newspaper’s mostly forgotten internal report in 2005 which said in part:

“Both inside and outside the paper, some people feel we are missing stories because the staff lacks diversity in viewpoints, intellectual grounding and individual backgrounds. We should look for all manner of diversity. We should seek talented journalists who happen to have military experience, who know rural America first hand, who are at home in different faith.” (Emphasis added.)

The critique of the news media’s ideological imbalance is more than impressionistic, more than “perception”: A survey in 2008 of journalists for national news publications reported that 8 percent identified themselves as “conservative,” 32 percent as “liberal,” and 53 percent as “moderate.”

Such imbalance has given rise to the occasional vague promise to promote intellectual diversity in the newsroom.

But nothing much changes.  As I pointed out in my 2010 book, Getting It Wrong, “Viewpoint diversity is an issue not much discussed” in American newsrooms — “places that sometimes seem to be bastions of group-think.”

In that regard, I quoted Michael Kelly, former editor of National Journal, who once observed:

“Reporters like to picture themselves as independent thinkers. In truth, with the exception of 13-year-old girls, there is no social subspecies more slavish to fashion, more terrified of originality and more devoted to group-think.”

Obama has thrived for years within the reassuring confines of the media cocoon which, when ripped away as it was Wednesday night, makes for dramatic theater. But it does little for the news media and their sagging credibility.

WJC

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