At the Washington Post political blog, The Fix, Chris Cillizza (a good reporter) looks at a recent Pew report on the state of the media and comes to a surprisingly simplistic conclusion. I'm not going to argue with Pew's numbers, but I am going to argue with Cillizza's interpretation of what those numbers ultimately mean:
The Political Media's Declining Power
A new Pew report on the state of the media exposes one of the worst-kept secrets in politics: reporters are losing their power to frame presidential contests for the average citizen.
“Campaign reporters were acting primarily as megaphones, rather than investigators, of the assertions put forward by the candidates and other political partisans,” according to the report. “Only about a quarter of statements in the media about the character and records of the presidential candidates originated with journalists in the 2012 race, while twice that many came from political partisans."
In a nutshell, what Pew found is that political reporters as a whole are not investigating the record of candidates or what the candidates and their campaigns say. Instead, they are merely repeating what is said. Furthermore, through the media, by two-to-one, partisans instead of political reporters are talking more about the candidates' records.
Cillizza accepts this at face value and (uncharacteristically) concludes something ridiculous:
Regardless of the reasons, what’s clear from the Pew study is that the political media has less ability to play its traditional referee role than ever before. …
This is a choice, not a lack of ability. He continues:
The facts are these: Campaigns and candidates have more power than ever before to frame both their positive narrative and their opponents’ negative one. And, if the Pew numbers are right, both sides are spending much more time on the negative side of the ledger — at least in 2012.
Think of those numbers the next time you run down the role of the political media.
As someone who watched the political media very closely throughout the 2012 campaign, it is painfully obvious these Pew numbers do not reflect (and were not meant to reflect) one very important piece of context: which candidate's record and statements received more scrutiny than the other.
Pew's numbers can still look the same if Barack Obama received 10% of the scrutiny and Mitt Romney received 90%; or if the political media acted as a megaphone for Obama 99% of the time and only 1% for Romney -- which is pretty close to what happened.
In Cillizza's own paper, The Washington Post, Romney's history, record, statements, and political proposals were savaged on an almost daily basis, going back a full half-century to his high school days. The Post falsely accused Romney of outsourcing, went insane over every aspect of Bain Capital, and relentlessly utilized its fact-checker -- even to the point of calling Romney a liar for telling the truth.
But this appallingly partisan behavior wasn't just occurring at the Post. It happened throughout the political media -- online, over the airwaves, and in print. And it wasn't just the arena of scrutiny that was biased. We saw the same when it came to playing the part of a campaign megaphone.
No matter the Narrative the Romney and/or the right wanted to launch against Obama (crony capitalism, green energy debacles, Libya, the economy, the Daily Caller's video) the news media was the furthest thing from a megaphone and something much closer to a goalie blocking Obama's net so Romney couldn't score.
On the other hand, the political media was one big megaphone for Obama on issue after issue after issue, most prominently Bain Capital, the War on Women (tying Todd Akin's stupidity to Romney's tail for months), attacking Romney for being critical of Libya (for weeks), the 47% video (forever), and on and on…
Except for the week following the first presidential debate, the political media ensured Obama owned the Narrative almost every day of the primary and general election campaigns. Who owns the Narrative is completely up to the political media; that is their power.
The mistake Cillizza makes is looking at these numbers in a vacuum as though the lack of scrutiny and eagerness to megaphone a candidate miraculously applies equally to both candidates and parties. There are a number of 2012 election media studies that prove the media's bias in favor of Obama. And those studies help to explain this Pew report, not contradict it.
Had the political media put half as much energy into scrutinizing President Obama's record and statements as they did Romney, this Pew report would look remarkably different.
If just for a moment those in the political media, who really do want to do their jobs honestly, would stand back and look at how they protected Obama from Libya by mercilessly using it (and Todd Akin and the false charge of outsourcing) as a club against Romney -- I promise the scales will start to fall.
The political media isn't losing its power. It's simply abusing its power in a way that so overwhelmingly benefits one candidate that the numbers can be interpreted that way.
Follow John Nolte on Twitter @NolteNC