There was widespread suspicion last month that as cable news gorged on the "Ebola in America" story, feasting on overheated coverage that played off anxiety and outright panic, that the programming was driven, in part, by a cynical attempt to boost ratings. After all, fear sells. And what better way to draw millions of additional viewers to cable news than pumping up a story about an impending virus doom and wrapping it in a partisan pre-election narrative about President Obama's failure to lead?
As PBS science correspondent Miles O'Brien noted during an interview on CNN when the story first broke, and when he urged journalists to "take a breath" (many did not), "Unfortunately it's a very competitive business, the business we're in, and there is a perception that by hyping up this threat, you draw people's attention." He added, "That's a shame to even say that, and I get embarrassed for our brethren in journalism."
Longtime television observer Brian Lowry, writing at Variety, stressed that while television news has "long employed fear as a come-on to viewers," it had "truly outdone itself" with its response to the virus.
Aside from marketing fear, there's some evidence that overreacting to a news story and blowing it up into its own brand (i.e. The Ebola Crisis), can help lift cable news. Recall that back in the winter, CNN was widely mocked for its truly relentless coverage of missing Malaysian Airlines Flight 370. That story helped deliver a significant ratings increase for CNN, at least in the short term.
Yet despite the endless Ebola coverage, the virus health scare did nothing for cable news in terms of inflating ratings during October, when the story dominated the headlines. In fact, total cable news viewership dipped during the month.
For the month of October, CNN's viewership was down 5 percent compared to October 2013. (In primetime, its audience fell 18 percent last month compared to October 2013.) Fox News and MSNBC also suffered rating decreases in October. And if you compare the cable news channels' primetime ratings in October to its primetime ratings during this past summer, viewership was also down.
The ratings story was similar for the three network evening news programs, where viewership for CBS Evening News, NBC Nightly News, and ABC's World News Tonight failed to generate an audience bounce during the news media's unofficial Ebola Month. Combined, the three news programs attracted roughtly 23 million viewers each week in October. That compares to the 23 million viewers who tuned in each week during October 2013.
So if all of that overwrought television coverage didn't produce ratings gains, what was the point since, as Chris Hayes noted this week, too much of it seemed irrational:
Celebrating its sixtieth anniversary, CBS's Face The Nation this week touted sit-down interviews with President Obama and former President George W. Bush. As expected, the Obama interview featured more policy questions, as well as queries about the president and the Democratic Party's recent political failures.
By contrast, Bush, who's promoting a biography he wrote about his father, was treated to softer questions from host Bob Schieffer, with a strong emphasis on Bush's family and whether his younger brother Jeb will decide to run for president. Schieffer did raise questions about one key Bush administration decision -- Bush's defining policy of invading Iraq -- though the queries seemed rather perfunctory on the CBS host's part.
There was nothing especially scandalous about Schieffer's decision to treat the former president differently than he did the sitting president, who, by definition, continues to face pressing issues and grapple with unforeseen crises. And yet, there was something noteworthy about the way Schieffer just tossed off Bush's answers about the Iraq War and didn't ask a single obvious follow-up question. The performance nicely captured the double standard that seems to have always existed between Bush and the Beltway press.
It's the kind of casual dual standard that's been in place for so many years, and has become so normal and accepted, that it barely register a response anymore. It's to the point where most people don't think it's odd that Bush's old golfing buddy is paid to lob him softball questions on a national news program.
It's true. Bob Schieffer "struck up a golfing friendship with George W. Bush during the 1990s," according to a 2004 Mother Jones article. Schieffer attended "dozens" of baseball games with Bush and even traveled down to baseball's spring training season with the future president. In fact, the Face The Nation host once conceded that when it comes to Bush, "It's always difficult to cover someone you know personally."
Why the close Schieffer/Bush connection? Because Schieffer's brother Tom helped make George W. Bush a very rich man. Tom Schieffer and Bush were both part of the ownership group that bought the Texas Rangers baseball team in 1989, and as the team's president Schieffer played a key role in making that investment a profitable one.(Bush invested $600,000 and earned a $25 million return just nine years later.) Bush then turned around and made Tom Schieffer the U.S. ambassador to Australia and then to Japan.
But these facts haven't been discussed much in public over the years, and they certainly weren't emphasized for Schieffer's sit-down interview with Bush on Face The Nation. (Portions of the interview also aired on CBS Sunday Morning.) Instead, the CBS host allowed Bush to make nonsensical proclamations about the failed Iraq War; a conflict that continues to tax the U.S. Treasury and haunt our national security.
In the days after the midterm elections, the New York Times has been a cornucopia of campaign commentary. Lots of attention is being paid to the issue of gridlock, which has defined Washington, D.C. since President Obama was first inaugurated.
Lamenting America's "broken politics," Times columnist Nicholas Kristof opted for the both-sides-are-to-blame model, suggesting that, "Critics are right that [Obama] should try harder to schmooze with legislators." Across from Kristof on the Times opinion page, Republican pollster Frank Luntz urged Obama to find a way to create "common-sense solutions" with his Republican counterparts. (This, despite the fact that Luntz in 2009 helped Republicans craft their trademark strategy of obstructing Obama at every turn.)
And the same day, while reviewing Chuck Todd's new book on Obama, which stressed that the president "wanted to soar above partisanship" though his two terms will likely "be remembered as a nadir of partisan relations," the Times book critic stressed Obama's "reluctance to reach out to Congress and members of both parties to engage in the sort of forceful horse trading (like Lyndon B. Johnson's) and dogged retail politics (like Bill Clinton's) that might have helped forge more legislative deals and build public consensus."
So after six years of radical, blanketed reticence from the GOP, we're still repeatedly reading in the New York Times that while Republicans have put up road blocks, if Obama would just try harder, Republicans might cooperate with him. You can almost hear the frustration seeping through the pages of the Times: 'What is wrong with this guy? Bipartisanship is so simple. Republicans say they want to work with the White House, so why doesn't Obama just do it?'
Indeed, cooperation is simple if you purposefully ignore reality--if you downplay the fact the Republican Party is acting in a way that defies all historic norms. If you adopt that fantasy version of Beltway politics today (i.e. the GOP is filled with honest brokers just waiting to work with the White House), then it's easy to dissect the problems, and it's easy to file both-sides-are-to-blame columns that urge bipartisan cooperation.
What's trickier, apparently, is speaking truth to power and accurately portraying what has happened to American politics and noting without equivocation that the sabotage that has occurred is designed to ensure the federal government doesn't function as designed, and that it cannot efficiently address the problems of the nation.
And this week, it all paid off for Republicans. "Obstruction has just been rewarded, in a huge way," wrote Michael Tomasky at The Daily Beast.
Led by Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY), Republicans vowed in 2009 to oppose every political move Obama made, not matter how sweeping or how minor. "To prevent Obama from becoming the hero who fixed Washington, McConnell decided to break it. And it worked," wrote Matthew Yglesias at Vox, in the wake of the midterm election results. New York's Jonathan Chait made a similar observation about McConnell: "His single strategic insight is that voters do not blame Congress for gridlock, they blame the president, and therefore reward the opposition."
But why? Why don't voters blame Congress for gridlock?
Why would the president, who's had virtually his entire agenda categorically obstructed, be blamed and not the politicians who purposefully plot the gridlock? Because the press has given Republicans a pass. For more than five years, too many Beltway pundits and reporters have treated the spectacular stalemate as if it were everyday politics; just more "partisan combat." It's not. It's extraordinary. (See here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.)
Two recent snapshots nicely capture the commentary class and their bulwark on behalf of Republicans this campaign season.
Lamenting the "pitiful" state of the 2014 election season, New York Times columnist Frank Bruni this week denounced what he saw as the vacuous condition of political debate. Claiming America's raging problems were akin to a burning house, Bruni claimed "None of the candidates have spoken with the necessary urgency or requisite sweep."
Oh, what the columnist wouldn't have given to hear some "real substance" on the campaign trail. The beseeching seemed odd because Bruni later announced the "defining moment" of the election season came when Kentucky Democratic senatorial candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes declined to answer a question, during a newspaper editorial interview, about whether she had voted previously for Barack Obama, who is very unpopular in the Bluegrass State. The question had nothing to do with the burning issues facing America, as Bruni described them. Instead, it was an exercise in optics: How would a red-state Democrat deal with a sticky question about her White House allegiance?
Nonetheless, joining an army of pundits who expressed horror at Grimes' clumsy response, Bruni announced the Democrat had "tossed character, honesty and any kind of mature conversation with voters to the side." Left unmentioned by Bruni? Grimes' Republican opponent simply refused to answer any public policy questions posed by the same newspaper editorial board that hosted Grimes; the same board that heard the Democrat answer queries for an hour about the environment, gay marriage, campaign finance reform, the government sequester, abortion rights, and coal mining.
So much for the absence of campaign substance.
Still, Bruni's column illustrated a certain Beltway media symmetry this year: Pundits lament a lack of campaign seriousness, and then treat a trivial gotcha question as being deeply serious. Count that as a win for Republicans.
Meanwhile on CNN, during her interview with Vice President Joe Biden that aired Monday, and while discussing the midterm elections, Gloria Borger insisted Americans are "frustrated" and "fearful" and "angry" about key events, including the administration's handling of the Ebola virus' scare. Borger's point has been a favorite among Beltway pundits in recent weeks as they parrot Republicans: Ebola's just the latest Big Government failure.
But it's not true.
The news media reminders arrive almost daily now: President Obama's approval rating is low and going lower. McClatchy Newspapers highlighted the "dropping approval ratings," while the Washington Post declared "President Obama's approval ratings have plunged to record lows." The Christian Science Monitor noted the numbers have "plummeted." The Washington Examiner stressed the president's approvals were "sinking to historic lows," while an Atlantic headlined announced, ""Obama's Sinking Approval Could Drag Democrats Down With Him."
The portrait being painted by an array of media artists is unmistakable: Obama's approval ratings are not only weak but they're going down, down, down.
But it's not true.
The part about Obama's "dropping" and "sinking" polling numbers simply isn't accurate, not matter how many times it's repeated inside the Beltway echo chamber.
Does the White House wish Obama's job approval rating was higher? I'm sure his advisers do. Does polling indicate that Democrats face the possibility of deep losses next week in the midterm elections? Yes. Does that mean the press should just make up narratives about the president's approval rating simply because it fits in, again, with anti-Obama spin that Republicans are pushing?
It does not.
According to the cumulative ratings posted daily at Real Clear Politics, which averages together an array of national polls to come up with Obama's composite job approval rating, the president's approval on January 1, 2014 stood at 42.6 percent. The president's approval rating on October 30, was 42 percent. So over the course of ten months, and based on more than one hundred poll results in 2014, Obama's approval rating declined less than one point.
I can safely say Obama is only president in U.S. history whose approval rating dropped a single digit over a ten-month stretch and it was described as having "plummeted."
Newspaper editorial board meetings have always been a sort of midterm exam for candidates. Shopping for endorsements, it's where they are asked to discuss, in detail, their policy positions and to do so in a setting that isn't conducive to sound bites.
In Iowa last week, Republican Senate candidate Joni Ernst announced she wouldn't answer any questions from the Des Moines Register editorial board. After "much negotiating," according to a Register columnist, the Ernst camp pulled the plug on her scheduled Q&A with the daily, and also avoided meeting with a number of other Iowa newspapers.
Ernst wouldn't talk about the economy, healthcare, "personhood," national security, guns and the government, foreign affairs, or impeaching President Obama. Ernst wouldn't talk about anything. This was a classic dodge on Ernst's part; an aggressive stiff-arm to the mainstream press. It was an obvious refusal by a Republican candidate to sit and answer questions from local journalists on the eve of an election.
And so what was the Beltway media's reaction to Ernst's cancellation? Always on the lookout for campaign "gaffes" and relentlessly focused on the "optics" of elections, how did commentators react to Ernst's brazen evasion?
The press response was subdued and not very critical.
That low-key response stood in sharp contrast to the campaign fury that erupted in early October when when Kentucky Democratic senatorial candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes declined to answer whether she had voted for Barack Obama. That question came amidst her hour-long, October 10, interview with the Louisville Journal-Courier's editorial board, during which time the Democrat discussed the environment, gay marriage, campaign finance reform, the government sequester, abortion rights, and coal mining. (Her opponent, Republican Mitch McConnell, refused to be interviewed by the paper's editors.)
Grimes' substantive discussion was virtually ignored by the Beltway press, which turned her clumsy Obama question response into a days-long controversy. For instance, Washington Post blogs have referenced the Grimes story (i.e the "fiasco") more than 25 times; including 11 times in the first four days. (Post columnist Kathleen Parker wrote an entire column about Grimes' non-answer.) By contrast, the same Post blogs have mentioned the Ernst story only five times so far, according to Nexis, with writer Chris Cillizza actually complimenting the Ernst campaign for canceling its Register interview, suggesting the move was a "smart" one politically.
Overall, I found more than two-dozen television discussions or references to the Grimes story during a four-day span, from October 10-13, via Nexis. During a similar four-day span following news of Ernst's snub on October 23, I found no television discussions or references to that story. (Note that not every news program is archived by Nexis.)
So yes, the Democratic candidate who was accused of botching a question during an editorial board interview was pilloried in the press. But the Republican candidate who refused to sit for editorial board meetings was mostly given a pass. (Here's an exception.) Do double standards come any more tightly focused than that?
Republican Rand Paul certainly seems to be riding an extended wave of glowing press coverage, as reporters and commentators line up to dub the Kentucky senator a deeply fascinating man.
From Politico: "Rand Paul, The Most Interesting Man in Politics."
The Washington Post: "Rand Paul Is The Most Interesting Man In The (Political) World"
And now this week's cover story from Time: "The Most Interesting Man In Politics."
What the supportive Paul coverage lacks in originality, it makes up for in passion and admiration. We've learned Paul represents "the most interesting voice in the GOP right now." He boasts a "supple mind" and is a "preternaturally confident speaker." And from Time, Paul spoke to a recent crowd "with the enthusiasm of a graduate student in the early rapture of ideas."
There appears to be such a media rush to toast Paul as a Republican freethinker that the feel-good coverage sometimes confuses what he actually stands for. Note that Politico claimed the senator's "instinctive libertarianism, meanwhile, plays well with America's pro-pot, pro-gay marriage younger generation."
Fact: Paul opposes gay marriage.
Nonetheless, the glowing press clips pile up, with Time's cover story representing the most recent entry. In April 2013, the Kentucky senator graced Time's cover when he was dubbed one of the 100 Most Influential people in the World. (Paul's entry was written by Sarah Palin, who declared that his "brand of libertarian-leaning conservatism attracts young voters.")
What's especially odd about Time's most recent salute is that the magazine essentially published the same laudatory Rand Paul feature last year. It marveled at his political rise and suggested he might change the course of the GOP ("Can he reshape [the] party"), which is precisely what this week's cover story is about. ("Can he fix what ails the GOP?")
But there's something about Time's supportive Paul coverage that stands out. Indeed, the publication has morphed into something of a national cheering section for the Kentucky Republican, obediently covering his appearances, typing up as news his attacks on Bill and Hillary Clinton, and publishing his first-person essays.
Fox News continues to lead the conservative attack on Ron Klain, whom President Obama appointed as the administration's Ebola coordinator, termed by some a "czar," to help direct the government's response to the rare virus and its arrival in Dallas, Texas.
After days of demanding White House action on the issue (such as appointing a czar), conservatives, led by Republican Party leaders, immediately criticized the choice of Klain. Why? Because he has no medical background and because he's enjoyed a career as Democratic political insider, working as chief of staff for both former Vice President Al Gore and current Vice President Joe Biden.
On the recent Sunday morning talk shows, Republicans made sure to hammer their objections:
As Republicans seek to gain a partisan advantage by ginning up fear about the Ebola virus in preparation for the midterm election cycle, they're getting a major assist from the news media, which seems to be equally anxious to spread anxiety about the virus, and to implicate President Obama for the health scare. At times, Republicans, journalists, and commentators appear to be in complete sync as they market fear and kindle confusion. ("You could feel a shiver of panic coursing through the American body politic this week.")
The result is a frightening level of misinformation about Ebola and a deep lack of understanding of the virus by most Americans. Indeed, despite weeks of endless coverage, most news consumers still don't understand key facts about Ebola.
If the news media's job is to educate, and especially to clarify during times of steep public concerns, then the news media have utterly failed during the Ebola threat. And politically, that translates into a win for Republicans because it means there's fertile ground for their paranoia to grow. (Sen. Rand Paul: Ebola is "incredibly contagious.")
"They have all caught the Ebola bug and are now transmitting the fear it engenders to millions of Americans," lamented a recent Asbury Park (NJ) editorial, chastising the cable news channels. "It turns out that fear-mongering translates not only into dollars and cents for news-gathering organizations, but also allows talking heads to politicize the issue."
If Republicans want the media to remain relentlessly focused on the anxious Ebola storyline prior to Election Day, they're in luck. Last night, the homepage for the Washington Post featured at least 15 Ebola-related articles and columns. Already this week, the cable news channels have mentioned "Ebola" more than 4,000 times according to TVeyes.com; or roughly 700 on-air references each day. The unfolding crisis is undoubtedly a major news story, but so much of the coverage --particularly on cable news -- has been more focused on fearmongering than solid information. It's a drumbeat that eventually becomes synonymous with fear and uncertainty, which dovetails with GOP's preferred talking point this campaign season.
And for Republicans, it's not just Ebola. The election season scare strategy that has emerged revolves around portraying the virus as the latest symptom of an America that's in startling decline and without any White House leadership able to deal with the crisis. As the New York Times reported on October 9, what has emerged as the GOP's unifying campaign theme is "decidedly grim." It alleges "President Obama and the Democratic Party run a government that is so fundamentally broken it cannot offer its people the most basic protection from harm."
Message: Panic looms. We stand exposed. Nobody's in charge. It's worse than you think.
The truth? "The risk of contracting Ebola is so low in the United States that most people would have to go out of their way to put themselves in any danger," as Medical Daily noted this week. Added one Florida doctor, "I tell people you're more apt to be hit by lightning right now, than you are to get Ebola."
A new poll last week revealed disturbing trends about the increasingly dire media coverage of the Ebola story in the United States. Measuring the rising anxiety among news consumers, a Rutgers-Eagleton poll of New Jersey residents found that 69 percent are at least somewhat concerned about the deadly disease spreading in the U.S.
The truly strange finding was that people who said they were following the story most closely were the ones with the most inaccurate information about Ebola. The more information they consumed about the dangerous disease, the less they knew about it. How is that even possible?
Poll director David Redlawsk cast an eye of blame on the news media. "The tone of the coverage seems to be increasing fear while not improving understanding," Redlawsk told a reporter. "You just have to turn on the TV to see the hysteria of the "talking heads" media. It's really wall to wall. The crawls at the bottom of the screen are really about fear. And in all the fear and all the talking, there's not a lot of information."
While the Rutgers-Eagleton poll was a statewide survey, not a national one, it's reasonable to assume that the Ebola information phenomena documented in New Jersey is happening elsewhere, as a series of nationwide polls have highlighted just how little Americans understand about the rare virus.
"Reporters can be part of the problem or part of the solution," Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings announced at press conference on October 2, as the city began to deal with its local health crisis following the disclosure that an Ebola victim was being treated in a city hospital.
Two weeks later, what's the verdict?