Fox News' political strategy for covering the Massachusetts Senate election included repeatedly hosting Scott Brown to fundraise on the air, misrepresenting his opponent's remarks, inciting fears that Democrats would “cheat” to steal the election, and projecting a stock market rally contingent upon Brown's victory.
Picking up where the network left off in 2009, Fox News jumped into its first political campaign of the year, this time setting its sights on the U.S. Senate to help elect Republican Scott Brown to the seat previously held by Democrat Ted Kennedy. Fox News and other media conservatives anticipated and celebrated Brown's election with a hyperbolic fervor that would redden the faces of the “Obamaniacs” they most despised in 2008. As conservative media saw it, in defeating Democratic challenger Martha Coakley in Massachusetts, Scott Brown took down Goliath, the 1980 Soviet Olympic hockey team, the Berlin Wall, and the British Empire. Before Brown assumed his seat in the Senate, he had been nominated by Drudge and Fox News to be our next president.
Fox News didn't simply cheer from the sidelines of this contest. Indeed, the network actively aided Brown's campaign. Fox News repeatedly hosted Brown in the days leading up to the election, and during each appearance, Brown directed viewers to his website to find out “how to help with donating and volunteering.” Fox News political analyst Dick Morris took it upon himself to urge viewers to “go to DickMorris.com ... to help elect Brown,” because if “we win this fight, then there will never be another victory for Obama.” When asked at a rally about “ethical questions” raised by Fox News' advocacy for Brown, chief political correspondent Carl Cameron fled, saying he didn't have time to answer. But he did have the time to autograph “Brown for Senate” campaign materials and pose for pictures with Brown's volunteers, as Think Progress documented.
Fox News also did Brown the favor of repeatedly misrepresenting remarks Coakley made to portray her as incompetent. America's News HQ anchor Gregg Jarrett stated on January 17, “Martha Coakley is out of step when she says things like terrorists are no longer in Afghanistan, or in the debate saying, quote, 'We need to get taxes up.' ” Interpreting Coakley's remarks in this way requires a willing suspension of basic verbal reasoning skills; and that was Fox's "straight news" programming. On Fox & Friends, Steve Doocy actually claimed that Coakley “suggested the Taliban [are] gone from Afghanistan,” and Michael Scheuer declared that Coakley “doesn't seem to mind” that “we are losing there.” For his part, Glenn Beck accused Coakley of “religious bigotry” for saying that those who would “deny emergency contraception to a woman who came in who had been raped” probably “shouldn't work in the emergency room.”
In case boosting Brown while attacking Coakley wasn't a sufficient strategy, Fox News baselessly fomented fears that Democrats would “cheat” to steal the election. Warning Fox News viewers not to become complacent before Election Day, Beck stated, "[Y]ou can imagine how ugly this thing will get if -- oh God help us all -- if it's too close to call." Beck displayed the ACORN logo and added, "[T]hey have friends in low places." Invoking the Florida recount, Beck asserted that Democrats “were so incompetent they didn't even know how to cheat. But don't worry -- they've gotten good at it now.”
Fox even told viewers that they could strengthen their 401(k)s by electing Brown. Echoing CNBC's Jim Cramer, Fox Nation declared that “Brown Win Could Cause Huge Stock Rally.” On Election Day, Fox & Friends co-host Gretchen Carlson introduced Fox business contributor Stuart Varney by stating, “Well, you may want to make a call to Massachusetts and get some people out to the polls. Well, that's because our next guest, and a friend, says that your portfolio could look much better if Scott Brown wins Ted Kennedy's vacant Senate seat.” As Varney spoke, Fox & Friends displayed an on-screen text reading: “What can Brown do for you? A boost in your 401K may be in the cards.” And over on Fox Business, Charles Payne asserted that a Brown win “fertilizes the soil for an incredible longer-term stock market rally.”
But after closing up 115 points on January 19 before election results were in, the Dow Jones Industrial Average fell 122 points the day after Brown's victory and another 213 points the next day. Baffled by this turn of events, Beck said on his radio show, “I'm not sure why it's coming down” since “it made total sense to me” that the market would “go through the roof” if Brown won.
Predictably, conservative media saw no limit on what Brown's victory could signify and to what extent progressives and progressive policies could suffer. Media outlets converged on a few shallow narratives: The election was a referendum on Obama; Obama should move to the right; and voters have rejected health care reform. (Somehow, Americans hadn't reached these conclusions by January 10, when Coakley still held a comfortable lead.)
Exit polls, however, showed that a majority of Massachusetts voters approve of Obama's job performance. And contrary to the claim that Brown's victory means Congress should toss out health care reform, Massachusetts is not representative of the nation as a whole. Indeed, the state already passed a health care program that insures nearly all residents -- a unique situation that allowed Brown to argue that his state would not benefit from national reform. Brown, and the vast majority of Massachusetts, supported the state's 2006 reforms, which are widely seen as the model for the national plans currently under consideration in Congress.
Other Major Stories
For conservative media, an unhappy anniversary
This week marked President Obama's first full year in office, and right-wing media celebrated the occasion by distorting Obama's record and mourning the loss of former President Bush, who Gateway Pundit blogger Jim Hoft remembered as “The World's Greatest Liberator Since World War II.”
A Fox Nation headline stating, “Miss Him? 1 Year Later, Bush Still Stands Proud” echoed a January 20 BigJournalism.com post, in which Andrew Breitbart wrote: “A year after he left office, it looks more and more like others will now not only start appreciating our 43rd president, they might start wishing they helped him when he had the toughest job in the world and they could only wish him ill.” Eight other January 20 posts on Breitbart's BigGovernment.com, BigHollywood.com, and BigJournalism websites similarly reminisced about the 43rd president, declaring that under Bush, "[t]he country felt safer. Morale was higher. And there wasn't this sinking feeling that freedom was being sold out," in the words of Leigh Scott.
Other conservatives marked Obama's anniversary by misrepresenting his record to declare his administration a failure, seemingly unwilling to grant that the damage done by the recession and the cost of the federal response to the recession can't be reasonably blamed on Obama. On Fox & Friends, Laura Ingraham gave Obama “a D-plus” on the economy and asserted that “consumer optimism” is “obviously down.” Ingraham's claim, however, is undermined by the fact that consumer confidence had actually increased 39 percent from December 2008 to December 2009.
Morris similarly misrepresented economic figures while grading Obama's first year. Claiming that Obama had tripled the deficit and “took federal spending from 3 trillion to 4 trillion in one year,” Morris failed to acknowledge that his figures correspond to fiscal year 2009, which began in October 2008 and therefore reflect actions taken by the federal government under Bush. Morris also claimed that the national debt was $9 trillion when Obama took office, when in fact, the debt had surpassed $9 trillion in September 2007.
Karl Rove and Beck also attempted to shield Bush from responsibility for any spending that took place after Obama was inaugurated. But as PolitiFact.com noted, “the spending for 2009 was largely determined by a Congress controlled by Democrats and a Republican president” and “even conservative budget analysts agree” that some of the debt accumulated under Obama can be attributed to decisions made by Bush.
Impartial analysts recognize that attempts to pinpoint Obama's impact on the national debt run into the difficulty of assigning responsibility for the costs of the Troubled Asset Relief Program, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the reduced tax revenue resulting from the recession, and interest paid on the debt accumulated under previous administrations. Beck said this week that Democrats “deciding the course of our country are Thelma and Louise” and are “about to take us over a cliff,” but most would agree that the country was already in freefall by the time Obama got in the driver's seat.
While conservative media lambaste Obama's first-year performance, the American public isn't convinced that he has failed. As Media Matters' Eric Boehlert noted, two major polls this week showed that a majority approve of Obama's performance, “but that's not the story the press wants to tell.”
We noted last week that Pat Robertson told his audience in the wake of the earthquake in Haiti that the “true story” behind the tragedy is that Haiti “swore a pact to the devil” to get “free from the French” and “ever since, they have been cursed.” While Robertson's comments were widely denounced in the media, some came to his defense this week. For instance, radio host Rose Tennent said of Robertson's claim that Haiti “swore a pact to the devil”: “Do you know that they didn't?” Similarly, in a January 19 Daily Caller column, Tommy De Seno asserted: “The Haitian pact with the devil is historical fact.”
Jonah Goldberg and National Review Online's Mark Krikorian offered their own analyses on the root of Haiti's troubles. According to Goldberg, “The sad truth about Haiti isn't simply that it is poor, but that it has a poverty culture,” and “Haiti will never get out of grinding poverty until it abandons much of its culture.” Krikorian "guess[ed]" that “Haiti's so screwed up because it wasn't colonized long enough” to “develop a local culture significantly shaped by the more-advanced civilization of the colonizers.”
Blinded by political spite, other media conservatives continued to attack the federal government's relief efforts. Rush Limbaugh -- who previously asserted that the earthquake was “made to order” for Obama" and that “we've already donated to Haiti” in the form of “the U.S. income tax” -- purported to highlight “the administrative costs of donating through WhiteHouse.gov.” Limbaugh went on state that in 1999, 28 cents of every dollar budgeted for welfare was spent on administration. But WhiteHouse.gov simply refers potential donors to other organizations' relief efforts. Limbaugh further stated that he would not be surprised if a Democrat proposes statehood for Haiti because “there's a lot of votes down there.”
Conservative columnist Ann Coulter said on Fox that it was a “shame and embarrassment” that former President Clinton was “involved in this bipartisan [Haiti] effort,” referring to Clinton as “the horny hick.” And to round out the attacks, Sherman Frederick wrote in the Las Vegas Review-Journal that Obama's efforts to provide relief to Haiti stemmed from Obama's need to “apologize to the world for American 'selfishness.' ” Considering such attacks, it's difficult to imagine any occasion these media conservatives would not view first and foremost as an opportunity to vilify progressives.
This week's media columns
This week's media columns from the Media Matters senior fellows: Eric Boehlert revisits Bob Woodward in light of Game Change journalism, and Jamison Foser takes on the incredible shallowness of the media's political analysis of the Massachusetts Senate election.
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This weekly wrap-up was compiled and edited by Jocelyn Fong, a researcher at Media Matters for America.