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The Censorship Election

How the Broadcast Networks Buried the Bad News That Threatened Barack Obama's Quest for a Second Term

In a typical presidential election year, most of the media’s scrutiny falls on the incumbent, and the campaign becomes a judgment on whether voters approve or disapprove of the previous four years. Liberal political scientist Michael Robinson found the networks were ten times tougher on Ronald Reagan than Walter Mondale in 1984; he blamed the media’s inclination to “always hold incumbents to a tougher standard, especially when they happen to be winning big in the race.”

Eight years later, a review by the Center for Media and Public Affairs found the networks tilted their Campaign ’92 coverage by a nearly two-to-one margin against President George H. W. Bush in favor of challenger Bill Clinton. In an appearance on PBS’s NewsHour that year, veteran CBS and NBC newsman Roger Mudd explained: “I think the bias is anti-incumbency bias. And I think you’ll find because the press so enjoys a story, an exciting story, particularly one in which one in power is about to fall from power, that that is reflected in the coverage.”

And in 2004, the same group found that challenger John Kerry “received the most positive press of any candidate since CMPA began monitoring election coverage in 1988,” while incumbent President George W. Bush was treated to mostly (63%) negative coverage.

In 2012, however, Barack Obama enjoyed both the advantages of incumbency and a persistent, if slight, lead in most public opinion polls — ingredients that, history would have suggested, constitute a recipe for a year-long bout of bad press. But the networks refused to incorporate critical examinations of Obama’s record into their campaign narrative, an editorial approach that neatly dovetailed with the Democrat’s strategy of making the election a referendum on challenger Mitt Romney, not the sitting President.

In an increasingly fractured and fragmented media landscape, the three networks’ power to choose which topics are (or are not) atop the nation’s news agenda may be more important than the spin they impart in discussing those topics. As radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh declared in March 2013, “in all the criticisms you can offer or make about the media, one of the biggest, and one of the most important, one of the most telling, is to point out what they don’t cover as much as the bias in what they do cover. What they ignore and what they don’t report is just as important.”

The networks’ penchant for omitting negative stories about President Obama has continued in the early months of his second term, giving him valuable public relations help as multiple scandals threatened to overwhelm his liberal agenda. A few examples from early 2013:

■ Obama’s Sequester Veto Flip-Flop: Back in November 2011, President Obama defiantly proclaimed that he would not permit Congress to escape the automatic budget cuts known as the sequester. “I will veto any effort to get rid of those automatic spending cuts to domestic and defense spending,” Obama insisted. “There will be no easy off-ramps on this one.”

But on January 1, 2013, Obama signed a congressional compromise pushing those cuts off for two months, until March 1. He spent much of February claiming that the sequester was “dumb” and would “hurt individual people, and it’s going to hurt the economy overall.” During this entire period in which the President led the effort to escape the sequester, none of the three broadcast networks reminded viewers of Obama’s 2011 declaration of “no easy off-ramps,” let alone suggested his earlier pledge was hollow re-election rhetoric.

■ Obama’s September 11 Vanishing Act: On February 7, outgoing Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta told Congress that, after a 5:00pm ET pre-scheduled meeting with the President just as the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi was in its opening stages, he heard from neither the President nor “anyone else at the White House” for the rest of the night — even though the fighting in Benghazi continued for more than six additional hours. Panetta also admitted: “We did not have any conversations with Secretary Clinton,” even though it was a State Department facility that was being attacked.

Instead of demanding answers to what occupied the President’s time (and his staff’s interest) during this attack on one of our ambassadors, none of the three network evening newscasts bothered to even mention this bit of testimony. That night, the CBS Evening News ran a short item on Panetta testifying about possibly arming Syrian rebels, but ignored his Benghazi revelation. None of the evening newscasts ever revisited the issue, either — although CBS and NBC ran items on their February 8 morning shows.

■ Obama’s Big Money Hypocrisy: A front-page New York Times story on February 23 warned of the “potential for influence peddling” in Obama’s new “Organizing for Action” tax-exempt advocacy network, which, according to the Times, would not be “bound by federal contribution limits, laws that bar White House officials from soliciting contributions, or the stringent requirements for campaigns. In their place, the new group will self-regulate.”

The next Monday, NBC’s Chuck Todd declared on MSNBC’s Daily Rundown that “this just looks bad. It looks like the White House is selling access.” He pointed out the hypocrisy, recalling: “Offering this kind of access to big donors was precisely what Obama was campaigning against in 2007 and 2008.” Yet, though Todd is NBC’s chief White House correspondent, nothing about the controversy aired on the NBC Nightly News, or the other broadcast evening newscasts (although both NBC and CBS eventually aired a single story on their March 8 morning newscasts).

■ ObamaCare Shakedown Scandal: On May 10, the Washington Post disclosed that HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius had solicited several health care-related companies seeking donations for Enroll America, a non-governmental group campaigning to boost the numbers of people signing up for health insurance; the New York Times later reported she had secured as much as $10,500,000 in funds for the group. According to the Post, “at least one official in the health-care industry felt pressure” to give money to Enroll America, whose president is Anne Filipic, an ex-Obama campaign and White House staffer.

Despite the outcry from congressional Republicans — Senator Lamar Alexander wondered whether Sebelius had violated “federal laws prohibiting raising private funds from those she regulates,” while Senator Orrin Hatch tagged Sebelius’s actions as “bullying” that “promotes a ‘pay to play’ environment” — the network evening newscasts had zero airtime for this possible malfeasance. In fact, the only broadcast network mention of Sebelius’s potential wrongdoing came on CBS’s Face the Nation on May 19, when host Bob Schieffer gently suggested her scheme could be a “conflict of interest.”

■ State Department Cover-Ups? On June 10, CBS This Morning broke news that an internal report from the State Department’s Diplomatic Security Service (DSS) alleged that eight investigations of serious wrongdoing within the department were “influenced, manipulated or simply called off” by higher-ups. Among the cases affected: allegations Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s own security detail solicited prostitutes (the report called it “endemic”) and that the U.S. Ambassador to Belgium, Howard Gutman, “routinely ditched his protective security detail in order to solicit sexual favors from both prostitutes and minor children.” (Gutman, a major Obama campaign contributor in 2008, publicly denied the allegations.)

None of the three network evening newscasts picked up This Morning’s scoop that night, but the next night, June 11, both ABC’s World News and the CBS Evening News ran full reports which included on-camera denials of wrongdoing from the State Department spokeswoman. The Evening News followed up two nights later, June 13, with a brief item on criticism from Representative Ed Royce, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. NBC Nightly News skipped the entire story, although NBC’s Today did air a single report on the morning of June 11. The final tally: just two full evening news stories, and one brief mention.

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The issue is the media’s credibility and identity. The broadcast networks continue to wrap themselves in the cloak of neutral and nonpartisan campaign umpires, denying any political agenda at all. But the record of Campaign  ’12 shows the Big Three acting more like MSNBC, downplaying or hiding news that failed to fit their partisan liberal narrative. If this pattern of political censorship continues, the networks will assuredly lose whatever credibility they still have among ordinary viewers who expect journalists to maintain political neutrality.