Politico goes for ‘fair and balanced’

And it succeeds, in the Fox News sense

Last week, Politico rocked the insidery world of political journalism with an article, written by executive editor Jim VandeHei and chief White House reporter Mike Allen, that criticized The New York Times and The Washington Post for media bias. VandeHei and Allen sacrificed accuracy for angle, giving Republican operatives an uncritical platform to accuse the Times and Post—who, as GQ’s Devin Gordon points out, just happen to be Politico’s chief competitors—of covering Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney more harshly than they cover President Barack Obama.

The piece fixates on two recent stories about Romney and their supposed “implications.” The Times’s recent front-page story about Ann Romney’s involvement in the obscure sport of dressage, for example, is hardly a hit piece, but to VandeHei and Allen, it has a “clear implication” that “the Romneys are silly rich, move in rarefied and exotic circles, and are perhaps a tad shady.” Politico is also critical of the Post’s recent scoop about Mitt Romney’s high-school years, a story that includes the previously-unreported fact that he once held down a classmate and cut off his long hair. The “clear implication” this time? “Romney was a mean, insensitive jerk.”

And the “clear implication” of the Politico piece? That such critical coverage of Obama never gets prominent play in the Times or the Post. VandeHei and Allen’s sole bit of evidence is the fact that revelations about Obama’s pot-smoking past included in a new Obama biography by Post reporter David Maraniss did not land on the front page of either paper. Never mind that the revelations were reported by both papers, just not on the front pages, and that the drug use was first reported in 2007.

For VandeHei and Allen, it’s enough to show that Republican complaints of liberal media bias “often ring true.” If you’d never heard such complaints, the Politico article also includes quotes (which are never put into context) from Republican operatives like former Mississippi governor Haley Barbour—who, as Capital New York’s Reid Pillifant notes, has been making similar complaints about different politicians for over a decade. The most ridiculous sound bite, though, comes courtesy of Ari Fleischer, formerly President Bush’s White House Press Secretary.

”These stories are not unusual, except they were never done about then-Senator Obama in 2008,” Fleischer said. “The press never ran probing, sneering stories about candidate Obama, and yet the Washington Post and New York Times are on overtime covering who-cares stories about Mitt Romney.”

As GQ’s Gordon and Slate’s Dave Weigel both pointed out (and as any reader of the Times and Post can figure out by searching the archives), the two papers most certainly did run probing stories about Obama. There were numerous (front-page, if that even matters in a digital age) stories in both publications dealing with Obama’s childhood and family life, youthful pot-smoking, and his relationships with controversial preacher Jeremiah Wright, former Weather Underground terrorist Bill Ayers, and corrupt developer and fundraiser Tony Rezko.

Thanks to all the coverage of Obama’s personal life in 2007 and 2008, there’s simply less to be discovered about him than Romney during this election cycle. This doesn’t mean that the mainstream media have stopped covering Obama, though. Its members just switched from investigating his background to investigating his policies and record as president. And this is what they told Politico, who reprinted their statements but seems not to have read them. Here’s Times political editor Richard Stevenson:

Two days after we published the dressage piece, we ran a 6,000-word report on Obama’s management of the anti-terrorism fight. Jo Becker and Scott Shane uncovered a wealth of new detail, including material that drew criticism for the White House from left and right.

We’ve done fresh and exclusive reporting about aspects of Obama’s record that no one else has examined, like Gardiner Harris’s look at the politicization of the FDA.

On campaign finance, we broke the news that in the rush to raise every possible dollar, the Obama campaign had accepted money from questionable sources.

We undertook a major investigative project to examine the link between campaign donations to Obama and access to the White House.

And the Post’s national politics editor Steve Ginsberg:

We launched our own database of the White House visitor logs with a piece by Tim Farnam that explored the steady stream of lobbyist visitations to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. We are the news organization that broke stories and aggressively followed the Solyndra loan controversy, courtesy of dogged reporting by Carol Leonnig and Joe Stephens. The first installment of our ongoing series, “Evolution of a President,” by Peter Wallsten, Lori Montgomery and Scott Wilson, dissected the debt deal in a way that it had not been done before. Today, Jerry Markon had a piece in the paper about Romney’s judicial appointments and his ill-fated effort to reform the system in Massachusetts. Last year, Markon wrote about the steady rise of federal judicial vacancies during the Obama administration.

All of this critical coverage of the President’s policies was apparently lost on Politico, who concluded that the papers had stopped critically covering Obama because they had stopped critically covering his personal life and background.

There are legitimate critiques to be made against the different coverage accorded Obama and Romney, but they have nothing to do with uneven scrutiny or their public versus private lives. Rather, as CJR’s Brendan Nyhan pointed out a few weeks ago, the narratives for the two candidates were depicted differently. Both Obama and Romney shifted positions on major issues, Nyhan argued, but the press described Obama’s shift as a natural “evolution” while treating Romney’s as a hypocritical “flip-flop.”

Politico could have done something similar, examining the different articles published about Obama in 2008 and Romney in 2012 and critiquing them on their journalistic merits—were the facts inaccurate, the reporting thin, the narratives misleading? Instead, they reprinted false statements by Republican politicians and political operatives upset that media coverage of their candidate was hurting his campaign. That seems more like the work of a political consulting team, not media critics—and certainly not journalists.

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Peter Sterne is an editorial intern at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @petersterne. Tags: , , , ,