How the Media Blew the Midterms

Even top journalists were blindsided by Christine O’Donnell, don’t get the Tea Party, and feel Obama’s getting short shrift. Howard Kurtz on what the mainstream press got wrong.

10.18.10 10:42 PM ET

The media narrative by now is set in concrete: The voters are teed off, rising up, mad as hell and ready to wreak havoc.

There is a whiff, if you read between the lines, that the expected outcome is somehow unjust. The Democrats are going to get their backsides handed to them, in this telling, because the Obama administration has clumsily failed to explain what it’s done for the folks, and because of slightly scary passions unleashed by the Tea Party crazies.

The journalistic tone was somewhat different in 2006, when exasperated voters handed the House and Senate to the Dems, and 2008, when Barack Obama sold himself as a post-partisan savior.

I’m not saying this is intentional, or that the MSM are mangling the midterms. Many voters are angry, especially about the anemic economy, and it’s their right to toss out whoever they deem to be the bums. But on some level, many journalists believe the White House has accomplished a heckuva lot, and they see the Tea Partiers as inchoate and maddeningly inconsistent—denouncing big bad government while clinging to their Medicare and Social Security benefits. It’s as if the pundits are collectively engaged in a group grope, feeling their way around this strange and sharp-toothed political animal that resembles nothing they’ve encountered before.

Few have gone as far as the late (and usually great) Peter Jennings, explaining the 1994 Gingrich takeover by declaring that “the voters had a temper tantrum.” But news organizations were late to the Tea Party phenomenon, and are still grappling to explain it—in part because of its amorphous and unofficial nature. They were blindsided by Scott Brown’s win and Lisa Murkowski’s loss.

“The media profile is of an angry, racist rabble, and that doesn’t match the people I’ve seen in focus groups,” says Republican pollster Whit Ayres, describing the Tea Party movement. “There’s a predisposition in the more liberal elements of the media to paint Republicans as unsophisticated rubes who don’t appreciate all the wonderful things the Obama administration and the Democratic Party have done for the country. It’s just out of touch with the reality.”

For Jano Cabrera, a Democratic strategist, the subject strikes a nerve. “My wife and I were having this very conversation,” he says. “When we were trying to seize power, we had justified anger, and now we talk about uninformed voters.” Obama inherited unprecedented challenges, Cabrera says, but in politics “you can’t go back and say it’s the other guy’s fault.”

This is a year in which facts—the preferred currency of the reality-based media—often don’t seem to matter. Journalists report that Sharron Angle had favored privatizing Social Security, spoke of people considering “Second Amendment remedies” and counseled rape victims to turn “a lemon situation into lemonade” by giving birth—and she’s still competitive with Harry Reid. Media outlets report that Christine O’Donnell, the onetime witchcraft dabbler, opposes masturbation and considers evolution “a myth,” and she laughs it off (while trailing in the race). New York gubernatorial candidate Carl Paladino calls gay pride parades “disgusting,” hurls baseless charges about Andrew Cuomo’s sex life (after fathering a child out of wedlock himself) and tells a New York Post columnist “I’ll take you out”—and still hasn’t been laughed out of the race.

The biggest media blunder, in my view, was the walk-on-water coverage that Obama drew in 2007 and 2008.

Who, after all, has absorbed more abuse from the “lamestream media” than Sarah Palin, who can hit back with a Facebook post that bypasses the old gatekeepers?

In such a topsy-turvy season, one simple solution is…blaming the voters! They are so caught up in faulting Obama for everything but bad weather, so mesmerized by the right-wing noise machine that they can’t see straight. Yes, the refrain goes, high unemployment is heartbreaking, but do people really think they’re going to do better under Speaker Boehner and Majority Leader McConnell?

Small problem: These are the same voters who broke with more than two centuries of Oval Office white men by electing Obama. Weren’t many of us praising their judgment and tolerance then? (Yes, I know they’re not the exact same voters, in that turnout is smaller in off-years and many disaffected Democrats are likely to stay home. And Obama, like Ronald Reagan, swept in many party colleagues who could not survive in marginal districts once the wave receded.)

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On the merits, journalists are right that Obama’s accomplishments have been minimized. Health care reform, however it pans out, was a huge achievement; the overall package remains unpopular, the individual parts (such as not excluding kids for preexisting conditions) not so much. Tightening financial regulation was a heavy lift against the forces of Wall Street. Even the much-derided stimulus law saved plenty of jobs.

All that has been overshadowed because many voters believe the president bobbled the economy while setting his sights on social engineering. But here, too, the short attention span of today’s journalism played a role. The health care and banking battles were covered ad nauseum, but once they passed, the press lost interest and moved on to mosque mess and the Koran-burning preacher and whatever other diversions were available.

The biggest media blunder, in my view, was the walk-on-water coverage that Obama drew in 2007 and 2008. The only real debate was whether he was more like FDR (Time) or Lincoln (Newsweek). The candidate obviously played a role in creating his own myth, but it was the breathless media that sent expectations soaring into the stratosphere. Once Obama had to grapple with two wars, a crippled economy and reflexive Republican opposition, he had no place to go but down. The press has long since fallen out of love with the president, but the overheated hyperbole did him no favors.

Who’s to blame for the coming electoral tsunami? We ought to be careful about dumping on the most convenient scapegoat, those moronic voters. In politics, it’s not that complicated: you either deliver or you pay the price.

Howard Kurtz is the Daily Beast’s Washington bureau chief. He also hosts CNN’s weekly media program “Reliable Sources,” Sundays at 11 am ET. The longtime media reporter and columnist for The Washington Post, Kurtz is the author of five books.