Sailing Away to Irrelevance, Part II
“But there is another kind of light; a light that fills even the darkest places. For if this meat-light did not exist, how could darkness be seen? And so it is with the truth. There are some things which appear to be the truth, but which are not the real truth. The real truth must sometimes be protected by a labyrinth of lies.” – The character Vorbis, explaining his justification for disseminating factually dubious propaganda in Small Gods, by Terry Pratchett
Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Fool me three times, that’d be me again – I just said ‘fool me twice shame on me.’ Fool me four times – well, that’s definitely me.” – David Cross, Bigger and Blackerer
Although my goodness, he sure did. Not only did he call each state, it appears as the last votes are tallied that he may well come within a tenth of a percentage point of nailing the popular vote. (A performance which the conservative Examiner, after both criticizing Silver for looking too effeminate and confidently predicting a Romney landslide, hilariously gives a grade of Solid B but Not B+.)
Nor is the most important take-away that conservative pundits pretty universally (and confidently!) stunk up the joint with their own predictions.
Although my goodness, they sure did. Among those conservatives who reviewed data that appeared to predict an Obama victory and declared a Romney White House were conservative statisticians Rasmussen, Michael Barone, Wayne Allen Root, Stuart Rothenberg, Mason Dixon and the Suffolk group – which was so confident of Mitt’s chances that they stopped polling many swing states altogether. Conservative “thinkers” who projected a Romney victory or landslide (mostly landslide) include Karl Rove, Douglas Holtz-Eakin, John Bolton, George Will, Dick Morris, Pat Toomey, Charles Krauthammer, Fred Barnes, Joe Scarsborough, Glenn Beck (who claimed God would intervene to ensure it), Dylan Byers, Bill Kristen, David Brooks, Ari Fleisher, James Pethokoukis, David Weigel, Jay Cost, Jennifer Rubin, John Kaish (who claimed inside knowledge of “secret polls”), Sean Hannity, Andrew McCarthy, Frank Donatelli, John Boehner, Tom Ridge, Jeb Bush, Eric Cantor, Newt Gingrich, Bob McDonnell, Peggy Noonan, and can I please stop typing now because my fingers are getting really tired?
No, the most important take-away is the reasoning the entire right wing media machine used to support its Electoral College Maginot Line:
The conservative media rejected polls pointing to an Obama win because they were being reported by the mainstream media, whom they did not trust, and because they overvalued their own anecdotal anti-Obama experiences. Therefore, they explained to their audience, the data was by definition untrue. Their jaw-dropped shock in the election’s aftermath showed us that somewhere along the way the media machine’s spokespeople had come to believe their own propaganda. They fell back on the same circular and enclosed reasoning that had assured them that a primary of scapegoating Latinos, mocking women who wanted healthcare coverage to include birth control, and promising to preemptively invade yet another Middle East country was not just the key to victory, but the key to burying the liberal agenda for a generation. Their assumption that high ratings and advertising revenue equated to a national consensus contaminated their entire reasoning apparatus, and so they planned accordingly – and then they proceeded to have their asses handed to them.
And the lesson from that most important take-away is this: the conservative media machine that the Republican Party has leaned on so heavily for so long is starting to be a greater liability than asset in terms of national electability. The media machine’s ratings-driven reliance on ever-increasing shock-value over accuracy has finally reached the tipping point; as various income streams for the media machine increase, support for the party it was created to promote drops off.
America’s conservative media machine is slowly but surely killing America’s conservative party.
Back in September as the election was coming into the home stretch, I received some criticism from fellow Leaguer Jonathan McLeod on a post that I had written. The post was critical of FOX News, and Jonathan noted – correctly – that I had already done several pieces critical of FOX this past year. I appreciated the feedback, and thus later in the week when the Fair (and Balanced) Folk held up a shiny, glimmering tidbit I checked myself and swallowed the whistle.
But while I still feel that Jonathan was entirely right in his well-intentioned attempts to keep me honest (and interesting), in light of the post-election meltdown I have come to believe that I was wrong for choosing to ignore what I thought was important to write about. Because while each nugget was simply an interesting anecdote on its own, together they point to a rather consistent pattern that ultimately, I believe, helped the Republicans lose a very winnable presidential election.
In the course of about two weeks as the election approached, FOX ran three different stories that were brought to my attention by readers. One, which was the story Jonathan took issue with me for bothering to write about, was an expose they did on President Obama taking the time celebrate National Pirate Day when he claimed he was too busy to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Another was a story on Obama driving the real unemployment rate up a staggering seven points since his election in 2008. The last was a story on how Obama has grown government spending as a percentage of GDP to unheard-of levels of 24%; as a comparison point, FOX reported that in 2008 George W. Bush kept government spending at just barely 3% of GDP.
All of these stories have three things in common – and as we shall see, they share these three commonalities with the almost every other “big story” that FOX, Limbaugh, Drudge, the Daily Caller, Beck, NRO and every other arm of the other right wing media machine ran in the months leading up to the general election:
- Each story was crafted to fit into the narrative that President Obama was an evil, socialist “other” that was cunningly and systematically destroying America by design.
- The fact that the “mainstream media” was not covering these stories was itself drafted into part of each story’s narrative as proof that the non-right-wing media was in on the con, and – one might assume – therefore also had designs on destroying America.
- Though seemingly damning, each of these stories was a complete fiction that was entirely manufactured by the media source that reported it.
As I noted in my Pirate Day post, the President had not in fact held a National Pirate Day celebration of any kind. The photograph FOX used to sell the story was one taken as a lark for a correspondent’s dinner in 2009; it was one FOX had in its own archives. The story about the seven point increase in the unemployment rate was done by sleight of hand: FOX compared Bush’s ending official unemployment rate with Obama’s real unemployment rate. (The actual comparisons between the official rates were 7.9 vs. 8.1; between the real rates were 14.2 and 14.7.) A significantly greater kind of bulls**t gymnastics was required for the government spending story. Bush’s numbers looked so low because FOX created a separate calculation to reflect federal spending growth pegged to federal revenue; Obama’s looked so high because FOX used an entirely different calculation – one that reflected spending growth as a share of the economy. If you use the same calculation for government spending the numbers in Bush’s last full year, the year Bush and Obama share, and Obama since are actually very similar: 20.8/25.2/23.8.
I want to be very clear that, in each of these stories, FOX was not discussing reports made by other news organizations or commentators, nor were they passing along newly released government statistics or press releases. They were not even presenting things that the Romney campaign was claiming without “fact-checking.” In each case, FOX simply created the story in-house – stories they knew to be completely fictitious – to make the president’s record better fit the narrative their viewers wanted to see reported.
They could, for example, have reported that Obama had unemployment numbers similar to Bush’s number in 2008 and argued that they should have been better – certainly that could be an accurate and compelling anti-Obama argument to make. But in the world of the ratings-driven media machine, this isn’t enough. The story needs to fit the narrative that the seemingly moderate, technocratic Obama – despite using an economic playbook not dissimilar to Bush’s – is a sleeper Stalinist who is plotting a Communist state. That’s a story that gets your audience to keep obsessively coming back, calling in and buying over-priced gold from your advertisers.
This week I’m going to be doing a series of posts that take a look at the big stories that the right wing media machine pushed hard in the months leading up to the general election. All of these will be stories that were covered extensively in the media machine’s more mainstream outlets as well as those considered more “wingnut.” These will include the story that the President ordering his own people be abandoned in Benghazi, the story that the president started Operation Fast & Furious to overturn the second amendment, the story that UN forces will soon be entering the United States to collect the guns of private citizens, and the story that once reelected, the President is set to enact some kind of national Sharia law.
Each of these started as real stories about actions taken by the current administration. As we will see, however, in each case a pattern begins to emerge:
- The original story, while absolutely showing a potential miscalculation by the White House, isn’t really damning as initially reported (usually by FOX).
- The story is then taken by bloggers, talk radio show hosts, and FOX “expert” commentators and reworked to better fit the narrative of Obama as evil usurper. The facts are changed entirely, but no real journalism is used to gather new information; instead, the media machine relies on self-referencing its own continually shifting commentaries on the original story until a very different and far more nefarious sounding story emerges.
- The huge whirlwind of the media machine is assumed to itself be indicative of “unreported” news, and thus the original reporting source (again, usually FOX) re-reports the story with the new “facts.” (Reminding one of that moment in the children’s game Telephone when the original child announces what their starting phrase has morphed into.
- The media machine and its audience point to the mainstream media’s ignoring of the new, factually dubious story as “proof” that the new story is true.
If it were simply a case of the media machine working itself into a lather, the net effect would be (mostly) harmless. As it stands, however, the GOP has tied its fortunes to the machine, and the wackier the machine sounds, the more the GOP loses support among moderates and independents.
Worse, the individual campaigns themselves have become dependent upon the machine to do their groundwork. For small Congressional races in solidly social conservative communities this can actually be a boon. However, for races that require the buy-in of moderates and independents, such as the White House or the Senate, it often leads to disaster. (If you want a concrete example of this, consider the credibility damage among moderates and independents that was done to Romney in the second debate when he discussed Benghazi. Rather than criticize the President on miscues the president might have actually committed, Romney’s people were got caught up on the media machine’s morphed story that, because of his love for foreign Muslims over Americans, the president refused to use the phrase “terrorist act” in his remarks. The morphed story was far more interesting than the actual story, and it certainly fit the terrorist-sympathizer narrative better than reality did. But as we all know now it was factually incorrect – and Romney was made to look like a fool on national television as a result.)
If the Republicans are to become a dominant force once again (and to do so in spite of the growing demographics they have so tirelessly worked to alienate) than they will need to find narratives that, frankly, don’t sound bat-s**t crazy to anyone outside of their deflating bubble. Unfortunately for them, a more realistic kind of narrative is anathema to its media machine, because shock radio will always draw more listeners than a guy reading the news on air.
Trying to build a case that Obama is a centrist not so different from Romney, but that Romney would be a better manager and executive to lead the White House is a far more compelling argument for securing a GOP victory than the one that Obama and the UN are going to come to your door and take your guns. But it doesn’t lead to higher ratings, and right now higher ratings are what the Republican Party is dedicated to achieving.
 I spend a while googling conservative election predictions, and I could not find a single one that looked at the aggregate data and said they thought Romney would lose. The closest I got was PJ Media columnist Claudia Rosett, who said that, while she wasn’t sure enough to say who would win, she was confident enough to say that the only range of realistic outcomes was somewhere between Obama barely eking out a drawn-out nail-biter and Romney winning in a quick landslide. Bill O’Reilly makes it a practice not to predict election outcomes, so on his show he explained that he would not be making a prediction, but he couched that statement in a way that made it clear there was no way he believed the people would be reelecting the president. Are there others out there that did say, “I really wish it weren’t the case, but unfortunately the data seems to show the race leaning for Obama?” Maybe, but I couldn’t find them.