Running Against Cable TV News

The Obama administration tried an interesting tactic today: actively running against cable news and its conventional wisdom, and portraying themselves as the representatives of real public opinion, as opposed to TV opinion. According to the linked piece, Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said this:

I think it’s illuminating because it may not necessarily be where cable television is on all of this. But, you know, we’re sort of used to that. We lost on cable television virtually every day last year. So, you know, there’s a conventional wisdom to what’s going on in America via Washington, and there’s the reality of what’s happening in America.

The reason this tactic is interesting isn’t that it’s new; it’s just new for Democrats. Republicans/Conservatives have traditionally been the ones claiming that the media is against them and that the broader public agrees with them, but doesn’t get its views represented in the media. That’s what Richard Nixon, the father of the modern Republican party, was saying when he used the term “silent majority”: it was a way of framing his policies in a populist way, as the policies that were supported by the Little Guy without a voice but not by the Big Guys who went on TV. (And in defense of Nixon, in the late ’60s and early ’70s, the claim that TV news had a liberal bias was fairly plausible; the assumptions underlying pundit discussions in, say, 1969 were at least more left-leaning than they usually are today.) In 1992 President Bush I actually made “Annoy the Media: Re-Elect Bush” a campaign slogan.

Liberals and Democrats have been more reluctant to attack the media, even though the angriest media criticism today comes from the left rather than the right. The criticism focuses particularly on cable news, where apart from a few token liberal hosts (Rachel Maddow, Keith Olbermann), the conversation tends to slant right, partly due to the mix of guests, partly due to the assumptions underlying a lot of the discussions. The blogger Joshua Micah Marshall summed up modern liberal opinion when he wrote earlier this month:

The journalistic establishment in Washington, whether it’s the Post or the Politico or much of the rest of the journalistic apparatus in the city, is essentially Republican in character — not necessarily in terms of individual voting habits, though you’d be surprised, but in fundamental outlook about whose opinions matter and how government functions, which is what really counts.

The idea that the news apparatus might be “essentially Republican in character” might sound weird given that most of these reporters and pundits don’t vote Republican, and that Obama got more favourable coverage than most of his Democratic predecessors. But the way these shows are structured often winds up making the Republican/conservative opinion dominate anyway, not because the reporters are Republican but because they just think Republicans make more interesting guests or have more interesting things to say. The Obama-boosting liberal site Think Progress has gotten some attention for claiming that opponents of the Obama stimulus plan outnumbered proponents 2 to 1 on cable news, and the conservative Fred Barnes at the Weekly Standard agrees that “Supporters made few TV appearances to defend it.” He thinks that supporters didn’t go on TV because it was indefensible; liberals think they weren’t invited much; but it’s agreed that there weren’t many people on TV defending the bill, even though public opinion polls generally show a more even split on the issue that leans on the side of majority support for the bill.

But Democrats rarely run against the media the way Republicans do. Remember in the late ’90s, when Bill Clinton was being pilloried on cable news even as opinion polls showed that most people opposed his impeachment. The Clinton administration attacked the Republicans as being out of touch with public opinion, but they didn’t spend much time attacking cable news. That was felt to be a distraction, and in any case, many Democrats probably do agree with Republicans that the media has a liberal bias.

But not attacking the media creates this weird situation where only Republicans are attacking media bias, even though they’re getting more media exposure. (Attacking media bias, needless to say, is one of the best ways to get media exposure.) Republicans were successful in getting the media to think twice about letting certain assumptions colour the work they did; that’s why CNN is careful not to dismiss the arguments for tax cuts and against social spending, because they don’t want to wind up in a 1972 type of situation, where the media is perceived as being out of touch with what most of the country wants. Pundits don’t seem to think nearly as much about the possibility that they might be too quick to dismiss liberal ideas, because the liberal politicians rarely come after them.

My own suspicion is that this is not really a full-fledged, thought-out strategy, and that Obama, like many politicians, cares too much about his own personal popularity with the press. But it’s probably worth sacrificing personal popularity to get the press to report more favourably on certain ideas and views. Bush II was not particularly well liked by the press, but Iraq war supporters outnumbered its opponents on cable TV back in 2002-3, and that probably helped him more, politically, than personally favourable coverage.