In which I marvel at the manners of the media beast.
Several years ago, paragon of establishment media criticism Howard Kurtz wrote the excellent Spin Cycle, a chronicle of how the Clinton White House manipulated the media, and at times was tossed about by the media itself. I reference this book because I was reminded of its major themes the past week. If you were anywhere near a cable television or a Facebook feed, you may have noticed that president Barrack Obama endorsed same-sex marriage in a television interview last Wendsday.
The media narrative about the completion of Obama’s “evolution” on the gay marriage issue is that the president’s hands were forced by purportedly unscripted remarks made by vice president Joe Biden on the NBC Sunday show Meet the Press. After several days of media scrutiny, the president was pushed, completely against his own will, and partly due to media pressure, to announce his change of conscience. Here is a piece from CNN that nicely summarizes this conventional wisdom. It’s a very believable progression of events, especially considering the Mr. Biden’s propensity for what the political press loves to refer to as “gaffes”.
But what if this was not true? What if Biden’s remarks were coordinated by the White House as a trial balloon to test both the media and the public’s reaction to the idea of gay marriage? When you look back at the “conventional wisdom” timeline, this is actually rather plausible. Biden’s remarks themselves were on Sunday. The next day, Education Secretary Arne Duncan, appearing on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, also voiced support of same-sex marriage. Obama, of course, changes course on Wednesday in the ABC News interview. The gap here is more than enough time for the White House to observe media reaction, and, perhaps, conduct internal polling in key swing states. Let’s look at the relevant slice of Biden’s remarks on NBC last week.
Now let’s think about those remarks. Note how Biden gives the standard White House spiel on gay rights achievements when asked about potential second term support of gay marriage. Also pay attention to Biden’s reference to a speech given to a group of gay leaders in LA two weeks earlier.
The morning after the announcement, I decided to watch some of the 8:00 hour of CBS This Morning. On at the time was none other than Max Mutchnick, one of the creators of the program Biden referenced, Will & Grace. While he expressed some gut level skepticism of the White House’s claims that the Biden remarks were spontaneous, the crucial fact was apparently said during commercial break. Max noted (this time for our, the viewer’s benefit) that he had been at a Los Angeles function two weeks earlier (likely the same one Biden referenced) when Biden made almost the exact same remarks on gay marriage, down to the Will & Grace reference. What makes this even more interesting is thatBiden was apparently being taped by a White House staffer when speaking at the dinner—in other words, the chances that the White House was genuinely surprised by the content of Biden’s remarks on NBC are fairly small. Below is a link to that appearance.
The producers of the CBS program, no doubt recognizing that they had narrative shifting news on their hands, immediately tweeted the revalation. The appearance was also picked up elsewhere as evidence of the White House’s cleverness/cynicism.
But assuming the remarks were coordinated, they had to lead to some sort of conclusion on the part of the White House staff, which is where the media’s behavior in those few days of uncertainty comes into play. In the intervening days, the media did hammer Obama for his inconsistency on the issue. Witness this “Keeping Them Honest” segment (linked below) from the May 7th edition of Anderson Cooper 360° as an example of the media’s general tone in covering the perceived weaseling.
However, what is interesting is the fact that media arguably was kinder on this particular inconsistency from Obama than the many inconsistencies of Mitt Romney. A piece in the Columbia Journalism Review argued that the coverage “constructed” a narrative that framed Obama’s positional shift as less a character flaw, as Mitt Romney’s position shifts have been framed, and more as just electoral business as usual—an otherwise decent politician doing what “he needs to do”.
I would argue that this is natural and semi-justified because Romney’s positional shifts have been much larger and more numerous. Obama, to become president, went from being solidly liberal to center left. Romney shifted from a pretty liberal worldview to what passes for sanity in today’s Republican Party. Still, I only say “semi-justified” because the fact that the media hammers candidates for inconsistency on policy issues, as opposed to actual policy, is an unfortunate fact of our mainstream media but also a subject for another post. Go read some Jay Rosen for more on that.
The other aspect of the media’s treatment of the gay marriage issue was the fact that right wing media critics, for once, seem to have a point. The media tended to hit from the left on this issue, asking not “why should the president support gay marriage”, but asking “why hasn’t the president come out in support of gay marriage already?” What makes this even more interesting is how self aware the media was of this, thanks to the right wing outrage generators. This perceived slant does not really trouble me, but then again, I support gay marriage myself.
As has been mentioned numerous times previously, Obama’s change of heart came on Wednesday in an ABC interview with Robin Roberts. This angle of the story is important because the White House apparently specifically asked for the Good Morning America host when they reached out to the network. This set off another wave of pundit speculation—garnering a whole piece in Politico—about the varied reasons Obama might have wanted her to be the conduit for his message on this issue. Many of them centered on her demographics—her being both black and religious, but also centered on her interviewing style. Does the fact that the White House got to shape their message the way they wanted make the interview bad journalism? Not in this specific case. On a broader level, however, this illustrates the bind news organizations are caught in during this age of access journalism, in which the powerful use the media to craft their image. This has probably happened for as long as there has been mass media, but when news organizations are hungry for the glory that comes from snagging a potentially game changing announcement from a competitor, they are often more willing to listen to the directions of the source/interviewee. Here it turned out all the well—the news was made, the president is boosted, and the news organization gets the glory, but there are many other cases where the public interest isn’t served by this sort of arrangement.
One last thing I want to flag here is the media’s reaction to the idea that Biden’s remarks were choreographed. Perhaps in order to avoid this from becoming the narrative, the old Washington standby of unnamed “sources” began popping up in media reports, claiming that Obama aides were “annoyed” with Biden’s loose mouth. Here’s an even more wince-inducing example from Bloomberg News of this White House spin making it into news reports.
My problem is not with the fact that the media is reporting this spin per se. It’s that they’re too willing to believe it. While one can very honestly argue that in this case, whether or not Obama orchestrated this whole set of events is relatively inconsequential, the consequences of the political media’s willingness to accept the narratives of the powerful has not too long ago led us places we probably would not want to venture again. And that, especially with the situation in Iran still simmering on the proverbial stovetop, is why I worry about the media.