Politics & Policy

Flawed Media Coverage of Obama Hurts America Still

President-elect Donald Trump and President Barack Obama arrive for Trump’s inauguration ceremony in Washington, D.C., January 20, 2017. (J. Scott Applewhite/REUTERS)
Right and Left both have reasons to exaggerate how ideological a president is.

I knew it. I knew the instant I saw Twitter erupt in outrage at the use of tear gas to disperse a crowd of people charging our southern border that someone would find an example of the Obama administration doing the same thing. And sure enough, there it was, shared far and wide within minutes, a San Diego Union-Tribune story from November 25, 2013:

A group of about 100 people trying to illegally cross the border Sunday near the San Ysidro port of entry threw rocks and bottles at U.S. Border Patrol agents, who responded by using pepper spray and other means to force the crowd back into Mexico, federal officials said.

Twitter existed in 2013. I was on it, and I certainly don’t recall an eruption of outrage, followed by days of think-pieces explaining the horrors of pepper spray and the deep betrayal of American values.

In fact, that November incident was hardly unique. As the Washington Times reports, “the same tear-gas agent that the Trump administration is taking heat for deploying against a border mob this weekend is actually used fairly frequently — including more than once a month during the later years of President Barack Obama’s administration.”

But that was then. Sensible people understood that you can’t just let a mob rush the border, and Border Patrol agents can and should use non-lethal means to protect themselves from rocks and bottles. And the pictures of kids in cages in the Obama era?

Well, there was an “enormous spike” in kids crossing the border, and we “didn’t have enough shelter facilities.” So kids had to be put in Border Patrol lock-ups. But that was temporary. The Obama administration took good care of kids after they left the lock-up, right? Well, not exactly. Some children faced a terrible nightmare. Here’s a paragraph from a 2016 Senate report:

Over a period of four months in 2014, however, HHS allegedly placed a number of UACs [Unaccompanied Alien Children] in the hands of a ring of human traffickers who forced them to work on egg farms in and around Marion, Ohio, leading to a federal criminal indictment. According to the indictment, the minor victims were forced to work six or seven days a week, twelve hours per day. The traffickers repeatedly threatened the victims and their families with physical harm, and even death, if they did not work or surrender their entire paychecks. The indictment alleges that the defendants “used a combination of threats, humiliation, deprivation, financial coercion, debt manipulation, and monitoring to create a climate of fear and helplessness that would compel [the victims’] compliance.” [Emphasis added.]

One of the more frustrating aspects of our current political debate is the extent to which differences from administration to administration are exaggerated and distorted. Let’s take, for example, media coverage of the Obama administration. To this day, the inaccurate picture of his presidency haunts American discourse. While there are obvious differences with the Trump administration, Obama was not exactly the man who many millions of Americans think he was.

He was a peace president who ordered ten times more drone strikes than George W. Bush. He was the peace president who left office with American boots on the ground in Afghanistan, Syria, and Iraq, and scattered across North Africa. His administration refueled Saudi jets to enable the indiscriminate Saudi bombing campaign in Yemen. Oh, and he droned American citizens abroad without even a nod to due process.

He was the environmentalist president so hostile to fossil fuels that he presided over an extraordinary boom in domestic oil production:

He was the compassionate president who admitted a grand total of fewer than 2,000 Syrian refugees in the first five years of the Syrian civil war. He was the compassionate president whose deportations peaked at an average of 34,000 people in fiscal year 2012.

I share these facts not to argue that there aren’t distinct and important differences between Barack Obama and Donald Trump. There are. And those differences manifest themselves in each of the policy categories outlined above. But when discussing differences, gravity and proportion matter. And they matter greatly.

Indeed, I’d argue that both conservative and liberal media outlets had an interest in amplifying Obama’s progressive credentials and advancing a fundamentally flawed narrative about the nature and character of his presidency. Exaggerating his progressive virtue (or vice) kept partisans engaged. It kept ramping up the stakes of our political conflicts, and it contributed immensely to the Flight 93 mentality that dominates politics today.

How much time did conservative media spend debating Obama’s willingness to use the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism” even while he was droning, bombing, and shelling terrorists from Afghanistan to Libya? How much time did the liberal media spend amplifying Obama’s desire for peace with Iran even as he helped Saudi Arabia wage its proxy war against Iran in Yemen, at a simply enormous toll in innocent human life?

By failing to provide perspective, the media creates a sense of outrage when none is justified and inoculates the public against injustice when injustice is real. The Left looks at the tear gas on the border and believes norms are being violated when they’re not. The Right looks at critical reporting about Trump and starts to presume that it’s illegitimate, even if the facts are egregious.

All too often, we act as if the immense American ship of state lurches from right to left with each new election, when the reality is often that the turns in crucial areas are gradual. Partisans who forget this fact find themselves condemning their opponents for behavior their own side engaged in when confronted by similar challenges. Reality has a way of constraining a government’s options, even when very different people occupy the Oval Office.

Again, I’m not arguing there aren’t important differences in the presidents. There are, and in some areas those differences are quite profound. It’s worth exposing those differences, and it’s worth debating those differences. At the same time, we cannot abandon historical perspective, a perspective that can and should grant a degree of humility.

The lesson? Before you express outrage at any politician for his egregious violation of “norms” or his “radical” departure from the rule of law, check recent history. You might be surprised by what you find.

David French — David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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