The retiring host of CBS’s Face the Nation, Bob Schieffer gave a sort of exit interview to Fox News’ Howard Kurtz on Sunday and raised some eyebrows. Kurtz asked him if he thought the media gave President Obama an “incredibly easy ride” during his 2008 campaign. Schieffer acknowledged that was possible given the obviously historic nature of Obama’s campaign: “I don’t know. Maybe we were not skeptical enough. It was a campaign.” Schieffer then went on claim that it wasn’t the role of journalists to raise issues about a candidate. “I think, as journalists, basically what we do is watch the campaign and report what the two sides are doing,” he said.
Nice sentiments, but it’s hard to believe that Schieffer, a veteran of 50 years covering politics, really thinks that’s how political journalism works in practice. Journalists may present balanced views in a story, but their choice of stories can tilt coverage sharply for or against a candidate. In Obama’s case, the selection of stories about him gave him priceless political advantage.
Just before the 2008 election, Mark Halperin, co-author of the campaign tell-all Game Change and now a Bloomberg TV host, was asked at a conference if the media had been too soft on Obama. He answered yes, and went on to say that through the subtle choice of which stories to cover and where to deploy investigative resources, the national media had handed Obama “hundreds of millions in free publicity.”
“I find it curious that far more time and media energy has been spent on Sarah Palin’s time in Wasilla, Alaska’s city government in the last eight weeks than in looking at Barack Obama’s dozen years in Chicago politics and government over the last 18 months of his candidacy,” he noted dryly. And Palin was only running for vice president. We all know how free Chicago’s government is from corruption and juicy stories. But the media couldn’t be bothered by those concerns. If they had, they would have unturned a lot of clues as to how Obama’s presidency would turn out.