trans·fox: \tran(t)s-‘fox\ transitive verb: to change in composition or structure so as to appease conservatives, intransitive verb: to become transfoxed: become “fair and balanced” in the Fox “News” sense
trans·fox·a·tion: \tran(t)s-fox-ā-shən\ noun: the operation that converts objective news reporting into “fair and balanced” reporting in the Fox “News” sense
—The Erstwhile Conservative Dictionary
iberals and Democrats need to start complaining more, and I mean a lot more, about the way the press, particularly the national political press, does its job. In fact, we need to start a major campaign of whining about the news business, particularly about the television network news business.
Something needs to be done about what is happening to big-time TV journalism, vis à vis its coverage of politics and political campaigns. There has been a slow but steady transfoxation of television news going on.
As a former conservative, I can tell you that what often accompanies conservatives’ ideological message is a withering critique of the news business, which they believe, as vigorously as they believe anything, is strongly skewed toward the left. That’s nonsense of course, but what isn’t nonsense is the fact that their whining, their unrelenting attacks against journalists and the news industry, have been—without question—quite effective. Those attacks, combined with the advent and financial success of Fox “News,” are working.
And we, those of us in the fight against reactionary political forces, need to undertake a plan of unrelenting attacks ourselves, before all the news business is transfoxed.
Conservatives’ constant complaining and protesting of news coverage has caused too many mainstream political reporters, editors, and anchors to shy away from presenting an accurate accounting of political news. This is especially true on the nightly network news shows.
If you watch the evening news on ABC, CBS, or NBC, you get very little of what is actually happening on the campaign trail or in the world of politics (there’s only about 21 minutes of news time available in a nightly broadcast and only a fraction of it is devoted to political news). What campaign news you get often features results from the various polling firms, especially the network’s own polling efforts, or other reports on the horse race aspect of the contest. And what other political news you get frequently comes in the form of a carefully composed report designed to achieve some mystical and false balance, rather than in a form that follows the evidence and reports the truth.
A perfect example of that false balance and failure to follow the evidence was—is—the press’ coverage of the deliberate attempt by Republicans to subvert Obama’s first term by sabotaging the economic recovery. If the popular political press had accurately reported on that issue, if they would accurately report on it today, Republicans would have to answer for it, would have to explain their actions to the American people, would have to defend their radical and nakedly political motives.
Alas, Republicans are free to run, with much success, against Democrats on the basis of an alleged “failure” to right the economy.
As a random test of my theory of the transfoxation of high-profile TV journalism, I decided to spend some time surveying the three network’s nightly news broadcasts on Friday night, in terms of their coverage of the presidential campaign. Despite a declining viewership (less than half of what it was in 1980), there are still around 21-23 million folks who get their nightly news from either ABC, CBS, or NBC, with NBC viewership the greatest of the three at about 8-9 million per night. (About 13 million get their news from the networks’ morning shows.)
And here’s what I, naively it turns out, thought would be the big news stories Friday night related to the campaign, all of which developed after Thursday night’s network broadcasts:
♦ John Sununu’s offensive comments about Colin Powell and Romney’s failure to address them, especially since Sununu is the national co-chair of Romney’s campaign and one of his top surrogates.
♦ Romney’s refusal to answer questions about Richard Mourdock’s weird claims about God and rape, especially since Romney’s running mate holds similar views and Romney himself has said he would be “delighted” to sign a law outlawing all abortions.
♦ Romney falsely telling Ohio voters that Chrysler was moving jobs to China.
Surely, I thought, all three of those stories would come up in some way or another.
ABC’s World News with Diane Sawyer
I first watched ABC. The first story Diane Sawyer presented, naturally, was about Hurricane Sandy and the threat it poses to folks on the Atlantic Coast. Fine, so far.
The second story, comprising two reports, was about presidential politics, beginning with a silly piece by ABC’s White House reporter Jake Tapper, focusing on Obama’s attempt to “reach out to young voters” via non-traditional, “pop culture” news sources like “The View” and Jay Leno’s “Tonight Show.” Tapper’s voice-over began:
President Obama has not taken questions from White House reporters since August. Today he took them from MTV…
Now, given what happened on the campaign trail in the 24 hours since the last ABC News nightly broadcast, did that “story” really deserve such a prominent place? No, it didn’t, clearly. But it was a way for Tapper to vent his frustrations about the Obama campaign’s decision to ignore him in order to reach folks who get their news from less “official” and presumably less sterile sources.
ABC’s second report from the campaign trail on Friday night was a piece by David Muir, who covers Romney’s Swing State Lying Tour. Now, I want to reiterate that Muir is covering Romney out on the campaign trail. He’s there with him, hearing everything Romney says. He, more than anyone else at ABC, should be aware of what is happening, or in the case of Romney, what is not happening, since Mittens refuses to answer any campaign reporter’s questions.
So, what was the substance of Muir’s report Friday night? That Romney was “rallying key voters,” namely white men, around his vapid “economic message.” There was a Green Giant-size graphic to make the point clear:
Rick Klein, Senior Washington Editor of ABC’s World News with Diane Sawyer, who often, and unbelievably, appears on, uh, Fox “News” (and given his opinions, I think he is auditioning for a job) saw to it that his boyish mug appeared during the segment saying,
Mitt Romney may have a hard time relating to voters, but he is dialed in to white men. They are very much attuned to what he is saying about the economy.
As he was giving us that wonderful journalistic gem, one that just happens to favor Romney’s efforts, and one that fails to mention that what Romney is “saying about the economy” has been discredited by nearly every economist and fact-checker in the Milky Way, this image appeared on the screen:
Ah. Isn’t that special, that nice, old, and quite white vet greeting Mittens? So sweet, so touching. What important news that is.
Muir, who again travels with Romney every day, finished up his stunningly bad piece of journalism by explaining that the earnest GOP candidate was concentrating on “jobs” and “white men” and Obama was, well, he was spending his time courting “undecided women” folk.
Such is the state of network TV journalism these days, at least at ABC on Friday night.
Meanwhile, let’s look more closely at what really was worthy of reporting, what really happened out on the campaign trail, since ABC News had last broadcast its nightly program on Thursday.
Romney’s loudmouthed surrogate John Sununu said on CNN that Colin Powell, a man who has had more military bling-bling pinned on his chest than any thousand neo-con think-tankers, endorsed Obama because he was proud of his race. That race-baiting remark, not the first to drip from Sununu’s venomous lips, at least should have been mentioned on ABC ‘s broadcast, along with the fact that Romney refuses to comment on it, don’t you think?
Also deserving at least a mention was Romney’s stubborn and supposedly strategic refusal to comment on the mess surrounding Richard Mourdock’s stupid and offensive comments about God and rape. One would think, given the role the gender gap is expected to play in this election, that story would deserve at least thirty seconds on a national news broadcast, right?
And also not mentioned was a particularly sensitive story, given the importance of Ohio to the election, about Romney lying to Ohioans about a loss of jobs:
The Detroit News, which endorsed Romney, felt compelled to point out, rather politely, that he was lying through his car-loving teeth when he said at a rally in northern Ohio on Thursday night that Chrysler was considering moving production of its Jeep vehicles to China—whoops! my bad; according to the friendly paper, Romney was merely, “reacting to incorrect reports circulating online.”
Yes. That’s quite different from lying. The paper took pains to point out that Romney was a victim of “right-leaning blogs.” A victim. He was misled. Those right-leaning blogs, as they always do, lied about—the Detroit News said they “misinterpreted“—a Bloomberg News story regarding Chrysler’s possible building of Jeeps in China “for sale in the Chinese market.” And Romney merely fell for their lies. Poor guy.
A Chrysler spokesman emphatically said that “Jeep has no intention of shifting production of its Jeep models out of North America to China,” and then directly aimed the barrel at Romney and the right-wing:
A careful and unbiased reading of the Bloomberg take would have saved unnecessary fantasies and extravagant comments.
“Unnecessary fantasies and extravagant comments,” If only big-time, mainstream journalists, broadcast and print, were as willing to tell the truth as plainly as that Chrysler spokesman.
But even though it would be way too much to ask of network reporters and editors, not to mention big-city newspapers, to actually use language like “unnecessary fantasies and extravagant comments” in reporting on either Romney or Obama, it is not too much to ask that they at least report on what Romney said and how wrong he was and particularly how careless he was to take as gospel something written on a right-wing blog. If he wasn’t lying, then by God he was bleeping careless, too bleeping careless for a man who is auditioning for a job that depends on carefully and correctly evaluating what he reads.
But nothing from ABC News on Friday night about Romney’s false claim, or nothing about Romney’s refusal to discuss John Sununu’s comments about General Powell’s proud-of-his-own-race endorsement of Obama or Richard Mourdock’s pathetic comments about God and rape. Nothing.
But we did find out that white guys, particularly old white guys, really, really like Romney. And we found out that Obama prefers MTV to ABC’s White House reporter. (And, by the way, who can blame Obama, given the way ABC’s Jake Tapper reports the news?)
So, that was ABC. What happened on Friday night on CBS and NBC?
CBS Evening News with Scott Pelley
CBS’ Scott Pelley briefly introduced the major stories of the night, beginning with Hurricane Sandy. Then he introduced the second story, “The Economy Picks Up Steam,” which noted the 2% GDP growth last quarter. But Pelley helpfully added a remark, presumably to soften for Romney the blow of good news: “But is it enough?” Enough for what? To keep Romney out of the White’s House? Jeez.
The third news snippet of the night on CBS was about the $2 billion dollars both candidates and their SuperPacs have spent on the campaign. It would have been nice if Pelley had tossed in the reason that so much money is available (Republicans want it that way) and so much of it is anonymously given (Republicans want it that way, too), or that about half of Obama’s dough was given by small donors and less than a fourth of Romney’s booty came from the little people, undoubtedly a lot of the little people Romney Hood referenced in his infamous “47%” discourse on dependency.
But, no, Pelley quickly pivoted to the latest polling, and viewers saw this:
Then Pelly brought on the old newsman Bob Schieffer, who told us how “perplexed” and “flummoxed” are the experts over who is going to win the election. Now, that there was some hot news, pardner. And Schieffer ended his segment with the comment that this election will come down to “turnout.” Yep, that was a shocking bit of news, there Bob. Thanks.
Pelley then promoted Schieffer’s “Face the Nation” Sunday broadcast by announcing that John McCain—who bleeping else?—will make his gazillionth appearance on a Sunday network show. I can’t think of any more important and pressing news than that, can you?
The program moved on to a report on the horrific meningitis outbreak, and we are now more than half way through the broadcast, with no mention of Romney’s ducking questions on Sununu or Mourdock or his fibbing to Ohio voters about Chrysler moving Jeep jobs to China. It’s getting late.
The next segment was a piece on the Scott Brown-Elizabeth Warren senate race in Massachusetts. Scott Brown, naturally, was called a “moderate Republican” by the reporter, even as she allowed Brown to say on camera that Warren was “an extremist.” That damn liberal media! They were at it again!
The next story entailed a brief mention of a suicide bomber in Afghanistan, who killed at least 41 people outside a mosque. Then we moved on to the touching story of a recovering Malala Yousafzai, the teenage girl who was shot in the head on a school bus by the Taliban in Pakistan for advocating education for girls.
Her defiant and inspiring recovery is one of those feel-good stories that TV journalists are especially good at, perhaps because in this case they didn’t have to bother to appease conservative Taliban media critics. There’s no “both sides are guilty” reporting necessary when it comes to the assassination attempt of a schoolgirl by religious zealots donning turbans.
The CBS Evening News ended with an “On The Road” segment that featured an amazing man who is organizing a collection of old photos, 160 million of them and counting. It’s the kind of story that networks like to end with, you know, so folks can comfortably move on to “Dancing With The Stars” and “Two and a Half Men.”
And that was it for the night, all 21 minutes and 26 seconds of news for CBS viewers. Romney escaped the spotlight, in terms of what he had really done and not done since the last broadcast. No Sununu, no Mourdock, no Jeep-jobs-to-China falsehood.
NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams
On NBC things went significantly better. Hurricane Tammy consumed a third of the broadcast. Then came the campaign coverage segment which began with a report from reporter Peter Alexander, who is following the Romney campaign and who did his segment standing in front of what looked like a rather large crowd of Mittenites.
Alexander included in his piece a “flub” by Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley, who said during a Romney rally in Ames, Iowa, on Friday:
We will put America on a new path to a new day with a new President Obama—a new President Romney, pardon me.
Also at that Iowa rally, sharing the stage with Mittens, was Congressman Steve King, a crazy man who has wondered aloud about Obama’s citizenship, who has suggested states should still be able to stop couples from using contraception, and a man who supports the candidacy of Todd Akin. Unfortunately, Alexander never bothered to mention King in his reporting. Palling around with extremists must be old news. Sort of like Romney Hood’s tax returns.
But after playing some Romney boilerplate, Peter Alexander then remarkably and accurately reported:
Speaking at a construction company that benefited from President Obama’s stimulus grant that Mr. Romney routinely attacks, the Republican nominee blasted his opponent…
Now, that’s what journalists are supposed to do, right? If a candidate is attacking another candidate for his stimulus plan failures, people should know he is doing so at a site that was helped by that other candidate’s stimulus plan. Isn’t that the way it’s suppose to work? Kudos to Alexander and NBC. But where was ABC and CBS? Why didn’t their reporters mention that important fact? Huh? They were at that same event.
Alexander then pointed out the President’s MTV interview, which apparently cut deep into official TV journalism’s soul so much it just had to be broadcast far and wide. Reporters can sometimes be a sensitive lot.
But to his great credit, Alexander then pivoted to the John Sununu story, playing Sununu’s older offensive remarks about Obama being “lazy and detached” and his new offensive comments about Colin Powell, along with showing his subsequent statement trying to backtrack but not apologize. Alexander then ended with this:
We reached out to the Romney campaign for comment, Brian, but they offered nothing in addition to Governor Sununu’s statement.
They offered nothing. Which is what they usually do, but we didn’t hear a word about their silence, about Mittens’ silence, on ABC or CBS. Kudos again to a Fox-resistant NBC.
Up next came a segment with the talented Chuck Todd, NBC’s political director and White House correspondent. Brian Williams appropriately introduced the segment this way:
So, Chuck, here’s the field in front of us: John Sununu says Colin Powell endorsed the President ’cause they’re both black guys. A surrogate for Romney slips up and mistakenly endorses Obama for president. Romney goes after stimulus while his host on that very piece of property accepted help from stimulus money. Beyond unforced errors, the Romney campaign’s effort is to put together the electoral and not the popular vote math in these next ten days to push a victory out of it.
Now, you just wouldn’t hear Diane Sawyer of Scott Pelley talk that way, would you? No, you wouldn’t. Kudos to Brian Williams.
Chuck Todd then went through some scenarios that included the possibility of a Romney-Obama electoral tie, and a Republican-controlled House picking Romney for president and a Democrat-controlled Senate picking Biden for VP.
In any case, that was the end of the campaign and political news for NBC on Friday night.
Again, even though it did much better than the other networks, even though it did cover the Sununu fiasco, NBC’s broadcast did not mention the Mourdock issue nor the issue of Romney’s phony claim that Ohioans were going to lose Chrysler Jeep jobs to China. And considering what’s at stake regarding both of those stories—women’s reproductive rights and jobs in the electorally-important Ohio—wouldn’t those stories at least have deserved a mention, especially since an aging Chuck Grassley’s relatively harmless gaffe was featured? Huh?
Maybe the NBC News team felt bringing all that other stuff up would be like piling on, even if Romney, at least on this day, deserved it. You can bet, though, that over on Fox, if the Obama campaign had had a similar bad day full of bad news, the crew wouldn’t hesitate to cover every painful issue, over and over and over. See: Benghazi story. In fact, the Romneybots at Fox don’t even require Obama to actually have had a bad day. They just make one up and go with that. See: Benghazi story.
Thus, although Fox has negatively influenced journalism, particularly network news journalism, I suppose we can be grateful that, at least on Friday night, NBC News did resist the transfoxation of the news and stood for more accurate coverage of what’s going on out on the campaign trail.
At least that’s something. But it ain’t enough. Let’s start whining.