Published June 3, 2013
Some conservatives think that the elite media are finally turning on Barack Obama and his administration.
The argument goes like this: The trio of scandals that have burst forth in the last couple of weeks—the events before, during, and after the deadly attack on the diplomatic outpost in Benghazi; the IRS’s targeting of conservative groups; and especially the Department of Justice’s secret subpoenas of Associated Press phone records and targeting of Fox News reporter James Rosen as a potential co-conspirator in a leak investigation—will mark an inflection point. From here on out, journalists will apply far more scrutiny to President Obama. His free ride is over.
Don’t believe it.
In saying this, we don’t mean to suggest that journalists won’t ask tough questions or say critical things about the administration from time to time. But sooner or later they will—with a few impressive exceptions—revert to their ways. We are, after all, dealing with deeply ingrained habits and ideological commitments.
Take the New York Times. On May 17, in a story about how President Obama is trying to move beyond his current problems, the Times declared, “In the last few days, the administration appears to have stopped the bleeding. The release of internal e-mails on Benghazi largely confirmed the White House’s account.”
Except it did no such thing. The White House’s account was that neither it nor the State Department made any substantive changes to the talking points related to the Benghazi attacks. We have irrefutable evidence—actual documents—that they did. The White House’s account was that a YouTube video critical of Muhammad sparked a spontaneous assault on the American diplomatic outpost in Benghazi. Except this is a fabrication. The White House’s account was that the administration had no idea Islamic terrorists were responsible for the attack until many days later. Except we have emails that prove high-ranking State Department officials knew Ansar al Sharia was involved within 24 hours of the attacks. The White House has not come clean on any of these matters.
To demonstrate how deep and wide the Obama administration’s deceptions run, we know that statements made by White House press secretary Jay Carney back in November about the talking points were false. (Carney assured us at that time that the White House and the State Department made but a “single adjustment” to the talking points and that it was merely “stylistic.”) Undeterred, Carney insists he stands by his statement. In fact, an emboldened Carney is now dismissing questions about the various scandals as analogous to birtherism. Yet the New York Times, rather than challenging the White House, is acting as its stenographer.
Indeed, ever since the September 11, 2012, attacks on the diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, most members of the elite media have done everything in their power to make the story disappear—despite malfeasance before and during the lethal assault; despite the president and others repeatedly misleading the American people after the assault; and despite the demotion of a distinguished public servant, Gregory Hicks, for daring to challenge the Obama administration’s false account.
Journalists have been more critical of the administration in the IRS and Justice Department-press stories. But even there the criticisms of the president and his top advisers have been relatively restrained. And certainly the intensity of the coverage has been far less than if this were occurring under a Republican president.
Some of us recall the gleeful rush to judgment—the political bloodlust—that swept over the press during the investigation by Patrick Fitzgerald during the George W. Bush presidency of an incident in which there was no underlying crime and which pales in comparison to the gravity of the Benghazi scandal. (Not only did no one die in the Valerie Plame episode, but she and her husband became celebrities.)
So what explains the media’s abstemiousness when facing such glaring examples of dissembling, intimidation, and abuse of power? Three things. The first is journalistic enchantment with Barack Obama that began for some in 2004, for many others in 2008, and has never really gone away. When they look at the president and his top advisers, they see a reflection of their own background, education, and sympathies—and sometimes they see their former colleagues and even family members. The media therefore give the administration the presumption of good faith. If scandals did occur on Obama’s watch, it was simply because he wasn’t as engaged as he should have been.
A second reason is rooted in the attitude many journalists have toward Barack Obama’s political opponents. They judge Obama well because they view his critics with contempt, which is why journalists are working so hard to make these scandals about GOP partisanship and overreach. Why else would the New York Times use a headline that reads: “I.R.S. Focus on Conservatives Gives GOP an Issue to Seize On”?
A third explanation is that the vast majority of journalists are highly sympathetic to a large federal government, and they know where these scandals, if pursued vigorously, will lead—to a further deepening distrust of government. A new Fox News poll shows that more than two-thirds of voters feel the government is out of control and threatening their civil liberties. Journalists are aware that these scandals have the potential to deal a devastating blow to their progressive ideology, which is why they will downplay these stories as much as they can.
The press at its best, Walter Lippmann wrote, “is like the beam of a searchlight that moves restlessly about, bringing one episode and then another out of darkness into vision.” But today’s media, especially on the Benghazi scandal, have attempted to take something out of vision and return it to darkness. They want this story to vanish—though journalists owe allegiance to the truth.
Peter Wehner is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.