Bill Whalen

How Romney Ran Afoul of the Fourth Estate

That angry buzz in conservative circles these days: the idea of media bias affecting, if not downright rigging, the presidential election.

The complaints go something like this: President Obama, while visiting New York City, doesn’t meet with foreign leaders gathered at the U.N. but squeezes in a power summit with the ladies of The View – and hardly a gripe beyond Fox News. Ann Romney dons a $1,000 shirt and is branded as tone-deaf, while criticism of First Lady Michele Obama for sporting a $6,000 jacket around London and the Summer Olympics is deemed “sexist”. Michael Lewis andVanity Fair agree to quote approval before publishing a puff piece on the Obama presidency; good luck finding a reporter who’d submit to the same rules – much less wax poetically – regarding Mitt Romney’s candidacy.

Then there’s the day-in/day-out coverage of the horse race. Do a quick Google search and you’ll find the following labels attached to Romney’s campaign: “disarray”. . . “internal dissent” . . . “turmoil”.

And the Obama campaign?

About the toughest description of late is “audacity-free” – i.e., the President’s purposely cautious because he knows he’s playing with a lead.

So is Romney a victim of media bias? I’ll argue against it. Sure, most reporters covering the election (and showing up for White House press briefings) philosophically are left of center. They travel in herds; at times they’re guilty of a herd mentality. To the extent the media have pet Republicans, it’s Reeps who have no qualms with taking their fellow Republicans to task – that’s politicians like John McCain and Arnold Schwarzenegger, plus consultants like Steve Schmidt and Mark McKinnon (though McKinnon does believe the pundits’ recent stampede to bury Romney may be rash).

Romney’s media problem doesn’t have to do with bias as much as it does judgment. Pick an election – any election – and you’ll find reporters obsessing over who’s ahead and who’s behind in the polls; who’s on their game and who’s off it. They judge winners and they judge winners. And they’re fast making their judgment on Romney’s chances.

That and, unfortunately for Romney, he’s provided grist for the mill – too many opportunities for the Fourth Estate to second-guess his choices.

That would include:

1)  Strategy. You can’t argue with Romney’s primary approach. He bet on economics and mild conservatism (the most notable exception being his detour on immigration) and he soldiered through to the nomination. But two decisions post-clinching provoked a media backlash, the first being Clint Eastwood’s surprise appearance on the final night of the Republican National Convention. Most reporters thought it was perplexing; once it became apparent that Romney didn’t receive a “bounce” from his acceptance speech, the door opened for the media to suggest that Eastwood, by overshadowing the candidate, was more harm than help.  The second eyebrow-raiser: the Romney campaign’s decision to release his 2011 tax returns and a summary of prior year payments – the criticism being that it put the issue back in the news after it had fallen off voters’ radar screen.

2)  Brain Trust. Reporters looking for signs of trouble usually start with the candidate’s inner circle. In this election, they’ve landed on Stuart Stevens, Romney’s top strategist. On Sept. 16, Politico ran a devastating articledescribing how Stevens stepped all over the writing of Romney’s acceptance speech, in the process turning the Tampa convention into a mess. Since then, the press has written of a campaign that’s “horrible” . . . “in shambles” (note: the same occurred to John Kerry in 2004, when reporters used accounts of infighting among his top strategists). Romneyites can’t claim bias here – reporters are simply addicted to campaign intra-squabbling and, like sharks sensing blood, will go into a full feeding frenzy once the water’s been chummed.

3)  The Arc. Speaking of John Kerry’s travails, that leads us to Romney’s third media problem: the story arc. Four years ago, the presidential election was Mister Toad’s Wild Ride: Wall Street crashing the race; McCain suspending his campaign and briefly throwing the debates into turmoil; a voter surge of historic proportion. And 2012? It looks a lot like 2004 – national polls just a few points apart; a handful of swing states controlling the outcome; a vulnerable incumbent who got the jump on his challenger by going after his character. In this scenario and barring the unexpected between now and Nov. 6, Romney plays the role of John Kerry as the candidate a half-a-step behind. Again, not bias, but a judgment call.

How does Romney overcome this? Obviously the upcoming debates are crucial. And perhaps, like 1980, the late undecided will break his way. And the speculators (present company included) will look very foolish.

But, with a little over 40 days and 40 nights until the election, it’s a negative media arc that’s anything but a safe haven for Romney these stormy days.

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