The Censorship Election

How the Broadcast Networks Buried the Bad News That Threatened Barack Obama's Quest for a Second Term

At the dawn of 2012, President Barack Obama was the most beleaguered incumbent seeking re-election since Jimmy Carter in 1980. The economy was a mess: the unemployment rate was 8.5%, the thirty-fifth consecutive month it had exceeded the politically-toxic 8% level. Four years of trillion-dollar deficits had sent the federal debt soaring to over $15 trillion. The President’s key legislative achievement, ObamaCare, was as unpopular as ever, with a plurality of American voters supporting its repeal, even as Gallup polls showed a slight majority of Americans disapproving of Obama’s overall job performance.

Yet, against those odds, the President won his re-election battle on November 6 by a margin of 51% to 47% over GOP challenger Mitt Romney (albeit receiving about 3.5 million fewer votes than he did in 2008). And Obama accomplished this feat without significantly changing the political landscape from the start of the year — unemployment was still bad at 7.9%, the debt and deficits were still shockingly high, ObamaCare was still unpopular, and the President’s approval rating, while improved, was barely higher than his disapproval rating.

There were many contributing factors, but this political paradox also may be explained by examining the media’s role in sculpting the information environment voters faced last year. Despite all of the money spent on political advertising, the news media play a crucial role in establishing the campaign agenda for voters, particularly those swing voters who are least interested and/or knowledgeable about politics.

And despite massive changes in the media environment over the past several decades, broadcast network television still remains the biggest source of news for the most Americans, with the Big Three evening broadcasts drawing more than 20 million viewers on an average night. It’s a safe bet that if the broadcast networks provide intensive coverage of a particular news story, it will penetrate the public consciousness, just as most voters will be left in the dark about whatever the networks choose to ignore.

A Media Research Center review of the ABC, CBS and NBC broadcast evening news coverage from January 1 through Election Day, November 6, 2012, found that the Big Three networks systematically suppressed factual and important news stories that reflected poorly on how Obama handled his first term as President, including: broken promises about the economy; negative reports about the costs of ObamaCare; scandals such as Fast and Furious and the wasting of taxpayer dollars on Solyndra; and false statements about what prompted the September 11 terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya.

While ignoring or minimizing these important stories, the networks ferociously covered inconsequential mistakes — or even invented controversies — from Romney and hyped them as multi-day media “earthquakes.” Case in point: the GOP candidate’s trip to Europe and Israel in late July. ABC, CBS and NBC aired 21 evening news stories about Romney’s trip and the MRC found that virtually all of them (18, or 86%) emphasized “diplomatic blunders,” “gaffes” or “missteps.”

Similarly, when the left-wing Mother Jones magazine in September put out a secretly-recorded video of Romney talking to donors about the 47% of Americans who don’t pay income taxes, the networks hyped it like a sensational sex scandal. Over four days, the network evening shows churned out 22 stories on the tape. The tone was hyperbolic — ABC World News anchor Diane Sawyer declared it a “political earthquake,” while CBS’s Bob Schieffer lectured: “I cannot imagine what he [Romney] could have said that would have hurt his cause more.”

If the networks were merely attracted by the trivial, then they would have given equal time to the goofs and gaffes which emanated from the Democratic ticket, but none of President Obama’s or Vice President Joe Biden’s blunders garnered anywhere near the same level of coverage.

After the President in a June 8 press conference, for example, declared that “the private sector is doing fine,” the ABC, CBS and NBC evening newscasts gave it just one night’s coverage, then basically dropped the story. Neither ABC’s World News nor the CBS Evening News ever mentioned the gaffe again in the weeks that followed, while the NBC Nightly News provided just two passing references. And, when Obama infamously scoffed at the achievements of small business owners — “you didn’t build that” — none of the Big Three reported the politically damaging remark for four days, and then only after Romney made it the centerpiece of a campaign speech.

Joe Biden’s sleaziest line of the campaign — on August 14, telling a largely African American audience that Republicans were “going to put y’all back in chains” — was quickly dismissed by the networks, with one story that week on ABC’s World News, two on the CBS Evening News, and three on the NBC Nightly News. After that, ABC and CBS never revived the quote on their evening newscasts, while NBC mentioned it in passing in two stories about the vice presidential debate in October.

It is impossible to imagine either Romney or his running mate, Congressman Paul Ryan, getting such a pass if either of those men had said anything as offensive.

But elections are supposed to be about more than gaffes or mistakes, so the Media Research Center examined how the broadcast networks in 2012 failed to adequately cover ten important stories encompassing the economic, domestic and foreign policy record of the Obama administration. The results show the networks either ignored or gave inconsequential coverage to these key issues, all of which undoubtedly would have been treated as major news stories if the incumbent president running for re-election was a Republican.