The big media story emerging from President Obama’s reelection is the fact that so many on the right were so stunned by the results.
Social media were abuzz with shock and dismay at what many conservatives felt was a last-minute reversal of the prolific positive predictions they had been hearing.
More than a few conservative commentators, including prominent pundits such as George Will, had been predicting that Mitt Romney would take more than 300 electoral votes in a landslide election on Tuesday.
But, rather than the purportedly surprising election results reflecting some national subversion of the voting process, many political scientists and other analysts say this right-wing upset is dramatic evidence of a growing partisan divide in our media.
Increasingly, the public consumes media that reinforce personal views rather than give actual information about the world, says University of San Francisco political scientist Corey Cook.
“The biggest story of this election is the stories that were being told about the election,” says Professor Cook, adding, “the two sides had very different views heading into the election night.”
Fox News Channel, on the one hand, he points out, repeatedly drove home the idea that Romney was headed for a huge victory nabbing more than 300 electoral votes, while the other side was saying that calculation included states that were not even in play.
It was a huge win for pollsters such as Mr. Silver, says Matthew Reavy, chair of The University of Scranton’s Department of Communication and an expert on media coverage of politics. The final results look to be well within the margin of error of the Real Clear Politics poll average, he points out adding via e-mail, “Concerns about poll weighting and the inability to reach all Americans in the age of cell phones proved to be unfounded.”
Mr. Rove spent the week on Fox News Channel detailing the route Mr. Romney would take to Electoral College success, says Randy Gage, author of “Risky is the New Safe,” who writes about the national decline in critical thinking.
“When his own network began calling states that made the math to 270 impossible – he made his anchors go into the bowels of the network and interrogate the analysts who made the call on Ohio,” he says via e-mail, adding, “it was a new and embarrassing low for American media."
This selective perception of the race was driven in part by an unprecedented explosion of polling this cycle, points out Mark Tremayne, assistant communications professor at the University of Texas at Arlington. He recently conducted a study of national polls and partisan web sites, and points out that in the last several weeks leading up to Nov. 6, there were roughly 200 different polls every day, while over the summer the numbers hovered around 15 to 20.
Many of these polls were conducted by the campaigns themselves, he points out.
“What I found was that the partisan sites played up the polls that supported their candidate, and if they didn’t, the sites would critique the methodology of the poll,” he says. “This has led to a huge increase in the sense that there are two different worlds,” he adds, “and each one’s candidate has a real chance of winning depending on which universe you subscribe to.”
Both sides of the media equation are at fault, Professor Tremayne says, noting that despite the presence of many national polls suggesting Obama was ahead, many media outlets all over the political spectrum continued to call the race extremely close.
“This is understandable because this creates a sense of drama and therefore ratings, which all for-profit media want.”
But, he points out that once the election evening began to unfold, such large news organizations as NBC were quick to point out that in fact, Obama’s poll results had him in the lead and “they began calling results very quickly.”
This heightened sense of drama makes for good ratings, points out Shaun Bowler, professor of political science at the University of California, Riverside, adding that cries of “it's close, it's close" will increase turnout, he notes via e-mail, for both sides. But, he adds, “that is different from the race itself being in doubt.”
If you think the nation has heard enough politics in two presidential debates, months of campaign speeches, and TV and radio ads, think again, say at least four alternative competitors for the nation’s highest office.
That’s why this slew of ballot-qualified contenders will face off in this election season’s biggest third-party candidate debate in Chicago on Oct. 23 (8 PM Central). Former CNN talk-show host Larry King will moderate, and the entire 90-minute event, to be held in a room at the Chicago Hilton, will stream live on the Internet television network Ora.tv and YouTube.
This may be reason to drop a load of celebratory balloons – or not, depending on whether you think third-party candidates embody the lifeblood of pure democracy or whether you believe they are the scourge of practical politics, throwing elections out of whack and the right politicians out of office.
It's pure American democracy at work, says Christina Tobin, co-moderator of the debate and founder of the Free and Equal Elections Foundation, the Chicago nonprofit sponsoring the debate.
“This debate is really about the fact that all elections should be free and equal,” says Ms. Tobin. Right now, she adds, “they are not.”
What the event aims to do, she says, is “bring together two candidates from the left and two from the right and let them speak about real issues, the kinds of things that people really care about. From foreign policy, to the economy, to taboo subjects like our diminishing civil liberties and the drug war, Americans deserve a real debate, real solutions, and real electoral options.”
Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson, Green Party candidate Jill Stein, Constitution Party candidate Virgil Goode, and Justice Party candidate Rocky Anderson are all currently confirmed to appear.
Third party candidates for president do not matter because they have had no impact on elections in the modern TV era, says Edward Uravic, a former Washington lobbyist and faculty member at the Harrisburg University of Science and Technology in Harrisburg, Pa. Reform Party candidate Ross Perot received 18.9 percent of the popular votes in 1992, notes Mr. Uravic via e-mail, “and zero electoral votes out of the 271 needed to win.” Independent John Anderson got just under 7 percent of the vote in 1980 and no electoral votes. Segregationist candidate George Wallace earned 13.5 percent in 1968 and 45 electoral votes.
Single-issue candidates, such as the Green Party standard bearer Ralph Nader, “are interesting to academics and politicos, but to few others, including voters,” he says, adding that Mr. Nader got less than 3 percent of the vote in 2000, and no electoral votes. The system is stacked against third-party candidates, he says.
“It is nearly impossible for an independent candidate to get on the ballots in 50 states and to participate in the presidential debates,” he says. In the end, “third party presidential candidates are like unwanted relatives at Thanksgiving dinner," he adds. "It's a free country, so they get invited to the party, but in the end they don't get to eat at the big boys table.”
"The contest really is between two candidates at this point,” says Norman Provizer, director and founder of the Golda Meir Center for Political Leadership at Metropolitan State University of Denver, adding that he is sympathetic to the desire of the Commission on Presidential Debates to not clutter the stage. “Having ten candidates debating, only two of which are actually viable in the race, would dilute things a lot,” he says.
But a forum for ideas not being heard at the mainstream presidential debates is also valuable, say political analysts. Third party candidates have been active almost from the beginning of the nation, he notes, pointing to the first in 1832. Probably the most impactful, he says, both in terms of ideas and his effect on the election was Teddy Roosevelt in 1912, who ran on the Progressive Party platform after losing his party’s nomination. He split the Republican vote, throwing the presidency to Woodrow Wilson. “But, his ideas such as voter participation, voter referendums, and recalls, all became policy in the US after that.”
The immediate impact of this debate with the four, third-party candidates is to broaden the political conversation beyond the predictable two-party lines, says Catherine Wilson, political science professor at Villanova University in Philadelphia.
A growing number of Americans, now 4 in 10, identify as political independents, according to a 2012 Gallup poll. “The absence of these voices in the presidential debates should give Americans pause, especially since one of the most common reasons to claim independent political status is that Americans tend to espouse a mixture of Republican and Democratic sympathies at the same time,” says Professor Wilson, via e-mail, citing a 2010 Pew Research Center report.
Yet, Americans register little support for these candidates, Wilson says. That's why offering a debate platform to major independent candidates is so important. Debates such as the one scheduled for Oct. 23 address the systemic constraints that would discourage candidates from running for office and helps keep them visible.
"In the end, this debate suggests that third-part candidates are here to stay, she adds.
Mitt Romney is bailing on the women of ABC’s “The View,” in case you haven’t heard. When the talk show aired Monday morning, co-host Barbara Walters – the show’s empress of celebrity interviews – announced that the GOP nominee had canceled his scheduled Thursday appearance.
“Over the weekend, his people have said that he had scheduling problems and would not be coming on with us, nor at this point did he feel that he could reschedule,” Ms. Walters said.
Spouse Ann Romney had been booked along with her husband, and she’s still coming. Walters said “The View” was happy to have her.
IN PICTURES: Ann Romney – the softer side of Mitt
“We are sorry we won’t have Governor Romney, and that’s the situation,” said Walters. We won’t characterize her tone of voice when she said this, but if we did, “peeved” is a word we’d consider.
So is Romney stiffing a show he doesn’t like? After all, the famous “47 percent” video from a Romney fundraiser showed him saying in private that “The View” was dangerous territory for him, full of liberals. Perhaps he’s giving it a miss because he’s figured out that Whoopi Goldberg would grill him about that, then Walters would get into the 47 percent numbers, and the next thing you know he’d be so low on the couch cushions that show nonliberal Elisabeth Hasselbeck wouldn’t be able to pull him out with an easy question.
But we don’t really think that’s what’s going on. Romney has shown he can handle a tough televised situation, after all – remember the debate earlier this month? Instead, we’d posit two other reasons that Romney’s a no-show.
The first is that he doesn’t need “The View” anymore.
For months, the Romney campaign has been desperately trying to humanize its candidate, and toward that end, appearances on talk shows can be useful. A kind of transference goes on, in which viewers associate some of the comfort and good feelings they get from familiar hosts with the guests, no matter how many car elevators they own. The campaign made "The View” booking for this reason.
But the debate seems to have transformed how at least part of the public sees the Massachusetts ex-governor. Suddenly, polls show he’s made gains in likability. For instance, a Politico/George Washington University battleground poll out Monday has 51 percent of respondents saying they now view Romney favorably as a person, while 44 percent say they view him unfavorably. That’s the first time this survey has shown Romney’s favorable rating as above water – more positives then negatives.
In that context, "The View” does indeed look like a risk that Romney doesn’t have to run, because the level of voter approval has changed.
Second, this could be about Ann Romney as much as Mitt.
Her own likability ratings are higher than her husband’s. So why bother with Mitt? Just let Ann do it. She can exude warmth, distance herself when her husband’s policies are mentioned, and testify to his character. She’s the most effective Romney surrogate of all – as first lady Michelle Obama is for her husband.
IN PICTURES: Michelle Obama
Thursday night’s vice-presidential debate has not even begun, but at least one participant has already begun drawing heat from one political side: the moderator, ABC’s Martha Raddatz.
On Wednesday, the conservative Daily Caller posted a blog about Ms. Raddatz, alleging bias because of her short-lived marriage in the 1990s to an Obama administration appointee, Julius Genachowski, the head of the Federal Communications Commission.
This shot comes on the heels of an avalanche of criticism aimed at last week’s presidential debate moderator, Jim Lehrer, ranging from GOP commentator Laura Ingraham to Democratic contributor Bill Maher.
“There have always been questions about moderators,” says Atlanta-based GOP strategist David Johnson, who consulted on Bob Dole’s 1988 presidential campaign. Targeting moderators is simply a political strategy, he says, giving “each side a way to say, the debate was stacked against them if their candidates don’t do well.”
Mounting such a strategy before the debate even starts, Mr. Johnson adds, “makes the moderators go out of their way to be evenhanded.”
In one of the GOP debates earlier this year, CNN’s John King took withering heat for asking Newt Gingrich about allegations made by his second wife. A variety of sources challenged Gwen Ifill’s objectivity in 2008 because she had written a book related to Barack Obama.
Now, both ABC News and the Commission on Presidential Debates have dismissed charges of bias against Raddatz, a senior foreign affairs correspondent. As reported in Politico Wednesday, The Washington Post’s conservative Jennifer Rubin tweeted that “this whole mini flap was obnoxious, dumb.”
Still, taking down a particular moderator can have the beneficial result of lowering expectations, which can then be more easily exceeded, says Ed Uravic, a former Washington lobbyist and currently a faculty member at Harrisburg University of Science and Technology in Pennsylvania. “It can potentially soften up the moderator and prevent her from hitting the candidate with hard or embarrassing questions (though that did not appear to work with Gwen Ifill, and she did seem to have a conflict given her book about Obama),” he writes in an e-mail.
Indeed candidates, and especially their surrogates, sometimes try to “fire a shot over the bow” of a moderator to ensure the moderator’s objectivity, says presidential scholar Charles Dunn, dean of the Robertson School of Government at Regent University in Virginia Beach, Va. This is what “Romney-Ryan surrogates have done to Martha Raddatz before the Biden-Ryan debate,” he writes in an e-mail. “And sometimes afterward surrogates may to excuse their candidate’s poor performance by blaming it on the moderator, which Obama’s surrogate [deputy campaign manager] Stephanie Cutter did to Jim Lehrer.”
This is “a way of working the refs, just the way the Green Bay Packers did,” says David Mark, editor in chief of the political news site Politix. “It’s a way of saying, it wasn’t our fault because the ref was biased.”
Particularly with vice-presidential debates, Mr. Mark points out, “this is a way of trying to win on the margins.” The vice-presidential candidates are not really talking about themselves, he notes, but rather “are supposed to be talking up their bosses, so this is a way to distinguish themselves” from their opponent.
Moderators are an easy target partly because their role morphs each time out of the gate, points out Robert Thompson, founder of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University in New York. “The role of the moderator gets to be made up by whoever has input on the format of the debate,” he points out. At first, Mr. Lehrer was dubbed the worst moderator in history, he says, but “that view is changing.”
“Defenders of Jim Lehrer are saying a moderator should be invisible,” he notes. But others contend that “moderators should insert themselves more into the process, controlling the back and forth and asking more aggressive questions,” Mr. Thompson says.
The scrutiny of the moderator also points to another growing trend, the elevation and, at times, polarization of the media in the political process, Johnson says. More than ever before in the history of mass media, he says, US media are no longer perceived as being objective. He points to a recent Pew poll that showed 60 percent of the public does not trust the media.
“The media is perceived as being part of the political process,” says Johnson, pointing to liberal and conservative cable channels such as MSNBC and Fox News. “So it’s getting harder for the American public to believe that there isn’t bias going into these debates.”
Tapping into distrust and suspicion about the media helps stir up the Republican base, Johnson points out. “So it’s not surprising to see it happening even before the debates take place.”
If you thought the first political debate didn't mix it up enough, the second one is much more likely to deliver.
No, not the meeting between Vice President Joe Biden and Rep. Paul Ryan (R) of Wisconsin on Oct. 11, but rather the “Rumble in the Air-Conditioned Auditorium,” the hyped-up showdown Saturday night between rival cable personalities Jon Stewart, in the left corner, and Bill O’Reilly, in the right.
In “an old-fashioned duel of the wits,” O’Reilly and Stewart will step up to the podiums at 8 p.m. EDT in front of a sold-out auditorium at George Washington University. Those who can’t make it to Washington, D.C., can pay $4.95 to watch the live-streamed event (www.therumble2012.com), which the promotional video calls “the reason Al Gore invented the Internet.”
Half the proceeds from the "debate" will go to charities, but let's be honest here. The rumble serves as a giant promotion to attract more followers to “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” on Comedy Central and “The O’Reilly Factor” on Fox News.
Still, the O'Reilly-Stewart tussle is not without redeeming social value. The "info" part of infotainment, some argue, can actually serve to breed interest in real political and civic issues among those who are politically disengaged.
Entertainment provides a “gateway” to broader political engagement, says Lauren Feldman, an assistant professor at American University in Washington, D.C. She observed this connection in her research on how “Daily Show” viewers are engaged in issues like climate change. “Humor and substance are not dichotomous phenomena,” she says.
The debate will appeal to people who are already fans of their shows and already politically engaged, Dr. Feldman says. But the "substantive discussion" that Stewart and O'Reilly have promised may, in fact, inspire more people to pay attention, especially when debate clips circulate over social media afterward.
Comedy Central’s other fake news host, Stephen Colbert of “The Colbert Report,” has occasionally inserted his TV persona into the real world of politics, as well – he testified before Congress in 2010 and, this year, created his own "super PAC" (Making A Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow) during the Republican presidential primary.
“[Mr.] Colbert found an entertaining way to inform people: What does it mean to start a super PAC? How is it legal? What is the process?” says Lindsay Hoffman, assistant professor at the University of Delaware. “It’s like hiding broccoli in chocolate cake.”
How much of an ideological prizefight the rumble turns out to be remains to be seen. O'Reilly and Stewart have appeared numerous times on each other's shows, and over time their sparring has become increasingly civil – some might even say friendly. Still, viewers who still aren't sure if the two like each other or not may be eager to see them match wits.
“It always strikes me as bizarre, this idea that the people you disagree with you should not ever engage with,” Stewart said Thursday on "Good Morning America." “He will weep most likely like a child, but that’s not the most important part. We’re going to have fun and a good, substantive conversation.”
The debate is expected to be full of the jocular insults that the two men are fond of hurling at each other. O’Reilly’s suggestion for the debate’s first question: why Jon Stewart is a pinhead.
So, what colors will their ties be? How will their body language demonstrate their leadership styles?
Pundits and political junkies have yet to weigh in on these issues. Nor have they anticipated Stewart’s strategy for dealing with the height difference. At 6 feet, 4 inches, O’Reilly towers over Stewart’s 5-feet, 6-inch frame. When O'Reilly joined Stewart Thursday on "The Daily Show" to plump for the rumble and his new book, he made repeated references to Stewart as "tiny." Stewart, in turn, said to O'Reilly: "I see you as, like, an Abominable Snowman, ... like all I have to do is get out of your peripheral vision and I'll be fine."
IN PICTURES: Campaign photography: the art of standing out
An activist group is urging a viewer boycott of CNN's coverage of Wednesday night's presidential debate if the network doesn’t fire conservative commentator Erick Erickson for on-air and social media remarks it deems to be sexist. The offending comments include a characterization of speeches made by women at the Democratic National Convention last month as "the vagina monologues," according to UltraViolet, the group pushing the boycott petition.
There's a long history in America of female politicians of all political stripes – from Nancy Pelosi to Hillary Rodham Clinton to Sarah Palin – being subjected to sexist treatment by public and press. Their defenders emerged first on the left, but conservatives, too, are increasingly speaking out against speech they deem to be offensive to women, after having witnessed the trials of Ms. Palin, the 2008 GOP vice-presidential nominee, during that campaign.
Some see in the latest activism by women a possible critical mass of protest – aided and abetted by the message-spreading power of social media – that may start to shift American culture and attitudes.
“The treatment Sarah Palin received really mobilized conservative women,” says political scientist Lara Brown at Villanova University in Philadelphia, “and now we are seeing a whole new level of activism from women across the board.” This kind of inclusive activism “is new for women,” she adds.
Amy Siskind, president of The New Agenda, an activist group devoted to economic and gender equality, is also one who perceives a shift under way on the issue of sexism toward women in the public sphere.
When it comes to politics, “sexism against conservative women is still sexism,” she says. “Palin didn’t have anyone to defend her.” Since then, she adds, there has been a shift toward that recognition among feminists whom she says previously ignored sexism directed toward conservative women.
In a 2009 article published on The Huffington Post, Ms. Siskind laid out her rallying call to all feminists. “When is sexism acceptable? The answer should be never. Yet for many feminists in our country, only certain types of women have been worth defending.”
Women began to organize behind liberal candidates back when Democrats nominated Geraldine Ferraro for vice president in 1984, says Professor Brown. Among other things, the first female vice presidential candidate was photographed carrying laundry detergent to reassure the “sexist swine,” as columnist Russell Baker put it, that she would not neglect her domestic duties. Not until 2008, with the Palin shellacking, did this same kind of organized defense against derogatory treatment for women candidates from all political perspectives begin to coalesce, she adds.
The New Agenda has taken on liberal media figures such as comedian/commentator Bill Maher. Last March, Siskind says, her group contacted HBO and its parent company, Time-Warner, after Mr. Maher tarred Palin and GOP presidential candidate Michele Bachmann with epithets such as "bimbo" and others that cannot be printed in a family newspaper.
While Maher gave what Siskind calls a “half-apology,” CNN has been silent on the request to fire Mr. Erickson. The cable channel did not return calls for comment.
A shift to a more inclusive attitude is visible in bipartisan initiatives such as Name It. Change It. (founded in 2010), a joint project with Women’s Media Center, She Should Run (founded in 2011), and Political Parity (founded in 2009). In May, the group mounted an online campaign against Hustler magazine in defense of conservative pundit S.E. Cupp, about whom the magazine had created a highly sexualized satire.
Boycott advocate UltraViolet, founded by Nita Chaudhary, whose liberal credentials include move-on.org, has also shifted to a bipartisan position. The group was founded seven months ago to combat sexism wherever it is found – in the media, the state house, or the boardroom – and under whatever political banner, liberal or conservative. The group has mounted some 17 petitions this year, including a call to Facebook to put a woman on its board (the social media giant recently announced its first female board member).
“We are strictly bipartisan,” says Ms. Chaudhary. “Our goal is to target the influencers in our culture.”
Activists targeting the next generation of women are behind a postelection event, Sister Giant, to be held in Los Angeles in November. It is being convened by author Marianne Williamson in conjunction with the Women's Campaign School at Yale University. “Boycotts and petitions are important, because they are women speaking out,” says Ms. Williamson. Many young women are reluctant to consider involvement in politics, she says, because they see the unfair treatment women candidates receive and “they are worried about the way they will be treated.”
Statistics on women holding political office are not particularly encouraging – 16 percent in Congress and less than 24 percent in state houses nationwide, she says. “We have to begin the process of taking our power to the next stage,” including issues beyond combating sexist treatment, she says. “Are we ready? Yes."
RECOMMENDED: Battle for women's votes: 6 flash points
It wasn't that long ago that candidate Bill Clinton's appearance on "The Arsenio Hall Show" set pundits' tongues to wagging. Stepping outside the confines of press conferences and serious news programs was considered risky, possibly trivializing the aspirant to the office of the presidency. Suffice it to say that such qualms, if any had lingered, have been definitively laid to rest during the 2012 election, a campaign during which President Obama and GOP rival Mitt Romney have tapped such "free media" – of both the hard and soft varieties – at unprecedented levels.
The most recent exhibit came Sunday night, when "60 Minutes," the long-running CBS news show, aired back-to-back interviews with Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney. Next, both the president and first lady Michelle Obama will show up on the daytime talk show “The View” on Tuesday.
Romney, meanwhile, has promised to sit on the sofas of the “sharp-tongued” women, as he dubbed them, in October. And, of course, appearances with the late-night denizens, David Letterman and Jay Leno, continue, with both the candidates and their wives showing up there with regularity. Mrs. Obama read Mr. Letterman’s Top Ten List heading into the Democratic National Convention. Romney has been on "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno" four times, and his wife, Ann, is set to chat with Mr. Leno Tuesday night.
What gives? It's not as if the campaigns, which are rolling in dough, can't afford to buy airtime. Some two-thirds of a billion dollars have already been spent on TV ads, according to the National Journal.
No, such media appearances serve the interests of today's candidates in many ways – and can actually build audience trust amid a climate in which, according to a new Gallup poll, 60 percent of Americans don't trust media coverage in general.
“People tend to trust the media they choose,” whether it’s blogs or social media or a favorite daytime talk show, says Barbara O’Connor, director emeritus of the Institute for Study of Politics and Media at California State University, Sacramento. By appearing on someone's favorite show, a candidate helps to bridge that trust gap, she says.
Bill Rosenberg, a political science professor at Drexel University in Philadelphia, agrees: "The question is not so much resources, which there seems to be plenty of now, but source credibility." Increasingly, people turn to the media outlets they personally trust, so the candidates try to use those avenues to deliver that credibility to those audiences, he adds.
With today's media proliferation, candidates feel a greater burden than ever to cover all the outlets that prospective voters might tap.
There are a lot more of them now than when John Kennedy appeared on "The Tonight Show" during his 1960 presidential campaign. Savvy candidates have long understood how entertainment programs can humanize them and help them reach an audience that may not be tuned into politics, notes Villanova University political scientist Matthew Kerbel, author of “Netroots: Online Progressives and the Transformation of American Politics.” With the advent of social media, he adds via e-mail, “this strategy has evolved to include a presence for candidates on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and around the political blogosphere, enabling them to reach targeted populations and craft a message on their own terms.”
Then there's also the softball factor.
The president’s campaign seems to like free media because "it’s friendlier" than traditional news interviews, says Ben Bogardus, assistant professor of journalism at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Conn. “ 'The View,' 'David Letterman,' 'Entertainment Tonight' and other entertainment programs generally ask softball questions, and let the president show off his personality, which is his strength," he adds via e-mail.
While president, Obama has also done many interviews with local TV stations from swing states, notes Professor Bogardus. By inviting the local reporters to the White House, the president gives the home stations something to promote and talk about “for days.” This also leads to positive coverage because the stations don’t use the time to criticize the president, he adds. In a way, he notes, the stations are “star-struck by the opportunity they rarely get.”
For Romney, free media coverage marks a change from the stock and trade of the campaign trail: the 30-second ad spot or the 10-second news clip of his stump speech. Appearances on "60 Minutes" or daytime talk shows also can allow him to push a particular message, says Bogardus. Those interviews also boost the chance that he’ll get a sound bite on the air, he adds, because reporters bored by the standard speech would be attracted to the “new sound.”
It helps voters to see the candidates interviewed by a serious journalist like Steve Kroft on "60 Minutes," says Jeff McCall, a communication professor at DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind, in an e-mail. “[i]t hurts voters, however, when candidates are on soft venues like 'Letterman.' "
"The candidates like those shows because they can act all personable and chat up pop culture topics with interviewers who won't challenge them," he says. "This hurts voters because it gives a false sense of what is important on the political agenda.”
That was our first reaction after tuning in to watch President Obama’s appearance on Letterman’s “Late Show” Tuesday night. It’s not just appearance we’re talking about, although the CBS talk-show host really does resemble the world-famous journalist, if you squint. It was also tone. The president took up the whole hour of Mr. Letterman’s show, and most of the questions, while respectful, weren’t jokey. It was sort of like entering a comedy club and finding a think tank seminar inside.
Yes, there were funny bits. Asked if it was tough to have teen daughters, Mr. Obama said, “it worries me, but they’re surrounded by men with guns." Talking of being lifted bodily into the air by a Florida pizza shop owner, Obama opined that “I think he fixed something in my back."
Unfortunately for Mitt Romney, the sharpest barbs were aimed at him, via a video prepared by Letterman’s staff. It was a portion of the now-famous fund-raising secret tape, overdubbed with ridiculous comments. “I have a feeling Canada is planning something,” said the faux Romney at one point. “My new cologne is now available at Macy’s," he says, a bit later. “It’s Mittstified!”
Letterman asked Obama about his reaction to the tape, of course. (We mean the original address to donors, not the doctored version.) He gave an answer that might have Romney aides groaning, in that it was a velvet-gloved jab.
“When I won in 2008, 47 percent of the American people voted for John McCain, they didn’t vote for me. What I said on election night was even though you didn’t vote for me I hear your voices and I’m going to work as hard as I can to be your president.”
Letterman also pushed Obama pretty hard on the budget deficit. The comedian mentioned the ever-ticking debt clock featured at the Republican National Convention and said that the mounting numbers looked pretty scary.
Obama answered with a fairly detailed reply about how the debt came to accumulate, involving wars, tax cuts, a recession, and so forth. We think he moved pretty fast past the part his stimulus packages played in running up the red ink, but he at least mentioned them. The deficit isn’t a problem in the short term, he said, but in the long term and, maybe, the medium term as well.
“I don’t remember what the number was precisely,” he said, when Letterman asked what the deficit figure actually is.
The president made a pitch for bipartisanship, and said he hoped there would be more of it in a second term if he’s reelected. He said that the military is not the face of the US in the Middle East, especially in Libya and Egypt, and that the US remains an indispensable nation for much of the world. As he often does, he pressed for a tax increase on the wealthy as part of a future deficit-reduction plan.
At one point Letterman asked him the difference between running for office the first time and as an incumbent.
“The plane is nicer now,” Obama said.
Overall, the appearance shows, once again, why politicians increasingly pick nontraditional media venues over sparring with the Washington press corps. Obama got to make his policy case in a relaxed, controlled setting without surprises or truly tough questions. (We wish Letterman had asked whether US drone strikes contribute to Middle East unrest, for instance.)
Ironically, on his secret fund-raiser video Romney complains about Letterman, saying that since he (Romney) has appeared more often on Jan Leno’s “Tonight Show," Letterman is jealous.
“Now Letterman hates me because I’ve been on Leno more than him,” said Romney.
But Romney’s campaign knows well of the talk-show campaign imperative. The ex-Massachusetts governor is now scheduled to appear on “The View” in October, even though on the fundraising video he called it a “high-risk” show because most of its female hosts are liberals.
August may be the laziest month for Hollywood blockbusters, but it has become open season for little-films-that-can. And this year is no exception, with the political documentary “2016: Obama’s America,” pulling in more than $9 million to become the top grossing non-nature documentary of the year.
The film, from conservative author Dinesh D’Souza, which began playing in theaters nationwide this past weekend and has gone viral online, is a slow – and selective – trip through Obama’s backstory. It leads viewers to the narrator’s conclusion that the president’s goals are to realize his Kenyan father’s anti-imperialist dreams.
IN PICTURES: The Republican Convention 2012
But the real question is, at this late date, will such a film make a difference in an election that by most accounts will be determined by a razor-thin margin of voters who have yet to make up their minds?
The film most likely will not sway many independent voters directly, says David Mark, editor in chief of Politix, an online and mobile site for citizen’s input, and author of “Going Dirty: the Art of Negative Campaigning.” But, says Mr. Mark, a former senior editor of POLITICO, where the film might have an impact is in the nitty-gritty of an election.
“It could energize the base into all the kinds of things that can turn out voters, like walking the precinct, manning phone banks, and all the kinds of volunteer stuff that juices up supporters,” he points out.
Soon-to-be Republican nominee Mitt Romney will be the most likely to benefit, adds Mark, who says the film has been a hot topic on conservative talk radio, where hosts have been urging supporters to go see the film. “Everyone likes to say they don’t want negative campaigning and movies like this, but the truth is that the reason we continue to have it is because it works,” he says, adding, “negativity gets people to participate.”
Filmmaker Michael Moore “probably should be credited (or blamed) with advancing this type of political advertising, an effort to add a veneer of respectability and authority to coat anti-candidate politics,” Professor Johannes says via e-mail. This type of politicking is more likely to appeal to those already committed for or against Obama, he notes, adding that he would be surprised if this movie changed any minds.
“It is, however, yet another indicator of what is happening to American politics,” he says: “Trying to pin down candidates for their backgrounds more than their policies; a focus on personalities more than issues; and a play to anger and fear rather than to thoughtfulness and judgment.”
But some say this film suggests otherwise – that this election may actually hinge on more than negativity, says journalist John Graves, editor of The Retirement Journal and author of “The 7% Solution.”
Mr. Graves says he and his wife went to the film over the weekend.
“The film itself was instructive for its view from outside the inner workings of the US politic,” he says via e-mail, adding that it was valuable to witness what he dubs “the raw exploitation of power by a man who knows himself and his destiny very well.” Beyond that, he says, “if the issues as described in the film are also descriptive of the ‘whole piece’ landscape, it will be a metaphysical election (one guided by principles).”
The film’s power may also be a harbinger of things to come, points out April Masini, online advice expert at askapril.com.
She says a large part of the audience will be already-decided Republican voters, those “who want verification that they're doing the right thing, and something to talk about among themselves.” But the valuable audience, she points out, will be those undecided voters who can make or break a popular vote in a close race.
But she adds, “The anti-Obama documentary will also be a measure of how important films and documentaries are to swinging a vote in the age of fast technology like Twitter, e-mail and tabloid news. If this documentary is perceived as being effective, buckle up for more politicians in Hollywood.”
IN PICTURES: The Republican Convention 2012
It’s an instant meme – the “Dewey defeats Truman” of 2012.
When CNN and Fox News initially misreported that the US Supreme Court had struck down the so-called individual mandate in President Obama’s Affordable Care Act – the central pillar of the law – a guy named Gary He went to work.
Mr. He, product director at Insider Images, per The New York Times, superimposed Mr. Obama’s face on the famous shot of President Truman holding up the Chicago Tribune from Nov. 3, 1948, and He posted the image on his Twitter feed. The Tribune had initially, and wrongly, reported that New York Gov. Thomas Dewey (R) had defeated Mr. Truman, based on a bad hunch by the paper’s political analyst.
The foul-up by CNN and Fox happened for a different reason. According to the Times, both news outlets had come to the point in Chief Justice John Roberts’s majority opinion declaring that the mandate was unconstitutional under the Commerce Clause, and then ran with it. In fact, the court had also ruled that the penalty for failing to buy insurance was a tax, and therefore the mandate survived.
Thus, Obama is the new Truman. And in the 2012 version, he is holding up a tablet showing the CNN home page declaring, “Mandate struck down.”