Do Conservatives have to be Right?
Written by Eric Boehlert
Conservative hand-wringing in the wake of President Obama’s victory continues unabated, with both voters and strategists venting their frustration about the GOP’s loss, while condemning the conservative media for leading followers to believe a GOP victory was imminent. (A landslide!)
Instead of being honest down the homestretch, conservative pundits on Fox News and at places like theWall Street Journal and Washington Post fed Republicans a steady diet of falsehoods and Pollyannaish analysis that ran counter to the clear polling data about the state of the race.
Some Republican leaders are now promoting wholesale changes. Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal urged Republicans to “stop being the party of stupid” and to reject the anti-intellectualism that has often defined the political movement. “We’ve also had enough of this dumbed-down conservatism,” he told Politico.
But “dumbed-down conservatism” is what drives the GOP Noise Machine. It’s what Fox, Rush Limbaugh and other conservative media have been pushing for years and posting healthy profits in the process. If there’s going to be widespread change within the conservative movement it’s going to have to include the right-wing media. And for that to happen, accountability has to be finally introduced into the equation.
Currently it’s a foreign notion among many commentators who boast dubious track records of being chronically incorrect. Early indications are that most conservative pundits won’t face recriminations from within the GOP Noise Machine for getting everything wrong about the campaign. But will consumers finally revolt?
Note that last week CNBC’s Larry Kudlow welcomed Romney loyalist Jennifer Rubin from the Washington Post onto his program two nights after Romney lost decisively. On the show there was no discussion about how all of Rubin’s horse race insights had been monumentally wrong.
Kudlow politely declined to ask Rubin about her suggestion that Romney might win nearly all the battleground states. (He won just one, North Carolina.) And he also didn’t discuss the revelation that Rubin had misled readers in real time about the status of the campaign. The conservative CNBC host, among those who erroneously predicted a Romney blowout, politely demurred and accountability was ignored.
For weeks, if not months, Rubin’s readers were led to believe the Obama campaign was crumbling and the incumbent was making one foolish move after another. After Obama won an electoral landslide, Rubin wasn’t asked about her dreadfully erroneous spin. Neither was Kudlow’s other guest, Alex Pethokoukis, a blogger from the American Enterprise Institute who forecast Romney would win 301 electoral votes. (Romney won 206.)
Between the three of them, Kudlow, Rubin and Pethokoukis could not have been more wrong about the election; an election they allegedly studied intently all year long. And none of the three bothered to acknowledge their failings on CNBC that night.
The Weekly Standard’s Jay Cost was another full-time campaign watcher who obsessively assured readers that Obama’s chances were dim. Casting a critical eye towards polling, Cost presented his “interpretation” of what was happening in the campaign: There was no way voter turnout among Democrats and Republicans would look the same as it did in 2008.
Cost’s explanation last week then, for why he got everything wrong about Obama vs. Romney? Answer: The Obama campaign “played to its base with a level of intensity rarely seen in the modern era.” (Whatever that means.) And Cost was surprised that it worked.
Here’s the real punch line, though, and here’s why the conservative media have dug themselves such a deep, insular hole: Two days after Cost got everything wrong about the campaign, James Taranto at the Wall Street Journal linked to Cost’s post-election column and urged people to read Cost’s deep insights about the campaign. (Surprise! Taranto loved Cost’s piece about how the Romney defeat did not represent a serious set back for the GOP.)
So Cost’s penalty for completely misjudging the election was to be touted as a sharp thinker by the Wall Street Journal. The point being, within the GOP media bubble there’s no price for having been consistently wrong about the campaign. There’s no shame in announcing all the polls are wrong (biased!), and that Romney was surging to an easy win, even though both claims were pure fantasy.
That no-harm/no-foul rule also extends to the mainstream media. Five days after Romney’s defeat, Face the Nation invited Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan to pontificate about the campaign. It was an interesting choice considering Noonan had botched the election, insisting the day before the vote that Romney was marching to victory over the “small and lost” Obama campaign.
Uninterested in polling data, Noonan sensed Romney’s looming victory because “all the vibrations” were right. Plus, she saw more Romney/Ryan yard signs while out traveling in Florida.
I realize Noonan is not a data-miner and her writing style is more impressionistic. But she works for the largest newspaper in America and her (erroneous) election-eve analysis came down to “vibrations” and lawn signs? That’s just embarrassing.
Noonan appears to be in no danger of having her reputation dinged by the media, though. What about angry conservative media consumers? Will they penalize any of the sites and pundits who emphatically misled readers, listeners and viewers about the state of the race?
Historically, there’s little evidence of right-wing media outlets losing their audience in the wake of getting stories wrong, even getting them spectacularly wrong. There seems to be an almost tacit understanding among conservative news consumers that the GOP Noise Machine tells them what they want to hear about how crooked and un-American Democrats are. And that even if the stories don’t hold up to scrutiny, consumers remain loyal.
But last week’s election results seemed especially traumatic for Republican voters, so it’s possible there could be fall out.
The Daily Beast’s Michael Tomasky highlighted this angry comment posted by a dedicated RedState reader [emphasis added]:
The simple fact is that in the run-up to this election, we were fed a steady diet of lies, from all our “loyal” sources. We need to hold not only the Romney campaign accountable, but also the conservative press (specifically the Murdoch press – Fox was the worst of the bunch), and the establishment talking heads like Karl Rove and Peggy Noonan. We need to get clear about something: these people are selling us a product. They have been taking our money and telling us bedtime stories. We complain about the MSM, but can we honestly say that the conservative press has been more honest?
Writing a scathing critique of the right-wing media’s debacle, The Atlantic‘s Conor Friedersdorf noted that in covering the election, the biggest news story of the year, “the conservative media just got its ass handed to it by the mainstream media.”
Indeed it did. And unless people start demanding some much-needed accountability from the GOP Noise Machine, the conservative drubbings will continue.
About the AuthorA senior fellow at Media Matters for America, and a former senior writer for Salon, Boehlert’s first book, “Lapdogs: How The Press Rolled Over for Bush,” was published in May. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Please note that these Media Matters columns appear here with permission but are not posted by Eric Boehlert.