How Media Paved the Way For Trump: The Election of Barack Obama Is a Breaking Point for Media Bias
This is part four of an eight-part series of columns by senior columnist John Ziegler, telling the story of the relationship between the mainstream news media’s demise as a cultural institution and the rise of Donald Trump, not only to the presidency of the United States — but as someone who now, despite unprecedented media opposition, is currently poised to be possibly reelected. Part three can be found here.
By late 2007, the mainstream news media was a rapidly changing but still extremely powerful force in American culture. Economic pressures from increasing competition due to fragmentation had taken their toll, but there was still a significant audience of non-hyper-partisans over whom news coverage had substantial influence, and to whom politicians were obligated to respond.
In the political realm, liberal media bias had been a major concern to conservatives for decades. Fox News was seen by many as the antidote to this problem, but in many ways the conservative news network actually made circumstances significantly worse.
Before Fox News, the mainstream media had a stranglehold on the political narrative and often used that power to promote a liberal agenda with which most of them personally agreed (and since nearly everyone they knew in D.C., New York, and Los Angeles also agreed with them, this meant their views were “centrist”). There was at least some sense on the part of the mainstream media, however, that their extreme control required them to appear to be somewhat fair (there was literally something called the “Fairness Doctrine,” before conservatives got rid of it).
After Fox News emerged, the moral obligation that the mainstream media usually felt regarding fairness eventually faded. Since Fox News was now catering to a conservative audience, there was no need, nor much of a financial incentive, for major media outlets to remain, in their minds, near the middle of the road.
When MSNBC elected to duplicate the Fox News model by becoming openly liberal, it helped create a gravitational pull to the left for the rest of the legacy media. After all, if they were still somewhere to the “right” of MSNBC — a standard that provided wide latitude — then their coverage could still be rationalized as being centrist.
It was in this environment that the 2008 presidential campaign began. By any traditional analysis, it was clear that the two nominees were going to be John McCain and Hillary Clinton. They were each the most well-known and arguably qualified candidate in their respective party, and the “next in line” for the presidential nomination.
But as 2007 came to a close, a candidate began to emerge on the Democratic side that major media previously would have patted on the head and said nice things about, while making sure that they weren’t allowed to be the presidential nominee until sometime down the road when they were at least marginally prepared. Barack Obama was interesting and exciting to be sure, but he was also just a freshman senator. He had himself mocked the idea of being qualified to run for president in 2008, when asked about it as a prospect after being elected as a senator less than four years earlier.
In short, the idea of Obama becoming president, based on decades of media rules, was preposterous. He was too young, too inexperienced, too liberal. And being half-black with the middle name Hussein, he was considered politically unelectable in huge portions of the country.
But instead of blowing the wind of skepticism against the sails of the Obama campaign boat as it got out of harbor (which the Clinton campaign surely anticipated its former allies in the press would do), the news media effectively blew hurricane gusts at its back. The universally glowing coverage of Obama from the major media was, quite simply, shockingly over-the-top, and made even the Kennedy-family obsession seem like puppy-love in comparison.
In a self-fulfilling prophecy, the news media essentially launched the Obama rocket ship into orbit and then gave him full credit for having created a campaign capable of making it so easily into space. That then justified even more fawning coverage, thus further fueling his flight. By the time the Clinton forces realized that they weren’t in Kansas anymore, it was too late and any attacks on Obama (like those regarding his close relationship with his anti-American pastor Jeremiah Wright, which would have ended any previous presidential campaign) were deflected by the media, now invested in his narrative and the ratings/excitement it was providing them, as being somehow racist.
Obama ended up winning the Democratic presidential nomination even though he got fewer votes than Hillary Clinton. The news media lusted for Obama-mania so much that they actually proactively killed their long-held dream of a brokered convention (which easily could have happened if the delegate controversy in Florida and Michigan had been decided in Hillary’s favor) in order to protect him.
In the 2008 general election, the major media coverage was somehow even more pro-Obama. While history will not see it this way, because of how she has disgraced herself since reinventing her persona long after the campaign, I still maintain that the vicious preemptive destruction of McCain’s vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin was one of the most shameful and overtly partisan acts in American media history.
I made a major documentary film about the media coverage of that entire election, which debuted nationally with a featured interview on NBC’s Today show. Having screened the film all over the country, it was quite clear that many conservatives saw the media coverage of Obama as the final breaking point for whatever was left in their trust in mainstream news coverage.
To them, the news media had used its power to single-handedly elect an unqualified liberal/socialist as president because they were so enamored with the idea of there being a first black president. From that point on, the media’s authority to influence them (even when it turned out that Obama wasn’t as awful as many conservatives, including myself, had feared) was terminated. It was as if they were a long-battered child now old enough to leave the home of their abusive parents.
When much the same narrative was duplicated in Obama’s 2012 re-election over Mitt Romney, the Republican base was officially done with trying to placate the media by being nice and playing by their set of inherently biased rules. A prefect storm of circumstances was quickly building for Donald Trump in 2016.
Tomorrow, in part five of this series, Ziegler examines the impact of Twitter on the media landscape and how Trump used Birtherism, via this new media dynamic, to build a political base for 2016.
[Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images]
This is an opinion piece. The views expressed in this article are those of just the author.