If we rigidly applied truth-in-advertising laws to the national media in their coverage of the 2006 campaign, we would have first declared that the stuff between the commercials wasn’t "news" as much as a boatload of free infomercial advertising for the Democrats. The news reports should have led with the sentence, "I’m Nancy Pelosi, and I approved this newscast."
Republicans made a lot of mistakes and caused themselves a pile of problems. Their house is a mess — it’s time to tear down and start over. But I will say this unequivocally: In 25 years of looking at the national media, I have never seen a more one-sided, distorted, vicious presentation of news — and non-news — by the national media. They ought to be collectively ashamed. They have made a mockery out of the term "objective journalism" and a laughingstock of themselves at the idea that they should be considered objective journalists.
They distorted the record time and again with a blame-everything-on-Republican-misrule formula. When gas prices approached historic highs over the summer, the media couldn’t stop talking about the inept Republicans and failed Bush administration policies. Then, gas prices plummeted. Celebratory coverage? Nah. Any credit to the Republican Party or this administration? None whatsoever. Instead, they — yes, you CNN; and you, NBC, and you, CBS — shamelessly advanced Lyndon LaRouche-style conspiracy theories about how Republicans somehow were manipulating gas prices downward in order to get themselves elected. I’d laugh — except it worked. If I believed a fraction of what I heard from the national news media, I’d vote against Republicans, too.
This was not an election campaign like 1994, when the networks spent weeks exploring how "bombastic and ruthless" Newt Gingrich would burn Washington down with the Contract With America should the GOP capture the House. As horrified as I am by the left-wing agenda of Pelosi, Conyers, Rangel and co., I certainly wouldn’t want the press to treat them the way they mistreated Republicans a dozen years ago.
I would have been happy, and America would have been the grateful beneficiary, had the anchors given us an educational exploration of the issues of the day, and the parties’ and candidates’ stances, instead of the silly dramatics. Did the Democrats have a program beyond their daily carpet-bombing of President Bush? What would happen to — name the issue — were they elected?
Not on your life. This was a campaign that presented Republicans as the tired, failed, corrupted party that had to go, while viewing Democrats through a rose-colored lens as an intoxicating bouquet of historic firsts for diversity: the first female speaker of the House, the first Muslim American in the House, the first black senator in the South since Reconstruction.
The last one, the prospect of Sen. Harold Ford Jr., didn’t happen, but that was miraculous, considering the national press viciously insisting that cheeky Republican ads with a brief joke about his trip to a Playboy party were exploiting every last vestige of racism in America when, in fact, they were cleverly and powerfully exposing Ford’s church-poseur hypocrisy.
You think their coverage of Speaker-to-be Nancy Pelosi was fair and balanced? Then consider this jaw-dropping fact: Since Pelosi was elected as the House Democratic leader in November of 2002, all the way through to late October of 2006, the networks have not once described her as a "liberal." You read that correctly. Not once. That’s not news coverage. That’s a four-year masquerade party. In 1994, Gingrich was the "national poster boy for resentment and rage." In 2006, Pelosi was "a mother and a grandmother" who was "known for her trademark smile."
The dominant issue of the fall campaign on network television wasn’t the issues, unless you consider Mark Foley’s creepy Internet messages an "issue" — in which case, boy howdy, did the news media agree with you. Nearly 200 network stories on Foley — and, by extension, the allegedly page-abusing Republican House — dominated the coverage in the last weeks of the campaign. "Off Message," screamed a Newsweek cover with a large picture of Foley. But that was some kind of joke: The news media were very much "on message" with that scandal.
What about William Jefferson, the Democrat caught by the feds stuffing some 90 grand in payola in the freezer at his Washington home? It was a one-day story, quickly forgotten. He’s in a runoff for re-election, by the way, and nobody cares.
Then there was the gay prostitute in Colorado who accused evangelical pastor Ted Haggard of paying him for sex and methamphetamines. Sure, it was a story that deserved coverage. But the prostitute also was explicit in admitting he was letting this scoop out as an October Surprise to defeat a defense-of-marriage amendment in Colorado. Any interest in that angle? Of course not.
The 2006 campaigns are over. It will go down as the year it was almost impossible to discern where the negative political commercials against Republicans ended and the news coverage began.