If you spend any time around Republicans, you’ll hear them using the words “liberal” and “media” together like “bread” and “butter.” Sometimes the term “elite” is also added in for good measure. If you believe the conspiracy theories, this liberal media is singularly responsible for the creation of the celebrity of Barack Obama. “Poor John McCain,” the theory goes. “If only he had the liberal media machine behind him, maybe he’d be leading in all the polls.”
Granted, there is no doubt that many of our country’s most prominent newspapers and magazines unabashedly support the more liberal candidate. Ted Turner doesn’t try to hide his political colors, so his magazine and TV station will reflect that. A popular YouTube clip shows CNN’s Jack Cafferty calling a Katie Couric-Sarah Palin interview “one of the most pathetic pieces of tape I have ever seen." So if you’re looking only at this election, it would be easy to conclude that the media is responsible for Obama’s popularity.
But here’s my question: if the liberal media is so darn powerful, how has our country elected a Republican president the past two elections? And in five of our last seven? Surely if they were as powerful as they are touted, the Republican candidates would have been the Washington Generals to the Democrats’ Harlem Globetrotters.
People forget the road that Obama took even to get to this place. It took a scandal to turn away the Daley Machine’s first choice of Blair Hull for the Democratic nomination for US Senate in 2004. Obama was a face in the crowd before the controversies surrounding Hull’s divorce caused his star to fall. Even then, it took a very effective TV ad featuring Sen. Paul Simon’s daughter for Obama to gather the attention that eventually led him to victory in the primary. The moment that thrust him onto the national stage, his keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention in 2004, never would have happened had he not earned the nomination. None of that had anything to do with the media.
It’s clearly more complicated than this, but the reality is that our country’s presidents are chosen from a combination of a couple key factors: fortuitous political timing and being the “better” candidate; that is, the candidate that connects better with the average voter. In 2000, Gore might have been the better candidate and indeed, he got more popular votes, but the lingering anti-Clinton resentment gave Bush the narrow majority of electoral votes. In 2004, Bush won re-election because of the public’s unwillingness to change leaders mid-stream in the war and Kerry’s failure to stand for much. Clinton won his elections because of his ability to “feel your pain.” In ’92, Perot helped take votes away from Papa Bush and in ’96, Dole had no platform.
With all due respect to Barack Obama’s vision of a truly United States of America, the one that isn’t blue or red, we are as polarized as we have been in a long time. It is unlikely that we will soon see a candidate unify our nation in the way that Ronald Reagan did in ’84, capturing 49 of the 50 states (the liberal media must have really been off its game …or was there a vast right-wing media at work back then?) The Tribune’s historic endorsement of Barack Obama flies in the face of the liberal media effect as well. Perhaps if Obama wins tonight, there will be a simple reason: he’s the better candidate.