I watch The O’Reilly Factor on a pretty regular basis. Like many people, I enjoy its entertaining and often insightful presentation of news analysis. While I don’t always agree with the opinions of host, Bill O’Reilly, I think he’s honest and generally has a pretty good observational take on most news items.
That’s why I was so surprised last Friday, when I watched him swing and miss badly in his Talking Points Memo segment. His topic was, “Exaggerating and justifying bad behavior in politics”. O’Reilly confided in his audience that he becomes annoyed when political partisans defend the actions of someone in their party by diverting attention to similar offenses committed by someone from the opposition party. He considers the practice to be an example of “justifying bad behavior by pointing to other bad behavior”, and likened it to the maturity level of a third-grader.
In a broad sense, I think there’s some validity to that argument. However, the examples O’Reilly provided to substantiate his point were completely off the mark.
First, he brought up the liberal media’s often-cited criticism of the Romney family’s nearly 30 year-old road-trip to Canada, in which the family dog was kept in a carrier above the roof of their car and became sick during the ride. Romney first shared the anecdote during the 2008 presidential campaign. Ever since then, it has remained fodder for critics who’ve used it to accuse the former Massachusetts governor of, you guessed it, animal abuse.
O’Reilly then criticized the retaliating, partisan pundits who have recently pointed out that President Obama stated in one of his books that he had eaten dog meat as a child when he lived in Indonesia. O’Reilly’s assertion was that the two stories had nothing to do with each other, so they shouldn’t be compared.
His second example was a recent Washington Post article that described a nearly fifty year-old incident in which Mitt Romney had physically bullied a classmate. Like with the dueling dog stories, O’Reilly dismissed the tit for tat chiding of “other politicians doing even worse stuff.” I presume he was referring to another recently unearthed passage from Barack Obama’s book that depicts an incident where a young Obama pushed a female classmate.
Now, there’s no doubt that all four of these stories are petty and completely irrelevant to any sensible measure of evaluating a presidential candidate. To be honest, I feel a little silly even citing such non-issues. But, there is absolutely legitimacy in lumping together these partisan, give-and-take examples. No one is justifying bad behavior. That’s not what’s going on here. What’s being pointed out (mainly by conservatives) is the double-standard the mainstream media uses when covering a politician’s past. That double-standard links directly back to the politician’s party affiliation.
The right-leaning pundits who have recently dredged up the stories of Obama eating dog meat and pushing a childhood classmate haven’t done so because they believe those incidents constitute substantive criticisms. On the contrary… They’ve brought them up precisely because they are ridiculously meaningless.
You see, both of the Obama incidents were available to the public (via Obama’s books) before the two Romney incidents ever were. Yet, the media showed no interest in perusing them whatsoever. For that matter, they’ve shown little interest in Obama’s young-adult years at all, whether it be the grades he received in college, the radical people he surrounded himself with, or the fact that he was a self-professed, avid cocaine user.
Yet, when it comes to decades-old, personal tidbits about Mitt Romney that are trivial by any common-sense standard, the media turns them into major news stories.
The obvious conclusion, of course, is that the media has a propensity to make something out of nothing when it comes to a negative fact about a Republican. When it comes to a negative fact about Democrat, on the other hand, they tend to make nothing of it… even if it’s something.
There’s an almost endless list of examples of this propensity, but let’s stick with the Mitt Romney stuff for now…
The story with Mitt Romney’s family dog has received intense media interest, with the incident being treated by the news media as having genuine relevance to the evaluation of his moral character. New York Times columnist, Gale Collins has referenced the plight of Romney’s dog in more than 50 columns since 2007. ABC News and Time Magazine have published pieces on the incident citing the president of PETA who called Romney’s actions a “lesson in cruelty” that was wrong for his children to witness. Senior political analyst, Mark Halperin claimed that the incident was a “serious issue” for “a lot of voters.” The Boston Globe’s Neil Swidey called the story a “valuable window into how Romney operates.” When Diane Sawyer brought the incident up in her interview with the Romneys last month, numerous media outlets went to the owner of a website named “Dogs Against Romney” for comment. There have even been two super PACs formed to publicize the incident which the media hasn’t been shy about referencing.
Likewise, the Washington Post felt that Mitt Romney’s youthful antics from a near half century ago were so compelling that they warranted a 5000-word, front-page story on the bullying incident. And when Romney stated that he couldn’t remember the details of the incident, his claim was widely heckled by the national media. This is the same national media, of course, that had no problem believing that Barack Obama couldn’t recall any radical, racist sermons delivered by Reverend Jeremiah Wright whose church he was a member of, and had been for 20 years.
The dog and bullying quips against Obama, on the other hand, have largely been made in jest with tongues planted firmly in cheeks. They haven’t been alluded to in order to justify bad behavior. They’ve been referenced to draw attention to the media’s silly and selective outrage over meaningless personal accounts.
It’s totally appropriate and fair for conservatives to expose media bias this way. It’s also quite an effective way of using humor to point out partisan inconsistencies and omissions.
Context is important, and when the media fails to display the proper context, it’s up to media critics to do it for them.