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The Censorship Election

How the Broadcast Networks Buried the Bad News That Threatened Barack Obama's Quest for a Second Term

The media’s euphoric coverage of President Obama’s first 100 days in office included selling his policy prescriptions as a tonic to both the economic hardship of the country as well as the fiscal mismanagement in Washington, D.C. But as the President ran for re-election in 2012, the broadcast networks refused to remind voters of the heady promises made just three years earlier.

Obama’s first big legislative push was the $787 billion spending bill styled as economic “stimulus.” A January 2009 report from Obama’s incoming economic team suggested the massive spending would “counter a potential job loss of at least 5 million,” and stem the rising unemployment rate at around 8%. (Chart from “The Job Impact of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Plan,” page 4.)

Signing the package into law on February 17, 2009, President Obama boasted that it marked “the beginning of the end” of the nation’s unemployment problem, a soundbite dutifully shown that evening on ABC’s World News and the NBC Nightly News.

But it wasn’t the “beginning of the end” at all. In February 2009, the unemployment rate was 8.3%. It rose above 9% by May 2009, peaking at 10.0% in October of that year. The official rate stayed above 9% through October 2011, and above 8.0% until September 2012, making it the worst string of high unemployment since the Great Depression.

Yet during the entire 2012 campaign, not one network evening news broadcast mentioned Team Obama’s faulty prediction that passing the big spending bill would restrain unemployment below 8%, even though that was a major element of the Republican critique of Obama’s economic policies. At the very least, the terrible track record of Team Obama’s “8%” prediction showed the faultiness of the economic assumptions that went into developing the most massive spending bill in American history.

In addition, a May 25, 2012 report card on the officially-named “American Recovery and Reinvestment Act” by the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office found that the price tag for the stimulus was tens of billions of dollars more expensive, and the results much worse, than Obama’s team had advertised: “CBO now estimates that the total impact over the 2009–2019 period will amount to about $831 billion.....They [the ARRA’s policies] increased the number of people employed by between 0.2 million and 1.5 million,” which computes to between $540,000 and $4.1 million per job.

Network evening news coverage of CBO’s report card on the stimulus: Zero.

The networks also protected Obama from another failure from his first 100 days. Soon after the stimulus became law, President Obama held a televised “Fiscal Responsibility Summit” at the White House and flatly promised to “to cut the deficit we inherited by half by the end of my first term in office.” He repeated the pledge the next day before a joint session of Congress, adding: “My administration has also begun to go line by line through the federal budget in order to eliminate wasteful and ineffective programs....We have already identified $2 trillion in savings over the next decade.”

All three broadcast network evening newscasts touted this as a major deal. On the February 23, 2009 NBC Nightly News, correspondent Savannah Guthrie touted how Obama had “made a big promise, to cut the $1.3 trillion deficit in half by the end of his first term.” Two days later, ABC’s Jake Tapper reiterated how: “The President says he intends to cut the $1.3 trillion deficit in half by the end of his first term. He says first term, knowing that whether or not he gets a second term depends on how he delivers on all of these big ambitious promises.”

Thanks to the stimulus law and other spending undertaken by Obama and the liberal Democratic Congress then in power, the federal budget deficit for the 2009 fiscal year was $1.4 trillion, more than three times higher than the FY2008 deficit of $438 billion. The next year, FY2010, the deficit was $1.3 trillion. The year after that, FY2011, it was $1.3 trillion. For 2012, Obama’s own budget (proposed in February 2011) predicted a $1.1 trillion deficit, which turned out to be right on the money when the fiscal year ended on September 30, 2012.

If a Republican president had so flagrantly failed to meet one of his highest profile promises, is there any doubt that the networks would have (correctly) ensured that it was a major issue in that president’s re-election campaign? The deficit, after all, was a major concern to voters; a February 29, 2012 Gallup poll found 79% rated the federal budget deficit as a “very” or “extremely” important election-year issue, ranking behind only the economy (92%) and unemployment (82%).

But during the course of their 2012 coverage, the NBC Nightly News never once mentioned Obama’s promise to cut the deficit in half. No reporter for the CBS Evening News brought it up either, but an October 19 story by correspondent Jan Crawford included a soundbite from Mitt Romney from an earlier debate (a clip used to illustrate Crawford’s point that Romney was becoming “increasingly aggressive.”) Romney: “He said that he’d cut in half the deficit, he hasn’t done that, either. In fact, he doubled it.”

Only ABC’s Jake Tapper — just once, in a February 13, 2012 story about the President’s FY2013 budget proposal — bothered to retrieve the Obama soundbite from 2009. Tapper: “The document also represents a broken promise for President Obama, who made this pledge at the beginning of his presidency,” followed by this clip from the President: “Today, I’m pledging to cut the deficit we inherited by half by the end of my first term in office.”

Jobs and the deficit were two of the biggest issues in last year’s campaign. Just as journalists were scrutinizing the Romney campaign’s economic proposals, fair reporting would have reminded voters of the big promises Obama had broken during his first term. Omitting them from the 2012 news agenda was a huge favor to the liberal incumbent — unchaining Obama from his own failed record, so he could freely attack his opponent.