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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

In November 2011, the Obama administration thrilled the environmental Left by delaying plans for a major new oil conduit that would run from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico, the Keystone XL pipeline. The decision surprised many observers, given that the project was supported by Democratic-allied labor unions and would be another step toward ending America’s dependence on oil from the Middle East, an oft-stated goal of the President.

In December 2011, Republicans and Democrats in Congress passed a measure to compel Obama to make a final decision within 60 days. On January 18, 2012, the President made his decision — and once again sided with the environmental fringe, rejecting the planned pipeline.

As a political matter, the President’s decision seemed a sure-fire loser. Gas prices were rising, jobs were in short supply, and support for the pipeline was bipartisan. A March 2012 Gallup poll found Americans supported the project by a nearly 2-to-1 margin (57% vs. 29%), while a study by the Perryman Group (commissioned by the builder) found as many as 119,000 “spin-off” jobs would result from the pipeline construction.

Obama’s January 18 decision drew full stories on all three broadcast evening news programs that night, with CBS’s Scott Pelley insisting the “election-year politics is far from over,” and NBC’s Brian Williams promising that “you can be sure, as the campaign season enters the home stretch, we’ll be hearing a lot more about this long stretch of pipe.”

But after that one night in January, the networks essentially ended their Keystone coverage, burying one of Obama’s most unpopular decisions. From January 19 through Election Day, only seven network evening news stories mentioned the Keystone project, with only one full story — a March 22 CBS Evening News story about an audacious Obama campaign photo-op advertising his support for the southern leg of the pipeline, an element of the project which needed neither the President’s support nor his approval.

The other six stories included only brief references to the issue in broader political reports — and only one of those minor mentions (on CBS) occurred during the fall campaign. For most network news viewers, the Keystone controversy ended after one night in the spotlight.

In their January 18 coverage, all three networks conveyed the White House spin that the President, as CBS’s Wyatt Andrews put it, “felt rushed by an arbitrary deadline set by congressional Republicans.” But the vote was bipartisan — Democrats also voted for the deadline, included in a broader package extending the temporary payroll tax cut.

None of the networks challenged President Obama’s claim that he could not approve the project without further environmental review. “The facts are the pipeline, as proposed, would go through very sensitive land,” ABC’s Jake Tapper affirmed on the January 18, 2012 World News. “The pipeline faced major environmental concerns,” CBS’s Andrews echoed that night.

But, unstated by the networks, the State Department had already conducted three years of study, concluding in an eight-volume August 26, 2011 environmental impact report that “no significant impacts” would be expected if the project went ahead as planned.

Even the reliably-Democratic Washington Post, in a November 13, 2011 editorial, rejected the White House argument that more environmental research was needed: “The world will continue to use oil, with all the dirty realities that entails. Rejecting Keystone XL would not change that fact....More delay after three years of review is insult enough.”

On March 8, eleven Democratic Senators joined 45 Republicans to overrule President Obama’s pipeline decision. As Politico pointed out in a report that afternoon, “Only the fact that 60 votes were needed for passage saved the White House from an embarrassing defeat.” Yet, ABC and CBS skipped that bipartisan vote, while NBC anchor Brian Williams — who had weeks earlier promised his viewers would hear “a lot more” about Keystone — gave it just 27 seconds of coverage, the last time his newscast would mention the word “Keystone” before the election.

If a Republican president had broken with one of his own core constituencies to block a project that promised great benefits and enjoyed substantial bipartisan support, network reporters would surely have made it a top issue during his re-election campaign. By keeping the Keystone decision out of their newscasts leading up to Election Day, the Big Three relieved Obama of having to continually justify an anti-jobs decision that, polls showed, most voters rejected.