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Media Advisory:

Failing the Midterms

Press overplays election results

SOURCE: Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR)
Originally published on the site yesterday, 6 November 2009

It was very clear which set of elections corporate media wanted to portray as sending an important message about national politics--that voters were discontented with the White House and wanted Democrats to move to the right.

Republican candidates won gubernatorial races in New Jersey and Virginia on Tuesday; meanwhile, Democratic candidates won two special elections for the U.S. House of Representatives in New York and California. But it was very clear which set of elections corporate media wanted to portray as sending an important message about national politics--that voters were discontented with the White House and wanted Democrats to move to the right.

"By seizing gubernatorial seats in Virginia and New Jersey, Republicans on Tuesday dispelled any notion of President Obama's electoral invincibility," declared the Los Angeles Times (11/4/09)--as if Obama had previously been confused with Superman. On NPR, Mara Liasson reported (11/4/09): "There's already a feisty argument going on about what the election results tell us, but there's no argument about the score. The Democrats got a slap in the face. The Republicans a much-needed victory."

On CNN, Lou Dobbs announced (11/4/09):

"The White House spin machine at full throttle. A day after Republicans won key races for governor in New Jersey and Virginia, the Obama administration tonight doing its best to downplay those votes and how they reflect upon the president and his administration's agenda." Dobbs added: "Regardless of the spin, there is no denial that independent voters, who greatly helped elect president Obama a year ago, came out big this time for Republicans in both states, a troubling sign for both the president and his party."

An Associated Press analysis by Liz Sidoti (11/4/09) similarly called the election results "a troubling sign for the president and his party" and a "double-barreled triumph" for Republicans--before noting that such conclusions "could easily be overstated. Voters are often focused on local issues and local personalities."

Another AP analysis by Beth Fouhy (11/4/09) began, "Voters nervous about the economy and fed up with the political establishment dominated the off-year elections, sending a strong message to President Barack Obama, who won the White House as a change agent but has himself become the face of political power and incumbency." How were the elections a "strong message" to Obama, exactly? Fouhy doesn't explain. According to exit polls (CBS News, 11/4/09):

Majorities of voters in both states (56 percent in Virginia and 60 percent in New Jersey) said President Obama was not a factor in their vote today. Those who said Mr. Obama was a factor in New Jersey divided as to whether their vote was a vote for the president (19 percent) or against him (19 percent). In Virginia, slightly fewer voters said their vote was for Mr. Obama (17 percent) than against him (24 percent).

The coverage's focus on the danger signs for Democrats is consistent with corporate media's traditional emphasis on the Democrats' need to move to the right (Extra!, 7-8/06). There was comparatively little discussion in post-Election Day commentary on the lessons to the Republican Party posed by New York's 23rd District, where national support for a far-right candidate led to a Democratic victory in an area that had voted Republican since the time of Ulysses S. Grant.

For some in the media, the important lesson was that the Democrats might have to put their agenda on hold. As the AP's Fouhy put it (albeit somewhat incoherently): "To be sure, each race was as much about local issues as about firing warning shots at the politically powerful. But taken together, the results of the 2009 off-year elections could imperil Obama's ambitious legislative agenda and point to a challenging environment in midterm elections next year."

And at the top of the media's list of what the Democrats should be rethinking: healthcare reform. On NBC's Today show (11/4/09), Meet the Press host David Gregory declared, "It's going to be a real fear within the White House that those moderate Democrats are going to now find it more difficult to cast a difficult vote on healthcare that could increase the deficit, that may be unpopular with key parts of their constituencies as they face voters next year." (According to the Congressional Budget Office, passing the House version of the healthcare reform bill would reduce the federal deficit by $104 billion over the next 10 years--CBO Director's Blog, 10/29/09.) On CBS Evening News (11/4/09), Bob Schieffer expressed a similar view about conservative Democrats and healthcare: "I think they're going to be more nervous about supporting it. If we do see any impact of these elections, I think it will be on the healthcare legislation and it may set it back a bit."

The AP's Sidoti wrote, "Democrats in swing-voting states and moderate-to-conservative districts may be less willing to back Obama on issues like healthcare after Virginia and New Jersey showed there are limits to how much he can protect his rank and file from fallout back home." Were Democratic gubernatorial candidates Jon Corzine and Creigh Deeds "rank-and-file" Democrats who were casting important healthcare votes?

The notion that the election will force Democrats to enact a healthcare reform bill with less healthcare in it is clearly an appealing one to corporate media. A Washington Post editorial (11/5/09) with the subhead "The Center Holds" concluded that the elections did

...signal to Democratic members of Congress--especially those who represent Republican-leaning states--that voters are getting nervous about the size and indebtedness of the federal government. If that fortifies centrist lawmakers and makes them more likely to insist that any healthcare reform come with a credible plan to pay for it, then that, too, would be a welcome consequence of Tuesday night.

Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting is a nonpartisan media watchdog organization. Visit for more information, or share your opinion about this story by writing to Republished in the Chronicle with permission from F.A.I.R.

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This story was published on November 7, 2009.