The Palace Guard 'Consumed with Nonexistent Initiatives'
The Stephanopoulos Standard
Republicans can turn media bias to their advantage.
By William McGurn, WSJ Opinion, January 10, 2012
A funny thing happened on the way to the New Hampshire primary: ABC moderator George Stephanopoulos embarrassed himself on national television with questions plainly intended to embarrass the Republican candidates. Therein lies a lesson.
|Stephanopoulos, face of ABC News, |
inquisitions GOP candidates
On Saturday night, Mr. Stephanopoulos stepped outside the role of honest interlocutor when he pursued Mitt Romney with the issue on nobody's lips or legislative agenda: whether states have the right to ban contraception. Likewise, fellow moderator Diane Sawyer, who asked Republicans what they would say, "sitting in their living rooms," to a gay couple.
As the audience appreciated—they booed after Mr. Stephanopolous's sixth follow-up—these questions were designed less to illuminate than to paint Republicans as people who hate gays and are so crazy they might just ban contraception if elected.
For conservatives, this is nothing new. Conservatives are used to a world where the referees often seem to be playing for the other team. In this case, however, the responses from the candidates were revealing.
Rick Santorum essentially answered directly, opposing the Supreme Court's definition of privacy and defending traditional marriage. On the question about gays, Newt Gingrich called marriage between a man and a woman a defining part of our civilization. He then turned the question back on Ms. Sawyer, wondering why the press never asks about how same-sex marriage is driving the Catholic Church out of the adoption business. As for state bans on contraception, Mr. Romney noted that no state was in fact proposing to do so, "and asking me whether they could do it or not is kind of a silly thing."
If this were an academic exercise, Mr. Santorum might score highest. Even those who disagree with him would concede that his answers were on point. He knows what he believes and why, and he does not run away when asked to defend the hard position.
Mr. Gingrich's answer showed why he remains popular among many Republican quarters despite his considerable baggage. Unlike those who strike conservative voters as too polite or deferential to lordly media figures, Mr. Gingrich calls bias by its name. And he was right to point out that there are serious consequences (such as adoption) to the legalization of same-sex marriage that the news media mostly choose to ignore.
Nevertheless, Mr. Romney trumped. He didn't shy away from the substance, confirming that he favors repeal of Roe v. Wade and explaining the constitutional way to oppose court decisions when you believe one has been wrongly decided. But when he dismissed the whole line of questioning as "silly," he made Mr. Stephanopoulos look ridiculous.
That's something to remember going forward. Yes, it's unfair that Democratic candidates such as President Obama can count on the media to amplify their biases against Republicans.
Bias, however, is a fact of American political life. Merely complaining about it doesn't move the ball.
No one appreciated this more than Ronald Reagan. Today we remember the Gipper as a popular and beloved American figure. That's not the way he was presented to the American public when he was running against Jimmy Carter in 1980. Back then, Mr. Reagan was cast as a divisive, Neanderthal warmonger itching to push the nuclear button.
President Carter played to this image. A "MacNeil/Lehrer Report" after the single presidential debate that year noted that Mr. Carter had used the word "dangerous" six times. Another observer added that the president had also called Reagan "heartless," "insensitive," "misleading," "disturbing" and "irresponsible."
Mr. Reagan didn't let it get to him. When Mr. Carter implied Mr. Reagan was against Medicare because he opposed all efforts to help provide decent health care for American citizens, Mr. Reagan smiled and shook his head. Then he issued four devastating words that have now entered the political lexicon: "There you go again."
There's a good lesson here. Whatever else we know about 2012, we know we will have many more Stephanopoulos moments ahead. Though it might be more satisfying to thunder against the injustice, there are other, possibly more effective ways to expose the bias.
On the social issues especially, the media narrative is that Republicans are obsessed. The truth is that at a time when millions of Americans can't find work, when our Middle East policy is in turmoil, when the future of Mr. Obama's signature legislative achievement—health care—is in question, every Republican in the running is itching for the opportunity to talk about how he would address these things.
In sharp contrast, it was Mr. Stephanopoulos and Ms. Sawyer who showed themselves consumed with nonexistent initiatives on contraception and what you might say to gay friends who are sitting in your living room. Saturday night on ABC, we saw this bias in its full, condescending form.
We also saw something less well appreciated: that a Republican candidate can turn it to his advantage.