The spectacle of reporters over the past week hounding Mitt Romney for speaking his mind does not come as a surprise.
By DOROTHY RABINOWITZ, WSJ Opinion, September 18, 2012
After an astounding week of ardent media focus on Mitt Romney's criticism of the initial U.S. response to mob assaults on American diplomatic outposts, the furor is dying down—but it's not over by any means. Nor was the message that the furor sent a negligible one.
Condemnations of Mr. Romney had come thick and fast. He had been "crass and tone deaf," in the view of MSNBC's Chuck Todd. He had committed a "slander" against the president, according to Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic.
Journalists in pursuit of this story—to the exclusion of virtually all else going on—were quick to point out that denunciations of Mr. Romney were by no means limited to Democrats, that criticism came from Republican commentators too. This fact was hardly surprising—the sanctimony of the virtuous knows no political bounds.
"I have to tell you, you know, it's part of reporting thiscase, this election, the feeling most people get
when they hear Barack Obama's speech. My, I felt this
thrill going up my leg. I mean, I don't have that too
often." - Chris Matthews
The spectacle of those hordes of journalists in single-minded pursuit of the Romney story day after day—days that saw the killing of four Americans, embassies burned and trashed, mobs of the faithful running amok—shouldn't have been surprising either. It's the most dramatic indicator yet that in this election the pack journalism of four years ago is alive, and well, and in full cry again.
Especially wonderful to hear were all the charges about Mr. Romney's political opportunism and tone-deafness—this after three days of a Democratic convention distinguished by shameless, nonstop exploitation of the military raid that put an end to Osama bin Laden. It is impossible to imagine any other president in American history orchestrating even two minutes—much less three days—of the self-glorification and wallowing in a victory won by the nation's armed forces that was on display at the convention. If any of this orgy of boasting in the interest of a political campaign caught the attention of those commentators whose sensibilities were so offended by Mr. Romney last week, we haven't heard about it.
The governor's offense, as the world knows, had to do with his blast at the eye-popping apologias that had come from our Cairo embassy while mobs of the faithful were gathering to wreak havoc over a crude YouTube video insulting to Islam—apologies that Mr. Romney linked to the general inclinations of the Obama administration.
For this he was pilloried as having criticized the president in a time of urgent crisis. Or, as Andrea Mitchell put it Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press," Mr. Romney had come out with his statement when the State Department didn't know where Ambassador Chris Stevens was—"the body was missing."
At the time of Mr. Romney's initial statement, of course, no word had as yet come about Stevens's fate or those of his murdered colleagues. Which didn't prevent members of the press and pundits from proclaiming, all the rest of the week, that Mr. Romney had embarked on a political attack while the world was aflame and the president embroiled in the crisis. The same president who would, in the midst of that crisis, go tootling off to Las Vegas for a campaign fundraiser.
By the time the presidential campaign had ended four years ago, the media's role in driving the outcome had become a fact too obvious to dispute. The impact of the journalistic horde's devotion to the Democratic candidates was clear, the evidence vivid—especially in the case of reporters transported to a state of ecstasy over candidate Obama's speeches. One New York Times reporter wrote of being so moved he could barely keep from weeping. Not for nothing did the role of the press become a news story in itself—an embarrassing one that might, serious people thought, serve as a caution during future campaigns.
In 2012 Barack Obama is no longer delivering thrilling speeches, but an unembarrassed press corps is still available, in full prosecutorial mode when it comes to coverage of the Republican challenger. If you hadn't heard the story about Mitt Romney's bullying treatment of another student during his prep-school days—1965, that is—the Washington Post had a story for you, a lengthy investigative piece. On the matter of Mr. Obama's school records, locked away and secured against investigation, the press maintains a serene incuriosity.
Mr. Obama continues to receive the benefits of a supportive media—one prone to dark suspicions about his challenger. The heavy ooze of moral superiority emanating from all the condemnations of Mr. Romney last week, all the breathless media reports on those condemnations, did not begin with something he said last week. But the moral superiority was certainly on its gaudiest display. Mr. Romney's tone was offensive, unpresidential, his critics charged.
Yet it is the president of the United States—the same one who presented himself as the man who would transcend political partisanship because we were all Americans—who has for most of his term set about dividing the nation by class, by the stoking of resentments. Who mocks "millionaires and billionaires." Who makes it clear that he considers himself the president of the other—the good—Americans. How's that for presidential tone?
No one could have missed the importance to Mr. Obama's campaign of the class-war themes that reverberated continually during the Democratic convention speeches. The references to "millionaires and billionaires" are by now a reliable applause line for the campaign. Former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm underscored the point with an address whose opening line declared, with a strange note of defiance—it wasn't the only thing strange about the speech—that the heart of America wasn't to be found in corporate board rooms.
But it is Vice President Biden who has been the most faithful purveyor of Mr. Obama's class-war theme. Earnest, affable, with a bottomless cache of wise maxims from his mother and father, the persuasive Joe Biden excels at explaining, in his accomplished infomercial tones, how the other side wants to ensnare you, the poor and the helpless. And how, I promise you, folks, Barack Obama isn't going to let them.
Mitt Romney isn't going to have an easy time defeating a president with Mr. Obama's advantages. A friendly press corps surpasses all wealth, sayeth the sages. The governor will stand a far better chance if he takes to heart the lesson of the past week, when he seems to have recognized, at last, that there are issues in addition to the economy—matters like foreign policy, Iran, America's stance in the world—that he must address. In the weeks that remain to this election, he will have to speak to those matters in depth and in unflinching terms that set him apart from his opponent. And he'll have to do it often.
Ms. Rabinowitz is a member of the Journal's editorial board.