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Conservative Media Caught in the Blame Game

In the wake of last Tuesday's elections, a lively debate has erupted into the open over whether conservatives and the Republican Party were well-served by their favorite media outlets.

Former Gov. Mitt Romney was reported to have been so certain of a victory on Tuesday night that he cast aside tradition and did not draft a concession speech. But conservatives now say his misplaced confidence — and theirs — were bolstered by the predictions of many like-minded pundits, which were broadcast and posted online around the clock by sympathetic news outlets.

"You had this kind of mutually reinforcing phenomenon going on between the Romney campaign [and] some influential commentators — and then a lot of that commentary gets repeated in the media at large," said Byron York, chief political correspondent for the conservative Washington Examiner.

York said that stunned Republicans at Romney's Boston headquarters told him they were influenced by the results of surveys conducted by the campaign's pollster, Neil Newhouse, and by what they heard on the air and saw in print.

Similarly, conservative columnist John Podhoretz of the New York Post had argued before the election that many pollsters were ignoring the high turnout by Republicans in the 2010 elections that swept the GOP into control of the U.S. House. The 2012 race would be the same, proving Obama's 2008 win to be an anomaly, Podhoretz argued — quite mistakenly, as he conceded afterward.

"Because I had a rooting interest in the other side, that view was strengthened and amplified by what I wanted to happen, which I freely confess," said Podhoretz, also the editor of the conservative Commentary magazine and a cultural critic for the conservative Weekly Standard. "People don't ordinarily cast a skeptical eye on data and information that supports their opinions. They're happy to take it."

The noted conservative political analyst Michael Barone and conservative columnist George Will were among those predicting a landslide in the electoral college for Romney. But they were far from alone. Viewers consumed a steady diet of such punditry on Fox News for weeks ahead of the election. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and ambidextrous political consultant Dick Morris (a consultant to a Democratic president, Bill Clinton, and a Republican Senate Majority Leader, Trent Lott) additionally promised landslides in the popular vote for Romney. Former chief George W. Bush strategist Karl Rove, who is now a top analyst for Fox and a top fundraiser for a political action committee that spent $300 million against President Obama and his fellow Democrats, predicted a comfortable but closer win for Romney.

Many conservatives argued the polls themselves were skewed — because they showed a Democratic edge nationally and a strong advantage in key battleground states. And indeed, Podhoretz and other conservatives contended that liberals and their sympathizers in the press corps clicked on Nate Silver's 538 blog in the New York Times hour after hour not because of their fascination with the mathematical probabilities but out of a desperate need for reassurance that President Obama would win re-election.

But in the days after Obama cruised to victory, former George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum accused right-of-center media outlets and partisan pundits of failing their audiences by cheerleading for the GOP rather than reflecting what was actually happening in the race or in the nation at large.

"The conservative followership has been fleeced, exploited and lied to by the conservative entertainment complex," Frum said on MSNBC's Morning Joe.

Pressed to name names, Frum demurred, though he has pointed to Fox News and Rush Limbaugh in the past. Frum argued the conservative media have failed their audiences by cheerleading rather reflecting what was actually happening in the race or in the nation at large.

"The activists are so mistaken about the nature of the problems the country faces," Frum said. "I went to Tea Party rallies, and I would ask this question: Have taxes gone up or down in the past four years? They could not answer that question correctly."

Host Joe Scarborough — a former Republican congressman — seconded Frum's critique and said he was reminded of what happened when the German army overtook France in 1940. "The French generals [were] reassuring [British Prime Minister Winston] Churchill day after day, week after week that the French were putting up a brave defense, when they knew the war was already lost."

On election night, Rove was in constant contact with Romney's people and proved so flustered by the results that he vigorously disputed the conclusion of Fox News' decision desk that Obama had won Ohio — and thereby won the election. A nonplused Megyn Kelly responded: "Is this just math that you do as a Republican to make yourself feel better, or is this real?"

The backlash has only strengthened in the days since the election. Younger political right-of-center operatives and pundits told Politico's Jonathan Martin that the reliance on clearly conservative media outlets and pundits — such as Newsmax, Rush Limbaugh's radio program, and the opinion shows on Fox News — had undermined their understanding of where the campaign stood.

"Unfortunately, for us Republicans who want to rebuild this party, the echo chamber [now] is louder and more difficult to overcome," former Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson, who unsuccessfully ran against Rand Paul two years ago for the Republican nomination for Senate, told Martin.

Martin reported that Grayson's mentor, Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell, unsuccessfully pleaded with Fox News Chairman Roger Ailes to give his candidate as much time on the air as Paul, a firebrand conservative libertarian popular among Tea Party fans and many Fox viewers. Sorry, Ailes is said to have responded: Paul is better TV.

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David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.
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