Why Does the Media Go Easy on Barack Obama?

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Many conservatives think it's evidence of liberal bias. But is it even true that conservatives are more willing to be adversarial on important topics?

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Allegations of liberal media bias are almost constant in the conservative press, but their intensity has increased since President Obama and Hillary Clinton appeared together on 60 Minutes, where interviewer Steve Kroft posed "softball" questions that were almost comically obsequious. "Mr. Kroft, as embarrassing as his interview was, is merely symptomatic of a larger phenomenon: the unprecedented swooning and cheerleading by the press for Barack Obama," Peter Wehner wrote in Commentary, echoing an argument voiced by many on the right. He posits that the rise of conservative media outlets like Fox News may have triggered a liberal backlash.

Matt Lewis agrees:

I'm beginning to rethink the notion that today's conservatives have it better than The Gipper did. If the 2012 elections taught us anything, it's that liberal media bias is alive and well -- and effective. David [Freddoso] is out with a new book on the subject, called: "Spin Masters: How the media ignored the real news and helped reelect Barack Obama." As he notes in "Spin Masters," the establishment media seemed more concerned about Mitt Romney's dog Seamus and allegations that Romney gave someone a forced haircut, decades ago -- than about Benghazi -- or the fact that an Obama-authorized drone strike killed a 16-year-old American.

You'd think that I would be sympathetic to this narrative. Besides writing the most widely cited criticism of the Kroft interview, I spent much of the 2012 campaign cycle loudly complaining that major center-left publications and prominent liberal writers were giving Obama a pass. Swooning? Cheerleading? Yes, I've seen Barack Obama benefit from that behavior.

But cheerleading and swooning remain atypical. If we're trying to explain why the press is insufficiently adversarial, it's important to grapple with typical press behavior rather than aberrations.

That grappling makes it clear that "liberal media bias" doesn't explain the problem. It may shade media coverage of individual issues -- religion, gun control, health care -- but it's possible to challenge a sitting president from any number of ideological perspectives. If liberal journalists are failing to be adversarial enough, pointing out that they're liberals isn't a sufficient explanation.

But let's back up.

Is it even clear that the "mainstream media" does a poorer job of being adversarial than the conservative press?

Consider Lewis's claim that "the establishment press" cared more about Seamus the dog's rooftop journey than "the fact that an Obama-authorized drone strike killed a 16-year-old American."

There's something important missing from that analysis. Tom Junod wrote the definitive piece about that 16 year old, Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, in Esquire. I wrote about him here at The Atlantic on numerous occasions. The New Yorker covered the killing here. The New York Times and The Washington Post both published coverage of his death. Those stories and many others from publications in the "establishment press" treated Awlaki's death far more critically than anything that I saw in any conservative outlet. And some of the most critical pieces written about Obama killing a teenaged American citizen were published by avowedly progressive writers like Glenn Greenwald in the liberal online magazine Salon and staffers at publications like Mother Jones and The Nation, often citing left-leaning civil-libertarian organizations like the ACLU or center-left international affairs academics.

On various subjects that ought to trigger automatic scrutiny from any adversarial press outlet, like apparent violations of federal law, actions that directly contradict a campaign promise, aggressive retaliation against whistleblowers, and unprecedented assertions of secrecy, establishment outlets like The New York Times, The New Yorker, and The Washington Post, along with avowedly liberal publications like Salon, Mother Jones, and The Guardian, did far more to uncover facts, raise awareness, and publish criticism of Obama than the conservative media.

To be sure, there was a schizophrenia to the coverage in some of these publications. The New Yorker must have dedicated hundreds of thousands of dollars to top-flight journalism about various Obama Administration transgressions against civil liberties, the rule of law, and good government. Its editors presumably submitted some of those stories for National Magazine Awards. The same can be said for The New York Times and the Pulitzer Prizes. Yet pre-election editorials in those same publications didn't merely posit that Obama was the lesser of two evils -- they left painstakingly reported transgressions unmentioned, as if they weren't relevant, and issued glowing endorsements that read as if Obama is an especially noble president.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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