There are, it turns out, truly two Americas—each with its own view of the political landscape, its own media organs, and, increasingly, its own set of facts.
For years, conservatives have been railing against the mainstream media, which to them represents the hard left. Some on the right have gone further lately, challenging the accuracy of a slew of polls by various organizations that, for much of September, showed President Obama with a significant lead over Mitt Romney—or questioning whether the Obama team cooked last week’s jobs numbers to gin up some faux economic progress. This, to be blunt, is birther territory.
But there may be no better example of how far the two Americas have diverged than the way they have reacted to a five-year-old videotape of an Obama speech. The speech in question—a 2007 address by then-Senator Obama at Hampton University, in which he spoke about urban despair and black frustration—was posted last week by Tucker Carlson’s website, The Daily Caller; trumpeted by Matt Drudge; and aired on Fox News by Sean Hannity. These conservatives treated the video as a shocking exposé of a racially divisive president. The rest of the media, however, found little that was newsworthy about the speech.
That left Carlson fuming. “The reaction was disgusting and reflects a larger problem in the press,” he told me. “We found something that had not been aired before, and we aired it fully in context … The initial impulse of many in the press is to suck up to power. I find that contemptible.”
But in the other America, the speech caused few ripples—either in 2007 or 2012—because what Obama said wasn’t all that controversial. Where Carlson cast Obama as talking about “a racist, zero-sum society,” most mainstream reporters simply saw an argument for more inner-city jobs, and for recognizing the impact of institutional racism. There were certainly some pungent passages, as when Obama suggested that the federal government had been less generous to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina than it had been to other (whiter) jurisdictions after major tragedies. But Obama was hardly the first Democrat to raise that point.
To me and other card-carrying mainstream-media types, it seemed as if Carlson, a thoughtful conservative, had lost perspective in an effort to promote his website. Yes, many journalists lean left, and news outlets have sometimes been more aggressive in reporting on Romney’s life and career than in scrutinizing Obama’s record. But most traditional news journalists at least try to be fair—and are certainly capable of taking the president to task when he falters, as we saw in the aftermath of the Denver debate.
Carlson actually agrees there are two distinct camps. “The average reporter thinks there’s a whole parallel universe of right-wing media,” he says. “Why does it exist? Because you’re doing such a poor job of covering the news in a skeptical way.” Well, maybe. There is surely plenty to criticize in the media establishment. Facts, however, do matter. And the hyping of the Obama video makes clear that the two universes cannot even agree on what those fundamental facts are.