The actual voting results are just part of what makes for an Election Night in today’s mass media world. Perhaps as important — in some years, more important — are journalists’ first stab at interpreting the results, telling audiences what they voted for (and against).
If history is a reliable guide, listen for: smug journalists slamming “angry” or stupid voters; claims that there’s no mandate for conservative policies; slams that the Republican winners are “extremist” or “radical;” and arguments that the Democrats failed to follow through on their liberal agenda. Oh, and don’t forget the racism.
In 1994, when Republicans picked up 54 House seats, the media message was first and foremost that voters had failed. “The public seemed more intolerant than involved, uninterested in what the candidates have had to say, blindly voting against,” then-Newsweek writer Joe Klein scolded.
In a radio commentary six days after the election, ABC anchor Peter Jennings derided: “Imagine a nation full of uncontrolled two-year-old rage. The voters had a temper tantrum last week....The nation can’t be run by an angry two-year old.”
The eviction of so many Democrats after the liberal experiments of Bill Clinton’s first two years in office would strike most observers as a conservative message, but many in the media rejected that obvious premise: “There’s no overarching mandate that the GOP can read into this,” CNN’s Mary Tillotson huffed on election night, November 8.
“It was a vote for bipartisanship, for centrism,” echoed CNN analyst Bill Schneider.
“They are not voting Republican tonight,” U.S. News & World Report’s Steve Roberts claimed on CNBC's Equal Time. “They are voting against a lot of unhappiness in their own lives....This is not an anti-government vote tonight.”
And, in a preview of the media’s disdainful approach to the 2010 Tea Party conservatives, the Clinton administration’s opponents were “extremist,” “intolerant” “radicals.” Two weeks before the election, for example, ABC’s Jack Smith claimed on This Week that Florida GOP candidate Jeb Bush was a “radical conservative with virtually no experience in governing.”
When you hear the phrase “radical conservative,” who thinks of Jeb Bush?
Two days after the election, sore loser Bryant Gumbel accosted Jack Kemp on NBC’s Today: “Are you not at all concerned about where their brand of, some would say, extremism or intolerance, may yet try to take your party?”
And, as with any “sky is falling” storyline, women and minorities will be hit hardest:
“This is a rotten time to be black. Blacks are just going to take it in the chops,” Newsweek’s Evan Thomas wailed on Inside Washington a few days after the landslide. “Their programs are going to get eviscerated and affirmative action is going to go right down the tubes...Politics have moved right because a lot of middle-class people thought they were taking my money and giving it to poor black people, and they didn’t like it and they want their money back.”
Republicans also scored gains in the 2002 midterm elections, George W. Bush’s first (memo to the Democrats: the incumbent party doesn’t ALWAYS lose seats). But the frustration from reporters — who never seem to complain when the Republican Party fails to stand up for its conservative principles — was that the Democratic party wasn’t liberal enough.
“Do you think the Democratic Party has made a mistake pulling back from those grand initiatives like health care?” MSNBC’s Chris Matthews wondered on MSNBC on election night, November 5.
“The knock on the Democrats tonight is that there was no consistent message, there were so many messages, and moreover you were intimidated by the President and you wouldn’t speak out on the economy, and you wouldn’t speak out on the war,” ABC’s Peter Jennings complained to Democratic Senator Patty Murray during his network’s election coverage.
“Did you run too close to the middle? There’s grousing already in the Democratic Party that Democrats didn’t act like Democrats, they acted like watered-down Republicans,” CBS’s Harry Smith badgered Democratic National Chairman Terry McAuliffe the next morning on The Early Show.
As Brent Baker noted nearly two months ago, the liberal media are already recycling the spin book from election years past. “Voters appear to be so fed up with the Democrats that they’re ready to toss them out in favor of the Republicans — for whom, according to those same polls, the nation has even greater contempt,” Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson whined back in September. “This isn’t an 'electoral wave,' it’s a temper tantrum.”
If the polls are accurate, viewers might be treated to a few media tantrums tonight.