FLASHBACK: An Election So Biased, Even the Media Had to Admit It

November 4th, 2023 8:39 AM

Fifteen years ago today, November 4, 2008, American voters elected liberal Democratic Senator Barack Obama to the Presidency. It was a campaign in which the public recognized the media elite’s tremendous favoritism towards Obama, and even many reporters admitted the coverage had been slanted against the Republicans.

Tilting the news in favor of their preferred candidate may have been a show of the media’s power, but it also accelerated the decline in public trust that journalists once enjoyed. In 2003, more than half of all Americans (54%) told Gallup they had “a great deal” or “a fair amount” of trust in the media, vastly more than the 16 percent who said they had “none at all.”

Five years later, after the spectacle of reporters’ brazenly one-sided coverage of a presidential election, only 43 percent said they had “a great deal” or “a fair amount” of trust in the media — an 11-point drop — while those who had no trust at all had risen to 21 percent. This year, that same poll showed a complete collapse in media trust: more said they had no trust at all (39%) vs. the 32 percent who still professed a “great deal” or “a fair amount” of trust.

There are a lot of reasons why the public has become distrustful of the press, starting with years of one-sided coverage of social issues (abortion, gay marriage), economic issues (government spending and taxes), the environment, and, of course, politics; the media practically went to war with the Trump campaign in 2016 and have remained belligerent ever since.

But the pivotal event was really the 2008 presidential election, when the media consciously set aside the remnants of their professionalism so they could openly interfere in an election, on behalf of one of the most liberal presidential nominees in U.S. history. Rather than attempt to objectively report on the election, they joined Team Obama — and their reputation has never been the same.

And the media’s eyes were wide open during all of this. Some quotes from the NewsBusters’ archives of journalists discussing their profession’s pro-Obama bias:

■ “From a reporter’s point of view, it’s almost hard to remain objective because it’s infectious, the energy, I think. It sort of goes against your core to say that as a reporter, but the crowds have gotten so much bigger, his energy has gotten stronger. He feeds off that.”
— NBC reporter Lee Cowan in an MSNBC.com video about the Obama campaign posted January 7, 2008.

Host Howard Kurtz: “Are journalists rooting for the Obama story?”
Politico’s John Harris, referring to when he worked at the Washington Post: “It wouldn’t surprise me that there’s some of that....A couple years ago, you would send a reporter out with Obama, and it was like they needed to go through detox when they came back — ‘Oh, he’s so impressive, he’s so charismatic,’ and we’re kind of like, ‘Down, boy.’”
— Exchange on CNN’s Reliable Sources, January 13, 2008.

■ “Even in the conversations we have as colleagues, there is a sense of trying especially hard not to drink the Kool-Aid. It’s so rapturous, everything around him [Barack Obama]. All these huge rallies.”
— Correspondent Lee Cowan, who covers Obama for NBC News, as quoted by New York Times reporter Jacques Steinberg in a March 1, 2008 story.

■ “[Barack] Obama really won over his base, he won over the American media. They loved that speech.”
Politico’s Roger Simon on CBS’s Face the Nation on March 23, 2008, talking about Obama’s speech on race.

■ “Every Tuesday night Keith [Olbermann] is up there as the face of NBC News. That’s a problem....What’s it going to be like in the general election now that everyone knows we’re the in-house network of Barack Obama?”
— A “high level source inside MSNBC,” as quoted in a June 3, 2008 posting by Steve Krakauer to the TVNewser blog.

■ “I think there is a problem, though, with the media gushing over him [Barack Obama] too much. I don’t think he thinks that he’s all that, but the media does. I mean, the coverage after, that I was watching, from MSNBC, I mean these guys were ready to have sex with him.”
— HBO’s Bill Maher on Real Time, August 29, 2008.

■ “Many in the media have been one-sided, sometimes adding to Obama’s distortions rather than acting as impartial reporters of fact and referees of the mud fights.”
National Journal columnist Stuart Taylor, September 20, 2008.

■ “If you were going to events during the primaries, what you saw was that the executive editors and the top people at the networks were all rushing to Obama events, bringing their children, celebrating it, saying they were, there’s this part of history....The American people are smart, they can see this. That’s why Obama’s on every magazine cover.... There’s no question in my mind the media has been more supportive of Senator Obama.”
— NPR’s Juan Williams on Fox News Sunday, October 26, 2008.

■ “Yes, in the closing weeks of this election, John McCain and Sarah Palin are getting hosed in the press, and at Politico....We’d take an educated guess — nothing so scientific as a Pew study — that Obama will win the votes of probably 80 percent or more of journalists covering the 2008 election.”
Politico co-founders John Harris and Jim VandeHei in their October 28, 2008 column, “Why McCain is getting hosed in the press.”

MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough: “The media has been really, really biased this campaign, I think....Is the media just in love with history here, Mark, do you think?”...
Time’s Mark Halperin: “I think mistakes have been made and people will regret it....If Obama wins and goes on to become a hugely successful President, I think, still, people will look back and say it just wasn’t done the right way.”
— MSNBC’s Morning Joe, October 28, 2008.

■ “I’ll bet that most Post journalists voted for [Barack] Obama. I did.”
Washington Post ombudsman Deborah Howell in her November 16, 2008 column.

■ “No person with eyes in his head in 2008 could have failed to see the way that soft coverage helped to propel Obama first to the Democratic nomination and then into the White House.”
New York Magazine political reporter John Heilemann, January 27, 2012.

For more examples from our flashback series, which we call the NewsBusters Time Machine, go here.