Horse race overtakes history in political coverage of Osama bin Laden death

President Obama had not yet officially announced the death of Osama bin Laden before bloggers and pundits began speculating about its impact on the 2012 election.

“The news that Osama bin Laden has been killed -- on Obama's watch -- is most definitely a political game-changer,” NBC’s Mark Murray wrote on the network’s “First Read” blog at 11:23 p.m. Eastern time May 1. That was shortly after reporters learned of bin Laden’s death, but 12 minutes before the President began delivering his nationally televised address.

Throughout the early-morning hours after the speech, the online political debate roared into full swing.

The President “is going to be almost impossible to beat in 2012,” the Daily Beast’s Andrew Sullivan predicted at 12:21 a.m.

“If unemployment remains high and the recovery remains weak, Obama could absolutely lose in 2012,” countered Scott Lemieux at the American Prospect twenty-five minutes later.

Before the sun came up the next morning, writers at The New York Times, The Washington Post, the New Republic, and several other media organizations all had weighed in.

Discussion forums at liberal and conservative websites buzzed with comments on how the Pakistani raid would affect voters 18 months later. While journalists and bloggers also wrote about other aspects of the Abbottabad raid -- such as its impact on U.S. policy and the future of al-Qaida -- a good chunk of the coverage was cast around familiar questions about politicians’ poll numbers and which political party deserved more credit.

“Pretty much all that I do has to do with politics and the permanent campaign,” NBC’s Murray told me in a phone interview.

“Because I’m a political reporter, I thought it was important to at least have a snapshot of what the political dynamics could be after such a big news event.”

But as their disparate views prove, it’s hard for even the most insightful prognosticator to draw concrete political conclusions about a momentous event that’s just begun to unfold.

Staff are seen at work at President Barack Obama's 2012 re-election campaign headquarters during a media tour of the new facility Thursday, May 12, 2011, in Chicago. (M. Spencer Green/AP)

When they made their initial predictions, the pundits didn’t anticipate the controversy over the non-release of bin Laden photos, the partisan criticism of President Obama’s trip to ground zero, or the confusion about the Administration’s changing account of the firefight.

And the immediate recasting of the news as a political horse-race story may have diverted attention from arguably more important angles.

“There is a certain lack of seriousness about a great deal of coverage of events in the world,” said Hodding Carter, a veteran journalist who served as State Department spokesman in Jimmy Carter’s administration. “It’s almost all now a tallying of wins and losses for the players. It’s the eternal quest for the ultimate political take.”

“The media world we live in”

According to the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, bin Laden’s death sparked more stories in the mainstream media than any topic since the center began tracking news coverage more than three years ago. Of the bin Laden stories that were published or broadcast in the week after the raid, Pew found that 15 percent centered on its political fallout.

That’s less than the 36 percent of coverage that detailed the events of the military mission, but more than the amount of coverage of such issues as its effect on U.S./Pakistani relations and terrorism.

Pew also reported that 14 percent of the coverage on blogs concerned one question: whether President Obama or President George W. Bush deserved more credit.

“That’s the media world we live in,” said Bill Hamilton, a deputy managing editor at Politico. “Everything the president does is seen in this kind of polarized context.”

In a phone interview, Hamilton said Politico’s staff writers waited 24 hours after the raid before publishing election-themed analysis, though the website allowed its users and commentators to post observations and predictions instantly as bin Laden’s death became known.

Hamilton described today’s media environment as “totally different” from when he began his journalism career more than three decades ago. In that era, a popular Washington axiom was that “politics stops at the water’s edge” – a belief that it was unseemly to view military or foreign policy matters through a partisan lens.

So in April 1980, when Jimmy Carter ordered a military rescue mission of the American hostages in Iran, the political reaction was muted, even when the mission failed in spectacular fashion and left eight service members dead.

Though President Carter considered the bungled rescue a major factor in his election loss to Ronald Reagan seven months later, a Lexis/Nexis search found few political overtones in the immediate coverage of the event.

“We support the president in seeking to save the hostages, and we deeply regret that this mission failed," Reagan said on the campaign trail.

ABC’s evening newscast following the mission contained just one sentence on the electoral implications: “White House aides are painfully aware that the failure may very well have added to Mr. Carter's deepening political troubles,” Sam Donaldson understatedly reported.

To be sure, there’s an important difference between the Iranian military mission and the recent one in Pakistan. One was an embarrassing failure that led to mournful national uncertainty; the other was a stunning success that sparked patriotic jubilation. And the political damage from the 1980 debacle was so obvious that it was almost unnecessary to dwell on it.

Still, Hodding Carter said he’s seen a transformation in the way the media and the blogosphere frame such events.

“There was a certain amount of restraint with how you dealt with commentary and coverage of our business overseas,” said Carter, now a professor at the University of North Carolina. “The boundary is really gone and this is a reflection of it.”

Internet removes filters, ramps up reaction time

While some journalists and bloggers concede the boundaries have changed, they also argue that today’s politics-driven news coverage in many ways more accurately reflects a Washington culture where polling, fundraising and campaigning never stop.

“Presidents are creatures of politics,” said Democratic strategist Garry South, who frequently contributes commentaries to Politico, Huffington Post, and other websites. “They take into consideration the political upside and downside of all their actions.”

Indeed, historic accounts show that even 50 years ago, President Kennedy was gravely concerned about his political standing and popularity in the days immediately after the Bay of Pigs invasion. And Hodding Carter recalls that the political fallout from the Iranian rescue mission was “subtext for everybody” in Jimmy Carter’s White House.

For strategist South, the biggest change is that the Internet has removed the traditional filters and allowed the public to immediately see and participate in Washington’s constant political posturing.

“I can opine on anything in a matter of milliseconds,” South said in a phone interview. Only minutes after he learned of bin Laden’s death, South posted at Politico that “it could mean the end of the 2012 campaign.”

“We’re now in a ramped-up environment in terms of the news cycle,” South said.  “Are we better off because of it? Probably not. But I’m part of it.”

Of course, despite South’s prognostication, the 2012 campaign continues -- largely unabated by events overseas. As Americans’ attention has started to drift away from the Navy SEALs’ heroics, one prominent Republican has entered the presidential race, another has decided not to, and President Obama’s popularity either has remained flat, gone up a little, or gone up a lot -- depending upon which polls you believe. Much of the on-the-fly post-raid punditry already has lost its relevance.

Perhaps that’s the most disturbing consequence of the tendency toward instant and constant politicization. Osama bin Laden’s death is a complex event that served as a milestone in the war on terror, raised crucial policy issues for the U.S. and its allies, inspired elation in some Americans, and brought painful memories to others. Yet, in many quarters, it’s been reduced to just another lap in the political horse race.


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