RTE’s Biased Coverage of the American Presidential Election

As an example of media bias in a news broadcast I have chosen an RTE report on the United States presidential election broadcast on July 11th 2012 (link at end of post). The campaigning for the presidential election is getting under way and RTE’s Washington correspondent Richard Downes is reporting on the battle between incumbent Democrat Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney for the hearts, minds and votes of the American people.

Newsreader Una O’Hagan, with a background image of Barack Obama in front of Mitt Romney,  sets the tone for the report by stating that Barack Obama’s re-election campaign is ‘turning up the heat’ on Republican rival Mitt Romney over taxes and the economy. She also states that ‘Mr Romney went on the offensive’, criticising the President for failing to bring unemployment down. So, while Barack Obama ‘turns up the heat’ on Mitt Romney, almost as if he is preparing to cook a captive lobster, Romney goes ‘on the offensive’, an action indicative of aggression rather than the controlled sophistication of the presidential incumbent. Obama is reported as ‘turning up the heat’ over taxes and the economy, while Romney is reported as having criticised the President for failing to bring unemployment down. Obviously far more issues than these were raised by both sides so it is worth examining why these issues in particular were chosen.

The issue of tax, and in particular tax policy towards the wealthy, would probably have been a weak point in Mitt Romney’s campaign, but RTE played a clip showing Barack Obama talking about allowing tax cuts to expire for the wealthiest 2% of Americans, which included himself, giving no counter-argument from the Republican side to justify Romney’s position on taxation. I think Romney’s position on taxation was somewhat more nuanced than a simple ‘don’t tax the rich’ caricature portrayed by Obama supporters, but RTE chose footage of Obama speaking on the subject that simplified the issue to suit a sympathetic portrayal of Obama and his policies.

The other issue that Obama was reported as ‘turning up the heat’ on Romney on was the economy. Normally the current state of the economy is an issue that an incumbent president has to defend or gain credit for. If I remember correctly, the United States economy was still in quite poor condition when this news report was broadcast and it may have been a Democratic tactic to try to put attention on Romney’s economic policies, but I would expect a national broadcaster with a duty to report in an unbiased fashion to point this out rather than merely referring to Romney criticising the President for failing to bring unemployment down. I’m sure Mitt Romney criticised the President for far more than this alone, and while RTE can’t be expected to list all his grievances against Barack Obama, there is a sense that in setting out the counter-criticisms on both sides in the debate the balance has been tipped in Obama’s favour again.

We are then brought to a scene of President Obama ‘pressing the flesh’ in an ice-cream parlour in Cedar Rapids in Iowa. All of those present, apart from the President, are white and we are told that he is ‘pounding home’ his message on taxation, and are taken to footage of him speaking on taxation at a totally different location with a cheering crowd. We are then told that for every two steps Obama takes Mitt Romney is two steps behind, which portrays the President as leading the way and his challenger either following him or trying to catch up, a reassertion of the image behind Una O’Hagan as she introduced the report. Romney is shown addressing a gathering of African Americans and being very unenthusiastically received. His views on Barack Obama are totally caricatured by Richard Downes who says his message ‘has been pretty straight-forward: Barack Obama is an extreme socialist president who wants bigger government and higher taxes’. There is also an unflattering camera shot of Mitt Romney sitting down with a graffiti-covered wall in the background and the person sitting beside him is largely cut out by the framing of the shot, leaving Romney looking like a solitary figure. So we have Barack Obama meeting a white audience in an ice-cream parlour and a quick cut to another location where he is applauded for his tax policies. We have Mitt Romney being poorly received by an African American audience. There is no attempt to show Mitt Romney being well received and there obviously were places where he was very well received. The polls during the election campaign and the final results don’t bear out the proposition that the Barack Obama was overwhelmingly more popular than Mitt Romney, however much RTE might like this to have been the case.

The report moves on with Richard Downes reporting on the battle between the two sides on television and the internet. Again the selection of material shown by RTE reflects badly on Romney and favourably on Obama. We get footage of Obama with someone singin ‘I’m so in love with you’ played over it and we get anti-Romney material linking him to fraud and ‘corporate greed run amok’. Downes then finishes up by telling us the campaign is ‘almost in full swing’.

Personally I feel RTE’s reporting of the United States presidential election was characterised by the sort of arrogance that is typical of many working within our national broadcaster when they believe they know what is best and think their role is to tell us what they know, rather than fulfilling their public service broadcasting obligations. The report examined in this blog post is typical of that arrogance. 160 euro is a lot of money to pay for the privilege of watching right-on know-it-alls in RTE deciding who should be the next American president and it is particularly galling to know that they are using that licence fee to richly reward themselves as they go about enlightening those of us who apparently can’t think for ourselves.


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