Rules for reporters: How balanced journalists should cover the election

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Considering the mainstream media’s consistently harsh coverage of Republicans and light touch on Democrats, I think it’s time to propose some journalistic standards of fairness. Otherwise, we might have to endure another New York Times-style hit piece, like the one the paper printed four years ago alleging an adulterous relationship between John McCain and a lobbyist. There were zero facts to support the claim.

But reading The Times’s Sunday Review recently I realized how open The Times is to printing hostility toward Republicans. Not only does Frank Bruni hammer Romney for his wealth without ever mentioning he earned all of it, but a cartoon strip on the same page exhorts “don’t be a Romney” and suggests “things to talk about instead of being wealthy.”

And it’s not just The Times, nor other left-leaning media like Comedy Central’s influential, albeit funny, Jon Stewart. Candidate and President Obama has had a free ride for several years from a mainstream media that is either too afraid or too enamored to note or reveal Obama’s flaws, inconsistencies or deceptions.

So here are proposed rules for reporters committed to fair and balanced coverage of the 2012 presidential campaign:

1. TV shots of President Obama and the Republican contenders should show the candidate’s teleprompter in the shot. President Obama is a brilliant orator, but the American public should know that the flawless speeches he gives are scripted and read from a teleprompter. If this practice was adopted, then Mitt Romney’s typical, less-scripted remarks may no longer be characterized by media as “stiff.” In any case, there is no justification to show the TV shot without the teleprompter.

2. Do not refer to Romney’s “wealth” without acknowledging he earned it all himself. Although he grew up in a wealthy family and received a great education, Romney created his own fortune as an entrepreneur. As The Times itself reported, he labored hard at chores in high school, worked as a security guard in college and volunteered as a missionary for two years. More, he is frugal, which is not a typical government leadership trait. Any of these facts would balance mentions of Romney as being “rich” or “out of touch.”

3. Do not refer to Obama’s signature health care law without noting that it was based on the disproven assertion that it would cut the deficit. Just this month the Congressional Budget Office issued corrected numbers showing that Obamacare will cost almost double the original estimate. Not coincidentally, the White House removed from its website the assertion that the health care law cuts the deficit. More, Congress appears poised to jettison the law’s biggest cost savings mechanism — cuts required from the Medicare Independent Payment Advisory Board.

4. Any discussion of our crippling debt should note its increase from $10.6 trillion to $15.6 trillion under President Obama. Rather than cutting spending, Obama’s policies will increase the debt to $20 trillion by 2021, according to the CBO. When discussing spending, the media should take note of the president’s failure to do anything when given a chance, from ignoring the bipartisan Deficit Commission’s recommendations to attacking Rep. Paul Ryan for leading the House to pass modest cuts in Medicare growth.

5. Never use a “gaffe” without context. The media has been consistently and unfairly using Romney’s comments about how he “like[s] firing,” thinks “corporations are people” and doesn’t care about “poor people” without using the context and words surrounding the remarks. The firing comment was not about employees, but about holding insurance companies to account. The corporation comment concerned free speech and campaign contributions, which were upheld by the Supreme Court. The “very poor” comment was about the absence of a safety net for the middle class. In noting these “gaffes,” the media should balance them with President Obama’s own. Several come to mind: his comments on Las Vegas, America’s “57 states” and those “who cling to guns or religion” — all real, and their context did not make them better. Candidates make gaffes; that’s unavoidable. What is avoidable is harping on one party’s gaffes while forgiving the other’s. The media should do better.

6. Play it fair on large contributions. When the Romney campaign receives large donations, the media often paints it as evidence of his lack of popular support. But when Obama receives a large donation — such as when comedian Bill Maher wrote a $1 million check to Obama’s re-election committee — the same standard is not applied. Even when the president reneged on refusing to accept donations from so-called “super PACs,” The Huffington Post ran a hilarious headline that was representative of the media in general: “President Obama Softens Super PAC Opposition.” He didn’t “soften” his stance. He completely flip-flopped.

Candidate Romney has the support of the jobs-creating business community as they view President Obama as the most divisive anti-business and anti-jobs president in generations. Also, recognize that President Obama is using all the powers of the presidency to get re-elected including taxpayer-financed trips. His many trips to contested states, his Super Tuesday press conference and his obvious exclusive focus on polls and PR rather than execution make his White House antics fair game for balanced review.

7. Review the promises of the candidates. President Obama promised to end the “secretive” policies of the Bush administration, bring unemployment below 8 percent and cut the deficit in half. Yet the administration has failed to deliver on its transparency promise, unemployment remains well above 8 percent and we don’t even need to mention that $1 trillion deficit. Will the press hold Obama to account for these promises that have failed to materialize?

8. Don’t let the extreme supporters define the candidates. Yes, some Obama supporters want a socialist government and takeover of business and some of the president’s opponents question his birth certificate, religion and motives, but most Americans recognize that candidates on both sides simply have different views and visions for America and want to choose their candidates based on issues rather than aspersions. Defining candidates by their most extreme supporters should be avoided, but if it is done it should always be balanced by pointing out their opponents’ extreme supporters.

There was a time when the media used to be viewed as “fair and balanced.” It can still be with some commitment to reporting fairness.

Gary Shapiro is president and CEO of the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA)®, the U.S. trade association representing more than 2,000 consumer electronics companies, and author of the New York Times bestselling book, “The Comeback: How Innovation Will Restore the American Dream.

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