The difference between a businessman being portrayed as a robber baron or a "financial wizard" may come down to party affiliation, according to an analysis of news stories by the Washington Free Beacon.
Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s business record has been classified as a liability according to prominent talking heads and leading newspapers, while Democrats with similar backgrounds of financial success have been praised for their business acumen.
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The Washington Post questioned Romney’s faith in capitalism during tough economic times, in an article that ran in the paper under the headline "Destruction’ or Progress?"
"Romney's past could lead voters to wonder not just about private equity but also about the costs of a modern capitalism that embraces creative destruction," the Post wrote.
The Post did not raise the question during the rise of now Sen. Mark Warner (D., Va.), however.
Warner amassed a $200 million fortune as a telecommunications venture capitalist before being elected governor in 2001 and Senator in 2008.
"Warner ads showcased his experience in private business, where he built a $200 million personal fortune in the mobile telephone industry and other investments," the Post wrote in November 2001. "Voters said they liked Warner’s business experience."
The Post, however, did not run a story questioning the impacts of Warner’s investments on pay-phone sales or the employment prospects of employees who put up telephone wires, another example of creative destruction.
University of North Carolina journalism professor Ferrel Guillory suggested journalists are too committed to political, rather than policy-based, considerations in national races.
"At the presidential level, there is, whether looking into business affairs or whatever, there’s a tendency to emphasize what might be a barrier to office or a political vulnerability," he said. "There is too much press analysis of presidential candidates simply in terms of political consequences as opposed to policy consequences or a candidate’s character."
Wealthy Democrats running for statewide office have managed to avoid the scrutiny Romney has faced thus far in the 2012 race.
MSNBC host Chris Matthews hailed former Goldman Sachs CEO and New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine as "a man of great financial wizardry" in 2009, and one of the few people who understood what was going on in the recession.
Corzine, who was also considered for top cabinet posts in the Obama administration, is now facing a federal investigation after he steered investing giant MF Global into bankruptcy.
The firm filed for bankruptcy in October 2011, becoming the fifth-largest financial firm in history to do so. According to a Congressional memo, three days before the firm filed, Corzine illegally authorized $200 million of client money to cover an overdraft in a brokerage account. MF Global has also yet to account for approximately $1.6 billion in missing customer funds. Corzine has said he "simply doesn’t know" where the money went.
Matthews, meanwhile, has railed against Romney’s business experience and wealth, accusing him of "hiding" his money from "tax collectors."
"I think he has a very, very difficult time identifying with the yearnings of the American people for a better country and he’s earned that problem," Matthews said in January. "You are one of the bad guys."
Pundits such as Matthews are not the only ones to offer glowing portrayals of the Corzine while undermining Romney.
When he proposed privatizing the New Jersey Turnpike, the New York Times hailed then-Gov. Corzine’s business experience as a strength.
"Mr. Corzine, with his background in the business world, gave the idea immediate credibility," the paper wrote in an editorial.
During the 2008 presidential election, however, the "paper of record" characterized Romney’s wealth as a result of lucky bets.
"Under Mr. Romney, Bain took advantage of new financial instruments like junk bonds, borrowing money to make big bets and, when they paid off, big returns," the Times wrote.
The paper has not similarly characterized Corzine, who amassed $400 million as head of Goldman Sachs when the firm went public in 1999.
The press’s treatment of Romney gives further credence to allegations of bias, conservative media critics say.
"There’s an inherent ignorance of business and economics in newsrooms, so reporters rely on a Rolodex consisting of liberal contacts that reinforce what reporters already believe," said Dan Gainor of the Media Research Center. "The default position is that businessman are evil, but if they find out the guy’s on their side, then he’ll get a pass."
Guillory says the coverage reflects a nation struggling economically in 2012 as opposed to the booming economy of previous decades.
"The treatment of Romney’s business career comes in the context of public debate over income inequality, corporate pay schedules, and the lingering effects of the recession, especially widespread unemployment. During the dot-com expansion in the 1990s, entrepreneurs tended to get somewhat glowing coverage," he said. "Romney is also running for president, so there’s going to be a level of scrutiny that you’re not going to get with a candidate for Senate or governor."
But Romney faced scrutiny even during the economically sunny times of the 1990s when he challenged the late Ted Kennedy in the Senate. During his 1994 run, the Boston Globe attempted to tie Romney to "right-wing death squads in El Salvador." The story focused on a group of Latin American investors who had distant relatives in the country; the Globe could not say if any were actually tied to death squads.
The media narrative has not deterred Romney from running on his record as a successful businessman. He has repeatedly said in recent weeks that he would not apologize for his wealth or his praise for creative destruction.
That will invite more digging from journalists, Guillory said.
"The press is following the candidate’s narrative," he said. "Part of what voters look at is how you handle this kind of scrutiny—whether you rise above it.
The Romney campaign did not return calls for comment.