When Sharyl Attkisson ended her two-decade association with CBS News earlier this year, she warmed the hearts of conservatives by implying her work had been curtailed by progressive forces inside the network. It was Liberal Media Bias 101: CBS erected roadblocks that made it impossible for Attkisson to tell the truth about the Democratic administration. Previously toasted by right-wing activists and praised for her anti-Obama reporting, the reporter's public farewell was filled with finger-pointing: "Sharyl Attkisson Paints CBS News As A Bunch of Cowards," announced one Washington Post headline.
Recently, Attkisson returned to the friendly confines of Fox News to pump up the claim that she had been waging "war" with her "own management team," as Fox host Howard Kurtz described it. In a series of interviews described by media observers as an "audition," the former network reporter alleged there was a "political aspect" to her troubles at CBS and that her supervisors gave in to "well organized" outside campaigns that complained about coverage.
She bemoaned the fact that "The press in general seems to be very shy about challenging the administration as if it is making some sort of political statement rather than just doing our jobs as watch dogs."
Whistleblowers should always be listened to. The problem is she refuses to back up any of her conspiratorial claims.
While making her allegations, Attkisson continues to break a cardinal rule of journalism: show, don't tell. Attkisson constantly tells interviewers about how her work was curtailed at CBS. But she never shows examples of it being done; she never cites specifics. The network manager she mentions by name is CBS News chairman Jeff Fager, who she describes as sharing her views "as to what the news should be about."
Any competent journalist should be able to back up their assertion with evidence. In this case, Attkisson doesn't even bother to try.
For commentators who claim to despise lawlessness and who have attacked the Obama administration for allegedly feeding disorder and politicizing it, conservatives were quick to embrace a lawless Nevada rancher who for two decades has refused to pay federal grazing fees on public land and is now promoting his cattle crusade as a war against the federal government.
According to the right wing media, paying the obvious penalty for openly refusing to obey the law for decades suddenly translates into victimhood for rancher Cliven Bundy and "harassment" by the government, as conservative commentator Dana Loesch tried to spin away Bundy's contempt for law and order.
Aside from ignoring the law, Bundy and his armed, anti-government supporters have repeatedly threatened violence and fanned the flames of confrontation with revolutionary, insurrectionist rhetoric, like declaring a "Range War." ("Serious bloodshed was narrowly avoided," the Las Vegas Review-Journal reported last week from the site of the flash point.)
All of the incendiary rhetoric and the loaded allegations about a tyrannical government has been marketed and promoted by Fox News and the rest of the conservative media, which claims to revere America as a nation of laws; the same Fox News that declared war on Occupy Wall Street protesters in 2011 and condemned them for being lawless. ("Domestic terrorists"!)
But now, suddenly the rules of engagement have shifted. Bundy is a right-wing hero and a massive Fox News flip-flop has taken place.
Back during the not-so-distant glory days of New Jersey's Star-Ledger reign as a regional newspaper powerhouse, the Newark, New Jersey newsroom in the 2000's was bursting with 350 journalists who covered the entire state and pocketed Pulitzers for their coverage of local politicians. Back when Tony Soprano made Jersey mob cool, each week during the show's opening the fictional wise guy paid homage to the daily by sauntering down his driveway to retrieve the Star-Ledger.
That's now all a memory. Last week, the Star-Ledger's owner announced massive layoffs at the newspaper as part of a larger effort at consolidation. Today, entire sections of the Newark newsroom sit empty; a newsroom that has shed an astonishing 240 jobs since 2008, or two-thirds of its former staff.
All this, at a time when the Star-Ledger's detailed, hometown coverage of the unraveling scandals involving Gov. Chris Christie had become must-reads for journalists and news junkies alike.
Philadelphia columnist Will Bunch called last week's Star-Ledger pink slips for reporters the "best news" of Christie's career. Why? "With fewer of them on the beat, Christie -- and all the other corrupt politicians of the Garden State -- will be able to keep more of their secrets from the public than ever before."
Even before the scandalous lane-closings at the George Washington Bridge, the Star-Ledger, as Bunch highlighted, had ferreted out all sorts of unseemly transactions embedded in the boss-style politics that still dominates the Garden State.
But the sad news regarding the Star-Ledger isn't just about the challenges New Jersey's largest newspaper faces trying to cover the eleventh most populous state with a newsroom one-third its previous size. After all, the slow-motion decline of American newspapers has been on morbid display for years now.
The larger, disturbing question is what happens to newsgathering, and what happen to a democracy, when the cutbacks show no signs of abating while at the same time new, super-donor forces in American politics, led by people like the Koch brothers, exert unprecedented influence via staggering sums of money, misinformation, and faux news on the state level. And what happens when those players remain committed to operating behind a cloak of secrecy?
"We are going to consolidate ourselves right out of a democracy," quipped one New Jersey journalist last week.
It's true that there's currently a mini-boom in digitally-based data journalism, with several promising sites launching or planning to so so soon. But that brand of explanatory, often wonkish storytelling is separate from the traditional, day-to-day digging that dailies have done; the kind of reporting that sheds light on public officials and the intersection of money and politics.
Note that the Star-Ledger "purge" unfolded the same week the United States Supreme Court, in a party-line 5-4 decision, eliminated further restrictions on campaign donations made by America's super-rich. The Court also signaled it might be ready to do away with campaign finance regulations all together, a radical position now endorsed by the Republican Party. ("The Court's decisions have empowered a new class of American political oligarchs," warned campaign reformer Fred Wertheimer.)
Also note the Star-Ledger wipe-out arrived the same week that secretive super-donor and billionaire industrialist Charles Koch took to the pages of the Wall Street Journal to pen a self-pitying essay about the nasty attacks he allegedly suffers as he and his brother pump massive amounts of cash into conservative coffers and wage a relentless war against President Obama. It's the same Koch brothers who shroud their political activities in secrecy and who often attack journalists who try to uncover the truth about them.
Libel and slander cases are increasingly viewed as long-shot legal propositions that aren't worth the effort required to see the cases to completion only to suffer defeat. But three high-profile libel suits against media organizations are bucking that trend and making their way through the legal system. Two of them have already cleared steep judicial hurdles, opening the way for the discovery phase and possible jury trials. All involve well-know conservative media defendants: National Review, the New York Post and Glenn Beck's The Blaze.
As Media Matters has documented for years, newsroom standards for conservative journalists leave much to be desired and outlets routinely trample over established norms of responsible behavior. But has the recklessness reached such heights, and have the attacks become so slanderous, that courts will rule against the offending media outlets? And if so, how high could the penalties run?
"Damages for every case come down to whatever the jury wants them to be," former New York Times general counsel George Freeman tells Media Matters.
Responding to speculation that a pricey courtroom loss could drive National Review out of business, publisher Jack Fowler assured readers in January that the magazine has libel insurance to cover damages, although he conceded "our insurance does not cover all the costs related to the suit." But even if the three outlets avoid a big jury loss, simply paying the legal fees becomes tantamount. "The costs can be absolutely staggering," says Robert Drechsel, professor at the University of Wisconsin who specializes in media law.
Not surprisingly, the three headline-making suits revolve around hot-button issues for the right-wing media: last year's Boston Marathon terror bombing case, which led to the suits against the New York Post and Beck, and the political jousting over climate change, which pits National Review versus Penn State meteorology professor Michael Mann.
"All three are plausible libels suits," says Drechsel.
Just three weeks ago the Associated Press reported the Obama administration needed "something close to a miracle" in order to "meet its goal" of enrolling six million people into private health care plans via the Affordable Care Act before the looming April 1 deadline arrived.
The article's premise was telling in that it focused on what the political fallout would be if Obamacare sign-ups fell short. Noticeably absent was any analysis of what an Obamacare deadline success would look like or what the political implications would be. The scenario of success simply wasn't considered plausible or worth addressing.
Of course, we now know that as many as seven million people enrolled for private coverage through the exchanges established by Obama's health care law. Thanks to an amazing consumer surge in the month of March, the seven million mark, routinely thought of last year as completely unattainable, and often dismissed this year as not possible, was met.
And because of a provision of the Obamacare law, approximately three million young people have been added to their parents' private insurance plans. Meaning, more than 10 million people have used Obamacare to secure health coverage. The new law, noted the Los Angeles Times, "has spurred the largest expansion in health coverage in America in half a century." The paper reported, "At least 9.5 million previously uninsured people have gotten health insurance since Obamacare started."
Take a look at this revealing chart from CNNMoney.com and what the future of health care coverage under Obamacare might look like:
Given all of that, where's the heated coverage of the miraculous Obamacare comeback? Aside from the Times and CNNMoney pieces, I'm hard pressed to find many recent media examples that laud the health care achievement with the same unrestrained vigor that the press employed for weeks and months depicting Obamacare as an historic failure and one that could ruin Obama's presidency, and perhaps even the Democratic Party. (Remember, Obamacare "may be Obama's Katrina, Iraq War.")
Is Obamacare now a model of government efficiency? It is not. The initial rollout, without qualification, was a failure. And lots of major hurdles still loom. But the remarkable success of the enrollment figures has clearly failed to produce the type of media response that Obamacare's remarkable failure ignited last year.
So the larger media coverage question is, has the press been wed for so long to the Republican-friendly narrative of a broken and doomed Obamacare system that journalists are refusing to adjust the storyline as crucial new facts emerge?
The starting point for any allegation of executive office cover-up, like the one surrounding New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, is always the same: What did he know and when did he know it?
Eleven weeks after Christie held a marathon press conference to address questions about the bridge scandal that has enveloped his administration, we still don't know the answer to the central question in the case: When did Christie find out that the city of Fort Lee had been brought to a four-day stand still when at least one senior member of his staff teamed up with his appointee at the Port Authority to purposefully clog traffic lanes?
The release today of a self-investigation undertaken by Christie's handpicked attorneys, and at a cost of at least $1 million to New Jersey taxpayers, does little to exonerate Christie on that question.
In fact, the report confirms that David Wildstein, the Christie appointee at the Port Authority who remains at the center of the scandal, insists he told the governor, in real time, about the lane closures on September 11, 2013, and had detailed that meeting to one of Christie's aides in December. Christie claims he doesn't recall that conversation and from that he said/he said stand off, the internal probe generously declares Christie version is be believed and that he didn't find out until weeks later about the Fort Lee fiasco.
Miraculously, in a scandal that brought weeks of relentlessly bad news for Christie in January and February, as revelation after revelation painted a picture of a deeply corrupt administration, his new paid-for investigation couldn't find much bad news for the governor. The report, according to Christie's attorney Randy Mastro was "a search for the truth." It just so happens the reports is also "a vindication of Gov. Christie," as Mastro stressed to reporters today.
Fact: Mastro served as a New York City deputy mayor under Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who has been perhaps Christie's most public defender since the scandal broke in January.
Christie aides are hoping the new report, which reads more like a legal brief on the governor's behalf and which failed to interview key players, represents a political turning point for Christie who has aspirations to run for president in 2016. But whether that strategy works depends a lot on how the national press treats the new report and the public relations push behind it. (Fact: The Beltway press has a long history of showering Christie with adoring coverage.)
For the first time since the scandal broke in January, Christie sits for a one-on-one interview with a national media figure, Diane Sawyer, which will air on ABC's World News With Diane Sawyer tonight. The interview will be a good indication of how the Beltway press treats the new report and if it's willing to allow Christie to clear himself of any wrongdoing before the U.S. Attorney's office and New Jersey lawmakers in Trenton complete their own investigations.
Monday night's 78-17 procedural vote in the U.S. Senate to clear the path for $1 billion worth of aid to Ukraine as it battles the Russian annexation of Crimea represented precisely what you would expect Congress to do in the wake of an international crisis: to act in a bipartisan manner and send a unified message to the world. Yet despite that bipartisanship, the push for an emergency U.S. loan guarantee for Ukraine languished in Congress for weeks because House Republicans objected to the measure moving through the Senate.
Specifically, they opposed a provision in the package that would have revamped the International Monetary Fund and let developing countries such as Ukraine borrow more money while giving other nations more control over the organization (the U.S. would retain its veto). The reforms were negotiated by President Obama in 2010 and have broad international support. House Republicans wanted the IMF language stripped from the senate bill. And because the press covered for them.
In the end, a negotiated deal on Capitol Hill was reached and the IMF language was removed. But while the crucial aid package sat idle for weeks, the press chalked up the legislative morass to Congressional dysfunction and "gridlock."
The two sides were "locked in a partisan fight over the details of the package," according the Los Angeles Times, which stressed lawmakers have been unable to "set aside partisan squabbles." The Hill reported "Congress this week will try to get its act together" regarding Ukraine, while Reuters detailed how "a partisan political dispute" was stalling the final passage of the aid bill.
"Ukraine Aid Bill Still Stuck In Washington Gridlock," announced a Time headline.
But was the Ukraine battle really an example of "gridlock"? And were both sides really to blame? Or was the press guilty, once again, of staking out the safe, middle ground in order to inoculate itself from cries of "liberal bias,' and from having to explain how all-consuming and destructive Republican obstruction has become, especially in the House?
Question: Was the Ukraine aid dispute "partisan"?
Clinging to persecution fantasies that seem to grow darker each year, conservative voices continue to hype doomsday scenarios in which President Obama is scheming to confiscate firearms, socialize American medicine, silence his critics through brute political force, and wage violent class warfare. Allegedly under siege at every turn as their freedoms are stripped away, conservatives embrace an imagined status as perennial victims.
The result? Wallowing in self-pity and convinced of the dark forces moving against them, conservatives launch attack after attack, insisting they're fighting forces at home akin to Hitler's Nazi storm troops. They complain louder and louder that America has become like Nazi Germany under Adolf Hitler when 6 million Jews were murdered during the Holocaust.
Nazi analogies aren't new and conservatives didn't trademark them. But the cries have become far more frequent during Obama's sixth year in office.
Four years ago, Fox News chairman Roger Ailes accused the management of National Public Radio of having "a kind of Nazi attitude" for firing commentator Juan Williams. Former Fox host Glenn Beck frequently immersed himself in offensive Hitler rhetoric during Obama's first years in office, while the then-burgeoning Tea Party movement did the same. And so did Rush Limbaugh, who obsessed over Obama-Nazi comparisons in 2009: "Adolf Hitler, like Barack Obama, also ruled by dictate."
In 2009, the Anti-Defamation League, led by Holocaust survivor Abe Foxman, documented the Tea Party's growing reliance on "Nazi comparisons" as a way to express its anti-Obama rage. Yet today the Nazi claims arrive effortlessly and on a depressingly regular basis as conservatives line up to compare this president, his allies, and this country to one of the worst chapters in civilized history.
The thoughtless rhetoric not only captures how detached Obama's critics have become from reality (not to mention the blanket insensitivity involved), but it also reveals the bizarre view conservatives have of their alleged political strife.
Fox News contributor Dr. Ben Carson recently claimed America is now "very much like Nazi Germany" in that it has a government "using its tools to intimidate the population." Carson defended the insulting comparison by suggesting American conservatives are being targeted and intimidated by the government: "Maybe if I don't say anything, I won't be audited, people won't call me a name."
Audited? Name-calling? Historical note: Those were certainly among the least painful afflictions Jews suffered during the Nazi reign of terror. "I know you're not supposed to say 'Nazi Germany,'" said Carson. "But I don't care about political correctness."
Condemning President Obama's surgeon general nominee, Dr. Vivek Murthy, for discussing the obvious public safety concern of gun violence in America, Fox News and the right-wing media have led a charge to discredit the respected doctor. Teaming up with the National Rifle Association, the far-right press has rushed to paint Murthy as an "anti-gun" radical who's outside mainstream of U.S. medicine. (He's not.)
The crusade to quash Murthy's position, which appears to be working as his nomination stalls politically, represents just the latest conservative effort to wage blind partisan warfare over guns. But the anti-Murthy effort also overlaps the right-wing's equally passionate and deceitful efforts to demonize Obamacare and the president's push to expand quality, affordable health care.
From the early, alarmist claim that government-run "death panels" would be sentencing American seniors to their graves, to the recent made-up claim that new parents aren't allowed to add newborn children to their health insurance plans, Fox News has hysterically misinformed about Obamacare. It's been a programming cornerstone of the channel for four years running.
Now with the battle over Murthy, a 36-year-old Harvard Medical School physician and instructor, the right-wing is trying to make sure the country is flooded with unregulated guns, and that it's more difficult to get access to quality health care. Those two crusades are colliding inside emergency rooms all across the country, which continue to be inundated with gunshot wounds. They're wounds that are increasingly expensive to treat as the number of gunshot wounds requiring hospitalization has skyrocketed over the past decade, and wounds that U.S. taxpayers are forced to cover because so many victims lack health insurance coverage.
The intersection of guns and health care is undeniable. As the Firearm & Injury Center at the University of Pennsylvania concluded, "Healthcare providers thus have a vital role in preventing firearm injuries and their impact on patients, families and communities." And that's why the group Doctors for America, which Murthy co-founded, applauded Obama's gun violence imitative last year.
As Atlantic noted at the time, "Under the insurance expansions that begin next month, millions more people--including many uninsured young males, who are often victims of gun violence-- will receive Medicaid coverage."
Murthy's position on guns and medicine reflects common sense, which means it's anathema to the conservative press. (It's like opposing a surgeon general nominee for showing concern about teen smoking.)
Side-by-side comparisons are often the most unflattering. Just ask Daniel Henninger.
One of the unusual features of the current Ukraine crisis is that on many levels it represents a replay of the armed struggle that erupted in August 2008, when, set against the backdrop of simmering tensions, Russia invaded its sovereign neighbor Georgia. Then as today, the international community condemned the action. And then as today, America's president faced somewhat limited options in terms of how to respond.
The déjà vu aspect provides an opportunity to look back and see which partisan pundits have remained consistent in their analysis of the similar international conflicts, and which have drastically altered course simply because there's a Democrat in the White House this time.
For example, former Bush speechwriter Marc Thiessen used his Washington Post column to mock President Obama for taking a weekend vacation nine days after Russian troops gained control of Crimea. But Thieseen forgot to that while he was working in the White House, his then-boss left for a twelve-day summer vacation just one week after Russia invaded Georgia. (Bush logged his 950th day away from the White House during that Texas retreat.)
And Fox News commentator Charles Krauthammer has been relentlessly critical of the White House's inaction. In 2008 however, the pundit seemed non-plussed: "Well, obviously it's beyond our control. The Russians are advancing. There is nothing that will stop them."
But I'm not sure any pundit has flip-flopped as hard as Wall Street Journal Deputy Editorial Page Director Daniel Henninger. The columnist hasn't reversed course in terms of condemning Russia's aggression. There, he's consistent. (Isn't everybody?) But he has done a complete 180 in terms of who's at fault for the invasion. Today, Henninger singles out one man: President Barack Obama.