The media's frantic coverage of the ongoing controversy surrounding Hillary Clinton's secretary of state emails -- and whether some of them contained classified information -- regularly presents the allegations as being precise and unambiguous.
But are they?
The latest media uproar swirls around the fact that the inspectors general for the 17 spy agencies, which make up what's known as the U.S. Intelligence Community, disclosed that some emails which had been routed through a private server Clinton used during her tenure as secretary of state contained classified information, "including two emails whose content is now deemed to be 'Top Secret,'" according to McClatchy.
A key fact, via the Associated Press, is that, "Clinton didn't transmit the sensitive information herself, they said, and nothing in the emails she received makes direct reference to communications intercepts, confidential intelligence methods or any other form of sensitive sourcing."
To date, the straightforward media narrative goes like this: Because officials within the intelligence community have determined that Clinton received emails that contained classified information, that means Clinton was at fault and an investigation is underway to determine how she could have been so reckless and wrong. (The New York Times badly muddied the waters on the email story when it erroneously reported intelligence officials requested a criminal investigation into Clinton's handling of her emails. They did no such thing.)
But the story isn't that simple because the process of classifying information can be subjective and one not everyone inside the government agrees with. The process is especially open to second-guessing when it's being done after the fact; when intelligence community officials are looking back in time and deciding emails that Clinton received should have been marked classified even though they were not at the time.
"Classification decisions are matters of judgment, not calculation," Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists told Politico. "It is entirely possible for two senior officials to disagree about the need for classifying a particular item of information." In comments to The Hill he added, "There is so much classified information being generated and circulated, there are so many people with the authority to classify, inevitably there is friction and confusion in the system."
Matt Miller, former Department of Justice Director of Public Affairs, went further, recently insisting, "the entire classification system is a mess: overly complex, riddled with ambiguity, and used at times for inappropriate reasons. And because of that you get perverse outcomes."
Here's an example of why classifications can lead to debate. The Associated Press reported that one of the emails now identified as classified by the inspectors general centered on a U.S. drone operation [emphasis added]:
The drone exchange, the officials said, begins with a copy of a news article about the CIA drone program that targets terrorists in Pakistan and elsewhere. While that program is technically top secret, it is well-known and often reported on. Former CIA director Leon Panetta and Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, have openly discussed it.
The copy makes reference to classified information, and a Clinton adviser follows up by dancing around a top secret in a way that could possibly be inferred as confirmation, the officials said.
But as the AP itself added, "Several people, however, described this claim as tenuous."
The fact is there's a cultural divide between State and the intelligence agencies. As The Hill explained, "intelligence agencies tend to lean toward classification more than an agency like State would, several former employees on both sides agreed." The result? Clinton has "found herself caught in a murky dispute between State Department and intelligence officials over whether emails on her server were classified," reported McClatchy.
Added Jonathan Allen at Vox during the fiasco over the NY Times' botched "criminal" email story, "Ultimately -- at least for now -- this is a bureaucratic fight about how the State Department has handled the emails, not about Hillary Clinton."
That turf battle helps explain the current standoff. "John Kirby, a spokesman for the State Department, said it remained unclear 'whether, in fact, this material is actually classified,'" NBC News reported. And this from Politico: "State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Friday his agency remained unconvinced that any of Clinton's emails should have been considered classified when they were sent. 'To our knowledge, none of them needed to be classified at the time,' Toner told reporters at a daily briefing."
Last week Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), who serves as Vice Chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, insisted it has yet to be determined "whether information in those emails should have been classified in the first place."
And note this fact: Senior State Department official Patrick Kennedy revealed that one of the emails the inspectors general deemed to be classified related to the Department of Defense, "but the Pentagon decided not to pursue it," according to Politico, suggesting perhaps that Defense officials did not share the assessment from the inspector general review.
So who's right? "Both sides can be correct," The Hill reported. "Not only is each side entitled to different standards of classification, but information can become classified almost retroactively, as situations and guidelines change over the years."
But that's certainly not how much of the frantic Clinton campaign coverage portrays the story.
Much of the press, and especially the political press, continues to misstate the story, emphasizing how it's all about how Clinton handled her emails on a private server while secretary of state. But much of the recent scandal-mongering actually revolves around the process by which Clinton's years-old emails are being released to the public. "It is about current bureaucratic processes, probably the biggest snooze-fest in all of journalism," wrote Kurt Eichenwald at Newsweek during the Times mess last month.
Some background, via Vox [emphasis added]:
The State Department has been ordered by a federal judge to make public the 55,000 pages of emails Clinton turned over to the agency. So the State Department has Freedom of Information Act experts sifting through the documents to make sure that no information will be released that is either classified or sensitive (meaning not technically classified but also not covering material that the government doesn't want in the public domain).
This has caused a bureaucratic turf war between the department and the intelligence community, which believes at least one email that's already been released contains classified information and that hundreds of others in the full set may also have material that's not ready for public consumption.
As the New York Times' John Harwood noted on Twitter -- and he's been among the few journalists to do so -- the issue of whether classified info was in Clinton's emails "has nothing whatsoever" to do with Clinton's use of a private email server:
OVERLOOKED: both R & D Hill staff say legal issue re: classified info in HRC emails has NOTHING WHATSOEVER to do w/use of private server 1/2-- John Harwood (@JohnJHarwood) August 15, 2015
had HRC used non-classified http://t.co/QOREwvsvyT account & gotten those emails, same legal issue of info "spillage." It's not uncommon 2/2-- John Harwood (@JohnJHarwood) August 15, 2015
Keep in mind that if former Secretary of State Colin Powell, who used private emails exclusively during his term, had turned over any of his emails to the State Department, they also would have been subject to a classification review. But unlike Clinton, Powell kept no records of his secretary of state emails and handed over none to the State Department.
The Beltway press seems adamant about simplifying the Clinton email story; about flattening it out so the ambiguities are ironed away. In truth, uncertainties about classifications remain at the heart of the email review controversy.
We've raced past so many memorable markers already during the circus-like Summer of Trump, there's no indication this one will stand out upon reflection weeks or months from now. Nonetheless, when Fox & Friends co-host Steve Doocy tweeted out the news that Donald Trump would appear on the program this week, the announcement seemed worth remembering, if only to document the absurdity of the Republican primary:
FOX NEWS ALERT: watch
@foxandfriends Tuesday at 7am ET as GOP frontrunner @realDonaldTrump talks about his relationship with @FoxNews
Yes, Donald Trump, a Fox News political creation, was set to appear on Fox News to discuss his "relationship" with Fox News. But in the end, Fox hosts didn't even ask Trump about his suddenly newsworthy relationship with Fox. Despite Doocy opening the interview by telling Trump, "glad we're friends again" -- to which Trump responded by assuring him, "we've always been friends" -- there was no attempt to discuss Trump's recent feud with Megyn Kelly and the network. Huh? Were they under orders from Fox chief Roger Ailes to ignore the friction?
The day before the interview Trump tweeted:
Roger Ailes just called. He is a great guy & assures me that "Trump" will be treated fairly on
@FoxNews. His word is always good!
During an appearance on Hannity last night, Hannity kicked off the interview by saying, "Let's start with the elephant in the room. The Fox issue is resolved -- and how did that come about?" Trump explained he has a "great relationship with Roger Ailes" and that "Roger called me the other day and it's absolutely fine."
The head of a "news" organization was phoning up a presidential candidate in order to clear the air; to assure the Republican he'd get fair coverage. Welcome to the house of mirrors created by Ailes, and welcome to the Republican Party's Lost Summer of Trump, sponsored, of course, by Rupert Murdoch's cable channel.
Fox News has not only eaten the Republican primary season -- consumed it whole in recent weeks with the help of Donald Trump -- it's now burping it up all over cable television. That's how bad it's gotten. And indications are that the slow-motion fiasco is only going to get much, much worse for Republicans.
Who benefits from this unfolding media spectacle? Fox News' ratings and Donald Trump's campaign. (And yes, Democrats.) The unequivocal losers are the remaining Republican candidates, as well as the GOP as a whole, which can forget about its planned outreach to Hispanic voters.
Watching this weird public bromance play out between Ailes and Trump, you get the feeling the two are in on some elaborate inside joke as they create the most unlikely piece of performance art imaginable.
Remember two months ago when some Republicans aired concerns that Trump's run would serve as a "distraction" and take attention away from deserving Republican candidates? That limited apprehension seems quaint in retrospect. We are obviously so far beyond the point of Trump being a "distraction." Instead, he's virtually hijacked the entire Republican primary season, to the point where the other candidates have become nearly invisible, and some former frontrunners such as Jeb Bush have suffered sizeable declines in the polls.
Today, Republicans likely long for the days when Trump was going to be a mere "distraction." Instead, given his current popularity, there's little reason to believe he won't be featured in some way at the GOP convention next summer. That is if he doesn't splinter off and run a third-party candidacy, which would likely prove disastrous for Republicans.
"The Tasmanian Devil candidate," as Daily Beast's Michael Tomasky calls Trump, has upended not only the entire Republican campaign season, but also Fox News itself, which appears to be torn over the bullying candidate's name calling, even when his targets are on the Fox News payroll.
What's so astonishing about the freak show now unfolding, and how Fox has manufactured the growing Trump crisis for Republicans, is that everyone saw the preview coming in 2012. In that grand experiment, the goal was to marry a political movement with a cable TV channel in an effort to oust a sitting president. Despite loud predictions about a "landslide" Republican victory, Fox News and Mitt Romney came up well short on Election Day. In fact, Romney failed in large part precisely because he adopted so much of Fox News' loopy rhetoric and its groundless allegations about President Obama.
But rather than learn from that failed experiment, the GOP handed over even more clout to Fox News in preparation of 2016. To be fair, on the surface it looked like a great deal for Republicans:
Those are astonishing numbers, as Fox News essentially handed over huge chunks of its programming to Republican hopefuls who were in search of voters (and donors).
But Ailes' Fox wasn't content with turning its studio into a revolving door for the Republican National Committee. Ailes wanted much more. So there in his second-floor conference room last week, Ailes and his lieutenants met in private to decide which candidates to invite to the GOP's first prime-time debate of the campaign season, and who to relegate to the "JV" debate. This, after nervous super PACs poured millions of dollars into advertising on Fox News in an effort to boost the polling position of their favorite candidate and to make sure they made it onto Fox's main debate stage.
In other words, Fox's control continues to expand. And it's by design. Fox and Ailes have grabbed whatever they wanted as their own and the party has been powerless to stop them. Although there has been little indication the GOP ever wanted to interfere with Fox.
Perhaps until now.
Until Republicans realized Ailes wasn't creating a campaign masterpiece, he was creating a monster.
The curious revelation that reporters from nine news organizations recently attended Charles and David Koch's political summit and voluntarily agreed not to identify key donors in attendance provided a helpful look into the double standard that the media often use when covering conservatives vs. covering the Clintons.
Willing to temporarily look away from the donor news behind the Koch brothers push to remake American politics in their billionaire image (and to bankroll the GOP's 2016 nominee), several of the same outlets have spent months this year needling Bill and Hillary Clinton for not being transparent enough about donors to the charitable Clinton Foundation.
To hear much of the press' often fevered coverage of the Clinton Foundation, it's simply unacceptable and downright deceitful to hide the names of wealthy people who give. Yet many of the same class of reporters volunteered not to disclose Koch donors who mingled among journalists all weekend at the five-star GOP summit?
Given that willingness to look the other way, it's difficult to take seriously the media's incessant demands that the Clintons be more transparent about their donors; donors who give to a charity devoted to help poor people around the world, not devoted to electing U.S. politicians, which is what Koch donors are all about. (The Koch brothers, and affiliated groups, are expected to spend $889 million on the 2016 race, after having raised $400 million on the 2012 contests.)
Moreover, the Clinton Foundation has actually done more than most charities do to disclose their donors. Though a few of their affiliates have not revealed some donors (in part because of differing laws in other countries), the charity has gone to great lengths ever since Clinton first became secretary of state: "In posting its donor data, the foundation goes beyond legal requirements, and experts say its transparency level exceeds that of most philanthropies," the Post previously reported.
Yet try to image the universal, all-encompassing, hour-after-hour pundit outrage that would be unleashed if the Clinton Foundation held a political summit this year and demanded journalists hide the identity of key donors who attended. The same Beltway media have no problem with the Kochs hiding 450 of their big, dark-money donors -- and hiding them in plain sight.
The Huffington Post's Michael Calderone spelled out the obvious ethical troubles raised by stipulations attached to the formerly closed-to-the-press Koch summit, where key Republican politicians were invited to address conservative billionaires:
The problem is that the ground rules could restrict journalists from reporting what's right in front of their eyes. If, say, Rupert Murdoch, or even a lesser-known billionaire, walked by, they couldn't report the person's attendance without permission. So it's possible journalists end up reporting largely what the event sponsors want, such as fiery speeches and candidate remarks criticizing Democrats, but less on the power brokers attending who play key behind-the-scenes roles in the 2016 election.
By playing by the Koch's rules, the press left itself open to some sizeable bouts of hypocrisy.
Recall that in April, Rupert Murdoch's HarperCollins published partisan author Peter Schweizer's Clinton Cash, a sloppy, book-length attack on Clinton Foundation donors. The book purported (and failed) to show how foundation donations corrupted Clinton's decisions during her time as secretary of state. Media Matters documented nearly two dozen errors and distortions in the book.
But that didn't stop key outlets such as the New York Times and the Washington Post from teaming up with Schweizer and helping to push his lines of attack. At the time, here's how the Washington Post's Chris Cillizza's defended the immediate embrace of Clinton Cash:
The most foundational principle of covering a presidential campaign (or anything, really) is trying your damnedest to give people the fullest possible picture of the candidates running to represent them. The more information you have at your disposal then, the better.
Added Cillizza, "We are information-gatherers at heart."
So when the issue at hand was donors to the Clinton Foundation, the Washington Post sounded a clarion call, urging reporters to look at the all the information in order to give readers the "fullest possible picture of the candidates running." (And who might be trying to buy their influence.)
But last weekend, when the issue at hand was Koch summit donors, the Washington Post quietly demurred and apparently concluded not all information needed to be shared with voters.
It seems clear that the Clinton Foundation feeding frenzy sprang from the media assumption that the Clintons are hiding something, they aren't truthful, and they cannot be trusted. As Vox's Jonathan Allen asserted, detailing the press corps' "unspoken rules" to covering Hillary, "the media assumes that Clinton is acting in bad faith until there's hard evidence otherwise."
By contrast, what explained the pass given to the Kochs? Was it fueled by an inverse press assumption that the Kochs are forthright, they're honorable men, and of course they play by the rules?
If donors are deemed the targets of intense media scrutiny, the press should apply the rules fairly to both sides
"I was wrong because my sources were wrong." -- Former New York Times reporter Judith Miller, 2005.
"We got it wrong because our very good sources had it wrong." New York Times Deputy Executive Editor Matt Purdy, 2015.
One of the most baffling elements to The New York Times botched story about a fictional "criminal" investigation bearing down on Hillary Clinton over her use of a private email account is the seemingly shrug-of-the-shoulders response from the Times editors who are ultimately responsible for the newsroom's black eye.
Rather than signaling that they're drilling down to find out exactly what went wrong and how such a painfully inaccurate story landed on the Times' front page (there is no criminal investigation), to date editors seem content to simply blame sources for giving Times reporters bad information.
"This story demands more than a promise to do better the next time, and more than a shrug," wrote Norm Ornstein in The Atlantic. "Someone should be held accountable here, with suspension or other action that fits the gravity of the offense."
But there's no indication that's going to happen, largely because there's no indication editors blame the reporters or themselves for the embarrassing failure. Instead, they mostly fault sources who gave the Times bogus information about an alleged "criminal" probe of Clinton sought by two inspectors general.
Answering questions put to them by the Times' public editor Margaret Sullivan, who labeled the email story a "mess," senior editors worked hard to absolve their reporters. "We got it wrong because our very good sources had it wrong," said deputy executive editor Matt Purdy, who also stressed the newspaper takes seriously its obligation to be factually accurate. Added executive editor Dean Baquet: "You had the government confirming that it was a criminal referral. I'm not sure what they could have done differently on that."
If this sounds familiar, it ought to. During the previous decade, the Times' reputation took a major hit when, during the run-up to the Iraq War, reporters cozied up to Bush administration sources and helped the White House tell a tale about Saddam Hussein's looming stockpile of chemical weapons and the pressing demand that Iraq be preemptively invaded. As the war effort quickly unraveled and no weapons of mass destruction were found, it became evident that lots of people at the Times had gotten the Iraq War story very, very wrong.
Leading the Times' misinformation pack was Judith Miller, now a Fox News contributor.
From New York [emphasis added]:
During the winter of 2001 and throughout 2002, Miller produced a series of stunning stories about Saddam Hussein's ambition and capacity to produce weapons of mass destruction, based largely on information provided by [Ahmed] Chalabi and his allies--almost all of which have turned out to be stunningly inaccurate.
Miller's response to critics who called out her mountain of erroneous reporting? "I was wrong because my sources were wrong," she told The New Yorker in 2005. And that's the script she's stuck to for the last decade. Like Times editors today, Miller brags that she had great sources -- they just happened to get virtually everything wrong about Iraq.
No, I'm not comparing the gravity of the current Times dust-up with the deadly and far more serious war in Iraq. But I am saying the newsroom similarities deserve attention.
For instance, did the Times learn anything from the Miller fiasco?
In 2004 the daily belatedly addressed the paper's faulty WMD reporting. In its "From The Editors" note, the paper conceded the reporting was "not as rigorous as it should have been." Specifically, the review determined, "Editors at several levels who should have been challenging reporters and pressing for more skepticism were perhaps too intent on rushing scoops into the paper."
Compare that to the nearly identical point Sullivan raised this week while critiquing the failed email story: "Competitive pressure and the desire for a scoop led to too much speed and not enough caution."
As media critic Jack Shafer has asserted, journalists have the right to be wrong. Making mistakes is part of the open and public process of newsmaking in America. But making mistakes, avoiding blame, and then throwing up your hands and saying, 'Oh well, there was nothing we could do,' should not be part of that equation. "The right to be wrong functions best when paired with a willingness to set things right instead of making excuses," wrote Shafer.
Today, Times editors lean towards the making excuses option.
Meanwhile, there's deep irony in the fact that the Times routinely demands accountability, transparency and quick, thorough responses from public officials (including Hillary Clinton), yet the Times has largely discarded all three with regards to its botched email story.
And lots of questions still remain. As Norm Ornstein noted at The Atlantic, if the Times' Purdy is claiming reporters Michael Schmidt and Matt Apuzzo had "reliable" and "very good sources" just days after those sources got the email story completely wrong, what does that say about Purdy's perspective? (Purdy once served as Miller's editor.) If the Times were serious, the sources that burned Schmidt and Apuzzo would be banned from every Times reporters contact list. If nothing else, reporters should be forbidden from ever granting those sources anonymity again.
They simply cannot be trusted.
Meanwhile, Newsweek's Kurt Eichenwald makes a persuasive case that not only did the Times reporters get burned by bad sources, but they misstated the premise of the non-criminal referral that the inspector general sought regarding the State Department's handling of Clinton's emails. (The Times was also wrong in saying the referral was sought by two inspectors general, for the record). According to Eichenwald, the referral is part of a bureaucratic back-and-forth over how to classify information from Freedom of Information Act requests, and has little to do with Clinton.
When are Times editors going to address the fact that reporters acted as stenographers for unreliable, and possibly partisan, sources and failed the grasp what the referral story was even about? "In terms of journalism, this is terrible," wrote Eichenwald.
Which brings us back to Judith Miller.
Last night, MSNBC's Rachel Maddow highlighted the similarities between Times editors today blaming sources and Miller doing the same a decade ago:
"What the hell is happening at the New York Times?" -- Newsweek senior writer Kurt Eichenwald
It's been four days since The New York Times uncorked perhaps the biggest newsroom blunder of the 2016 campaign season, when Michael Schmidt and Matt Apuzzo erroneously reported that two inspectors general were seeking a criminal probe of Hillary Clinton's use of a private email account while serving as secretary of state. The Times' would-be blockbuster landed online on July 23 and on the front page of the print edition July 24.
But even before many readers picked up the paper on Friday morning, the story had begun to unravel. By Friday afternoon, the Times' exclusive had suddenly morphed into a humiliation for the Times itself. The paper was widely ridiculed for getting the referral story wrong, and then for awkwardly trying to limit the damage via stealthy online edits.
Almost four days after its initial publication, Times public editor Margaret Sullivan weighed in on the "mess" this morning, suggesting that the paper should have waited to publish until it had developed the story more extensively: "Losing the story to another news outlet would have been a far, far better outcome than publishing an unfair story and damaging The Times's reputation for accuracy."
Meanwhile, executive editor Dean Baquet pinned much of the blame for the debacle on the Times' sources -- rather than the reporters and editors involved -- suggesting that this might not be the last mistake of this nature we see from the paper: "You had the government confirming that it was a criminal referral ... I'm not sure what they could have done differently on that."
If you were surprised by the Times' face-plant, then you haven't been paying attention. Media Matters has been chronicling the Times' problematic Clinton coverage in recent months. (And for years.) Yet it wasn't until the email fiasco that the paper's ongoing Clinton troubles exploded into full view, prompting condemnations as journalists and commentators not only questioned the Times' competence, but also its fairness.
Boston Globe columnist Michael Cohen:
There's also no getting around the fact that the Times coverage of Hillary Clinton is a biased train wreck.
Vanity Fair contributing editor and Newsweek senior writer Kurt Eichenwald:
I worked at NYT for 20 yrs. I know what standards are supposed to be. The Hillary/email story violated all of them.
New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen:
I have resisted this conclusion over the years, but after today's events it's fair to say the Times has a problem covering Hillary Clinton.
The unsettling question the Times now faces as it grapples with the fallout from the email debacle is whether or not the newspaper can be trusted to be an honest player when covering Clinton. It's an extraordinary position for the Newspaper of Record to be in. But the Times has been feeding this credibility crisis for a very long time.
The Cliff's Notes to this conflict: With the bogus pursuits of Whitewater, the Loral spy satellites story, would-be spy Wen Ho Lee, and many more, the Times uncorked supposedly blockbuster allegations against Bill Clinton during the 1990s that were based on vague reporting that later turned out to be flimsy. The stories imploded, but not before Republicans grabbed onto the "liberal" New York Times gotchas and launched investigation after investigation. Fast-forward two decades and the same newsroom dysfunction persists.
Let's be clear: The Times is hardly alone in terms of having trouble reporting factually on the Clinton email story. Beltway journalists have strained for months trying to turn what is largely a process story into a simmering scandal. (See here.)
But the Times remains the country's most influential news outlet and the daily has been carrying around an unmistakable Clinton grudge for nearly 20 years. And it's a collective disdain for the Clintons that stretches from the opinion pages to the newsroom that arguably leads to spectacular blunders like the one we saw last week.
There seems to be a world view within the Times that taking cheap shots at the Clintons is not only allowed, it's preferred; it's a way for Times journalists to raise their profiles and generate buzz. But not only is the practice unfair and unethical, it carries with it profound political implications.
Apparently making no effort to check with the lead Democrat on the panel about the anonymous claims of a criminal referral -- Rep. Elijah Cummings would have demolished the entire premise of the gotcha story -- the Times essentially acted as stenographer for sources who either manufactured the claim about a criminal referral or unknowingly botched the facts.
The Times' oddly personal crusade against Hillary Clinton is also a crusade against the Democratic frontrunner for president, so the Republican Party benefits. The stakes really could not be higher, which makes the Times' behavior all the more disturbing.
Back in May, Margaret Sullivan noted her objections to the paper's "oddly barbed tone" in some of its Clinton coverage. (That was putting it mildly.) At the time, readers were upset with a nasty, condescending news article by Jason Horowitz that referred to Clinton as a standoffish "regal" "freak." Additionally, in his tweet promoting the article, the Times reporter mocked the Democrat as "Queen Hillary."
But when Sullivan asked Times political editor Carolyn Ryan about the complaints, Ryan absolved the Times of blame by arguing Times readers had simply "misread" the Horowitz piece. And that has been the Times pattern for years -- impenetrable denial that the paper had jumped the rails while covering Bill and Hillary Clinton. The result of that institutional denial? Last week's fiasco.
More from former Timesman Kurt Eichenwald and his bone-rattling denunciation of the paper's recent blunder:
Democracy is not a game. It is not a means of getting our names on the front page or setting the world abuzz about our latest scoop. It is about providing information so that an electorate can make decisions based on reality. It is about being fair and being accurate. This despicable Times story was neither.
Election Day is 400-plus days away. Can the New York Times' Clinton coverage be salvaged, or is the paper no longer an honest player?
This act is getting tired.
In recent years, conservative activists, under the guise of renegade journalism, have been churning out undercover "sting" videos supposedly capturing reprehensible behavior by their mostly liberal targets. Those targets have included low-level workers at ACORN, a fundraiser at National Public Radio, and now officials at Planned Parenthood, among others.
The activists release a series of videos in an effort to build a big takedown story, and the press usually plays along. Meanwhile, activists coordinate with right-wing media players and members of Congress to generate simultaneous outrage over the clips.
The problem for the activists, and the problem for journalists who excitedly treat the clips as news, is that the videos invariably turn out to be doctored, filled with deceptive edits, and missing context in an effort to manufacture scandal.
The whole cycle has become a media cliché, but it's one that conservative partisans cheer. And they're cheering again this month as the Center for Medical Progress releases edited clips to claim Planned Parenthood officials have been caught discussing how the organization "sells the body parts of aborted fetuses" and "haggling" over prices for "baby parts."
Both incendiary videos have been proven to omit crucial context undermining their central claims.
While some outlets have done a good job calling out the deceptive nature of the campaign against Planned Parenthood, too many veer into a he said, she said construction while writing up the allegations. (See the front page of yesterday's New York Times, for example.)
Commentary's John Podhoretz was impressed by the roll-out:
This Planned Parenthood video drip-drip-drip is the first time anyone has properly followed the Andrew Breitbart playbook since his death.-- John Podhoretz (@jpodhoretz) July 21, 2015
Podhoretz was likely referring to the ACORN sting videos that Andrew Breitbart's site helped roll out in 2009, as the conservative media waged war on a nonprofit group that helped poor people -- a war waged via dishonest undercover clips that captured James O'Keefe and his sidekick, Hannah Giles, famously getting advice from ACORN workers in various field offices on how prostitutes could skirt tax laws. The ACORN videos that the press went bonkers for were built around the fundamental lie that O'Keefe entered the ACORN offices dressed like a cartoonish pimp and workers still counseled him. They were also bolstered by deceptive editing.
California Attorney General Edmund G. Brown, Jr. pointed out that the videotapes were "severely edited by O'Keefe." According to a 2010 New York Daily News article about an investigation into O'Keefe's sting at a Brooklyn office, "a law enforcement source" said the conservative activists had "edited the tape to meet their agenda."
In 2011, O'Keefe released a set of sting videos to expose NPR's supposed liberal bias. It featured fundraiser Ron Schiller having lunch with two potential (albeit fake) Muslim donors and Schiller making disparaging comments about Republicans and Tea Party members. It was soon revealed that the tapes had been highly edited and done so in a way to make the Schiller comments seem more damning than originally believed. (In the short term, the videos worked -- NPR's CEO was forced to resign.)
The anti-choice group Live Action rolled out a series of undercover videos in 2013 claiming to catch Planned Parenthood conducting "illegal and inhuman practices." Like the others, the Live Action videos were dishonestly edited to improve the story activists wanted to tell.
Let's put it this way, when conservative activists release an undercover sting video that doesn't rely on dishonest editing to manufacture its point, it will be their first.
But the dismaying part is the formula works in the short term because too much of the media, drawn to the heat and the light of agitated conservative outrage, almost immediately types up the tapes as news despite the fact that for six years running, the established record shows that these types of tapes are regularly debunked. (Joining some other outlets that have called out the spin, a New York Times editorial this week cut through the ambiguities and declared the clips to be part of a larger, deeply dishonest smear campaign.)
Does the press honestly believe these tape releases aren't carefully choreographed by conservatives? Meaning, the press seems to treat as news that the tapes generate outrage within the conservative media and the Republican Party.
From the New York Times last week: "The video spread rapidly over social media and was discussed on talk radio."
But there are clear indications that the outrage was planned in advance, so why is the ire considered newsworthy?
In fact, we now know at least two key Republican congressmen who expressed outrage at Planned Parenthood last week were shown the first sting video weeks earlier -- and did nothing with the information. Apparently not wanting to step on the media roll-out, Rep. Tim Murphy (R-PA) -- a member of the House Pro-Life Caucus and chairman of the Energy and Commerce subcommittee -- and Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ) both sat on the information contained in the video and only sprang into action after it was released to the press.
After the right-wing's NPR video was proven to be misleading in 2011, some reporters conceded that activists releasing bogus clips have the advantage because the press doesn't want to slow down and ask questions about whether the clips are dishonest or not.
But how many times does the same script have to play out before journalists refuse to star as actors in orchestrated, far-right attack campaigns?
It's hard to miss the media's looming sense of bewilderment over Donald Trump's continued strong showing among Republican voters. As the bulling billionaire cements his status as this summer's star GOP attraction, many pundits and reporters have been left scratching their heads over the turn of events.
Regularly dismissed one month ago as a campaign distraction, much of the Beltway media appeared to be in agreement that Trump's campaign was nothing more than a joke and might not even be worth covering.
But now with poll after poll showing him racing to the front of the Republican pack, journalists are trying to make sense of it all. (The fallout from Trump's attack on Sen. John McCain's war record is still being calculated.)
"Everybody has been surprised that Donald Trump has seen these kind of poll numbers," noted Bloomberg's Steven Yaccino. Indeed, Trump's "surprising" frontrunner status has been a constant media theme -- especially after his campaign was first tagged as a "giant joke" and "sideshow" by some pundits. (Last month, the Washington Post pointed to Trump's favorability rating among Republicans as evidence for "Why no one should take Donald Trump seriously.")
But is Trump's run really that surprising? It shouldn't be if you've been paying attention to the radical, obstructionist turn both Republican politics and the right-wing media have taken over the last six-plus years. Yet during most of that span, the D.C. media stoically pretended the GOP hadn't taken an ugly, radical turn. And that's why so many seem baffled by Trump's rise.
Increasingly, Trump represents Fox News' Republican Party. He's holding up a mirror. But many journalists seem slow, or unwilling, to acknowledge that.
Some Beltway analysts blame the press for Trump's rise, insisting it's only because he's generating so much media attention that Republican voters are selecting him as their top choice. But that premise only works if you assume Trump doesn't connect with a certain group of voters. The fact is, most of Trump's coverage over the last month has been highly unflattering, as journalists and pundits detail his seemingly endless string of outrageous statements. (Minus Fox News, of course, where several hosts continue to fawn over him.) Yet Trump's favorable rating among Republican voters has been on the rise, suggesting that he is, in fact, connecting with the GOP base.
The idea that Trump's appeal isn't genuine or that the press has lured Republicans into supporting him is likely more comforting than acknowledging the truth: Trump, an ignorant, nativist birther, is appealing to an often-ugly streak within the conservative movement. He's winning over the illogical, demagoguery wing of the Republican Party that's been feasting off far-right media hate rhetoric for years.
This was the "grassroots" political movement that was so freaked out by Obama's ascension to power that it reached for the Nazi analogies just months into the president's first term, before he'd barely even finished filling out his cabinet positions. This is a wing of the party that views Obama as a monster of historic proportions who's committed to stripping citizens of their liberties and getting them addicted to government dependencies, like a drug dealer.
Is anyone surprised that Trump has the backing of Rush Limbaugh, even after the billionaire attacked McCain's war record? It's the same Limbaugh who claimed that if Obama weren't black he'd be working as a tour guide in Hawaii, not sitting in the Oval Office. The same Limbaugh who decried Obama as some sort of black Manchurian Candidate who ran for office because he resents white America and wants to garnish some payback. (Obama also thought Americans deserved to become infected with Ebola, according to Limbaugh.)
And you cannot underestimate Trump's previous birther charade and what that likely means for him today, politically. Note that a 2014 Economist/YouGov poll found that two-thirds of Republicans "disagree with the statement that the president was born in the United States."
Interviewing Trump's current supporters, the New York Times reported, "Some said they doubted whether President Obama was a citizen, a misrepresentation Mr. Trump has reinforced repeatedly."
And from the Daily Beast, which interviewed Trump donors:
I asked McNerney, who repeatedly referred to the president as "Obama Hussein," if he thought Obama was Muslim. He said, "I know he is." I asked if he thought Obama was born in America. He replied, "No, I don't. Probably Africa." Where in Africa, I wondered. "Wherever his father and his white mother were living." Kenya? "You got it," he said.
Earlier this month Trump told a CNN interviewer he wasn't sure where Obama was born.
Fueled by hateful rhetoric and right-wing media programming, Republicans and conservatives have veered towards extremism in recent years. If the press had honestly documented that trend, today's Trump phenomenon wouldn't come as such a shock.
Image via Michael Vadon via Creative Commons License
Last week, the Associated Press helped dictate campaign coverage for a news cycle when it emphasized how its latest poll showed Hillary Clinton's favorable ratings falling.
"The survey offers a series of warning signs for the leading Democratic candidate," the AP warned, suggesting its survey results were "troubling" for the Democratic frontrunner. Despite the fact that the AP's own poll found that a vast majority of Democratic voters view Clinton favorably, the article included interviews with three Democratic voters, all of whom gave Clinton negative reviews.
The excited AP dispatch set off a new round of Clinton-in-trouble coverage by news organizations that reprinted the AP's survey results:
And at the Washington Post, Chris Cillizza pounced on the AP's polling data and announced it was all very bad news for Clinton.
But notice what information was buried in the 18th and final paragraph of the AP's report on Clinton's falling favorable ratings [emphasis added]:
Clinton's bad marks weren't unique: Nearly all of the Republican candidates surveyed in the poll shared her underwater approval ratings. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, a leading GOP candidate, saw his unfavorable ratings rise to 44% from 36% in April.
Bush's favorable ratings, which have been underwater all year, lag behind Clinton's in the latest AP poll (31 percent Bush, 39 percent Clinton) and his unfavorable ratings are on the rise? Correct. But at the AP, there were no warnings about what those "troubling" numbers mean for Bush's campaign, and there were no AP interviews with Republican voters voicing their disappointment in the candidate.
For the AP, Jeb Bush and his soft poll numbers were clearly not the story. They barely even garnered a footnote.
Welcome to the often-baffling world of polling reporting for the 2016 campaign, where perceived dips by Clinton are obsessed over by the press while Bush stumbles rarely draw interest.
The famous Republican scion from a family whose supporters have raised over $100 million in campaign funds trails a buffoonish celebrity in several recent polls? The press doesn't really think that's a big story for Bush's candidacy. Imagine if Clinton were suddenly overwhelmed by a political outsider on the Democratic side, the doom-and-gloom commentary would be all-consuming.
What is a big story, apparently, is the state of Clinton's favorable ratings.
There's no real mystery why the press downplays polling results that show Clinton with a commanding lead and hypes surveys that show that gap closing, or her popularity supposedly slumping. "Coronations are boring," noted Nate Silver, as he recently highlighted deficiencies in the media's polling coverage. Journalists would "rather see a competitive Democratic primary, which means more to talk about and analyze."
The problem for the press is that, the AP survey notwithstanding, Clinton has enjoyed a nice run of polling results in recent days and weeks.
That last Iowa poll may be the most telling in terms of the very peculiar news coverage that Clinton polls produce, simply because there was essentially a news blackout surrounding the survey's results compared to polls that show a tightening race.
For instance in early July, a Quinnipiac University poll showed Clinton's Iowa lead shrinking to 19 points and the New York Times wrote up a separate news dispatch just about that poll. Just six days later, a We Ask America poll was released showing Clinton with a 40-plus point lead in Iowa. The New York Times reaction? It simply ignored it, as did virtually every news organization in America.
It didn't fit the script.
The last oddity: There's an entrenched pattern of media polls echoing Republican talking points about Clinton and her honesty.
Note this from Fox News:
But here's the possible trouble for Clinton in the general election: 70 percent of voters overall say that a candidate who is sometimes less than honest is a "deal breaker" for their vote -- and a 58-percent majority believes Clinton's natural instincts lean more toward "hiding the truth" than "telling the truth" (33 percent).
What is odd is that Fox never asked voters about Bush's trustworthiness, or any other Republican candidate's trustworthiness. Fox only asked about Clinton.
The same was true of a poll released in June by CNN: "A growing number of people say she is not honest and trustworthy." How did Clinton's "trust" score compare with Bush's? We don't know because CNN didn't ask if voters trust Bush.
And yes, the latest AP poll is guilty of the same imbalance -- it asks if Clinton is "honest," types up the results as bad news for the Democrat, but doesn't pose that query about Bush, or any of the Republican candidates.
Why the persistent double standard?
Does anyone remember the rope line kerfuffle that broke out between reporters and Mitt Romney's campaign team in May 2012? After the Republican nominee addressed supporters in St. Petersburg, Florida, campaign aides tried to restrict reporters from getting to the rope line where the candidate was greeting audience members.
As the incident unfolded, Kasie Hunt from the Associated Press tweeted, "Campaign staff and volunteers trying to physically prevent reporters from approaching the rope line to ask questions of Romney." And from CNN's Jim Acosta: "Romney campaign and Secret Service attempted to keep press off ropeline so no q's to candidate on Bain." (Bain Capital is the investment firm Romney co-founded.)
Contrast that with the media wildfire that broke out over the Fourth of July weekend this summer when Hillary Clinton marched in the Gorham, New Hampshire parade. Surrounded by throngs of reporters who jumped into the parade route to cover the event, Clinton's aides created a moving roped-off zone around Clinton to give her more space.
The maneuver produced images of journalists temporarily corralled behind a rope, which most observers agreed made for bad campaign optics.
Note that like Romney's episode on the rope line when reporters objected to being barred from overhearing the candidate interact with voters, journalists in New Hampshire were upset they couldn't hear Clinton greet parade spectators. But this story was hardly a minor one. It created an avalanche of coverage -- nearly two weeks later journalists still reference it as a major event.
It's interesting to note that during his 2012 campaign, Romney often distanced himself from the campaign press and provided limited access, the same allegations being made against Clinton this year. But the way the press covered the two media strategies stands in stark contrast.
That's not to suggest Romney's avoidance of the press wasn't covered as news four years ago. It clearly was. But looking back, it's impossible to miss the difference in tone, and the sheer tonnage of the coverage. Four years ago the campaign press calmly detailed Romney's attempts to sidestep the national press (minus Fox News), versus the very emotional, often angry ("reporters are being penned off like farm animals"), and just weirdly personal dispatches regarding Hillary's press strategy.
In a 2011 article, the Huffington Post interviewed reporters about how Romney was employing a much more closed-off press strategy compared to his 2008 campaign. The article featured quotes from Beltway journalists like the Washington Post's Dan Balz saying that while Romney had been more "open and available" in his 2008 campaign, during the 2012 cycle, "In general, I think they have kept him as much as possible out of the press spotlight ... And I think it's part of what has been their overall strategy, which has been to act like a frontrunner and not do a lot of interviews."
By contrast, the New York Times, reporting on Clinton's press relationship, recently described her as a "regal" "freak" who "seems less a presidential candidate than a historical figure, returning to claim what is rightfully hers." Slate noted "the political press has turned noticeably hostile in the face of her silence." And the Daily Beast wanted to know why Clinton was so "determined" to "infuriate the press."
So when Clinton's standoffish with the press, she's deliberately trying to "infuriate" journalists. But when Romney was standoffish, he was just employing a frontrunner strategy.
Why the blatant double standard? Why the steeper grading curve for the Democrat?
Are the Romney and Clinton press scenarios identical? Probably not. But they do seem awfully similar. Note that in February 2012, ABC News reported that "Romney last held a press conference in Atlanta on Feb. 8, and has not done so again since. Wednesday is the two week mark." Two months later, not much had changed: "Reporters yelled questions at Romney yesterday on the rope line after a speech prebutting this summer's Democratic National Convention -- to no avail. Romney has not taken questions from the press since March 16 in Puerto Rico."
That dispatch came on April 19, which meant at the time Romney hadn't taken a question from the national press in more than a month, and that was during the heart of the Republican primary season. But where was the Washington Post's running clock to document the last time Romney fielded a question, and the New York Times special section to feature hypothetical questions to ask Romney if and when he next spoke to the press?
When Romney ignored the national media for more than a month in 2012 the press mostly shrugged. When Hillary did something similar this year, the press went bonkers, sparking "an existential crisis among the national press corps," according to Slate.
And that may be an understatement. The coverage of Clinton's treatment of the press has become a truly boundless genre of commentary. See here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.
And that's just a sampling.
For whatever reason, the Beltway press signaled a long time ago that the press was going to be a central topic during the Clinton campaign and the press was going to write a lot about how the press felt about Clinton's relationship with the press. (Media critic Jay Rosen has dismissed some of the media's campaign complaints as being nonsensical.)
We've certainly never seen anything like this in modern campaigns. And it certainly did not happen with Romney four years ago.
At the 2011 White House Correspondents Dinner, guest performer Seth Meyers joked that he was surprised presidential hopeful Donald Trump was thinking about running as a Republican since Meyers just assumed Trump "was running as a joke."
The dead-on punch line, which created a small tidal wave of laughs, gasps and "ooh's" inside the Hilton ballroom that night, landed like a stake though the blustery billionaire's ego. (C-SPAN cameras captured Trump looking perturbed after the barb, which only added to the toll.) Meyers' put-down perfectly captured the absurdity of Trump's grandiose desires. And sure enough, he opted out of running and largely faded into the political background.
But fast-forward four years and Trump and his divisive brand of nativist, right-wing rants have risen from the political dead to capture the spotlight. Basking in mounting headlines less than one month before the first Republican debate, where Trump and his bombastic immigrant bashing is almost sure to dominate the news cycle, the Republican brand-maker has created massive headaches for the GOP.
And note that the emerging Trumpmentum unfurled itself at the same time Republicans have struggled during the national debate about the Confederate flag, coming in the wake of its association with the alleged killer in last month's South Carolina shooting rampage in an historical black church.
Indeed, the front page of the New York Times last Friday featured two articles detailing a pair of mini crises Republican leaders were forced to grapple with: Trump's troubling rise in the polls, and the messy debate that broke out in the House of Representatives when Republicans at the last minute tried to introduce an amendment to protect the Confederate flag in national cemeteries, only to then withdraw the controversial measure. A "fiasco," is how the Washington Post's Dana Milbank described the GOP's confederate flag two-step; the Times tagged it "an embarrassment."
Those two issues bedeviling the GOP are inexorably linked. And a key force driving both is Fox News.
Contorting itself into ugly dead ends over the issues of race and immigrant bashing, Republicans have themselves to blame for allowing this kind of ugliness to fester unobstructed for years. But Republicans can also blame Fox News for the party's unfolding summer of discontent.
Why Fox? Because the cable channel has given Trump a platform for years to spout his loopy, hateful rhetoric, including his "birther" charade from 2011, which Fox practically co-sponsored. And note that last month, Trump landed more Fox airtime than any other GOP campaign hopeful. So yes, when Fox's programming regularly pushes out xenophobia to Republican viewers, you can't be surprised when Republican viewers embrace a xenophobic candidate.
As for the Confederate flag, Fox News shoulders some blame because of the channel's hallmark, toxic race-baiting during the Obama years. As conservatives grapple with the historic legacy of slavery and day-to-day racial injustices it's impossible not to notice that previous pattern of ugly rhetoric lurking beneath the surface of the flag debate, especially while Fox hosts and analysts play down the significance of removing the Civil War artifact. (One Fox reporter asked if the American flag would soon be targeted.)
The conservative media's soft spot for the Confederate flag doesn't exist in a vacuum. It seems to spring from a dark, ugly well of race baiting. Recall that it was one of Fox's most famous hosts who called Obama a "racist" with a "deep-seated hatred for white people, or the white culture." Fox's Eric Bolling once referred to the President of Gabon's visit to the White House as Obama hosting a "hoodlum" in the "hizzouse" and suggested that President Obama was "chugging 40's" during a state visit to Ireland. Geraldo Rivera placed blame on unarmed Trayvon Martin for his own death because he was wearing a hoodie. And Megyn Kelly once hosted NRO's Andrew McCarthy to argue that race-based voter suppression "has long ago passed to the dustbin of history," calling anyone who thinks otherwise demagogues and "race hucksters."
Then there was the racially-tinged birther nonsense, which Fox was central in helping to market. (The ugliness was adopted by some within the Tea Party movement, too.) And that brings us back to Trump, who just last week told a CNN interviewer he wasn't sure where Obama was born.
Trump is widely perceived to be a racist buffoon, and corporate America (NASCAR, Macy's, NBC, etc.) is now sprinting away from him for fear of being associated with his brand of hate. Yet among Republican voters, Trump's favorable rating has actually been on the rise in recent weeks -- as he makes more and more outlandish claims, more and more conservatives embrace him.
Appearing on Rachel Maddow's MSNBC show last week, Tom Jensen from Public Policy Polling explained what North Carolina Republican voters were saying via a new PPP survey that found Trump as their top pick. From Nexis: "Republicans in North Carolina love the Confederate flag. It is getting taken away. Republicans in North Carolina hate gay marriage. It is here to stay. Republicans in North Carolina hate Obamacare, it's here to stay."
Jensen may as well have been describing Fox News' most loyal viewers.
Trump is a loud, offensive and ill informed birther who thinks climate change is a hoax. As I noted in May, Trump represents not only the Fox News id, but he mirrors the extreme dark side of Fox News chief Roger Ailes, a man who has reportedly advocated sending Navy SEALs to the U.S.-Mexico border in order to kill undocumented immigrants crossing over into America.
This tweet from Ailes biographer Gabriel Sherman says it all about the spectacle now unfolding: "Trump is what Ailes did to the GOP."
And what Ailes and Fox are doing to the GOP this summer may not be reversible.