The bad bout of 2003 déjà vu continued on Sunday when former Vice President Dick Cheney appeared on ABC's This Week to lecture President Obama about how his policies had allegedly made a mess out of Iraq, as violence there continues to grip the country and threatens to completely destabilize the nation.
Cheney's appearance continues a maddening, week-long stroll down Baghdad memory lane as media outlets rush to get commentary from the people who, eleven years ago, got everything wrong about the Iraq War: The stunning cost, the causalities, the war planning, the intelligence, the sectarian violence.
"The neoconservative program cost the United States several trillion dollars and thousands dead and wounded American soldiers, and it sowed carnage and chaos in Iraq and elsewhere," writes Harvard University professor Stephen Walt in Foreign Policy.
The head-scratching question continues to be, why? Why are the discredited "experts" who botched Iraq last time now being a given a platform to comment on the military crisis they helped create? And why are these rejected mouthpieces being given a chance to bash President Obama, someone who opposed the failed war in the first place? (ABC's Jonathan Karl to Cheney: "What would you do in Iraq?" Left unsaid: Cheney left office with a 13 percent approval rating, in large part for leading the charge for the Bush administration's failed invasion.)
Why the strange rehabilitation? Here's a hint: People might be forgetting the deep bond that ran between the compliant Beltway media in 2003 and the very same failed Iraq War architects and partisan boosters the press is now turning to for advice. In other words, the Beltway press was part of the Iraq problem then. (They sold us a disastrous war.) So it's not that surprising the press is part of the problem now.
Fact: You can't talk about the Iraq War without addressing the central role the U.S. news media played during the run-up to the invasion, and the fevered and futile hunt for weapons of mass destruction. And that's why the current move to treat failed war sponsors as knowledgeable experts might also be seen as an effort by some journalists to put behind them the massive media missteps that led to the war.
Meaning, the reason the press doesn't think it's strange having the people who got everything wrong about the war on TV today is because so much of the Beltway press got the same things wrong eleven years ago.
As the years pass by and memories fade, it's important to never forget just how much government stenography went on prior to the war in D.C. newsrooms, and just how little daylight existed between the Bush administration and media elites in their ironclad agreement about the need to invade Iraq. Only then does the continued symmetry now on display begin to make sense. (Fact: The "liberal" Washington Post editorialized more than two dozen times in favor of war, between September 2002 and February 2003.)
"Good news there, I guess." Fox News anchor Jon Scott, June 17.
Word that U.S. Special Operations forces had captured Ahmed Abu Khattala, a suspected leader of the terror attack on the United States diplomatic facilities in Benghazi two years ago, provided good news for those seeking justice for the four Americans killed in the 2012 raid. The reports however, provided very bad news for people who have been playing politics with the terror attack for the last 21 months.
Indeed, the Benghazi revelation and the instantly negative and mocking reaction it received on Fox News and across the right-wing media landscape, provided a telling glimpse into the propaganda campaign conducted by professional conservative talkers who long ago stopped pursuing the facts of the investigation. Instead, they've tried to turn "Benghazi" into a brand; a self-sustaining scandal machine reminiscent of the one they built to distract Bill Clinton in the 1990s. The goal of these types of blind pursuits doesn't revolve around the truth or facts, but around the ability to attack, attack, attack, regardless of good-news revelations.
So instead of toasting Khattala's capture in Libya as a key breakthrough, the news quickly became reason to add more layers to the impenetrable Benghazi conspiracy. (Either that or to feign indifference.) The claim this time? The timing of the arrest looked fake and phony. Specifically, the Benghazi capture was timed to help Hillary Clinton's book tour 5,000 miles away in America.
"What a great thing to announce on an interview tonight at Fox News, that the perpetrators have been bought to justice," said Fox contributor Pete Hegseth. "It's all too neat and it's too cute." Added Fox host Kennedy: "You have a former secretary of state, who is in the middle of a really high profile book tour, I think this is convenient for her to shift the talking points from some of the things she has been discussing."
Rush Limbaugh mocked the timing as "a beautiful thing."
This kind of contemptuous, dismissive tone is exactly the opposite of what Obama's fevered critics had been demanding since September, 2012.
"May 2014, and you still haven't brought anyone to justice!" Judge Jeanine Pirro complained on her Fox News program just last month. Fox's Eric Bolling, denouncing the lack of detained Benghazi suspects on The Five, July 31, 2013: "Nice job, President O, no suspects, no interviews, no leads, and no answers." And Fox contributor Allen West signed on to a letter bemoaning the fact that "not a single terrorist in this well-planned and executed military attack by radical Islamists has been apprehended."
So it was Fox News, then: Bring suspects to justice!
And Fox News, today: Why now?
The gaffe police were on vigilant patrol last week, keenly monitoring Hillary Clinton's book release media tour and pronouncing much of it to be a failure.
The former first lady, senator, and secretary of state sat for a series of lengthy interviews that covered an array of topics, from the Iraq War to transgender rights, and spoke for hours to some the country's leading journalists during long-form Q&A's. (So much for the claim that Clinton shields herself away from the news media.)
By setting aside the substance and parsing Clinton's words in search of stumbles, the press announced Clinton suffered a "rough week" because of two alleged miscues: She spoke accurately about the state of her personal finances in early 2001 when she and her husband Bill Clinton were "broke." And she pushed back against National Public Radio's Terry Gross when she repeatedly tried to pigeonhole Clinton on the sensitive and personal issue of gay marriage. (i.e. Hillary got "testy" according to the GOP operatives who circulated the audio and much of the media who reported on it).
Those were the "gaffes" that earned her a mostly thumbs down review from the theater critics who pass as Beltway political pundits and who declared her performance was "rusty"; that Clinton had become "rattled" and emotional, according to Maureen Dowd. (Texas Governor Rick Perry last week likening homosexuality to alcoholism? That wasn't really treated as a major political gaffe for a possible 2016 candidate.)
Bloomberg's Albert Hunt summed up the agreed-upon conventional wisdom nicely when he wrote that Clinton suffered a "rough rollout for her new book" because the week contained "gaffes" and "awkward answers."
Well, at least she didn't cackle.
Note that the "broke" "gaffe" consisted of Clinton repeating commonly known facts about her at-times precarious finances more than a decade ago; facts that have been reported many times in the press. The Clintons, the New York Times noted on September 19, 1999, "are the least prosperous couple to live in the White House in many years." The Times noted "the Clintons have slightly more than $1 million in assets, but are still saddled by a $5 million legal debt." (In 2001, The New Yorker pegged the Clinton's legal bills at "eleven or twelve million dollars.")
The press seemed especially judgmental following the NPR interview with Gross who created the false impression that Clinton had stonewalled and dodged over the issue of marriage equality, despite the fact Clinton repeatedly answered Gross' question. What's a politician supposed to do when an interviewer repeatedly tries to assign cynical motivations for a policy shift if the politician insists that motivation isn't accurate? Should the politician simply go along with the allegation or should she push back and clarify, even as the interviewer again and again clings to the same position?
Clinton response was to push back a bit on NPR: "I think you're reading it very wrong." And "That's just flat wrong."
But apparently she was supposed to roll over. Because by standing up for herself (while never raising her voice), Clinton was breathlessly tagged as combative and unnerved in the wake of a mildly contentious back-and-forth:
Instapundit called her "testy," as did MSNBC, and New York Magazine does, too, also writing that "Hillary won't say she evolved on gay marriage." The Wall Street Journal also picks up the "testy" line, while the New York Daily News prefers "lashes out" in a "tense" interview. Mediaite says she "snaps" at NPR's interviewer. Oh, and Politico prefers "testy."
The media message to Clinton was clear last week: You can't lose your cool when dealing with the press. You can't try to intimidate reporters. And you certainly can't try to bluster them off tough questions. Those are the guidelines established for Clinton if she plans to run to become the country's first woman president.
Who is allowed to do all those things? Chris Christie, for one.
One of the biggest upsets in American politics was powered by right-wing media, according to analysis of last night's defeat of Rep. Eric Cantor (R-VA), the House Minority Leader, who fell to an obscure Tea Party-backed candidate. Cantor's campaign spent nearly as much on drinks and dinners at steak houses as David Brat did on his entire primary push. Yet Brat easily defeated the seven-term Republican leader.
"The seeds for Brat's upset were sown on right-wing radio talk shows, particularly Laura Ingraham's," CNN's Brian Stelter reported. On Fox News last night, radio host and Brat booster Mark Levin celebrated the Virginia "ass-kicking." (During the same appearance, Levin urged Republicans to "stop chasing genitalia" in order to win elections.)
"There are parts of this country where if Laura Ingraham, and Ann Coulter, and Mark Levin are on the radio supporting you, that's worth a lot," Fox's Brit Hume noted. "In the right place, with the right constituency, those people hold real power."
Real power, indeed.
For years, that power was mostly directed at Democrats, and specifically at President Obama as talk radio and the larger right-wing media Noise Machine has worked tirelessly to demonize its opponents via nasty and often dishonest, illogical attacks.
After John McCain's dispiriting loss to Barack Obama in 2008, damaged leaders of the Republican establishment slowly shuffled off the national stage. And into that vacuum rushed Roger Ailes, Glenn Beck, Rush-I-Hope-He-Fails-Limbaugh, and other players from the right-wing media lineup. They took over the messaging for the Republican Party, the attacks on the new president, and helped power the surging Tea Party movement in America.
Teaming up with the GOP and its unprecedented plan to obstruct a president who won an electoral landslide victories, the Noise Machine provided the mass media muscle and set out to portray Obama as nothing more than a suspicious, foreign, anti-capitalist socialist who distrusted America and wanted to take away citizens' guns. He was also condemned as a "racist" who displayed a "deep-seated hatred for white people."
The Republican Party, by and large, was happy to watch as the right-wing media took control of the GOP's communications apparatus, which allowed the right-wing media to take control of the GOP's public messaging. And when they were demonizing Obama and the Democratic Party, Republicans likely marveled at their good fortune of having millions of dollars in free media at their disposal each week to launch misinformation campaigns against the White House.
And for Cantor personally, the Noise Machine was a godsend. With no apparent interest in governing, legislating, or in public policy, Cantor's professional goal appeared to be to obstruct the White House at all costs, and to make Obama look bad at every turn. And for that, he had perfect media partners.
But then Cantor became the target.
Claiming to be acting under the bloody "banner of Liberty and Truth," Jerad Miller and his wife Amanda, entered CiCi's Pizza in Las Vegas on Sunday right before noon and executed two local policemen on their lunch break. Authorities say Jerad approached one officer while he was refilling his soda cup and shot him in the head from behind, before he and Amanda opened fire on his partner.
While patrons scrambled to safety, one of the shooters reportedly shouted that the "revolution" had begun. The duo then stripped the officers of their weapons and ammunition and badges, and covered them with cloth that featured the "Don't tread on me" Gadsden flag, which has recently been adopted as a symbol of the tea party movement. The couple also left a swastika on one of the officers.
Six days earlier, the right-wing shooter had posted a manifesto of sorts on Facebook where he announced "we must prepare for war." Jerad Miller, who traveled to Cliven Bundy's Nevada ranch this spring to join the militia protests against the federal government, declared that in order to "To stop this oppression, I fear, can only be accomplished with bloodshed."
The Facebook rant was just one of many clues about the shooters' radical political leanings. Jerad Miller "left behind social media postings that show his concerns over Benghazi, chemtrails, gun control laws, and the government's treatment of rancher Cliven Bundy," Raw Story reported. (One of the viral images Miller shared online carried the caption, "Jeez, it's no wonder liberalism's regarded as a mental disorder.") The shooter had talked to his neighbor about his "desire to overthrow the government and President Obama and kill police officers," according to NBC News.
After murdering two police officers, Miller and his wife, carrying large duffle bags, set upon a nearby WalMart, killed a shopper who attempted to confront the couple with his concealed handgun, exchanged gunfire with law enforcement, and then died in an apparent suicide pact.
The politically motivated ambush represents just the latest in a long line of recent far-right, anti-government acts of violence in America. From neo-Nazi killers, to a string of women's health clinic bombings and assaults, as well as bloody assaults on law enforcement from anti-government insurrectionists, acts of right-wing extreme violence continue to terrorize victims in the U.S.
In fact, the deadly, and premeditated, gun rampage in Las Vegas came just two days after Dennis Marx, member of the "sovereign citizen" anti-government movement, tried to lay siege to a courthouse outside of Atlanta. Sovereign citizens are militia-like radicals who don't believe the federal government has the power and legitimacy to enforce the law. The FBI has called the movement "a growing domestic terror threat to law enforcement."
Arriving outside the courthouse in a silver SUV, Marx immediately opened fire on law enforcement, shooting a deputy twice in the leg, before being shot and killed by police, capping a wild three-minute gun battle. The shooter came supplied with an assault weapon, "homemade and commercial explosive devices," as well as "a gas mask; two handguns; zip ties and two bulletproof vests," according to the Associated Press.
The chilling details of Sunday's Las Vegas ambush produced public shock and intense media coverage. One major news outlet seemed to lag behind, though: Fox News.
Primetime hosts Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity both ignored the shocking cop-killer story last night, while Megyn Kelly devoted four sentences to it. (By contrast, the story covered extensively during CNN and MSNBC's primetime.) Fox talkers on Monday were still far more interested in debating the prisoner swap of Bowe Bergdahl than they were examining the political ambush in Las Vegas.
For Fox News, the Las Vegas killing spree represents a toxic mix of guns, far-right insurrectionism, tea party implications, and the Cliven Bundy ranch standoff. For Fox News, the story about right-wing gun violence and the seeds of a bloody political revolution present all kinds of problems for the channel and its outspoken hosts, some of whom have previously championed limitless gun rights, insurrectionism, the Tea Party, and racist rancher Bundy.
In the 36 hours after the shooting, Fox News tread lightly around the Las Vegas story, producing regular news updates about the crime spree. But Fox provided almost no commentary, no context, and certainly no collective blame for the executions.
When an emotional Jani and Robert Bergdahl strode into the White House Rose Garden on Saturday to the share the emotional announcement by President Obama that their son, Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl would be returning home after being held captive for five years by the Taliban, it's unlikely they could have foreseen that their family would soon be under attack by the right-wing media, or that Robert Bergdahl would be depicted on Fox News as a possible terrorist sympathizer; mocked on national television as he awaited a reunion with his ailing son.
They couldn't have foreseen it because I don't think it's ever happened before. I don't think we've ever seen a dedicated media campaign to not only undermine a returning prisoner of war, but to also cast doubt onto the soldier's family; to portray them as un-American even as they prepare for their reunion.
Instead, Fox News has helped transform the prisoner swap involving Taliban detainees into "an increasingly vicious partisan issue," as Buzzfeed described the Republican decision to go into relentless attack mode, complete with enlisted publicists and strategists, to subvert the return of an American POW.
It's symptomatic of a conservative media mini-mob that now obsessively politicizing everything, and does it all with the knob turned up to 11.
So in the name of partisan warfare there can be no trace of empathy or understanding for a family that spent nearly 2,000 days wondering if their soldier son would ever come home. Wondering if he was being tortured or treated humanely by the Taliban as he passed years away in solitary confinement. There can be no waiting to get the facts; to actually hear from Bowe Bergdahl himself and let him explain the 2009 actions that led to his capture. For the attacks against Obama to stick, Bergdahl and his family became the target of a character assassination crusade.
Note this fact: A lot of the current Bergdahl-related theatrics being played out in the right-wing media appear to have been in the works for quite a while. For years, in fact. In 2012, Michael Hastings reported in Rolling Stone that when talk first surfaced of a possible prisoner swap between the U.S. and the Taliban, Republicans immediately began playing election year politics [emphasis added]:
According to White House sources, Marc Grossman, who replaced Richard Holbrooke as special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, was given a direct warning by the president's opponents in Congress about trading Bowe for five Taliban prisoners during an election year. "They keep telling me it's going to be Obama's Willie Horton moment," Grossman warned the White House. The threat was as ugly as it was clear: The president's political enemies were prepared to use the release of violent prisoners to paint Obama as a Dukakis-like appeaser, just as Republicans did to the former Massachusetts governor during the 1988 campaign.
Fast-forward two years and that's exactly what's unfolding. The only twist is that as part of the political retribution, a military family is being smeared, too.
More and more journalists claim to have uncovered a key story of the unfolding 2016 presidential campaign. And more and more journalists insist it's all about them. Well, them and Hillary Clinton.
Specifically, we're told that Hillary's relationship with the press is going to be the defining dynamic of the 2016 campaign season, if she chooses to run. Not her pact with voters, mind you. But her dealings with the press. (Inside baseball trumps all, apparently.) I honestly can't remember a run-up to a presidential campaign where the D.C. press spent so much time writing about the D.C. press and how it will cover a candidate who isn't even a candidate yet.
Just look at this avalanche of recent analysis:
-Here's What Journalists Really Want from Hillary Clinton [Vanity Fair]
-Don't Blame Hillary Clinton's Media Problem on the Right-Wing Press. Blame Clinton Herself. [The New Republic]
-Hillary Clinton vs. The Press [syndicated columnist Richard Cohen]
-End of an Era? Clinton Media Strategy May Be Due for an Overhaul [New York Times]
-Hillary's Armor [Fox News' Howard Kurtz]
-What Is Hillary Clinton Afraid Of? [Politico]
-Why The Clintons Can't Handle the Media [New York]
And surprise! Virtually all the examinations reach the same conclusion about the strained relationship: Clinton just has to just "deal with" her misgivings and get over it if she wants to become president.
Not surprisingly though, the onslaught of media coverage about Hillary's media coverage isn't reflective. Instead, it's mostly one-way and instructional. It's telling Clinton how she must change her behavior, or else. (Should journalists really be in the "or else" business?) There's very little contemplation about why Clinton might be wary of the manner in which the political press provides scrutiny.
Regardless, journalists are sure of one thing: Hillary (and Bill Clinton) hate the press and remain purposefully cloistered away from it.
"All politicians resent the media, but few can match the mixture of incomprehension, terror, and bitter recrimination mustered by Bill and Hillary Clinton toward the Fourth Estate," New York breathlessly announced, claiming "the various streams of thought trickling through the Clintons' brains do not converge upon any coherent strategy for dealing with the media." (That sounds bad.)
On and on the cataloging has gone in recent weeks, as news consumers are inundated with descriptions of Clinton's "fear and loathing of the media," and how she's "withdrawn into a gilded shell."
But how exactly have Hillary and Bill Clinton acted on this supposed hatred of the media?
Twisting itself in partisan knots, Fox News can't keep track of when denying health benefits to Americans is a good thing and when it's a bad thing. Here's a helpful crib sheet: Denying health care by expanding Medicaid is cheered by Fox News. Denying health care through Veterans Affairs backlogs is not.
The current VA controversy has unleashed waves of right-wing media attacks on the organization, which conservative commentators now depict as a failed government-run health care agency. (It's not.)
Fueling their five-year obsession with trying to undermine and obstruct The Affordable Care Act at every turn, right-wing pundits have denounced the backlog that veterans face, the allegations of secret waiting lists at a Veterans Administration hospital in Phoenix, and claims that dozens of vets reportedly died while on a waiting list to see a VA doctor. Looking to score points politically, Fox News talkers have proclaimed the VA mess to be a preview of some sort of Obamacare debacle for the general public.
Fox's Kimberly Guilfoyle recently labeled Obamacare "one big fat VA system." (False.) Colleague Ben Carson tactlessly called the veterans health care failure "a God send" because it highlighted how awful Obamacare is going to be. And Fox's Eric Bolling claimed delays that took place at the VA in Phoenix would repeat themselves nationwide under Obamacare, and 500 people "are going to die waiting" every year for treatment because of the president's health care reform law.
The larger Fox message machine has been focused: There's nothing worse, nothing more callous and unimaginable, than vets being denied the government health care they're entitled to, and some dying as a consequence.
Left unmentioned from Fox and friends? In the case of the recent implementation of Obamacare and the federal government's effort to expand Medicaid benefits, Republican governors and lawmakers in 24 states have refused, for partisan reasons, to accept the federal funds to insure more of their citizens. The result? Citizens are being denied government health care they're entitled to, and thousands may die as a consequence.
CNN president Jeff Zucker raised some eyebrows this week when, asked about the news channel's increasingly slim coverage of climate change, he commented the network hasn't "figured out how to engage the audience in that story in a meaningful way." He added: "When we do do those stories, there does tend to be a tremendous amount of lack of interest on the audience's part."
Zucker acknowledged that climate change "deserves more attention," but suggested that the issue isn't receiving that attention on his network because CNN needs the topic to generate ratings, or "interest," in order to receive more airtime.
I'm not sure I've ever heard an executive at a news organization speak so openly about what appears to be a company-wide decision to pay less attention to a completely legitimate news story because it doesn't generate ratings; because it's not good for business. For Zucker to suggest CNN doesn't cover a pressing public issue because it doesn't grab eyeballs goes against the basic tenet of journalism, which is, of course, to inform. CNN should be less concerned about engaging viewers and more concerned abut informing them.
Zucker's climate coverage comments seem especially odd given that he said in the same interview that his network's coverage of the Benghazi select committee would be driven by whether it is of "real news value"; he did not address whether such coverage would need to meet an "interest" threshold from the audience.
I'm not a purist when it comes to cable news. I understand CNN is a business and that increasingly it falls within ever-expanding sphere of the entertainment business. Cable news has changed dramatically over the last two decades, the scramble for the limited audience of viewers is fierce, and passive programming is not an option for commercial success. I get that the diet of cable news today includes large dollops of fatty foods buffeted by smaller servings of vegetables.
But suggesting you're not covering an extraordinarily important and possibly life-changing topic because viewers don't "engage"? That's wandering into dangerous ethical territory. What other dire topics is CNN shying away from for fear of boring its news consumers? Do CNN editorial meetings revolve around gauging which news topic will generate minutes-long spikes in the channel's ratings?
The Obama outrage engines are revving up at Fox News and across the conservative media landscape as conservatives shift, temporarily at least, from Obamacare and Benghazi and set their sights on the unfolding scandal involving backlog waiting lists at Veterans Affairs (VA) hospitals. The serious allegations that dozens of veterans died while awaiting treatment from Phoenix Veterans Affairs Health Care system, and that VA managers there created a secret waiting list to hide how long men and women had to wait to see a doctor, sparked a resignation and Congressional hearings.
The Fox condemnations have been especially loud, and sweeping. And yes, they've been mostly directed at the president.
"If only Barack Obama's team treated our veterans as well as they treat the mega-donors to the Democrat [sic] party," lamented Laura Ingraham on Fox & Friends. For days, a parade of Fox talkers have condemned Obama for the story. One even accused the administration of "criminally negligent homicide."
The heated right-wing response stands in stark contrast to the muted coverage Fox News provided for the last major controversy involving failed medical care for returning soldiers. In February 2007, the Washington Post, following up on original reporting done by Salon, exposed shockingly poor conditions inside the Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Those revelations also sparked resignations and Congressional hearings.
But back then, of course, George W. Bush was president and back then Fox News wasn't as interested in the story. (It took Bill O'Reilly six weeks following the publication of the first Post expose to conclude that the Bush administration had badly bungled care at Walter Reed.) And Fox worried journalists were paying too much attention to the scandal.
Numbers highlight the striking disparity in coverage.