Interviewing Environmental Protection Agency administrator Gina McCarthy late last year about the Obama administration's historic climate change agreement with China, MSNBC's Andrea Mitchell asked how the administration would handle Republican critics of the deal. Mitchell wondered what the White House plan was to deal with GOP "climate deniers" firmly entrenched against the carbon emissions agreement.
On the eve of the 2016 presidential season, Mitchell and the rest of the Beltway press face a similar query: How will journalists deal with Republican climate deniers on the campaign trail? The question goes to the heart of informative political reporting and the importance of holding candidates accountable.
Political jockeying over climate change was elevated last week when the U.S. Senate, for the first time in eight years, cast votes on the topic. On January 21, the Senate voted 98-1 to approve a resolution stating, "climate change is real and not a hoax." Then the Senate rejected a second amendment that stated climate change is real and is significantly caused by humans.
"Man can't change the climate," Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK), announced. "The hoax is there are some people so arrogant to think they are so powerful they can change the climate." Republicans, including possible White House candidates Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), voted overwhelmingly against the second resolution, even though the scientific evidence is nearly unanimous that human activity is the dominant cause of climate change.
Meanwhile, the flood of scientific warnings continue and the issue gains urgency. (Tuesday's New England blizzard was the latest example of severe weather that may have been exacerbated by warming seas.) In 2012, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney did not address climate change one time during their three televised debates. But just two years later during the midterm cycle the topic came up "in at least 10 debates in Senate and governor's races" across the country, according to the New York Times. If that trend continues, climate change could well be a cornerstone topic of the next general election campaign season.
For years though, the political press' handling of Republican and conservative climate deniers has been troubling, as journalists politely make room in the debate for fact-free claims about the lack of human involvement. The pending campaign season raises the stakes in terms of holding politicians accountable. But is the press up to the challenge?
New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen Tweeted last week, "This train -- climate change denialism -- is coming directly at the campaign press and they have no clue how to deal."
How long will the press remain allergic to Hillary Clinton polling data?
It's weird, right? For decades, pundits and reporters have worshiped at the altar of public polling, using results as tangible proof that certain political trends are underway, as well as to keep track of campaign season fluctuations. And that's even truer in recent years with the rise of data journalism. Crunching the political numbers has been elevated to a new and respected art form.
But that newsroom trend seems to be losing out to another, more powerful force as the 2016 cycle gears up. No longer viewing their job as reporting the lay of the campaign land, more and more journalists seem to have embraced the idea that their role is to help tell a compelling story, even if that means making the narrative more interesting, or competitive, than it really is.
The press "desperately wants to cover some Democratic story other than the Clinton Coronation," Bloomberg's David Weigel reported last year. NBC's Chuck Todd conceded it's the Beltway "press corps" that's suffers from so-called Clinton fatigue. The Atlantic's Molly Ball was among those suggesting that Clinton's candidacy is boring and that the American people are already "tired" of the former Secretary of State.
A Washington Post/ABC News poll this week provided little in terms of narrative excitement, but it was newsworthy nonetheless. It showed Clinton with a commanding 15-point lead over former Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and a 13-point lead over former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, two of the best-known Republicans considering White House runs.
Nobody should think that polling results 20-plus months before an election signals certainty. But in terms of context, when the Washington Post and ABC began hypothetical polling in 2011 for Obama's re-election run, its survey showed the president enjoyed a four point lead of Romney at the time. (Obama went on to win by four points.) Today at a similar juncture, Clinton's lead over Romney stands at an astounding 15 points.
And so what kind of media response did the Clinton poll produce this week? Mostly shrugs; the press didn't seem to care. The morning the poll was published, NBC's daily political tip sheet, First Read's Morning Clips, omitted any reference to Clinton's enormous advantage in their laundry list of must-read articles for the day. On cable news, the coverage was minimal. Or put it this way, CNN mentioned the Clinton poll once yesterday, while CNN mentioned "Tom Brady" nearly 100 times, according to TVeyes.com.
"Clinton Enjoys Enormous Lead" is just not a headline the press wants to dwell on. So polling data is often tossed in the dustbin, clearing the way for pundits and reporters to form whatever storyline they want about Clinton and her possible 2016 run. (Hint: She's in trouble! Her book tour was a "disaster"!)
What happened to the extended victory lap?
Convinced that last year's midterm losses for Democrats signaled the effective end of Barack Obama's presidency and a resounding victory for all-things conservative and Republican ("On Fox News, there were smiles all around"), just three weeks into the new year Fox News is left wondering what happened to the "lamest" of the lame duck presidents. The one Fox News was going to mock for two more years while trying to tarnish his legacy.
Rebounding to approval ratings not seen since 2013, Obama, instead of floundering, is riding a crest of post-midterm successes, while Americans reward him for the country's rebounding economy. The result: Obama's the one quietly circling the victory track.
"You can hardly tell from our NBC/WSJ poll that the Republican Party was the big winner from the midterm elections just two months ago," noted NBC's Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, and Carrie Dann this week. "Somehow, Obama and the Democrats stole the Republicans' post-election honeymoon."
If that didn't sting badly enough, Fox at the same time continues to wrestle with the unfolding crisis over the network's demonstrably false and stunning claim that some parts of Europe, including in France as well as Britain's second largest city, Birmingham, have become Islamic and are "no-go zones" for non-Muslims, including for British law enforcement.
The misstep became an international punch line, with observers in Europe guffawing at Fox News' trademark ignorance. "When I heard this, frankly, I choked on my porridge and I thought it must be April Fool's Day," British Prime Minister David Cameron told ITV News. "This guy is clearly a complete idiot," he said, referring to Steve Emerson, who Fox had hosted to discuss recent terror attacks in Paris.
In a rare move for Fox, it apologized repeatedly for its colossal "no-go zone" blunder. Yet the story continues to haunt the network: Paris' mayor, Anne Hidalgo, announced on Tuesday that the city might sue Fox News over the bogus claim that portions of Paris remain cordoned off from non-Muslims. "The image of Paris has been prejudiced, and the honor of Paris has been prejudiced," Hidalgo told CNN.
Bottom line: It's not even February and Fox News is already having a really bad year.
"In American politics, there's a sense you want to be new. You don't want to be too familiar. You want to be something fresh. You don't want to be something old and stale." Karl Rove discussing Hillary Clinton on Fox News, May 26, 2014.
Mitt Romney's reemergence as a possible top-tier Republican contender for the 2016 White House race has created an awkward situation for some Republicans and conservative commentators who have been dwelling on Hillary Clinton's age in recent months. The development also poses a potentially thorny issue for journalists in terms of how they treat male and female politicians.
To date, Republicans have been eager to highlight Clinton's age. "Republican strategists and presidential hopefuls, in ways subtle and overt, are eager to focus a spotlight on Mrs. Clinton's age," the New York Times reported in 2013. Just this week, conservative Washington Post contributor Ed Rogers mocked Clinton for being stuck in a cultural "time warp," circa the "tie-dye" 1960s.
So why the newfound awkwardness for spotlighting Clinton's age? Because Mitt Romney's the same age as Hillary Clinton. They're both 67 years old. (Actually, Romney's older than Clinton by seven months.)
The fact that early polling suggests the possible Republican front runner is the same age as Clinton raises interesting questions for the political press, which has carved out plenty of time and space in recent years to analyze the question of Clinton's age and to repeat Republican allegations that she might be too old for the job of president. Going forward, will the same press corps devote a similar amount of time and space asking the same questions about Romney? And if not, why not? (A recent Boston Globe article actually positioned Romney's age as a plus for the Republican: "Supporters have also noted that Romney would be 69 years old in 2016 -- the same age as Reagan when he was sworn into his first term.")
Criticizing President Obama for not attended the Sunday solidarity march in Paris in the wake of last week's terror attacks, Republican Congressman Randy Weber (R-TX) yesterday took the debate to absurd and offensive levels when he tweeted that "Even Adolph [sic] Hitler thought it more important than Obama to get to Paris. (For all the wrong reasons.) Obama couldn't do it for right reasons."
The jaw-dropping insult from a sitting member of Congress can only really be understood when you realize that the conservative media in America have been wallowing in that kind of mindless chatter for most of Obama's time in office. (UPDATED: Weber has since apologized.)
Freely engaging in the kind of rhetorical bomb-throwing that had previously been seen and heard on the far fringes of American politics, mainstream conservative commentators have embraced the Obama-is-just-like-Hitler narrative and have proudly paraded it around for years, either oblivious to, or unconcerned with, the offensive implications.
As Media Matters noted last year:
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.
It's gotten so bad that now something as innocuous as a debate over Obama's scheduling is met with a Republican Hitler-based denunciation. Sadly, this kind of rhetoric has been a mark of conservative shame throughout the president's tenure.
In an extraordinary and at-times comical about-face, Fox News has ushered in the New Year by joining forces with Republicans to denounce President Obama for obstructing Congress and standing in the way of legislative accomplishments.
The beauty of the Fox performance is that hardly anybody breaks character by dipping into reality and acknowledging, 'Oh by the way, Republicans did just spend the last six years blocking every conceivable Obama initiative.' Instead, the script is adhered to with stoic loyalty and the meme marches on: The Republican Congress is eager and willing to get the job done if only Obama would act! It's an amazingly disciplined, although thoroughly oddball, propaganda performance.
"There's new energy and renewed vigor on the Hill to get something done," Fox's Kimberly Guilfoyle announced on The Five. "But what's really going to poison the well is Obama with the pen. If he's going to sit there and be an obstructionist, and uses pen to be -- so it's really going to put -- you know, a drain on kind of any energy working on bipartisan things together."
Host Megyn Kelly was concerned last week that Obama's stated opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline might represent a "thumb in the eye" to the new Republican-controlled Senate. And Fox contributor Karl Rove advised Obama that if he vetoes Republican bills, "it's going to simply build the image of him as being obstructionist. That's not going to be healthy for his last two years in office."
The beauty of the Rove comment was that it was immediately followed by this observation from host Greta Van Susteren about Obama: "Many Republicans are right in his face saying they want to repeal Obamacare."
And she's right. Republicans have exerted unprecedented time and energy to try to undo Obama's landmark legislation from his first term. Republicans, cheered on by Fox News and the right-wing media, have waged an unrelenting political and legal war to dismantle Obamacare. And last week Van Susteren marveled that Republicans were once again right in Obama's face trying to repeal--to obstruct--Obamacare. Yet moments earlier Rove lamented Obama's supposed obstructionist streak? Both talkers pretended to be clueless about the glaring contradiction.
Meanwhile, Fox has welcomed a parade of Republicans who suddenly can't wait to legislate and who condemn the Democrats' obstructionist streak. "The American people are tired of the gridlock and the hyper-partisan environment here in Washington," Sen. Steve Daines (R-MT) told Fox News on January 7. "The election sent a very clear message, the people want to see the congress working together again."
This is almost two funny for words. Not the part about Americans wanting politicians to work together to get things done. (They definitely do.) But the idea that the midterm elections sent Congress and the White House a prescient and unprecedented memo: Work together. Because I'm pretty sure that by rewarding Obama with electoral landslide victories in 2008 and 2012, voters also "sent a very clear message."
On New Year's Eve, Christian Jose Gomez allegedly attacked his mother with an ax. Angry that she had been "nagging" him about moving some boxes up to the attic, Gomez beheaded Maria Suarez-Cassagne in the family's garage and tried to stuff her headless body into a garbage can, according to investigators. When he couldn't do that, he fled the home on his bike and was soon captured by local deputies in Oldsmar, Florida. Gomez calmly confessed to the crime and said he'd been planning it for days.
Note that Fox News ignored the Florida scene of grisly, domestic violence. Apparently, without a Muslim suspect under arrest for the beheading, Fox News wasn't interested. The cable channel didn't set aside hours to cover the horrific crime. There was no heated Fox News commentary, no panel discussions, no primetime news specials to comb over the evidence of the tragic beheading. Fox News didn't care about the shocking story of an isolated beheading in America.
Thirteen weeks ago however, Fox News couldn't stop talking about an isolated beheading in America. In late September 2014, Fox News became almost singularly obsessed with the gruesome workplace beheading in Moore, Oklahoma by a recent Muslim convert, Alton Nolen. Angered about being fired over racial comments at the Vaughan Foods processing plant, Nolen went home and retrieved a large kitchen knife. He returned to the workplace and began attacking his former co-workers. He beheaded one woman and injured another before he shot was by a company official. Nolen later confessed to the attack.
As reported at the time, when overseas Islamic State beheadings were in the news, "Moore police said there is no evidence that the attack was inspired by any similar events in the Middle East or by religious fundamentalism." The FBI found no links either: "They also said there was no indication that Nolen was copying the beheadings of journalists in Syria carried out by the Islamic State. Instead, the officials said, they are treating this as an incident of workplace violence."
Appearing before a Congressional hearing one week after the attack, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson testified that, while Nolen "was looking at the extreme ideology," "there is no evidence at this point that he was directed by a terrorist organization to do what he did or that that was the principle motivating factor." And that's why the local Oklahoma prosecutor charged Nolen with first-degree murder, but did not charge him as a terrorist.
Yet no strangers to fanning their patented flames of Islamophobia, Fox talkers elevated the tragic killing into a national story, while attaching sweeping political and national security implications to the crime. (Much of the national press also elevated the Moore story, but didn't incorporate Fox's naked Muslim-bashing in the process.) Declaring as fact that the beheading was an act of Islamic terrorism, and hyping it as an American jihadist on U.S. soil, Fox used the tragedy for political advantage, condemning Obama for being soft on terrorism, even though it was a local prosecutor in the very red state of Oklahoma who declined to bring terrorism charges.
The politicization surrounding the killing of two New York Police Department officers over the weekend was amazingly swift. Fox News led the right-wing media charge, immediately claiming Democratic elected officials were somehow responsible for the gun rampage, which began in Baltimore when Ismaaiyl Brinsley allegedly shot his ex-girlfriend, and extended to Brooklyn when the mentally troubled shooter assassinated two police officers, before killing himself on a city subway platform.
On Fox, hosts and guests were sure who was to blame for the tragedy; not the gunman necessarily, but political and community leaders like President Obama, Attorney General Eric Holder, Mayor Bill de Blasio and MSNBC's Al Sharpton. Why? Because the men, to varying degrees, have spoken out about the troubled relationship between law enforcement and the black community, and raised concerns about two recent high-profile cases, Michael Brown and Eric Garner, in which unarmed black men were killed, and police officers responsible were not indicted.
Against that backdrop of civil protest, former New York City Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik told Fox News, "I personally feel that Mayor de Blasio, Sharpton and others like them, they actually have blood on their hands."
"Let's talk about the president as well," responded Fox's Jeanine Pirro, suggesting Obama and Mayor de Blasio were to blame. "The two of them have undoubtedly created racial tensions that worsens, not betters the situation for law enforcement."
Appearing on Fox News, former New York City Mayor Rudolf Giuliani insisted the message from recent Obama "propaganda" was that "everybody should hate the cops." (No such Obama "propaganda" actually exists.)
The coverage of the Brooklyn killings on Fox News has leaned heavily on assigning a larger cultural and political blame. Yet in stark contrast, as Media Matters has documented, Fox News has routinely paid very little attention to breaking news stories that feature right-wing, or anti-government, gunmen who target law enforcement officials as a way to deliver their warped political messages.
And critically, when they have touched on those deadly attacks, Fox talkers have stressed that it's not fair to blame politics. Note that in 2013, after racist skinhead Michael Page started killing worshipers at an Oak Creek, WI., Sikh temple, and then murdered a police officer, Fox's Andrea Tantaros stressed that the killing spree was an isolated event that didn't have any larger implications. "How do you stop a lunatic?" she asked. "This is not a political issue."
At Fox, that has been the pattern: These kind of deadly right-wing attacks are treated as isolated incidents that are mostly void of politics. Instead, the perpetrators are portrayed as lone gunmen (and women) who do not represent any cultural or political movement.
Just over .0001 percent.
In terms of annual spending by the federal government, which totaled $3.5 trillion in fiscal year 2014, the cost for implementing the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act each year would have accounted for around .0001 of the U.S. budget. Over five years, the recently proposed veterans mental health bill would have cost $22 million, or $4.4 million each year.
Yet after passing the House on a simple voice vote, a truly remarkable accomplishment in today's historically gridlocked environment, the bill was blocked by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK). Claiming it duplicates already existing services provided by the Department of Veterans Affairs, that the bill "throws money and it doesn't solve the real problem," and its costs aren't offset by cuts elsewhere in the budget, Coburn, a medical doctor himself, on Monday refused to allow the health care bill to be voted on.
And because the Senate session was quickly coming to a close, the bill's backers didn't have time to make a procedural end-run around Coburn. The senator retires this year and veterans' supporters say they'll start the process all over in the next Congress, and spend months trying to pass the bill that would increase the number of psychiatrists at VA hospitals, speed up access to mental health care to veterans, and expands peer support networks. (The Clay Hunt bill is named after a Marine veteran who committed suicide in 2011 after being diagnosed with PTSD.)
Veterans' advocates were stunned by the Republican's stalling maneuver. "It's a shame that after two decades of service in Washington, Sen. Coburn will always be remembered for this final, misguided attack on veterans nationwide," said Paul Rieckhoff, CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.
Even for a Congress defined by its dysfunction and the hardened, radical obstructionism that has permeated the session, Coburn's decision, at the eleventh hour, to single-handedly block the Veterans Suicide Prevention Act, represented a disturbing, and newsworthy low.
Keep in mind, in Coburn's home state of Oklahoma, "veterans and active-duty military personnel are killing themselves at twice the rate of civilians, despite increased efforts to address the problem," according to a 2013 report in Oklahoma Watch.
Obviously, the blocked bill wasn't a major one in terms of size and scope. (As Wonkette noted, $22 million would have covered the cost of the Iraq War at its height for just three-and-half hours.) Still, here was an effort to address dire mental health concerns for American veterans and to deal specifically with the growing concern of veteran suicide, yet the bill wasn't even allowed to come up for a final vote?
Also note that Coburn, so concerned about budget restraints, supported the Iraq War ("Going to Iraq was exactly the right thing"), despite the fact the languishing effort drained more than $2 trillion from U.S. Treasury coffers. But today, Coburn's drawing the budgetary line in the sand over suicide prevention for veterans and $4.4 million-per year costs associated with the new program?
That, by any definition, represents news. Except many journalists didn't see it that way. Instead, they have averted their gaze from the obstructionist train wreck. And yes, we've seen this act before where the Beltway press produced a collective shrug of the shoulders when members of the Republican Party engaged in extraordinary bouts of interference.
After nine years at the helm of The Colbert Report, where he turned his brilliant right-wing persona into a sprawling marketing empire (see your grocery's freezer section), explained super PACs to everyday Americans, enlightened us about divinity, and added "truthiness" to the nation's vocabulary, Stephen Colbert says his farewell to the Colbert Nation this week to become CBS's new Late Night host. (Sans persona.)
For nearly ten years and more than 1,400 episodes, Colbert remained a constantly amusing and insightful part of our national dialogue. "Fans of the show and its indomitable host (only now defeated by the real-life lure of late-night respectability) have good reason to mourn," noted The New Yorker earlier this year, while Salon recently crowned Colbert "one of the most important figures in U.S. political comedy of all time."
By embracing the absurd and truly embodying it, Colbert has made politics and public policy uproariously funny, while providing much-needed bouts of sanity for devoted news junkies.
His satirical voice won't be gone completely, of course. Colbert's late-night colleague Jon Stewart continues to soldier on with The Daily Show, that show's alumni John Oliver is doing fine work at HBO, while another, Larry Wilmore, readies his turn to take over Colbert's late-night Comedy Central slot.
But there's no denying Colbert's exit from Comedy Central marks a cultural and political milestone of sorts. The exit is disheartening not only because the genuine laughs will be missed, but because Colbert's satirical work has been instrumental in spearheading progressive arguments and critiques for years.
Colbert's departure also reminds us how hollow conservative comedic efforts have been, as they fail to play catch-up in the cultural war of political satire. Humor remains a rhetorical weapon that American conservatives simply cannot harness.
Maybe that's because political comedy usually doesn't work well when it's anchored in seething hatred or even casual contempt, the type that conservatives hold for President Obama. Political satire works best when it's fueled by curiosity, bewilderment, annoyance, and with a dash of self-righteousness mixed in. And for nine years, Colbert has been deftly mixing that cocktail on The Colbert Report.