The Beltway media's theater critics posted their latest Hillary Clinton notices after she appeared at a political event in the important swing state of Iowa over the weekend. Bypassing substance as they now routinely do, scribes focused on style and many found it lacking: Too scripted! Clinton, the commentators complained, didn't come across natural enough. She lacked the charm of her husband, her body language was off, and so were her fashion choices.
"She cautiously enunciates each word from her prepared text, even the jokes," wrote Roger Simon at Politico. "She is careful, modulated, meticulous. She is Hillary." (Simon suggested Hillary's outfit was too formal for the Iowa event, as well.)
MSNBC morning host Joe Scarborough denounced Clinton as a "robot" with "no creativity, no spontaneity, nothing from the heart." Daily Beast editor John Avlon said on CNN that while Clinton was "urgent, important, and well-scripted," she nonetheless has to worry about "the connection question" and paled in comparison to her husband: "It's the natural versus the professional."
There's something deeply ironic about Hillary's drama coaches in the press doling out direction for her public appearances. It's ironic because some of the people and outlets hounding Hillary to be less scripted today -- to be more candid - were among those who spent the summer bemoaning Hillary's unscripted and candid comments. They're the same ones who dissected her every utterance and announced them to be both lacking and deeply troubling.
Recall the dominant theme of the media's gaffe-obsessed coverage from Hillary's book tour was, quite often, 'Oh my God, I can't believe she just said that.' And now they're deducting points for Clinton not being open enough?
The summer coverage continued the Beltway press' long tradition of parsing portions of Clinton comments often taken from hours worth of long-form interviews, spinning one phrase in the most unappealing way, and then announcing Clinton's word choice and "tone" was all wrong. (CNN even altered a Hillary quote this summer to make it more incriminating and newsworthy.)
It's sort of the Goldilocks approach to campaign journalism: 'Hillary's too hot. No, she's too cold. Why can't she just get it just right?'
On September 6, Republican Congressman Lynn Westmoreland spoke at a Cobb County Republican breakfast in Georgia to an audience of 75 people, who each paid $10 to attend his "update on the Benghazi investigation."
Westmoreland is one of seven Republican members picked to serve on the House select committee, which holds its first public hearing tomorrow and could stretch its inquiries into the 2016 election year. The latest Republican-run body follows what has been a parade of costly and repetitive investigations into the Benghazi terror attack that killed four Americans.
Despite a laundry list of nearly identical conclusions about the events, and the complete absence of a White House cover-up or wrongdoing, Republicans, spurred on by Fox News, press ahead in search of "answers" to supposedly elusive questions.
But in Cobb County that Saturday morning, Westmoreland insisted the committee's not "a partisan witch hunt." He stressed another point, according to a report in the Marietta Daily Journal [emphasis added]:
"I think our enemy stands on 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.," Westmoreland said to loud applause.
And so it goes.
Last week, as Fox's Benghazi cover-up conspiracy sputtered across the two-year anniversary line, Roger Ailes' team was furiously promoting not one but two new books, claiming both tomes boasted revelations that deepened the alleged controversy. (They do not.)
Benghazi, of course, has been politicized in the most disturbing way possible, to the point where Fox News and conservatives have has turned an American tragedy into something of a macabre Twitter punchline. It's become sort of a Groundhog Day of exploitation and fakery with more than one thousand on-air Fox segments -- during evening coverage alone -- devoted to the endless pursuit. And now the Republicans' select committee, virtually sponsored by Fox News, is set to add more chapters to the sprawling production, which conveniently doubles as a GOP fundraising tool.
According to press reports, the committee's first hearing will focus on the State Department's Accountability Review Board, which looked into the details surrounding the Benghazi attacks. In other words, Republican investigators have decided to investigate the Benghazi investigators. Again.
And at this point, does anyone even remember in 2012 when the family of slain U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens beseeched opportunists not to politicize his death? ("It would really be abhorrent to make this into a campaign issue.") Or when the mother of one of the other murdered Americans in Benghazi scolded Mitt Romney when he kept referencing her son on the presidential campaign trail? ("It's wrong to use these brave young men, who wanted freedom for all, to degrade Obama.")
Those wishes were almost instantly trampled and are now long forgotten by most; distant echoes drowned out by the churning gears of phony outrage.
The professionally sustained hysteria over the minutia of Benghazi --the YouTube video, Susan Rice's talking points, the allegedly nefarious White House emails, and the imaginary stand-down order -- they were all constructed for partisan purposes and none of them were based on fact or common sense.
Critics pounced after President Obama recently addressed the rising threat of the terror group Islamic State. His answers didn't represent "a national rallying cry" (National Journal). He sent "mixed messages" (ABC News). The president was guilty of an "inartful phrase" (Politico), and he wasn't projecting "an image of presidential resolve" (Washington Post).
The president hadn't necessarily said anything inaccurate or made controversial claims. Critics just didn't like the way he said what he said. It didn't look or sound quite right.
On Meet The Press, Obama conceded he had made a specific error when he played golf after making a public statement about the brutal beheading of American journalist James Foley. "I should've anticipated the optics," he said. "Part of this job is also the theater of it." And he's right, optics do matter for a commander-in-chief, especially in his role as communicator. But optics and stagecraft aren't the only thing. And Beltway pundits proved themselves to be poor judges of optics when a Republican last occupied the Oval Office.
Please recall that the press loved President George Bush's "Mission Accomplished" optics in 2003, which foolishly implied the United States had won the war in Iraq. (NBC's Brian Williams: "He looked terrific and full of energy in a flight suit.") And don't forget Bush's "bring them on" taunt when he was asked about escalating attacks on American troops inside Iraq. (More than 4,000 Americans subsequently died in fighting there.)
A common complaint about the Beltway press is that journalists obsess over process at the expense of substance. (i.e. Who's up, who's down?) Sadly, we've now eroded to the point where process journalism has been eclipsed by an even more meaningless pursuit: "optics."
Another description for the current press malady is theater criticism. Theater criticism means you don't offer solutions; you don't offer insights or analysis. Theater criticism means you simply detail everything the pitch-poor actor does wrong in terms of word choice, inflection and public emotion. (Or golfing.) Analysis is different. It's more difficult, more rigorous, and it's much needed.
Instead we got the tan suit meltdown. This was an actual tweet last month from one of the largest news organization in America:
How did we arrive at a place so trivial and vacuous?
After terrorists kidnapped and beheaded two American journalists, James Foley and Steven Sotloff, while releasing gruesome videos of the act, Fox News focused much of its ire on President Obama, portraying him as a source of troubling weakness.
"The president stuck his head in the sand, and now we've seen two Americans have lost their heads," insisted Fox analyst K.T. McFarland. Colleague Ralph Peters claimed of the president's foreign policy, "We have a president who has a real physiological problem: that he can't face responsibility and certainly not the responsibilities of his office," while Sean Hannity wondered if Obama's "radical indoctrination" had clouded his judgment.
On and on it goes, as the blame-America finger pointing takes up hour after hour of programming. The Washington Times' Charles Hurt on Wednesday wanted to know when Obama would stop acting like a community organizer and start hunting down the killers. Charles Krauthammer condemned Obama for not rising to the occasion, while former Vice President Dick Cheney appeared on Fox to claim world leaders see the president as "weak and ineffective" in the wake of the most recent beheading.
That last part is telling because in the spring of 2004, when Cheney was vice president and the misbegotten war he championed was raging in Iraq, two American citizens, Nick Berg and Paul Johnson, were also kidnapped by Islamic terrorists and were also beheaded for the world to see. But of course, Cheney didn't see that as a sign of President Bush's weakness and ineffectiveness, and neither did the White House's loyal band of professional defenders at Fox News.
Even six years into Obama's presidency, it's still stunning to see how radically different Fox presents the news and frames its commentary based entirely on which party controls the White House. When Bush was president, Fox talkers urged that Americans come together and support the administration as it battled lawless killers ("murders," "sadists," "savages") who decapitated Americans.
In 2004, Fox hosted long conversations about the beheadings and Bush's name was often never even mentioned. He was a non-player in the story. But today, the beheadings revolve around Obama.
With a Democratic president, many of those same 2004 talkers now turn their attention, and their wrath, to Pennsylvania Avenue and use the deaths as a cudgel to bash the president as being impotent. i.e. He didn't prevent the deaths! Of course neither did Bush, but the Fox rules of propaganda were different for him.
The lament has spread all across the media spectrum this week, as the crisis in Ferguson, Missouri unfolds and people search for answers to the police killing of unarmed teen Michael Brown.
"Obama Should Go To Ferguson, Pronto," urged a Businessweek headline, beseeching the president to fill a leadership vacuum on the ground in Missouri. "Obama, can't you see black anger in Ferguson?" asked Marc Lamont Hill in a CNN essay. Writing at Daily Beast, Stuart Stevens lamented that Obama had "lost faith in his voice in Ferguson"; that he was "increasingly uncomfortable with the role of healer-in-chief," while the Washington Post's Joel Achenbach urged Obama to give another "national address" on race because that's what the crisis demands.
Maureen Dowd's New York Times column today's mocks Obama as a "the most ordinary of men" with a "bored-bird-in-a-gilded-cage attitude" who is unwilling to engage with the issue of racial strife.
Most of the of the do-something commentary has adopted the same premise: Obama could help the Ferguson crisis by giving a speech about race or addressing the situation more forcefully, but he won't. He won't use his powers. (See: The Green Lantern theory that Obama could convince a recalcitrant GOP Congress to pass legislation if he only tried.)
That premise though, and most of the commentary, completely ignores the corrosive role of the right-wing media in America, how it has spent years trying to silence and intimidate Obama on the topic of race, and how it's used some of the most offensive, guttural rhetoric and personal attacks to do so.
Through Obama's two terms, most of the Beltway press has remained strangely silent about the astonishingly ugly race baiting that now passes for mainstream conservative media commentary. That same press corps is now turning a blind eye to the tangible damage that kind of rhetoric has done to public debate, or the chance of public debate, and how the right-wing media has tried to implement a heckler's veto on Obama; to effectively shout him down.
It's fine for pundits to yearn for open dialogue and rhetorical leadership from the White House. It's less helpful for them to ignore the unpleasant realities of nasty partisan politics in the age of Obama. It does no good to pretend race baiting hasn't become a badge of honor and a professional path to success for lots of right-wing pundits.
For Obama to aggressively insert himself into the Ferguson story now is to invite a right-wing media hurricane that would likely rage for weeks. How do we know? Because again and again we've seen President Obama's attempts to engage on similar issues act as a lightning rod for these angry voices, quickly making it impossible to focus on the pressing issue at hand.
The audible gasps and groans seemed to come from every direction of the Outnumbered studio on Fox News yesterday when the rotating cast of four female hosts heard Fox contributor Dr. Keith Ablow deride First Lady Michelle Obama's weight.
Covering the well-beaten, right-wing media path of denouncing Obama's efforts to improve nutritional habits of American children via improved government standard for school lunches ("She's kind of annoying that way"), Ablow suddenly took the conversation down a bizarre path, even by Fox News standards: He dropped a cavalier, contemptuous and deeply sexist stink bomb by suggesting the First Lady should "drop a few" if she wanted to be a credible spokeswoman on nutrition: "How well could she be eating? She needs to drop a few. I'm telling you, let's be honest. We're taking nutrition advice from who?"
With both arms sprayed over the middle of Outnumbered's curved couch, a lounging Ablow suggested that because Barack Obama is skinny, he'd be willing to take nutritional advice from him, but not from his (fat) wife who's supposedly sneaking midnight snacks in the White House kitchen.
And with that, the room erupted.
"You did not say that," responded a stunned co-host Harris Faulkner after hearing the "lose a few" put-down. "Oh my goodness." Ablow's comment was so crass and debasing Faulkner wondered out loud if the show was "on a seven-second delay" so the weight-loss denigration could be bleeped before it reached the ears of viewers. (It was not.)
And that was the just the beginning. Responding to Ablow, co-host Kennedy quickly launched into an impression of a chauvinist pig (she gave him a thick Brooklyn accent): "Hey Michelle Obama, she needs to lose the junk in her trunk."
Faulkner again to Ablow: "Oh my goodness gracious."
Meanwhile, Kimberly Guilfoyle, sitting at the far end of the couch, simply shook her head, and when Sandra Smith tried to continue the nutrition conversation she admitted she was at a "loss of words" following Ablow's abject insult. Yes, Ablow unfurled his sexist, weight-based attack on a program hosted by four professional women.
Soon after, Fox News' senior meteorologist Janice Dean took to Twitter to brush Ablow back even further: "please keep your comments about women 'dropping a few' to yourself. Sincerely, all women."
Right-wing publicist and author Craig Shirley doesn't like a new book about Ronald Reagan written by award-winning (and liberal) historian Rick Perlstein. So the conservative publicist has threatened to sue for $25 million in damages and has asked for all copies of the book to be "destroyed," claiming that with Invisible Bridge: The Fall Of Richard Nixon And The Rise of Ronald Reagan, Perlstein's guilty of plagiarism for paraphrasing facts Shirley had previously reported in his own book about Reagan.
But of course, paraphrasing is not the basis for copyright infringement and that's certainly not what constitutes plagiarism.
Reviewing the supposed examples of infringement cited by Shirley's lawyers, Jesse Walker, books editor for the libertarian Reason magazine, concludes:
Facts are not copyrightable, and one pair of similar sentences does not an infringement make. I don't see a dollar's worth of damages here, let alone 25 million.
Instead, the attack on Perlstein seems to be more about partisan politics and the clash over who gets to write the history of Reagan and less to do with allegations of misappropriating work. (Perlstein references Shirley's work in the Invisible Bridge acknowledgements and cites Shirley more than 100 times in the book's online endnotes.) Conservatives have previously showered Perlstein's conservative-movement books in praise, but, "this time Perlstein is writing about Ronald Reagan. Goldwater, Nixon, Reagan--Perlstein has moved from covering a minor saint, to a martyr, to God," as Slate's Dave Weigel explains.
Nonetheless, with an unfortunate assist from the New York Times this week, which helped legitimize the dubious plagiarism allegation via a he-said/he-said accounting of the controversy, Shirley's attention-grabbing accusation has received a wider airing. Indeed, the Times article insists Shirley's dubious claim of plagiarism effectively "casts a shadow over the release" of Invisible Bridge, which is precisely the storyline movement conservatives want to create this week. (Separately, the Times, in a glowing review, recently labeled the book an "epic work.")
The Times' misguided new coverage seemed to draw a rebuke from the paper's own Paul Krugman. Denouncing the Perlstein smear campaign as a "grotesque" "sliming," and dismissing the plagiarism charges as "spurious," Krugman stressed that in cases where professional reputations are attacked via unsubstantiated claims, "this tactic should be punctured by the press, not given momentum with "opinions differ on shape of the planet" reporting."
And that's precisely what the Times dispatch failed to do in this instance.
Yes or no? Up or down?
It's been a confusing week for professional Obama critics. Suddenly confronted with the topic of impeachment and busy issuing not-quite-believable denials that trying to drive the Democratic president from office has ever been a serious pursuit of the Republican Party or its most aggressive boosters, many members of the far-right press seemed caught off guard by recent developments.
Angered by the fact the White House is highlighting the GOP's ongoing embrace of impeachment and suggesting Republicans might act on the idea if they win control of the U.S. Senate, conservatives have tried to quiet their own crowd, apparently concerned about optics.
But the fever swamp has never been about optics. It's about whipping as many people as possible into a state of narrow-minded outrage on a daily basis. And if that means dipping into the impeachment pool, then so be it.
Now press partisans are caught in no-man's land. Seeing the fundraising success Democrats have had off impeachment, conservative critics angrily deny that Republicans have any interest in impeachment. Yet at the same time they're part of a media movement that thinks Obama should be impeached. (He's a lawless tyrant, in case you hadn't heard.) The contradiction has led to a week of confusion and missteps as the conservative media struggle with how transparent they should be in their loathing of the president, especially if there are indications Democrats are using that rage to their advantage, both politically and financially.
So almost overnight there's been a movement to hush the most strident critics; to urge everyone to take it down a notch because it just doesn't look good.
On Fox News, The Five co-host Greg Gutfeld dismissed impeachment as a "stunt" that's "tossed out by people addicted to [the] splash those stunts make." What kind of people? "Bloggers" and "talking heads," he said. Co-host Andrea Tantaros agreed, bemoaning the fact "There's a movement in talk radio and on the right to profiteer from these wild ideas." (Note that Tantaros still thinks Obama might do something "worthy of impeachment" just to bait Republicans into it.") And colleague Eric Bolling insisted even talk radio hosts had "backed off" the topic because they realized it "sounded a little bit crazy."
But nobody puts Rush Limbaugh and Mark Levin in the corner, so the angry talkers haven't backed down from the impeachment charge. (Levin: "Here's the dead truth -- Obama should be impeached.") And that leaves damage control agents like Tantaros looking a bit foolish: How can impeachment deniers claim the topic's not being treated seriously when two of the most popular radio hosts in right-wing America are doing just that, and demanding their millions of listeners do the same? (For a cheat sheet of Republican politicians who also have also pushed impeachment, see here.)
And that's been the confusing part: The claim nobody on the right's been promoting impeachment (it's all a liberal conspiracy), vs. the acknowledgement that okay, some people have but they're really misguided and irresponsible.
Hitting on what has become one of the Beltway media's favorite narratives of 2014, the Washington Post's Chris Cillizza this week bemoaned the fact that increased polarization within the electorate, fueled by spiraling partisanship, means "we are increasingly moving toward two entirely separate Americas, a liberal one and a conservative one." According to the writer, we're two separate, stubborn nations unwilling to communicate or compromise.
This type of analysis has been repeated often in recent weeks, in part because of an influential Pew Research study that fueled a larger media discussion about polarization. But this focus on polarization misses the larger point and lets the GOP off the hook. Especially when you look at the polling on crucial issues facing the nation; issues President Obama has tried to get Congress to act on for years.
The Democratic president's been met with an unprecedented brand of Republican obstructionism, which the press has often been too timid to name. Rather than call the malady what it is, media now embrace claims of cultural "polarization" to explain away the radical GOP streak.
The press throws up its hands and announces the whole situation is hopeless: Americans are so divided there's no way anything can get done in Washington because gridlocked politicians simply mirror the voters' disdain for compromise. But by throwing up their hands, journalists basically absolve Republicans for adopting their radical say-no strategy, while ignoring the fact that there exists agreement among voters on a wide range of pressing issues.
Immigration reform, climate change, war, extended unemployment benefits, minimum wage, and tighter gun laws are all part of a laundry list of issues where a working majority of Americans agree. Meaning, Obama enjoys widespread support for many of the tenets of his legislative agenda, but Republicans block everything in Congress. ("Legislative constipation," is how Vanity Fair's James Wolcott describes it.) The press, decrying gridlock without adequately assigning blame, insists that as a country we're deeply, deeply divided, and that's why nothing gets done in Washington.
But we're not.
Australia last week became "the world's first developed nation to repeal carbon laws that put a price on greenhouse-gas emissions." The country's carbon tax, which has been a passionate political topic there for more almost a decade, was finally instituted in 2012. But after a new conservative prime minister, Tony Abbott, was elected in September 2013, the carbon tax was aggressively targeted and then successfully repealed by Australia's Senate on July 17.
The retreat represents a win for climate deniers in Australia who dismiss the looming dangers of climate change and the science behind it. (It's "absolute crap," claimed Abbott, echoing Tea Party-type rhetoric in the United States.) It's a win for energy and mining interests who claimed the Australian tax was too burdensome
The retreat also signals a victory for Rupert Murdoch, the Australian native whose media empire, News Corp., did everything in its power to elect Abbott last fall and to attack the tax. Days before the repeal vote, Murdoch spoke out again against climate change science, telling an Australian interviewer it should be treated with great skepticism. Murdoch's dismissal stands in stark contrast to his 2007 proclamation that "climate change poses clear, catastrophic threats."
Murdoch's anti-climate change crusade in Australia certainly mirrors his company's commitment to misinformation in America, and highlights the dangers of having news media moguls who are dedicated to propaganda efforts regarding pressing public policy issues. (Murdoch is currently eyeing a bid to buy media giant Time Warner.) Indeed, Murdoch's media properties in Australia have been shown repeatedly to be wildly unfair and unbalanced when it comes to the topic of climate change.
Australia's carbon emissions repeal represents a dramatic U-turn for a country that just a few years ago was seen as a leader on the global issue under the guidance of previous Labor Party prime minsters, Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd. "The Brookings Institution has previously described Australia as an "important laboratory and learning opportunity" for U.S. thinking about climate change and energy policy, as it was one of the first major countries outside Europe to adopt a carbon price," The Wall Street Journal recently noted.