Even when President Obama successful maneuvers his way through Congressional votes and wins over reluctant Republicans, the press can find a way to paint his efforts as a failure. The New York Times was guilty of that today with a critique that portrayed a recent vote-getting victory as a White House loss.
Stressing what it claimed had been Obama's futile attempt to "twist arms" in the days and weeks before last week high-profile Senate vote on a gun safety bill, the New York Times highlighted an episode involving Sen. Mark Begich (D-AK), who represented a possible swing vote on the legislation. The Times reported that Begich in March had requested that the administration send its new Interior secretary, Sally Jewell, to Alaska to "discuss a long-simmering dispute over construction of a road through a wildlife refuge."
The White House, according to the Times, granted Begich's request, "to let Mr. Begich show his constituents that he is pushing the government to approve the road." With the White House's commitment in hand though, Begich then promptly voted against the administration on guns. And the Jewell trip is still on. The lesson, the Times stressed, was that Obama "has long struggled to master his relationship with Congress."
The Times' front-page piece today joined a cavalcade of commentary in recent days as pundits and reporters seem to race to explain how Obama blew the gun vote last week. (He's no LBJ!) And as they raced to downplay, if not completely eliminate, the obstructionist role Republicans played (again) in blocking the bipartisan gun bill.
As Times columnist Maureen Dowd wrote on April 21, while blaming Obama entirely for the bill's defeat, the legislative setback stemmed from the president's failure to govern; from his "weakness in using leverage to get what he wants."
The problem with the Times' Begich anecdote that rather than illustrating a White House failure in terms of lobbying to win votes on guns, the trip in question was actually the result of a successful White House negotiation with the state's other senator to achieve a different administration goal. The fact the Times used such a thin example as its primary illustration raises doubts about the validity of the press' ongoing effort to paint the White House gun campaign as an abject failure, and its claim that Obama doesn't know how to govern.
Looking back at the Senate's failure last week to pass gun safety legislation in the wake of the school massacre in Newtown, CT., Slate's John Dickerson writes that the bill fell victim to "the structure of the Senate, its partisan makeup, and pressure from gun rights advocates."
I guess that's one way of putting it. Another way of putting it is that Republicans continued to adhere to their unprecedented, four-year campaign of obstructionism and blocked a bill, whose central proposal, expanded background checks, enjoyed a stunning 90 percent support from the American public. But that's not the story Beltway pundits and reporters want to tell.
Instead, with the political postmortems continuing to come in, it's clear the press remains committed to blaming Obama and Democrats for the failure of gun legislation. It's clear the press will not budget from its preferred storyline that as long as Republicans obstruct Obama's agenda, the president will be faulted for not changing the GOP's unprecedented behavior.
And yes, in recent days the level of purposeful obtuseness has reached astonishing heights. In the wake of the bitter gun bill defeat, the DC press wants to tell one story, and one story only: Obama blew it. And they're so committed to the crooked narrative that they're now willing to completely write Republicans out of the story.
How committed? Slate's Dickerson wrote a 1,000-word piece about the gun bill and never once typed the word "Republican." (Or "GOP.") For Dickerson, Republicans weren't players in the gun bill saga, and they certainly weren't the reason it failed to pass. Instead, it failed because of the "president's limitations as a negotiator." And why was that? Because Obama "couldn't master the art of politics," Dickerson wrote.
New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd agreed, claiming the bill's defeat represented a "glaring example" of Obama's weakness. She ridiculed the president for not having "learned how to govern."
And an April 23 front-page New York Times report offered the similar refrain:
If he cannot translate the support of 90 percent of the public for background checks into a victory on Capitol Hill, what can he expect to accomplish legislatively for his remaining three and a half years in office.
The fact is that a majority of Republicans blocked the bill, and blocked even allowing debate on the gun safety bill. But that is now deemed to be irrelevant. Obama's supposed personal and professional shortcomings last week are the real story.
Is the president fair game for criticism and second-guessing in the wake of the gun bill's failure? Of course. Is Obama the only reason the gun bill didn't pass? He is not. But boy, the pundit class and elite reporters sure like to pretend he is.
Prefacing his comments by insisting he knows "how foreign affairs work," Glenn Beck on April 18 announced that his website, The Blaze, was breaking news about the Boston Marathon bombing: A Saudi national student on a student visa and was "absolutely involved" in the Patriot's Day blast was being deported by the U.S. government for security reasons.
Beck went further, claiming the student, or "dirt bag," as the host described him, was "possibly the ringleader" in the bombing that killed three people and injured more than one hundred, and the government was deliberately covering it up.
Beck urged listeners to spread the breaking news via Twitter and Facebook because, he warned, the mainstream media would ignore the revelation. But the right-wing media would pick up the slack. Fox News' Sean Hannity helped launch the story on April 17 and continued to fan it yesterday, claiming the student had previously "been involved with a terrorist or terror activity," while a swarm of right-wing sites pushed the paranoid tale.
By making his wild allegations, Beck was asking listeners to ignore the fact that law enforcement officials had previously, and repeatedly, denied earlier right-wing media claims that the Saudi student had been taken into "custody," or was in any way responsible for the blast.
Indeed, officials at Immigrations and Customs Enforcement and the Department of Homeland Security both soundly denied the story, explaining that there were two different Saudi nationals: one recovering in a Boston hospital who had witnessed and been injured in the explosions but was not a suspect, and another in ICE custody who was unrelated to the bombing investigation. Beck responded by calling for President Obama to be impeached for what he considered the sprawling government cover-up that now surrounded the student, Saudi Arabia and Al Qaeda.
So yeah, it was that kind of week for the right-wing media. It was a debacle.
In the same week that Pulitzer prizes were announced honoring the finest in American journalism, many in the far-right media worked to set news standards in mindless, awful behavior in the wake of the Boston attack.
Faced with covering the most important American terror news story in a decade, too many players opted to just make stuff up. Prompting witch hunts, they cast innocents as would-be killers and then couldn't be bothered with apologies.
Right before noon on April 16, the New York Post quietly surrendered and conceded its big scoop from the previous day, that 12 people had been killed by the Patriot's Day terrorist attack in Boston, could no longer be sustained.
The concession didn't come in the form of a correction or a clarification. (Rupert Murdoch's money-losing daily rarely bothers with such newsroom niceties). It simply appeared in a news story posted on the daily's website at 11:55 a.m., where any reference to 12 Boston victims was quietly dropped [emphasis added]:
The twin blasts killed at least three people and injured 176 -- including 17 in critical condition, authorities said today.
Four hours later, the Post reaffirmed that it had flushed its big scoop down the memory hole [emphasis added]:
A 29-year-old restaurant manager from suburban Boston and an 8-year-old boy from the city's Dorchester neighborhood were identified today as two of the three people killed in the Boston Marathon bombings.
But that wasn't all.
Right around 3 p.m. on April 16, the Post quietly conceded its other big scoop from the day before was wrong; its claim that a Saudi national student had been taken "into custody" by police, was tagged a "suspect". ("Suspect" was later amended to a "potential suspect.) That second embarrassing concession was announced on the daily's twitter feed:
Investigators rule out Saudi national as a suspect in Boston bombing after searching his apartment nyp.st/Zougoy-- New York Post (@nypost) April 16, 2013
It's not the most pressing question to ponder in the wake of the carnage that exploded in Boston, as authorities search for those responsible. But in terms of journalism and ethics and common sense, the Post's performance does make you wonder how a news organization, and even one owned by Rupert Murdoch, manages to get a story that wrong?
I understand it's the notoriously deceitful New York Post we're talking about. It's one thing to make stuff up about Democrats on behalf of the RNC while the Post proudly plays its role as cog in the Republican Noise Machine. But to completely botch, and so publicly, botch one of the biggest crime story in years?
If there's anything the Post, as a proud big-city tabloid, is supposed to be good at, it's big crime stories; working cop sources as well as sources buried deep inside the FBI and the federal government. The Post is supposed to be wired all across law enforcement, even if the breaking story unfolds in Boston.
So this debacle is bad; really bad. Even for the New York Post.
The latest print copy of The Weekly Standard contains an unsigned editorial condemning the press for not covering the trial of Dr. Kermit Gosnell, who is accused of murder after performing illegal later-term abortions at his Philadelphia clinic. Bill Kristol's magazine insists there's "no conceivable professional justification for the Gosnell blackout." And yet the Weekly Standard's editorial represents the first time the magazine has mentioned the Gosnell trial, which began March 18, in its pages, according to a Nexis search.
It's a pattern we have seen play out again and again in the last week: Indignant conservatives demanding to know why the disturbing Gosnell trial isn't receiving more coverage from the allegedly liberal media, while failing to acknowledge the trial has often been ignored by the conservative press, too.
The lingering question is, why? Why did a Philadelphia trial that conservatives now insist deserves ongoing, front-page national press coverage manage to interest so few right-leaning journalists for so long? Why did the conservative press get caught in the embarrassing position where members complained about a Gosnell "media blackout" when conservative outlets had apparently participated in the blackout? (Note that as of today, Rupert Murdoch's New York Post and still have not covered the trial as a news story and Murdoch's Wall Street Journal has published just a single report.)
I think the simple answer is that the Gosnell story did not involve President Obama, therefore it didn't sustain the attention of the far-right press, which seems fully committed to producing content that only revolves around attacking the president or ginning up phony outrage about his every action.
For four years, the GOP press has confirmed its obsession with documenting how Obama is destroying the Constitution and that he his agenda represents payback against white Europeans who settled the country, that he attempted to "assault" liberty with his second inaugural address, the First Family's vacations cost too much, Bob Woodward was threatened by White House "thugs", inviting school children to White House events is offensive and exploitative, Friends of Hamas donated money to Obama's Secretary of Defense, or whatever other nonsense is being shoveled that given week.
Infected with Obama Derangement Syndrome, conservative journalists often seem incapable of surveying the larger landscape and deciding what's actually newsworthy and important to their cause. They seem incapable of viewing the world through anything but an Obama-hating soda straw. And when looking through that straw in recent weeks, they couldn't see the Gosnell trial because the president was nowhere in sight.
Conservative media critics have been adamant this week in accusing news organizations of ignoring the trial of Dr. Kermit Gosnell, who is charged with killing seven babies and a mother. According to the grand jury report, Gosnell was running a "house of horrors" in which he performed illegal late-term abortions by delivering live babies who were then killed by his staff, all under unsafe conditions. Convinced the liberal media is censoring the story because of its alleged support for abortion, critics have been lamenting the lack of coverage and demanding the disturbing local trial be treated as big national news.
On Fox News' Special Report yesterday, contributor Jonah Goldberg complained that "the media is not covering" the story. Fox News employee Kirsten Powers penned a USA Today column criticizing the country's leading newspapers for not putting the Gosnell story on "the front page." (Powers singled out the New York Times and the Washington Post for allegedly downplaying the Philadelphia trial.)
And on Thursday, Rupert Murdoch's flagship American newspaper, The New York Post, weighed in with an unsigned editorial, "Dead Silence," which condemned the supposed "media blackout" surrounding the story.
Like most of the conservative attacks, the Post's editorial saw a clear case of media bias [emphasis added]:
The trial is receiving intensive coverage in Philadelphia and across the conservative press and Web sites. But national networks and newspapers? Not so much.
The reason seems obvious: Much of our press corps skews to one side on abortion. So even though what Gosnell is charged with is closer to infanticide - an unlicensed abortionist profiting mightily by killing the newborn babies of poor, minority women - somehow it's not news.
Isn't that a scandal, too?
Here's the thing: Up until Thursday's editorial condemning the so-called liberal media for not covering the Gosnell trial, the New York Post hadn't covered the Gosnell trial. Not only hadn't the Post put the story on its front page, where Powers demanded it belonged, but Murdoch's Post hadn't covered the story at all*. Meaning, the Post had been part of the media "silence" surrounding the story; the same silence the Post yesterday condemned.
Note that Murdoch's Wall Street Journal also has not covered the Gosnell trial, according a search of the paper's archives, via the Factiva database.
Despite the fact that Americans, including gun owners and Republicans, are lending historic levels of support to President Obama's endorsed proposal to expand background checks for all gun purchases, the list of Republican senators vowing the filibuster any such bill expanded this week: Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell became the 14th Republican to pledge not to allow a vote on any proposed gun legislation to take place on the floor of U.S. Senate.
In the end, it seems the attempted blockade to halt debate on the legislation has failed. But the Republicans' obstructionist strategy was no surprise, considering the party quickly coalesced around that dead-end tactic in early 2009. It's an unprecedented approach they've adopted to essentially proudly oppose anything endorsed by the White House, including, cabinet nominees and emergency relief packages.
That's now a given. What continues to shock is the extent to which the press in the weeks leading up to the pending gun vote played along with the Republican intransigence. What's distressing is how Beltway pundits largely gave Republicans a free pass and instead focused its blame on Democrats for failing to change Republicans behavior; for getting "cocky" and missing "their window" following the school massacre in Newtown, CT. And for "grasping at straws."
Routinely, we saw gun narratives that found fault primarily with the president: If only Obama had acted sooner, or proposed different legislation, or talked more often to Republicans, or not held public events in support of new gun laws. If Obama had just done everything differently, pundits suggested, he would've been able to win substantial Republican support and been able to easily secure passage of new gun control legislation.
That's because, despite four years of relentless obstruction, much of the press still hasn't budged from its preferred, naïve premise that, collectively, Republicans are routinely open to compromise, that they're honest brokers, and that it's Obama's job to just figure out how to get them to say yes. (Why won't he just lead?)
In the end, Democrats in the Senate this week may succeed in brokering a deal on gun legislation. As of now, Democrats will at least be able to bring the issue up for discussion in the Senate, which actually constitutes a major victory amidst the Republicans' blanket of no. But it's odd Democrats have so often been the focus of the press' attention, when Republicans are the ones standing in the way.
By the way, how radical of a shift is today's GOP behavior on guns? In 1999, 31 Senate Republicans voted in favor of mandating background checks at gun shows. And in 1994, 42 House Republicans voted for President Bill Clinton's crime bill, which included a ban on assault weapons.
But little of that matters now.
With Politico announcing that even "average Americans" are consumed with the question of whether Hillary Clinton will be running for president 40 months from now, the Beltway press corps has officially slipped into Hillary Watch mode. It's a mostly lazy and pointless variety of speculation that requires very little work and produces even less insight.
In fact, perhaps the only telling trait that's been highlighted came via longtime Clinton hater Maureen Dowd, who signaled in her New York Times column on Sunday that she's committed to rewriting the history of her 2008 campaign coverage. I assume Dowd won't be alone as pundits scramble in the face of Clinton's rising popularity to whitewash the extraordinary venom they unleashed on her during her last White House run.
When not detailing Hillary's "hot pink jacket" and new hairstyle, Dowd in her weekend column wondered whether voters will see a new and improved candidate in 2012, one without the "foolery" of 2008, as the headline put it.
"Foolery," as in Clinton acting with ambition and wanting to be taken seriously as a national leader. "Foolery," as in Clinton representing an historic female figure on the campaign trail. (Dowd hated that in 2008: "Hillary often aims to use gender to her advantage, or to excuse mistakes.")
A sizable portion of the D.C. punditocracy, led by Dowd, lost its collective mind covering the Clintons five years ago. They were so far gone that the former first lady's coverage at times represented a house of mirrors featuring manufactured smears and controversies. (See here, here and here.)
And oh yeah, the sexism.
But that's not to be acknowledged now, especially as pundits pass their time "analyzing" Clinton's future. See, according to Dowd it's not the press that needs to learn from its monumental mistakes in 2008, it's Clinton.
One of the mantras of the American gun lobby, and one repeated constantly by its right-wing media allies, is the absolutist view that new gun restrictions aren't needed because they won't work. That argument is often quickly joined by the fatalistic view that there's nothing we can really do to cut down number of gun deaths in America; that government regulations, including expanded background checks for all gun purchases, would have no impact.
Both views have been on constant display as President Obama urges Congress to take action and pass new control measures.
Fox News contributor Bill Kristol last week insisted he'd seen "zero analysis, zero argument" that any of the proposed regulations would "make any appreciable difference in reducing gun violence and murders." On CNN, conservative Dana Loesch claimed "we have gun laws already on the books," and that new gun proposals would simply represent redundancies.
The companion case to right-wing claim is that gun control regulations won't reduce deaths is that the only way to achieve that goal is to have more guns in circulation will achieve that goal. (That argument is false. Obviously.)
But the clear flaw in the anti-regulation claim is that new government rules have been credited in recent years with drastically reducing the number of U.S. fatalities surrounding another potentially dangerous consumer product: Automobiles.
Look at the data: In 2011, the number of people killed in traffic accidents fell to 32,367, the lowest annual U.S. tally since 1949. (Automotive deaths peaked in 1972, with 54,589.) That decline came despite the fact that in over the last five-plus decades the number of drivers on American roads has exploded: 62 million then vs. 210 million now.
More recently, vehicular deaths plummeted 25 percent between 2005 and 2011, according to the Department of Transportation's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. (Those numbers rose in 2012, ending a seven-year decline.)
What do experts point to for the recent overall reduction in automotive deaths? They credit, in part, state and federal efforts, often done in tandem with car manufacturers, which have made the potentially dangerous act of driving much less deadly.
From CNN in 2011 [emphasis added]:
Experts attribute the change to a variety of reasons, including changes to cars -- such as vehicle rollover protection -- and programs to change driver behavior -- such as campaigns addressing drunk driving, distracted driving and seat belt use. Laws aimed at young people also likely have had an impact, notably older minimum drinking ages and graduated drivers' licenses.
In other words, government regulations have helped dramatically reduce the number of vehicular fatalities in recent years. By treating driving as the obvious public safety issue that it is, and after new regulations were put in place in an effort to improve product safety and consumer behavior, the number of fatalities quickly dropped. Impelled by federal regulations, car manufacturers have made a concerted effort to make their products more safe via air bags, anti-rollover technology, and stronger vehicle roofs. For decades however, automakers waged the "regulatory equivalent of war" against the government's push for airbags and other safety initiatives. Today, those same manufacturers aggressively market new safety features to consumers.
Could a similar government push, aided by manufacturer cooperation, produce a comparable decline in gun deaths? Public safety experts insist the answer is yes. "Absolutely," says Garen Wintemute, director of the Violence Prevention Research Program at the University of California, Davis.
When political novices fly too close to the Fox News flame, they risk getting burned. Just ask Dr. Ben Carson.
After profiting from a Fox News public relations blitz for the past two months, during which he logged at least twenty appearances on the network, the famous neurosurgeon, who has been toasted inside right-wing circles as a possible GOP savior, has suddenly been forced to defend his "trainwreck" interview where he likened marriage equality supporters to people advocating pedophilia and bestiality.
And just like that, Carson has gone from being Fox News' surefire rising star to a target of a widespread backlash. And just like that he's learned the Fox News embrace carries with it grave consequences and that hard-earned reputations can be tarnished in an instant.
Prior to his Fox News stint, Carson enjoyed a sterling reputation his work as a pediatric neurosurgeon. In recent days though, a colleague from John Hopkins told Media Matters that Carson's anti-gay comments made him look "nasty, petty and ill-informed," while students at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine requested that Carson be removed as this year's commencement speaker. (A guest on Hannity last night said Carson had "ruined his name" after Sean Hannity had worked so hard to elevate him.)
The surgeon's tumble from the Fox pedestal captures the cycle of futility that the cable channel has mastered in recent years in its never-ending pursuit to prop up challengers to President Obama. And it's never-ending pursuit to find a lazy shortcut for launching candidates. (Think: Donald Trump, Sarah Palin, and Herman Cain, among others.)
But not only did Carson badly stumble with his shocking comments about marriage equality, but as we've seen from this predictable model, he's also been turned into a professional victim by the right-wing media, whose practitioners like nothing better than ignoring substantive debates in order to complain about alleged biases in the press coverage. (All the while being careful not to actually repeat or explain what Carson's scandalous remarks were, of course.)
Cue Rush Limbaugh:
-"We are in the midst of mob rule now. In this case led by the trolls at Media Matters and aided and abetted by the so-called mainstream media."
-"Amidst all this talk of equality, Ben Carson is not allowed to voice his opinion."