The raucous political warfare of the 1990s returned into view late last week with the stunning news that former Republican Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert is under indictment for allegedly agreeing to pay more than $3 million in hush money to cover up sexual abuse involving a male student at a high school where Hastert taught decades ago.
Hastert's unsettling case doesn't have anything to do with partisan politics, per se. But his rise to the speakership back in 1998 sure did. Like virtually everything else inside the Beltway at the time, Hastert's promotion revolved around the Republicans' relentless impeachment pursuit against President Bill Clinton. And today, Hastert's alleged crime once again throws into focus what a strange and hypocritical spectacle it was for GOP men to play sex cop and crusade for impeachment.
The impeachment of Bill Clinton defined American politics in the 1990s. It also defined the Beltway press, which still clings to many of the bad Clinton-related habits it formed that decade. The impeachment farce, where the press teamed up with Republicans to wage war on a Democrat, could also explain why the Clintons today might not fully trust the media as Hillary Clinton expands her presidential run and the press stands "primed" to take her down.
Why won't Hillary Clinton open up to the press? Why can't Bill and Hillary handle the media? Why has she "withdrawn into a gilded shell"? Why does she wear media "armor"? Those questions have been rehashed in recent months as journalists focus on themselves and what role they'll play in the unfolding nomination contest.
A suggestion: Follow the path back to Dennis Hastert's impeachment era for clues to those Clinton press questions.
During the 1990s, Hastert remained a firm advocate of impeachment, at one point condemning the president for his "inability to abide by the law." Hastert stressed, "The evidence in President Clinton's case is overwhelming that he has abused and violated the public trust."
Of course it was the impeachment imbroglio that elevated Hastert, indirectly, to his lofty position of speaker of the House; a position he later leveraged into millions by becoming a very wealthy lobbyist.
The background: Former Republican Speaker Newt Gingrich was forced to resign in 1998 after the impeachment-obsessed GOP faced disastrous midterm losses. (Gingrich later admitted he was engaged in an affair with a Congressional aide at the time.) Up next was Rep. Bob Livingston (R-LA), chairman of the powerful Appropriations Committee. "One of the loudest of those calling for the House to impeach Clinton over an extra-marital affair," noted the National Journal, Livingston was soon ousted after he was forced to publicly confess to committing adultery "on occasion."
Into that void stepped Hastert.
That means all three Republican House leaders who pursued Clinton's impeachment have now confessed or been accused of sexual and moral transgressions themselves. Those were the people the D.C press took its cues from during the impeachment charade?
As Orin Kerr noted in the Washington Post following the Hastert indictment:
If I understand the history correctly, in the late 1990s, the President was impeached for lying about a sexual affair by a House of Representatives led by a man who was also then hiding a sexual affair, who was supposed to be replaced by another Congressman who stepped down when forced to reveal that he too was having a sexual affair, which led to the election of a new Speaker of the House who now has been indicted for lying about payments covering up his sexual contact with a boy.
While some in the press have conceded that the '90s impeachment was a strange circus, the truth is the Beltway press basically served as executive producers for the GOP's doomed theatrical run. It was the media elite who legitimized for years the right-wing's Javert-like pursuit of all things Clinton. "So much of the media was invested in breathless, often uncritical coverage of Clinton's impeachment," wrote Josh Marshall at Salon in 2002, while detailing the final release of the independent prosecutor's $70 million Clinton investigation.
Put another way, the same D.C. press corps that openly taunted the Clintons for years in the '90s, culminating with impeachment, is the same D.C. press corps that's now openly taunting them, for instance, regarding the Clinton Foundation, Hillary Clinton's emails, and anything/everything else that can be presented as a Clinton "scandal" story.
That's why when the New York Times story about Hillary Clinton's email account first broke in March, "The media and politicos and Twitterati immediately responded with all the measured cautious skepticism we've come to expect in response to any implication of a Clinton Scandal," noted Wonkette. "That is to say, none." And that's why Times columnist and chief Clinton sex chronicler Maureen Dowd has, to date, published 100 columns mentioning "Lewinsky."
More than twenty years ago, the Clintons understood that the so-called liberal media was working with conservative activists and Republican prosecutors to try to destroy Bill's presidency. For the GOP, the motivation was purely partisan. For the press, it seemed to be a mix of careerism (Clinton bashing proved to be good for business), combined with a genuine dislike of the Clintons.
Today, it's often difficult to recapture just how completely bonkers the D.C. media establishment went during the impeachment saga, and how on some days it seemed journalists were more pruriently obsessed with the Clintons than their tireless Republican tormentors. The recent Hastert sexual abuse allegation helps bring into focus the absurdity of the era, and reminds us why, as a new campaign season unfolds, the Clintons might not fully trust the Beltway media.
On May 26, Sen. Bernie Sanders hosted his first major campaign rally since announcing his presidential candidacy last month. Staged on the banks of Lake Champlain in his hometown of Burlington, Vermont, the Sanders rally reportedly drew more than five thousand people, making it one of the largest campaign events of 2015, hosted by either a Democrat or a Republican.
But the sprawling rally didn't cause much of a media stir. Rather than cover it as a major news event, the Washington Post ignored the rally in its print edition the next day, as did the New York Times, according to a search of the Nexis database. The network news programs that night covered the event in just a few sentences.
At a time when it seems any movement on the Republican side of the candidate field produces instant and extensive press coverage, more and more observers are suggesting there's something out of whack with Sanders' press treatment.
And they're right.
As the Vermont liberal spreads his income equality campaign message, the press corps seems unsure of how to cover him. In the month since he announced his bid, Sanders' coverage seems to pale in comparison to comparable Republican candidates who face an arduous task of obtaining their party's nomination. The reluctance is ironic, since the D.C. press corps for months brayed loudly about how Hillary Clinton must face a primary challenger. Now she has one and the press can barely feign interest?
As for the media attention Sanders does receive, a lot of it attempts to place him and his liberal policies outside the mainstream of American politics. Yes, he's a proud socialist, but note that most of the GOP's White House hopefuls are adamant climate deniers. No matter, the Beltway press doesn't portray them as political outliers.
Fox News has been on the air nearly two decades and some Beltway journalists are still denying the transparent truth about the cable channel and its intricate political machinations. Even some longtime conservatives, such as historian and former Reagan aide Bruce Bartlett, now concede Fox News is "brainwashing" the conservative electorate, and that the GOP is being harmed by the network.
Responding to Bartlett at Politico, senior media writer Jack Shafer insists, "Fox in its current incarnation is neither a help nor a hindrance" to the Republican Party. Shafer argues the network, "a news-entertainment hybrid," doesn't really have much impact on the GOP and has not moved the party to the far right. "The Fox tail does not wag the Republican dog," Shafer concludes. Instead, Fox News is just trying to make a buck. Yes, it ventures into partisan politics with "combative programming," according to Shafer. But people like Bartlett who claim the channel's changed or damaged the Republican Party are overstating their case.
The truth is, as Media Matters has documented for years, the over-the-top programming on Fox News, anchored by baseless claims and wild attacks, routinely mirrors Republicans' legislative agenda. The focused misinformation trademarked by Fox News doesn't exist in a vacuum; it's not merely "entertainment" concocted to sell advertising. (Although it does that quite well.)
The programming on Fox News is designed to shape and change American politics, plain and simple. It's designed to do damage to Democrats and Democratic initiatives. It's built to be the marketing arm for the Republican Party, as it hurdles further and further towards the radical right. And quite often, Fox News is successful.
There's a reason that Fox contributor Newt Gingrich once told conservative activists that Fox News helped make Republican Scott Brown's senate "insurgency possible" in 2010. And there's a reason Fox News drafted the theme of the 2012 Republican convention, "You Didn't Build That."
I'm not sure tails can wag much harder than that.
As likely Republican candidates for president continue to struggle with the legacy of the Iraq War, and specifically with the question of whether they would have authorized a similar invasion if they had been president at the time, it's important to remember the media's role in the foreign policy failure. At a time of heightened patriotic fervor, the national press played a crucial role in helping to sell President George W. Bush's war to the public in 2003.
There were some key, praiseworthy exceptions, but in general the Beltway press failed badly during the run-up to the war. It's a fact that shouldn't be forgotten as politicians today grapple with the past.
Below is an excerpt from my book, Lapdogs: How The Press Rolled Over For Bush. (Note: "MSM" is shorthand for mainstream media.)
Battered by accusations of a liberal bias and determined to prove their conservative critics wrong, the press during the run-up to the war -- timid, deferential, unsure, cautious, and often intentionally unthinking -- came as close as possible to abdicating its reason for existing in the first place, which is to accurately inform citizens, particularly during times of great national interest. Indeed, the MSM's failings were all the more important because of the unusually influential role they played in advance of the war-of-choice with Iraq.
"When America has been attacked -- at Pearl Harbor, or as on September 11 -- the government needed merely to tell the people that it was our duty to respond, and the people rightly conferred their authority," noted Harold Meyerson in the American Prospect magazine. "But a war of choice is a different matter entirely. In that circumstance, the people will ask why. The people will need to be convinced that their sons and daughters and husbands and wives should go halfway around the world to fight a nemesis that they didn't really know was a nemesis."
It's not fair to suggest the MSM alone convinced Americans to send some sons and daughter to fight. But the press went out of its way to tell a pleasing, administration-friendly tale about the pending war. In truth, Bush never could have ordered the invasion of Iraq -- never could have sold the idea at home -- if it weren't for the help he received from the MSM, and particularly the stamp of approval he received from so-called liberal media institutions such as the Washington Post, which in February of 2003 alone, editorialized in favor of war nine times. (Between September 2002 and February 2003, the paper editorialized twenty-six times in favor of the war.)
The Post had plenty of company from the liberal East Coast media cabal, with high-profile columnists and editors -- the newfound liberal hawks -- at the New Yorker, Newsweek, Time, the New York Times, the New Republic and elsewhere all signing on for a war of preemption. By the time the invasion began, the de facto position among the Beltway chattering class was clearly one that backed Bush and favored war.
Years later the New York Times Magazine wrote that most "journalists in Washington found it almost inconceivable, even during the period before a fiercely contested midterm election [in 2002], that the intelligence used to justify the war might simply be invented." Hollywood peace activists could conceive it, but serious Beltway journalists could not? That's hard to believe. More likely journalists could conceive it but, understanding the MSM unspoken guidelines -- both social and political -- were too timid to express it at the time of war.
To oppose the invasion vocally was to be outside the media mainstream and to invite scorn. Like some nervous Democratic members of Congress right before the war, MSM journalists and pundits seemed to scramble for political cover so as to not subject themselves to conservative catcalls.
Suddenly under scrutiny for her $250 donation to the Clinton Haiti Relief Fund in 2010, Judy Woodruff, the co-anchor and managing editor of PBS NewsHour, issued a statement late last week defending her modest giving. "I made the gift in response to an urgent joint appeal from former President Clinton and then-President George W. Bush for aid to the victims of the Haiti earthquake," Woodruff explained in an email to the Wall Street Journal. "Seeing the massive loss of human life and the terrible conditions for survivors, I wanted to make a contribution and saw this as a way to do that."
So it's come to this: A member of the media forced to defend her decision to give $250 to a bipartisan earthquake relief fund five years ago, to help an impoverished island nation.
Woodruff faced questions, of course, because amidst the current frenzied atmosphere, anything connected with the Clinton Foundation has officially been deemed tainted by the Beltway press. The media have teamed up with the GOP to cast every possible aspersion on the $2 billion global charity that helps people with AIDS/HIV around the world get cheaper, better medicine, battles economic inequality, childhood obesity, climate change, and fights for health and wellness. (No, the Clinton Foundation doesn't spend 85 percent of its budget on "overhead." Good grief.)
In recent days, the churning foundation storyline made an odd jump. It moved from the unproven allegations that the Clintons used the foundation to cash in government favors, and shifted to focus on the mere act of giving. Sparked by the revelation that ABC News' George Stephanopoulos had previously given generously to the foundation and hadn't disclosed that fact while reporting on foundation activities, the press began to circle donations and viewed them as potentially problematic.
It's clear Stephanopoulos should have disclosed his donations when the foundation became news and the target of endless Republican and media attacks.
But the overheated narrative now stretches beyond the issue of disclosure. Stephanopoulos was not only criticized for failing to reveal his donation, he was widely condemned for making the donation at all. Media watchdogs were swift: It was completely out of bounds for Stephanopoulos to donate to the Clinton Foundation. Why? Because it's run by the Clintons, which means it's obviously stained, right?
Mission accomplished for Republicans.
"The outbreak of Ebola virus disease in Liberia is over," announced the World Health Organization on May 9, declaring a cautious end to the deadly wave that claimed 4,700 Liberian lives since last summer. That outbreak, of course, eventually sparked panic in the United States last September and October when a handful of Ebola cases were confirmed domestically. Ebola mania raged in the media for weeks and became one of the biggest news stories of 2014.
So how did the American media cover the latest, good-news Ebola story in the days following the WHO announcement? Very, very quietly.
By my count, ABC News devoted just brief mentions of the story on Good Morning America and its Sunday talk show, This Week. On NBC, only the Today show noted the development, while CBS This Morning and the CBS Evening News set aside brief mentions. None of the network newscasts have given this Ebola story full segments, according to a transcript search via Nexis.
A scattering of mentions on cable news and a handful of stories including in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal, among others, rounded out the remaining coverage in the past week.*
Pretty amazing, considering that late last year the U.S. news media were in the grips of self-induced Ebola hysteria. During one peak week, cable news channels mentioned "Ebola" over 4,000 times, while the Washington Post homepage one night featured at least 15 Ebola-related articles and columns, many of which focused on both the international crisis and the political dynamic, and the problems Ebola was supposedly causing President Obama.
That's not to say the tragic outbreak was not a big story worthy of any news coverage. It was, but American media went into overdrive hyping concerns that a deadly domestic outbreak was imminent -- only to rapidly forget.
The recent look-away coverage from Ebola shouldn't come as a surprise. The American media lost complete interest in the story right after Republicans lost interest in the story, which is to say right after last November's midterm elections, when they brandished Ebola as a partisan weapon.
That's no exaggeration. From Media Matters' research:
It's official: Hillary Clinton now faces two looming campaign challengers, Republicans and their allies in the press. But don't take my word for it. The anti-Clinton press campaign is now an open secret in the media, and it marks a whole new chapter in campaign journalism.
Election seasons always usher in debates about press coverage, with the assumption being coverage can affect electoral results. Which candidates are getting the most positive coverage? And which ones are being dogged by journalists?
Journalists traditionally wave off any allegations of unfair treatment for particular candidates and insist the claims are nothing more than sour grapes, or partisan plots to boost the candidate's chances. Instead, scribes claim, they always play campaigns down the middle.
But in a new twist, some members of the Beltway press corps are stepping forward to announce categorically that Hillary Clinton, despite her envious standing, is the obvious target of media derision. And that the press is actively trying to harm her campaign.
"The national media has never been more primed to take down Hillary Clinton," Politico's Dylan Byers observed late last week, as he surveyed the unfolding campaign season. The same press corps, he added, stands poised to "elevate a Republican candidate."
That's a rather astonishing revelation from inside the Beltway media bubble, right? Openly taking down a Democrat, while elevating a Republican? Wow.
The weird part was that campaign journalists didn't seem to object to the description. There was very little pushback regarding Byer's rather shocking claim; it barely caused a ripple. Journalists don't seem ashamed of that fact that Clinton faces a tougher press than her fellow candidates, or think it reflects poorly on the state of political journalism. More and more journalists are simply admitting the truth: The press is out to get Clinton. Period.
How is it the likely Democratic Party nominee for president has become a constant target of press derision and that journalists admit the media's out to get her? Whatever happened to journalism's role of reporting on what happens in a campaign, and not trying to determine the outcome?
And could you imagine the seismic revolt that would unfold if reporters openly targeted Republicans? But don't hold your breath. When was the last time you read an article, or heard a single television discussion, in which Beltway media elites opined about how their media colleagues despise Gov. Scott Walker, are out to get former Gov. Jeb Bush, or want to take down Sen. Marco Rubio?
That kind of talk could kill a journalist's career because it would ignite the right wing's Liberal Media Bias mob. But publicly admitting the press is "prime" to try to disrupt and dismantle the likely Democratic Party's presidential nominee seems to represent perfectly acceptable behavior.
Talk about the Clinton Rules.
Hoping to create permanent criminal investigations into Bill and Hillary Clinton's dealings -- reminiscent of the ones that hounded them in the 1990s -- conservative commentators employed by Rupert Murdoch have been demanding that the FBI or the Department of Justice open inquiries to determine if the Clintons are guilty of criminal wrongdoing. Their hook is the new Murdoch-published Clinton Cash book, which alleges wide-ranging misconduct by the Clintons and their global charity, the Clinton Foundation.
Hoping to take author Peter Schweizer's fantastic claims of foreign donors buying influence, Murdoch media voices at Fox News, Wall Street Journal, New York Post and elsewhere want to create a churning culture of subpoenas, testimonies, and legal briefings, likely all in the hopes of catching somebody in a misstatement while under oath. Recall that the 1990's impeachment crusade surrounding president Bill Clinton's sex life grew out of special prosecutor Ken Starr's completely unrelated investigation into the Clintons' money-losing Whitewater land transaction.
A criminal probe sparked by Clinton Cash would be a dream come true for partisan media outlets.
"When you have a presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton, who is going get the nomination of her party, the FBI has a duty to, we the people, to investigate any appearance of impropriety. Does it not?" asked Bill O'Reilly this week. "The FBI has got to go in and look. They have to go in and look. If they don't, that's corrupt."
The only problem for Murdoch's minions is they can't point to any evidence that even remotely indicates the Clintons broke the law via their foundation or foreign donations to it. The claims of bribery or quid pro quo deals are entirely flimsy, drowning in innuendo. Instead, the Fox News-led posse is essentially demanding criminal investigations be launched in order to find the evidence first, and then proceed to political prosecutions. It's a bold attempt to criminalize politics.
That blueprint worked while Bill Clinton was president, so it's not surprising conservative media, working alongside Republicans, are trying to resurrect the strategy, hoping to create enough "foreign donation" hysteria to prompt some sort of inquiry.
"I think this warrants investigation," Clinton Cash author Peter Schweizer recently stressed to Fox News.
Ever since Peter Schweizer's new attack book Clinton Cash was touted as the must-read tome of the campaign season, a growing number of media organizations, including Politico, BuzzFeed, ABC News, FactCheck.org, and Time, have detailed factual shortcomings in the book. (Media Matters has, too.) Noticeably absent from that fact-checking procession has been The New York Times and the Washington Post, the two newspapers that entered into exclusive editorial agreements with Clinton Cash's publisher.
The Times' and Post's seeming lack of interest in detailing the book's long list of misstatements certainly raises questions about whether the papers' exclusive pacts made the dailies reluctant to highlight Clinton Cash's obvious shortcomings.
After all, if those other media organizations can find the Clinton Cash errors, why can't the Times and the Post? And even if Times and Post reporters can't spot the misinformation, why aren't they at least writing about the key revelations that others are uncovering? Recall that it was the Times that trumpeted Clinton Cash as the "the most anticipated and feared book" of the campaign season. If it's so important, why isn't the Times documenting the crucial errors found between the Clinton Cash covers?
Hyped by its publisher -- the Rupert Murdoch-owned HarperCollins -- as being "meticulously researched and scrupulously sourced," Clinton Cash has instead turned out to be a mishmash of allegations glued together by innuendo and falsehoods. That, according to an array of news outlets that have documented the book's shortcomings.
For a press corps that's often been critical of Hillary Clinton for not detailing her White House campaign "rationale" -- for lacking a compelling "message"-- the media's response to Clinton's first major speech since officially announcing her candidacy seemed very strange: Most journalists simply ignored it or buried it under co-called 'scandal' coverage.
The event took place late last week at the Women in the World Summit in New York City where Clinton delivered a 25-minute, campaign-style speech in which she detailed America's priorities and castigated her Republican opponents.
It was by far her most specific recitation of her still-early campaign priorities, which certainly made the event newsworthy. The Associated Press, one of the few outlets that covered the event, noted that it "wasn't supposed to be a campaign event. But it might as well have been."
But if you didn't hear about the speech you weren't alone. Most news consumers were left in the dark, which raises the question, If pundits are going to insist that candidates deliver substance, what's the media's excuse when that substance is buried? Or are journalists completely committed to documenting only campaign process and optics? And, is there a media double standard on this for Clinton?
The oddity about the Summit omission is that the political press has at times treated Clinton more like a celebrity than a politician campaigning for the future. The press seems obsessed with covering trivial pursuits that surround her. For instance, who can forget the absurdist scene from Iowa on April 14, when a herd of campaign reporters nearly trampled themselves trying to track down Clinton's "Scooby Van" as it swung behind a community college in Iowa for a campaign visit?
Indeed, it's certainly a campaign oddity that Clinton's mundane visit to a Chipotle restaurant in Ohio earlier this month triggered an avalanche of news coverage, while her first 25-minute campaign-like speech mostly prompted media shrugs. There were actual 'think pieces' written about the political significance of Clinton's lunchtime stop at Chipotle. As for extended analysis of what Clinton's Women in the World Summit speech meant to her campaign and to her possible presidency? Those pieces were hard to find.
Was Clintons' speech last week newsworthy? Absolutely.