Last week, in the tightly contested Senate race in Kentucky, both Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell and his Democratic challenger Alison Lundergan Grimes gave newsworthy interviews in which they seemed to stumble over basic questions. But only one of the awkward missteps was treated as big news--treated even as a campaign-ending debacle--by some in the Beltway press: the Grimes interview.
Pundits pounced after Grimes refused, during an interview with the Louisville Courier-Journal editorial board, to say whether she voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. (McConnell has spent most of his campaign trying to tie Grimes to Obama, who is unpopular in Kentucky.)
After a Republican opposition group posted the clip of Grimes' answer, the Washington Post immediately linked to it and mocked the candidate's performance as "painful." On MSNBC, morning host Joe Scarborough bellowed, "What a rookie mistake!" CNN commentators criticized Grimes for being "too scripted" and "evasive."
Keep in mind; the issue itself is of no practical consequence to Kentucky voters -- it doesn't affect their day-to-day lives. But the story revolved around campaign "optics," which Beltway commentators now thrive on, especially when it's bad Democratic optics.
"Is she ever going to answer a tough question on anything? You want to be a U.S. senator?" demanded Meet The Press moderator, Chuck Todd. "I think she disqualified herself. I really do. I think she disqualified herself."
Recall that query ("Is she ever going to answer a tough question on anything?"), and the way Todd described it as a disqualifying trait for a Senate candidate. Because the day before the Grimes interview, McConnell called into Kentucky Sports Radio to talk with host Matt Jones. Days earlier, the popular host had interviewed Grimes with the understanding the McConnell campaign had also agreed to an interview. But after Jones grilled Grimes on the air, McConnell's campaign refused to answer Jones' emails and phone calls with regards to finalizing an appearance.
After days of on-air pleas, McConnell, without advance notice, finally called into the show last Wednesday and spoke with Jones for 14 minutes. Among the actual topics covered (in the place of optics analysis) were climate change and gay marriage. McConnell basically refused to answer questions about either:
JONES: That's a yes or no question. Do you believe in global warming?
McCONNELL: No it isn't. It is not a yes or no question. I am not a scientist.
And here's how McConnell danced around the issue of gay marriage:
When asked if he supports gay marriage, McConnell answered, "I believe that marriage should be between one man and one woman." Asked why he believes that, McConnell again repeated he thinks marriage is "between one man and one woman." Again asked "why?" McConnell repeated the same line. Jones tried one more time. Again, "It is my belief that marriage is between one man and one woman."
To recap: If you're a Kentucky Democrat and you don't answer a straight-forward question, you may as well take your name off the ballot, according to Beltway journalists. But if you're a Kentucky Republican and you do the same thing, it's mostly crickets from the same pundits.
On Monday when the Supreme Court let stand appeals court rulings that allowed for same-sex marriage in five additional states, the right-wing media outbursts were predictably swift. Radio talker Mark Levin blasted the ruling as "judicial tyranny," while Breitbart's Ben Shapiro attacked the ruling and suggested the Court was wrong to have previously struck down laws decriminalizing gay sex.
Politically, RNC chairman Reince Priebus suggested marriage equality represented a threat to American's economy and national security. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee released a statement calling the court's decision "cowardly," while likely presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) blasted the court's move as "tragic and indefensible." He vowed introduce a constitutional amendment to ban the government or the courts from overturning marriage laws passed by states.
The court's decision on Monday means that "nearly two-thirds of same-sex couples in the United States will soon live in states where they can marry," according to the New York Times. That's a long way from 2004 when Republicans successfully used the issue of marriage equality as an election year wedge issue against Democrats.
Back then, Fox News served as a home base for the conservative offensive against marriage equality. "What do you say to when three people want to marry and four people want to marry and other situations? Are you accepting of that?" Sean Hannity demanded of a guest in 2004. That same year, Bill O'Reilly warned Americans that if marriage equality proceeded, "this is gonna be a totally different country than it is right now. Laws that you think are in stone -- they're gonna evaporate, man. You'll be able to marry a goat -- you mark my words!"
On Monday though, it was mostly crickets from Fox News. Not only were angry denunciations absent, but the Supreme Court action was barely mentioned all day and was virtually ignored during the evening programs. The story was newsworthy of course; it received detailed coverage on all three of the network newscasts Monday night. (It wasn't until Wednesday night that O'Reilly addressed the ruling, doling out a mild rebuke of the Supreme Court's actions.)
The look-away coverage continued a trend that Media Matters noted in June: Fox News simply doesn't cover marriage equality much any more. Not in any real sense. There's very little news coverage and there seems to be even less commentary about the social issue. It's as if there's been a Fox News edict issued from above: Ignore marriage equality. (In the wake of a major Supreme Court ruling, host Jenna Lee once opened a discussion by instructing her guests not to "start a conversation on the merits of same-sex marriage.")
Using the unfolding Ebola health crisis as vehicle for their constant attacks on the federal government, Fox News talkers are leading the right-wing media charge (with some assistance from Beltway pundits) in insisting Americans have lost faith in the government's ability to deal the infectious disease, as well as other challenges facing the country.
Pointing to what they claim to be previous bouts of Obama administration clumsiness, such as the terror attack in Benghazi, Secret Service woes, and the so-called IRS scandal, conservative commentators, as part of an increasingly unbalanced response to the Ebola story, claim Americans see the Obama administration as filled with utterly inept players who are unable to provide citizens with basic protections.
"The overriding impression is of disarray, confusion, bad management, failed communication, anomie, disillusion, corruption, and secrecy," announced Matthew Continetti at Washington Free Beacon.
The Ebola threat "is containable if government is still remotely competent," claimed the Wall Street Journal editorial page, which signaled its doubts by suggesting "these days government competence is all too often exposed as a fragile veneer."
And appearing on Fox News yesterday, Donald Trump agreed:
I think very few people trust our government as being competent," Trump told the hosts. "Let's not kid ourselves. I mean with the five billion dollar website for Obamacare, which is still not working frankly and it's a disaster. And so many other things: Benghazi, wars... IRS."
But a new Pew Research poll undercuts all of that:
The findings, released on Monday, indicate a majority of Americans, including 48 percent of Republicans, have faith that the federal government can deal effectively with the Ebola situation, and that only a small percentage of people are "very worried" about their well being.
Ever since 2000, when Vice President Al Gore got run over by a campaign press corps way too eager to wallow in Republican spin about what a phony exaggerator the candidate was, Democrats and progressives have been weary of campaign journalism that doubles as GOP spin; campaign dispatches that seamlessly echo efforts to push narratives about inauthentic Democratic candidates. And journalism that sets aside substance in order to focus on thin, bogus anecdotes that pass as supposed "gaffes," or proof of a character flaw.
That distressing trend is currently on display in Iowa, where Democrat Bruce Braley and Republican Joni Ernst are vying to fill the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by retiring member Tom Harkin. The race remains extremely close and represents a crucial contest for Democrats as they try to maintain control of the Senate.
Yet the press keeps writing about chickens.
The tale hyped as an Iowa game-changer revolves around a pedestrian disagreement between Braley and a neighbor who kept letting her chickens roam onto Braley's yard. The story's been told and retold by CNN, Politico, McClatchy Newspapers, Los Angeles Times, The Week, Slate, and The Washington Post among others.
The outsized coverage it has received from the national press doesn't speak well of today's campaign journalism, since the unnecessary retellings are often misleading or dishonest. Worse, the tale's relayed almost exclusively through the prism of Braley's Republican opponents who claimed Braley threatened to sue over the minor matter. He did not. And without the threat there is no story.
Yet the anecdote endures, enjoying an unusually long shelf life. First spun by a Republican operative in July who kick-started the coverage with a blantantly false telling, the story was still getting fresh media pick-up in late September. Why the interest? And why the media reluctance to debunk what's so obviously an inaccurate story being pushed by Republicans? Rather than debunking, journalists have spent the last two months hyping its importance.
Fox News is increasingly fixating on the gruesome workplace beheading last week in Moore, Oklahoma by a recent Muslim convert, suspect Alton Nolen. Perhaps sensing a way to once again fan its patented flames of Islamophobia while simultaneously blaming President Obama for being indifferent to the threat of terrorism, Fox is treating the murder as a national story with sweeping political implications.
Sounding the jihadist alarms, Fox News and the right-wing media are eager to label the ghastly crime an act of Islamic terror. Law enforcement officials, however, aren't in the same rush, noting that the attack came immediately after Nolen was fired and stating that they've yet to find a link to terrorism. While that story continues to play out, it's worth noting that an actual act of political terror remains in the news. It's just not a priority for Fox.
On the night of September 16, 31-year-old marksman Eric Frein was allegedly laying in wait outside the Blooming Grove police barracks in northeastern Pennsylvania, preparing to assassinate state troopers. Shortly before 11 p.m., Bryon Dickson was shot and killed as he walked towards his patrol car. Moments later, as he approached the barracks to begin his overnight shift, trooper Alex Douglass was shot and seriously wounded by a bullet fired from a .308-caliber rifle.
Described as a "survivalist," Frein disappeared into the Poconos Mountains woods where he's been hiding ever since, eluding law enforcement and its massive manhunt, which includes hundreds of law enforcement officers with assistance from the FBI, the U.S. Marshals Service and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
Considered "extremely dangerous" and possibly armed with an AK-47, officials were forced to close local schools in fear Frein might attack again. Lots of businesses in the area were ordered to stay dark, and some U.S. mail deliveries were suspended out of fear postmen might be exposed as possible targets for the shooter.
And what was the possible motivation for the killing spree?
"He made statements about wanting to kill law enforcement officers and to commit mass acts of murder," state police commissioner Frank Noonan warned the public at the time. Another official noted the shooter has a "longstanding grudge against law enforcement and government in general" dating back to at least 2006.
A friend was even more explicit. "He was obviously a big critic of the federal government," a friend name Jack told CNN. (The friend did not give his last name.) "No indications of really any malice towards law enforcement in particular. Most of his aggression was (toward) the federal government."
Sounds like homegrown, anti-government terrorism, right?
"We have a well-trained sniper who hates authority, hates society, hates government, and hates cops enough to plug them from ambush. He's so lethal, so locked and loaded, that communities in the Pocono Mountains feel terrorized," wrote Philadelphia columnist Dick Poleman. "He kept camouflage face paint in his bedroom. He toted the AK-47 on social media. He collected, according to the criminal complaint, "various information concerning foreign embassies.""
But turn on Fox News and you don't hear much about Eric Frein from the channel's high-profile hosts. You don't hear much about the anti-government zealot who murdered a cop, while trying to assassinate two. And you don't hear evening hosts diving into Frein's background trying to figure out what sparked his murderous streak.
There's simply no interest.
Since it was founded in 2007, Politico has published thousands of articles and columns. (It's published almost 50,000 mentions of Barack Obama alone.) But according to site's online archives, only recently has Politico described a public figure as a "ruthless attack dog."
That person? Gabby Giffords, the former Democratic Congresswoman from Arizona who was shot in the head in 2011 when a gunman, brandishing a 9mm Glock 19 semi-automatic pistol, opened fire at Gifford's outdoor shopping center event, shooting 19 people, six of whom died.
Why "ruthless attack dog"? Because Giffords is running tough, accurate gun safety ads through her PAC, Americans for Responsible Solutions, against Republicans in various states to highlight the fact the GOP stonewalled any efforts to pass gun legislation, even after the school massacre in Sandy Hook, Connecticut.
Talk about incongruity. The 44-year-old recovering gunshot victim was labeled "mean," tagged for having "unleashed some of the nastiest ads" of the year, and brandishing a "bare-knuckled approach" to politics. It fit into a larger pattern of Giffords "harshly attack[ing] her Republican foes," according to Politico.
The misguided Politico piece has received plenty of deserved criticism this week, especially for denouncing someone who got shot in the head as "angry" and "mean" when she's trying to pass laws to diminish the number of Americans who get shot in the head.
But additional elements in play make the piece even more distressing, and highlight continuing trends in political news coverage. It's impossible to ignore the fact that Giffords, as a woman in a predominantly male field of campaign politics, was singled out for being the poster child for disconcertingly "mean" and "angry" politics this election cycle. And that she was singled out on almost laughably thin evidence. (Politico's sole example of a "liberal leaning" critic of the ad was the Arizona Republic, a paper that endorsed GOP presidential candidates in the last four election cycles.)
A Democratic woman goes toe-to-toe against the mostly-male gun lobby in America and she's the one whistled for a foul by Politico's etiquette police? She's the one depicted as a convenient victim because the life-threatening injury she suffered represents "quite the conundrum" for those who might otherwise attack her and who now feel "helpless" to respond to her supposedly nasty ads?
As Hillary Clinton prepares for perhaps her second presidential run, it's worth reflecting on how prominent women are often treated and slighted by the Beltway press. How they're frequently held to a different standard, warned against getting too emotional, to the point where making factually accurate campaign ads in 2014 leads to wide-eyed Politico declarations of being "mean" and "angry" and "ruthless."
If the conservative site Washington Free Beacon is still paying a Republican opposition research firm $150,000 a year to dig up dirt on Hillary Clinton, editors might want to renegotiate their contract. Because if Free Beacon's latest installation of its deep-dive into Clinton's past is any indication, GOP investigators have already run out of leads.
The Free Beacon news flash? Back in 1971, Hillary Clinton (then Hillary Rodham) corresponded twice with Saul Alinsky, a liberal organizer and activist of renown in the 1930s, `40s and `50s. More recently, Alinsky's been immortalized as a bogeyman by conservatives who for years have waged a fruitless campaign to portray President Barack Obama as a radical-left acolyte of Alinsky's.
And now the brief Clinton correspondence from more than 40 years ago is being trumpeted: "The letters obtained by the Free Beacon suggest that Clinton experimented more with radical politics during her law school years than she has publicly acknowledged." (Wait, Clinton's a secret commie who's also tight with Wall Street? Very confusing.)
Some conservatives on Monday strained to explain why any of this matters, and why their weird, hard-to-understand obsession with someone like Alinsky ought to be of importance in American politics today. The Free Beacon's meaningless revelation set off lots of Twitter chuckling, but the story itself went nowhere, much to the dismay of Rush Limbaugh, and for good reason: There's no there there. (Favorite line: Hillary's letters were "paid for with stamps featuring Franklin Delano Roosevelt.")
Keep in mind the attempts to attack Clinton by invoking Alinsky are nothing new. Back during the 2008 presidential campaign, conservatives tried to make hay out of the fact that Clinton had written a senior thesis about the author.
After the story failed to make an impact outside the conservative bubble, a Free Beacon editor claimed the article was never meant as a Hillary gotcha. Instead, they were simply sharing "primary documents" with voters. I guess that's one way to spin a swing-and-a-miss.
The whiff highlights what's becoming a growing problem for the right-wing media industry: After operating under the microscope during her thirty-year public career, there's not much about Hillary Clinton we don't know or that hasn't been dissected. And there's probably not much more that we're going to learn in the coming years, considering that trolling the Clintons has been an established far-right cottage industry that dates back to the early 1990s.
Based on three decades in the spotlight as a governor's wife, the first lady, a U.S. senator, presidential candidate and then secretary of state, there's simply no other public figure active in the U.S. political arena today (possibly other than the one who currently occupies the Oval Office) who's been more scrutinized by the media, who's endured more "scandal" coverage, who has been thoroughly trashed by the partisan press opponents, and who still comes out the other side marching on.
So now what?
If Hillary dominates the political landscape in the coming election cycle, how does the right-wing media pretend they're uncovering all kinds of new and startling facts about her past, her policies, her influences and her alliances? How does detailing a couple of letters Clinton wrote to a labor organizer 43 years ago fill the right-wing media need for fresh, new, and scary Clinton revelations?
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?