With their conspiratorial, knee-jerk claim that New York Times' lengthy investigation into the Benghazi terror attack of 2012 was really an elaborate effort to aid Hillary Clinton if she runs for president in three years -- to "clear the deck" as Chris Wallace put it -- right-wing journalists seem to have mistaken the newspaper of record for one of their own conservative "news" outlets. It's the right-wing media, not the Times, that has a record of peddling purposeful misinformation for purely political reasons.
David Kirkpatrick's Times series, "A Deadly Mix In Benghazi," undercut a number of favorite right-wing Benghazi talking points. Among them, the Times debunked claims that an anti-Islamic YouTube video played no role in motivating the terror attacks -- a central tenet of the Benghazi hoax that conservatives have deployed to attack President Obama, Hillary Clinton, Susan Rice, and others for engaging in a "cover-up" of the attack.
Since its publication, far-right commentators have have rushed to engage in lazy speculation about what motivated the Times to investigate Benghazi (aside from the fact that far-right voices have demanded for more than a year that news organizations like the New York Times investigate Benghazi).
But when the Times came to the 'wrong' conclusions and Fox News and friends needed to explain to their loyal customers why the year-long Benghazi tale they've been telling had been demolished by the Times, critics announced the story was all part of some vast, left-wing conspiracy.
The allegation is pure conjecture, though. Conservatives don't, and can't, cite any sources inside the Times who confirm the sprawling claim of a Clinton cover-up because there's zero evidence to bolster the allegation. Instead, the fact that the Times never mentioned Hillary Clinton in its Benghazi report simply confirms that the report was all about Hillary Clinton. And the fact that a Times editor pointedly denied the report was about Clinton simply confirms that the report was all about Clinton. (See how that convenient, closed loop works?)
Conservatives have become so used to the idea that their own outlets are, and should be, used to advance political agendas that they've convinced themselves that's how reputable news organizations go about gathering and disseminating information.
In this case, conservatives have convinced themselves, without being weighted down by facts or evidence, that senior editors at the Times assign long-term investigative pieces based on how the predetermined outcome of the reporting will benefit Democratic politicians, and specifically Democratic politicians who might run for president in 2016. It's journalism as political cover. Or, pretty much the opposite of how the trade is actually practiced.
The notion is pure fantasy, not to mention insulting, and reveals a complete lack of understanding of how journalism functions in a democratic society. The Fox and Republican assumption is that journalists act as unpaid advisers and advocates for politicians and that their work revolves around advancing a partisan agenda. Why do they think that?
Because that's how conservatives behave. And they're often quite open about it.
"It is, to put it mildly, surprising that 60 Minutes did not check this discrepancy before broadcast" -- former Meet The Press host Marvin Kalb.
Even now, nearly two months after it aired, almost nothing about CBS News' "exclusive" (and infamous) 60 Minutes report on Benghazi makes sense. From conception, to execution, to the network's stubborn claims that the report met its high standards even as it publicly dissolved, the story on the Benghazi terror attack of 2012 quickly became a case study in how not to practice journalism on the national stage. And in how dangerous it is to lose sight of fair play and common sense when wielding the power and prestige of the country's most-watched news program.
The 60 Minutes Benghazi hoax had it all: a flimsy political premise featuring previously debunked myths, a correspondent with an established agenda, a blinding corporate conflict of interest, and an untrustworthy "witness" who apparently fabricated his story and had once reportedly asked a journalist to pay him for his information. (The fact that the CBS Benghazi report was widely hyped by an array of chronically inaccurate conservative media outlets represented another obvious red flag.)
When the Benghazi hoax first began to reveal itself, a chorus of veteran journalists agreed that CBS had a pressing problem on its hands and that executives needed to address the mounting crisis. Instead CBS for days, led by 60 Minutes correspondent Lara Logan and news chairman Jeff Fager, defended the truly indefensible, until that became unfeasible.
The sad part is the Benghazi hoax wasn't an isolated incident this year at CBS. The colossal blunder certainly created the most controversy. But the type of ethical short cuts used in that report were visible elsewhere on the network. CBS News reports on health care reform, disability fraud, and climate change in 2013 also displayed a disturbing willingness to peddle misinformation under the guise of network news.
Fittingly, the year ended with 60 Minutes once again receiving a barrage of criticism for another one-sided report, this one about the National Security Agency's surveillance practices, causing media observers from Politico to National Review to ask what's the matter with a program once considered to be the gold standard for network news magaizine programs.
Collectively, and especially because of the Benghazi hoax, these reports earned CBS News the distinction of being named Media Matters' Misinformer of the Year for 2013. This is only the second time in nine years that a mainstream news organization has received that title. The honor has typically been awarded to an individual right-wing media figure from whom we'd expect professional misinformation, such as Glenn Beck in 2009 and Rush Limbaugh in 2012.
From a news organization with a storied past, we expect better.
First things first.
Here is a video from the memorial service that was held last week in South Africa to honor anti-apartheid hero Nelson Mandela. While watching the video, keep in mind the controversy that erupted in the media when President Obama was part of a selfie picture at the event. Some media commentators were furious because it was such a undignified thing to do at a somber "funeral":
Here's how South Africans experienced the same memorial.
USA Today described the event, which was not a funeral, as a "raucous and festive send-off" that at times resembled a "soccer match," one where attendees "stomped until the bleachers shook." In fact, they "chanted and sang so loudly an official begged the crowd to quiet down."
So no, President Obama, Danish Prime Minister, Helle Thorning Schmidt and British Prime Minister David Cameron were never in danger of puncturing the memorial mood by using a few fleeting seconds to playfully snap a photo of themselves.
Nonetheless, the New York Daily News, among others, pounced. Following the right-wing media's misinformation lead, the Daily News mocked Obama for posing at a "funeral," while the Washington Post's Chris Cillizza described Obama as "acting like a bored kid at a school assembly during a funeral for a world leader." And a National Public Radio headline announced "President Obama Took A Funeral Selfie."
Of course, Obama didn't attend Mandela's funeral. But it sounded better to pretend he did, so lots of journalists did just that.
The story also sounded better by pretending images of First Lady Michelle Obama that day revealed the makings of a husband/wife spat, as journalists went full-on Zapruder on a couple of harmless snapshots and eagerly divined a soap opera storyline to the day, one that starred Michelle Obama as the "angry black woman" casting a nasty stare at the Danish prime minister.
Yes, the media simultaneously attacked Barack Obama for being too gleeful at the memorial and attacked Michelle Obama for not being gleeful enough. Talk about a lose-lose. And yes, this from the same press corps that bemoans the fact presidents aren't more spontaneous and unscripted.
Keep in mind, the mindless coverage revolved entirely around false premises; Obama was being disrespectful at a "funeral," and Michelle Obama was royally peeved at her husband's behavior. False and false: Here's a photo of Michelle sharing a light moment with the Danish prime minister that day.
To produce journalism and commentary this vapid and pointless takes work. It doesn't just happen. You have to play dumb about a whole range of issues in order to join in the Beltway fun. Coming at the end of the year, the selfie charade represented a sad encapsulation of the Beltway media's shortcomings; of its painfully unserious pursuits.
What is especially maddening is it highlighted that while the press becomes increasingly fascinated with gotcha events and treats them that as news, it's failing in its primary duty to produce reliable reporting about pressing public policy issues. Specifically, the selfie nonsense played out against the backdrop of the Beltway press corps' that bungled coverage of health care reform.
On April 17, families of Sandy Hook Elementary School victims watched from the Senate gallery as Republicans led a successful effort to filibuster a series of bills designed to address and curb gun violence. Following a months-long intensive lobbying campaign by President Obama, Vice President Biden and First Lady Michelle Obama, all of the initiatives, even the scaled-back effort to expand background checks to all guns sales including those at gun shows, were stymied and failed to clear the 60-vote filibuster hurdle.
Now, one year after the shooting rampage which unfolded December 14, the press still points to the failed vote as evidence of President Obama's "rough year"; of his inability to get widely supported legislation passed into law.
Often excluded in that narrative is the larger context surrounding the gun bill's provisions. According to polls, more than 90 percent of Americans supported mandatory background checks for all gun buyers. And now, twelve months after Sandy Hook, a recent poll revealed the political downside to the legislation would still be practically nonexistent: "Just 14 percent of all Americans and just 19 percent of Republicans said they would be "very disappointed" if such a law was enacted."
More Context? 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 went even further and included a ban on assault weapons.
But those days of Republican cooperation, especially on guns, represent a distant, faded memory.
The gun bill's failure in April didn't spark much anger or indignation in the press. It didn't unleash a wave of commentary taking Republicans to task for their refusal to participate in governance and problem solving. What it did produce was endless commentary about how the gun vote was nearly entirely Obama's fault; how Democrats got "cocky" and tried to do too much, and instead missed "their window" of opportunity and were left "grasping at straws." (How the vote was now "shadowing the president.") The press pushed its preferred storyline that the gun loss confirmed Obama doesn't know how to use the levers of power inside Washington and remains hopelessly incapable of working across the isle with honest brokers in the GOP.
In the end, the background check failure was portrayed as a process story, and a process story that featured Obama as the big loser. In other words, nine out of ten Republican senators refused to support a scaled-down gun bill that nine out of ten Americans supported, but it was Obama who got targeted with the failure.
And that's why the gun vote became something of a turning point for the news media this year. Because if the press could look at the GOP's obstruction of the gun bill and its refusal to let a working majority in both chambers pass common sense legislation in the wake of a national tragedy, a gun bill that enjoyed overwhelming support among Republicans and gun owners, if media elites could witness that kind of intransigence and come away blaming Obama and giving the GOP a pass, than there was no type of radical Republican behavior the press wouldn't excuse or water down.
And in 2013, there wasn't.
News that Fox News reportedly paid a former PR executive at the company "approximately $8 million in hush money" after firing him this summer raises questions about why Fox News chairman Roger Ailes apparently feels the need to approve seven and eight-figure payoffs to keep former employees quiet.
After Brian Lewis was escorted out of the Fox News building in July, and Fox made public allegations against him, Lewis' attorney warned that "any confidentiality obligation" he had with the company no longer applied. "Lewis knows many of Ailes' secrets," noted New York magazine. But the $8 million "hush money" settlement seems to guarantee that Lewis won't discuss his time at Fox.
Lewis however, isn't the only senior Fox News employee who's reportedly been paid handsomely to keep quiet about his or her time working under Ailes.
Lewis' settlement recalls the $10.75 million payoff Judith Regan secured after the former host was fired by then-Fox News parent company, News Corp.* Like Lewis, who at the time of his firing this summer was publicly accused of "financial irregularities," Regan was also the target of a smear campaign, accused of making anti-Semitic comments. But like longtime Fox News veteran Lewis, Regan appeared to cash in by threatening to release damaging information about Ailes and turned her firing into a big payday.
Specifically, Regan claimed to have a tape recording of Ailes instructing her to lie to federal investigators in order to protect Ailes' longtime friend and political ally, Rudy Giuliani. The tape reportedly may have played a role in the settlement Regan secured in her wrongful termination suit against News Corp. (Company officials did not deny Ailes was heard on the tape.)
Question: What other news organization spends nearly $20 million in order to keep two fired employees from talking publicly about their time of employment?
From New York [emphasis added]
Back in 2007, Judith Regan alleged in a lawsuit against News Corp. that a senior executive there urged her to lie to federal investigators about her affair with Bernard Kerik. Kerik had been nominated for the position of Homeland Security Chief under Bush, but was then dismissed after his personal foibles came to light. The executive hoped to keep Regan quiet because Kerik's mentor Rudy Giuliani was running for the Republican nomination, and further embarrassment might injure the campaign. It was a double-punch scandal: News Corp. was revealed simultaneously to have pressured an employee to lie to the government and also to have thrown its weight around on behalf of a presidential candidate. But at the time, the executive in question remained nameless. Now, he's been identified in court documents that have surfaced due to a filing error in a related case. It was Fox News mastermind Roger Ailes.
If Regan received more than $10 million in part because she had a taped recording of Ailes urging her to lie to investigators, what information does Brian Lewis have that warranted an $8 million payoff?
* This piece has been updated to clarify that Regan was fired by then-Fox News parent company News Corp. We regret the error.
As the calendar races towards 2014, and Congressional members log their final few days in session while facing daunting deadlines for a long list of pressing and unfinished initiatives, the press has been busy chronicling the futility, assigning collective blame, and giving the president permanent failing marks.
According to historians, 2013 is on track to become the least productive single legislative year in modern American history. And it's not even close. In 1995, 88 laws were passed, setting the previous low-water mark. This year, it's doubtful 70 will make it to the president's desk. (And lots of the bills that have passed are ceremonial or rather trivial in nature.) The press is not happy about the trend.
"The paltry number of bills Congress has passed into law this year paints a vivid picture of just how bad the gridlock has been for lawmakers," announced NBC. The Wall Street Journal noted this year's session has been "long on partisanship, indecision and brinkmanship." USA Today bemoaned the inability "to find common ground." And the Los Angeles Times pointed to "partisan dysfunction" as the main Congressional culprit.
See? "Congress" remains in the grips of "gridlock" and "brinkmanship." Congress just can't find "common ground" and suffers from serious "dysfunction."
So that's why immigration reform, the farm bill, a budget deal, unemployment benefit extensions, workplace discrimination legislation, and the defense spending bill haven't been passed or dealt with yet? And that's why the government was shutdown for 16 days in October?
Wrong. The current Congress obliterated all previous records for diminished output because the Republican Party, and especially those in the Republican-run House, purposefully bottled up as many initiatives as possible and unleashed "procedural sabotage." (They even obstructed disaster relief aid for victim of Hurricane Sandy.)
Yet eager to maintain a political symmetry in which both sides are equally responsible for so little getting accomplished, the press gives Republicans a pass for their purposeful dysfunction.
By the way, are you also experiencing media flashbacks to the government shutdown, which the Republican Party proudly engineered by reneging on a budget deal they had agreed to with the last-minute demand that Obama essentially repeal his signature legislative accomplishment of his first term, the Affordable Care Act? Back then, the one-sided shutdown maneuver was nearly universally portrayed as bipartisan "Washington dysfunction at its absolute worst" (ABC News), a "partisan logjam" (Wall Street Journal), and a "fiscal stalemate" (The Hill).
Yet today, even as some Republican members brag about how little they've allowed Congress to accomplish, even as a plurality of voters says the GOP's top priority is to cause trouble for the president, while a majority blame Republicans for the lack of productivity in Washington, the press still prefers to portray the Capitol Hill standstill as bipartisan "gridlock."
Because, of course, both sides are always to blame.
On a seemingly never-ending hunt for bad news about Hillary Clinton and her political prospects, the New York Times recently published a front-page article about how the former first lady is busy trying to mend fences between herself and African-Americans, "the constituency that was most scarred during her first bid for the presidency."
Under the headline, "Eye on 2016, Clintons Rebuild Bond With Blacks," the Times claimed the turbulent Democratic primary from 2008 left deep wounds and assumed Hillary Clinton's appearances before black audience this year represented a pointed effort to fix that.
Usually when trying to assess a voting community's perception of a politician or public figure, reporters consult polling data. In this case the Times did not. Certain that Hillary needed to "rebuild" a "bond" with black voters, the Times chose to ignore all the polling data that indicates she currently enjoys extraordinary support among black voters. Indeed, including polling results in the article would have completely undercut the premise. (Why would you "rebuild" a bond that's amazingly strong?)
Instead, the Times omitted any reference to a Quinnipiac poll from this summer that found 88 percent of black voters view her favorably. The Times also ignored the recent NBC/WSJ poll that found in a hypothetical match-up against New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Clinton would receive 83 percent of the black vote, versus Christie's four percent. As Political scientist John Sides noted, "Among black voters, any negative feelings about Hillary Clinton were erased long ago."
As for Bill Clinton, a Fox News poll from this year revealed that 90 percent of "non-whites" view the former president favorably.
The Times piece seemed to be little more than an attempt to pick at a five-year old political wound, while glossing over the fact that the abrasion's been healed for years. It was the Times trolling around in search of a conflict and justifying the creation of a dedicated beat devoted to the former secretary of state when, in this case, no conflict exists. (What's next for the daily, a look at how Clinton has to "rebuild" her bond with middle aged women?)
The baffling Times article was just the latest, and perhaps the most egregious, example of a new school of commentary that's cropped up around the Clintons, and specifically around speculation regarding Hillary's presidential plans in 2016. Not content with what-if columns, articles and panel discussions, the press increasingly spends significant time and energy conjuring up what could go wrong if Clinton ran.
Despite Clinton's enviable position with regards to her sky-high name recognition, a proven ability to fundraise, and her strong favorable ratings, the starting point for much of the Clinton coverage lately is She Might Be Doomed. (The New Yorker's Amy Davidson has already declared Clinton's 2016 campaign to be a "predestined" "train wreck.") Does anyone remember two years worth of He Might Be Doomed coverage for George W. Bush when he emerged as the clear Republican front runner well before the 2000 campaign?
That's not to suggest that Clinton is off limits from tough, skeptical coverage and commentary. She's not. But pretending she has to rebuild a relationship that's not broken? That's not skepticism, that's just spin.
Fox News hosts and guests have been especially disciplined in pushing the Republican Party talking point that the vote yesterday in the U.S. Senate to reform filibusters on judicial nominees was nothing more than a Democratic "distraction" to shift attention away from President Obama's troubled health care roll-out.
Senate Minority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell first introduced the talking point Thursday afternoon and Fox News has been loyally parroting it ever since.
"It does appear it is a distraction from the Affordable Care Act debacle," Steve Doocy announced this morning on Fox & Friends. Co-host Elisabeth Hasselbeck later agreed, insisting the American people are "wise to the fact" that filibuster reform is a mere "distraction."
According to Obama's opponents, the vote taken yesterday to change the Senate rules in the wake of blanket Republican obstructionism, was actually part of an elaborate White House political strategy. That explanation leaves out the fact that simmering fight over nominations has been a decade in the making, not something the White House invented for political cover.
It also omits the fact that Democratic leaders had threatened to amend the filibuster rules for most of 2013, and that they were prompted to finally take action by yet another round of Republican filibusters blocking Obama judicial nominees over the past few weeks. While nominees have in the past been blocked due to lack of qualifications or ideological extremism, Republicans have largely eschewed these criticisms, instead stating flat out that for political reasons they don't want to allow President Obama to fill seats on a critical bench with anyone at all.
But what's especially ironic is that the "distraction" charge is being peddling by Fox News during the same week it played host to its latest gold-plated distraction, the mean-spirited claim that President Obama failed to attend the 150th anniversary of President Lincoln's Gettysburg address out of some sort resentment of America. (The right-wing media accompanied that distraction with the hollow allegation that Obama purposefully omitted the phrase "under God" when reciting the Gettysburg Address for a YouTube video posting.)
Fox hosts questioned Obama's sense of honor by refusing to attend the Civil War anniversary ceremony. ("Maybe he thought he'd be shown up," said Greta Van Susteren,) They claimed Obama's "snubbing" was deliberate and offensive, yet carefully omitted the fact that only one U.S. president in the last 150 years had traveled to Gettysburg on the date of the Lincoln anniversary. (Nonetheless it was "a big deal" Obama didn't attend.)
Not once but twice in recent days Meet The Press host David Gregory announced that the troubled launch of President Obama's new health care law is roughly the equivalent to President Bush's badly bungled war with Iraq. The NBC anchor was quick to point out that he didn't mean the two events were the same with regards to a death toll. (Nobody has died from health care reform.) But Gregory was sure that in terms of how the former president and the current president are viewed, in terms of damage done to their credibility, the men will be forever linked to a costly, bloody war and a poorly functioning website, respectively.
"Everybody looked at Bush through the prism of Iraq," Gregory explained. "Here, I think people are going to look at Obama through the implementation of Obamacare." It's Obama's defining event of their two-term presidency. It's a catastrophic failure that's tarnished Obama's second term, and will perhaps "wreck" his entire presidency, according to the media's "doom-mongering bubble," as Kevin Drum at Mother Jones described it.
But like the painfully inappropriate comparisons to Hurricane Katrina that have populated the press, Gregory's attempt to draw a Bush/Obama parallel is equally senseless. Bush's war morass stretched over five years, so of course it defined his presidency. Obama's health care woes are in week number six and could be fixed within the next month.
There's something else in play here though, as the Beltway press corps strains to anoint Obama as the new Bush, as it tries to convince news consumers that Obama's failures simply show how presidents are so alike, as are the crises they face and sometimes create. An American city drowned in slow motion following Hurricane Katrina? The United States launched a senseless, pre-emptive war that will drain the U.S. Treasury for decades to come? Well, Obama's Healthcare.gov website doesn't work very well!
This is the mother lode of false equivalency.
But note that the casual attempt to connect the current health care setbacks with the war in Iraq represents a particularly disingenuous attempt to downgrade Bush's historical failures, and to cover the media's tracks of deception.
Fact: You can't talk about the Iraq War as a political event without addressing the central role the U.S. media played in the botched run-up to the war, and the fevered and futile hunt for weapons of mass destruction. By suggesting that Obama's six-week health care crisis puts him in the same position of Bush following the Iraq invasion softens not only the magnitude of Bush's failures, but the media's as well. It's an effort to downplay the massive missteps that led to the war and to trivialize the staggering costs still being paid by Americans. (The Bush and media failures surrounding Iraq are forever linked.)
"No pundit should be allowed to use Iraq as a measuring tool until they are willing to have an honest discussion about their role in selling the country on Iraq," wrote PoliticsUSA's Sarah Jones this week. And she's right.
Addressing the falling standards at CBS News and its hallmark Sunday night news magazine program, Los Angeles Times columnist Michael Hilzik recently lamented how 60 Minutes "used to stand for rigorous, honest reporting. What's happened to it?" Hiltzik accused 60 Minutes of practicing a "ghastly" brand of journalism.
Hiltzik has hardly been alone been expressing his amazement at CBS's dubious performance. What's key about his observation was that it came in early October, three weeks before CBS became enmeshed in the humiliating Benghazi controversy, in which the network was forced to retract a badly flawed report that featured a bogus "eyewitness."
So why in early October, prior to the Benghazi fiasco, was Hiltzik bemoaning the appalling journalism sponsored by 60 Minutes? The columnist took aim at an October 6, scare report the CBS program aired, alleging widespread fraud within the Social Security disability program. ("A secret welfare system.") Told from the perspective of a crusading Republican lawmaker, Media Matters noted at the time the CBS report relied almost entirely on anecdotal evidence to dishonestly portray the social welfare program as wasteful, despite the fact that award rates fell during the recession and that fraud is less than one percent of the program.
After watching the report, Hiltzik denounced CBS correspondent Steve Kroft's "rank ignorance about the disability program: how it works, who the beneficiaries are, why it has grown." The columnist was hardly alone in expressing his amazement at CBS's deficiencies. Kroft's one-sided, badly flawed report sparked widespread criticism.
But the disability and Benghazi debacles have hardly been isolated incidents. CBS News' Sharyl Attkisson this week aired a Republican-sponsored attack piece on the supposed security lapses of Healthcare.gov based entirely on a partial transcript leaked by President Obama's most partisan, and untrustworthy, critics on Capitol Hill. (Upon closer review, Attkisson's erroneous report completely fell apart.)
And during the roll-out of Obamacare when lots of news outlets were badly misreporting about the implications of insurance companies sending out health care plan cancellation notices, CBS News' Jan Crawford produced perhaps the most misleading and factually challenged report of them all; a report that came to symbolize the mainstream media botching the health care coverage with misleading scare coverage.
Viewed as a whole, it seems something is unraveling inside CBS News, as it now produces gotcha reports that are quickly proven to be flat-out wrong; reports that appear to be built around attempts to obfuscate the truth. And yes, in all these instances the target is the Democratic administration and those cheering the loudest are President Obama's most dedicated critics.
In the disability, health care and Benghazi cases, CBS aired four outrageously misleading and factually inaccurate reports. And CBS did all of that in the window of just six weeks. I'm hard pressed to point to the same number of ABC or NBC reports that have aired in the last 12 months that were as egregious as the CBS foursome.