Eric Boehlert

Author ››› Eric Boehlert
  • Reminder: How The Media Missed The Trump Surge

    Blog ››› ››› ERIC BOEHLERT

    The media’s mea culpa season is in full bloom this spring as analysts and commentators step forward to concede that with Donald Trump effectively seizing the Republican nomination, they were often very wrong in predicting his political demise.

    Convinced that he was an outlier fluke who couldn’t sustain his popularity -- let alone nail down a major party nomination -- the Beltway media consistently missed the Trump surge for months, and often did so in bold fashion:

    *"Why no one should take Donald Trump seriously” (Washington Post

    *“Donald Trump’s surge in the polls has followed the classic pattern of a media-driven surge. Now it will most likely follow the classic pattern of a party-backed decline.” (New York Times)  

    *“No, he won't win the Republican nomination for president.” (ABC News)

    Credit now goes to journalists who have stepped forward to admit their mistakes and offer news consumers some guidance as to why commentators likely misread the Trump campaign.

    Some reasons offered up include, Republican elites failed to effectively coalesce around an anti-Trump candidate. The news media essentially sponsored Trump’s campaign with an unprecedented amount of free exposure. And Republican voters didn’t penalize Trump for his obvious policy flip-flops.

    Note that there’s nothing inherently wrong with being incorrect about campaigns, assuming predictions are made in good faith. And this Trump misfire isn’t going to, nor should it, stop pundits and prognosticators from trying to peer into the future.

    But there is a problem if the media’s elite class doesn’t understand how one of America’s two major parties functions today. It’s problematic if the GOP’s gone through an ugly transformation, which produces a Trump nominee, and the political press is too timid or too detached to accurately document that radical makeover.

    And in the case of Trump that denial seems to have been widespread. For instance, much of the data pointed to a Trump win for a very long time. “Trump was a stronger candidate than anyone wanted to admit,” the Huffington Post recently noted. “He skyrocketed to the top of an incredibly crowded pack soon after announcing he was running.”

    Resisting those hard facts, many journalists clung to the idea that Trump was simply too out-there to become the nominee; too extreme, reckless, and garish for a major party nominee.

    And that’s still the problem today. Lots of media analysts continue to ignore a central reason for why they missed the Trump surge, and they’re still not acknowledging what’s driving his success: The truly radical nature of today’s Republican Party and its right-wing voter base.

    Y’know, the conservative movement that cheered Glenn Beck when he called the president of the United States a "racist"; that supported right-wing claims that president Obama was a tyrant who needs to be impeached. (And that he was foreign-born.) The movement that revolves around Rush Limbaugh, who claimed that if Obama weren't black he'd be working as a tour guide in Hawaii, not sitting in the Oval Office, and who insisted Obama ran for office because he resents white America and wants to score some payback.

    And it’s a Republican Party that has essentially shut down the U.S. Congress, rather than legislate with Obama. It’s a party today that refuses to hold hearings for the president’s highly qualified Supreme Court nominee.

    That’s what the Republican Party has become in recent years, but the press has mostly held its tongue about the nasty makeover. And in the process, the press missed the Trump surge, which rode that radical GOP wave. 

    The collective, years-long turning of a blind eye indicates to me just how important it is for the Beltway press to maintain a symmetrical balance between Democrats and Republicans. It shows how the press remains married to the idea that the two parties are simply mirror images of each other, occupying different ends of the political spectrum. That for however far to the edge Republicans move, Democrats are sure to reciprocate. It’s the Both Sides Are To Blame syndrome, basically.

    And there’s great comfort in that for the press. Because if you call out Republicans as radical, or note that the ugly nature at the base of the GOP could easily propel Trump to a nomination victory, that means the press has to break from the safety of the Both Sides narrative. That then opens the press up to “liberal media bias” denunciations from the right.

    So which is worse, being taunted with claims of liberal bias, or misreading a presidential campaign season for ten months? 

  • Pundits’ New Lament: Clinton Might Win, But She Won’t Win The Right Way

    Blog ››› ››› ERIC BOEHLERT

    That distant rumble you’re hearing from the Beltway is the sounds of pundits eagerly excavating as they dig up the campaign goal posts established for Hillary Clinton’s presidential run and reset them during the middle of the race.

    After months of suggesting her White House push was possibly doomed, that she couldn’t connect with voters, pundits are now conceding she will be her party’s nominee and that polling data and demographics currently give her a November advantage. But instead of admitting they misread her run (how do you accumulate 13 million primary votes and not connect with people?), some have decided to change the rules -- to move the goal posts midway through the game -- and suggest that even if she wins the presidency, Clinton will have won it the wrong way, and that in some bizarre way her victory won’t be legitimate.

    Penning a campaign memo to Clinton with the subject line, “Winning Right,” Ron Fournier in The Atlantic insisted that winning isn’t enough for her (emphasis added):

    Congratulations! You are now the presumptive Democratic nominee. Considering the demographic obstacles piled against Donald J. Trump, you’re this close to the presidency. The nation’s first woman president. Heir to President Obama’s legacy.

    It’s not enough. Is your goal to win the presidency or to win and transform the presidency? Are you a caretaker or a change agent? Do you seize power for the love of power or for higher purposes: to modernize the institutions of politics and governance; to restore the public’s faith in Washington; to break the cycle of polarization and solve big problems; to galvanize the youth vote (like Obama) and translate millennials’ passion and power into governmental reforms (unlike Obama)?

    According to Fournier, Clinton’s victory and her presidency will only matter if she completely transforms American politics. And if she accomplishes that without any help from Republicans, of course.

    For context, note that Fournier’s column scolded Clinton’s campaign for not being “honest and authentic” the way Donald Trump’s campaign has been honest and authentic. So that tells you a bit about the writer’s worldview.

    Some of Fournier’s suggestions/demands for Clinton to win and govern the right way? She should “digitize” the “bully pulpit” to get Republican statehouses to stop gerrymandering voting districts, and as president she should change the rules for how the Democratic and Republican parties nominate their candidates.

    So no, I doubt the Clinton camp is taking Fournier’s offerings seriously. But his heavy-handed demands are worth noting since they offer insight into how parts of the pundit class are already preemptively undermining Clinton’s possible win.

    One popular refrain is that the rest of Clinton’s run is already tainted because her unfavorable/favorable rating is not good. Trump’s net unfavorable rating is worse, but many in the press are lumping the two candidates together and presenting them as a deeply unpopular pair.

    “I think is very frustrating is that the two people most disliked by a majority of the country are about to end up running against each other,” lamented Matthew Dowd on ABC This Week.

    Added Fournier on Meet The Press: “We have two presumptive nominees and most often America says oh, my God. Maybe I don't vote in November.”

    The theme is constant: Clinton’s viewed poorly by voters, therefore she doesn’t inspire. But that’s not true. A recent Gallup poll found that Clinton supporters were among the most enthusiastic this campaign season, and were even more enthusiastic about her run than supporters of Bernie Sanders were about his.

    Meanwhile, over at Politico, Todd Purdum’s recent piece, “How Hillary Could Win the Election—and Lose the Country,” harped on many of the same points Fournier made in The Atlantic. Yes, Clinton can win, but she’s winning the wrong  way (emphasis added):

    It is entirely possible to be the winner and still not get much of a mandate—to enter office as a kind of default president who gets in because no other candidate is electable but who doesn’t have the faith and loyalty of a large portion of the nation.”

    Specifically, Purdum deducts points for Clinton lacking a clear vision (a “new animating idea”). Yes, as Purdum quotes from a recent Clinton speech, she’s fighting for “civil rights, voting rights, workers’ rights, women’s rights, LGBT rights, and rights for people with disabilities.” But to pundit Purdum, it seems boring.

    It’s boring and out of touch: “[Her] ideas are out of sync with the mood of the electorate in this three-sheets-to-the-wind age.”

    Of course, the idea that she’s “out of sync” with voters is undermined by the fact Clinton has received more votes than any other candidate this year.

    Have we ever seen a White House campaign where members of the press suggest the candidate winning the most votes isn’t really the candidate people want to vote for? Yet over and over Purdum insists Clinton’s out of touch with Democratic voters … while Clinton seems poised to accept her party’s nomination. (I’m anxiously awaiting the Purdum column about how Trump’s badly out of step with Republican voters today.)

    Overall, this whole not-winning-the-right-way thing is quite odd, mainly because for decades campaign coverage in America has revolved around one thing: Winning. It’s been the only thing that mattered. And winners were usually toasted as being super savvy regardless of their margin of victory. That's why it's called horse race journalism because the press has been obsessed with documenting who crosses the finish line first; with who's up and who's down. 

    Today, Clinton’s clearly up so some scribes want to rewrite the rules and announce that it’s not really about winning, it’s about how you win? Suddenly pundits are subtracting points for style and grace if she doesn’t run her campaign and win exactly how they say she must conduct herself?

    Media message to Hillary: Jump through these series of progressively smaller campaign hoops while we  grade your leaps and bounds as being insufficient.  

  • Obama’s Boasting Reaganesque Approval Ratings, So Where’s The Media Attention?

    Blog ››› ››› ERIC BOEHLERT

    For a leader regularly written off by the press as a lame duck 18 months ago, President Obama has tallied some major wins during his second term, and voters have taken notice. He’s normalized relations with Cuba, implemented a historic Iranian nuclear deal, signed a global climate pact with nearly 200 nations, overseen the continued success of Obamacare, all while the economy has recorded 73 straight months of job growth.

    No wonder that polls point toward a Democrat succeeding him in the White House.

    So why isn’t there more media credit directed his way? Is the press making the mistake of reading off the Republican campaign script this year, which insists America is teetering on collapse? (Obama joked at the White House Correspondents Dinner: “The end of the Republic has never looked better.”)  

    Whatever the reasons, let’s note there hasn’t been a media rush to document Obama’s strong standing in recent weeks. CNN last month timidly suggested, “there's some evidence that the public is viewing Obama … more fondly.” The first clue? Obama’s approval rating hit a three-year high of 53 percent, according to Gallup. (He boasts a staggering 66 percent approval rating today among voters 18-29.)

    Obama’s strong showing has remained steady since March: Gallup on Monday pegged his approval rating at 52 percent.

    Note that the president’s approval rating dropped down to 40 percent just 18 months ago during the midterm election cycle in 2014, which means he’s ridden a 13-point surge over the last year-and-a-half. Doesn’t that qualify as news?

    The president averaged a nearly 50 percent approval rating from January 20 through April 19, his 29th quarter in office, according to Gallup. That 29th quarter represents “one of the higher quarterly averages in his presidency to date.” That’s especially remarkable considering second terms are not traditionally kind to presidential approval ratings.

    Recall that our previous two-term president left office with a 22 percent approval rating, while his vice president signed off with a thumbs-up from 13 percent of voters. 

    What’s also impressive is that in today’s hyper-partisan environment, Obama has been able to boost his standing while getting almost no support from Republican voters.

    “Obama is the first president since polls existed to have never gone above 25 percent approval from the other side,” noted Paul Waldman at the American Prospect. Obama’s approval among Republicans currently stands at just 14 percent, according to Gallup. Given today’s rugged political terrain, “If a president can stay at 50 percent, he should be counted a remarkable success,” Waldman argued.

    But don’t look for lots of media tributes. The truth is, during his two terms the press has repeatedly worked to depict Obama’s standing as being on the decline, and often downplaying his success. (Also, good news is no news.) As Media Matters noted in 2010, “Beltway scribes today have made it plain that when it comes to Obama and polling, good news is no news.”

    And when Obama’s standing did fall, the press eagerly piled on, as I laid out after Democratic losses in 2014:

    Right after the election, a November Economist editorial announced, "Mr. Obama cannot escape the humiliating verdict on his presidency." Glimmers of hope after the midterms were no reason to think Obama had "somehow crawled out of the dark place that voters put him," the Washington Post assured readers. (Post columnist Dana Milbank has recently tagged Obama as a hapless "bystander" who's "turning into George W. Bush.") And a McClatchy Newspapers headline declared, "President Obama Is Now Truly A Lame Duck."

    So it’s not surprising the same press corps is in no rush today to detail Obama’s recent surge in popularity, and in fact seems to tiptoe around it. 

    In January, The New York Times looked ahead to Obama’s final year in office and stressed, “polls show doubts about his handling of critical issues.” Contrasting his second term with Bill Clinton’s and Ronald Reagan’s, the Times insisted Obama began the year “without the advantages of popularity that Reagan and Mr. Clinton had.”

    In other words, both Reagan and Clinton were very popular during their final year in office, but Obama was not. Yet recently, Obama’s Gallup approval rating slightly exceeds Reagan’s from the same point in the Republican’s eighth year in office.

    Obama’s Gallup rating April 25-May 1, 2016: 51 percent.

    Reagan’s Gallup rating May 2-May 8, 1988: 50 percent.

    So where are the media acknowledgements? (In the press, Reagan is often used as shorthand for a universally popular president.) In recent months, the Times has made only a few passing references to Obama’s approval ratings, according to Nexis.

    In early March, a Washington Post-ABC News poll found that Obama’s approval rating had risen to 51 percent, up from 45 percent in December. Big news, right? Nope. The Post reported that 51 percent fact in the ninth paragraph and devoted just one sentence to his surge.

    Here’s another example: Last June when a CNN poll found that Obama’s approval rating dipped to 45 percent, CNN played the data as big news (“President Barack Obama's job approval numbers are sinking”), complete with the taunting headline “Bush Now More Popular Than Obama.” 

    But more recently, when CNN polling pegged Obama’s approval at 51 percent, CNN downplayed the news. CNN’s polling write-up about the survey included just one sentence noting the president’s surge.

    And in a recent 8,000-word opus, Politico outlined what it claims to have been Obama’s “failure” to communicate his agenda, and what “went wrong” inside the White House. It wasn’t until 7,000 words into the feature that Politico acknowledged Obama’s approval rating recently hit a three-year high. Politico also never mentioned that Obama’s approval today matches that of Reagan’s, who was known as The Great Communicator.

    To date, Obama’s second term has been a broad success, and lots of voters agree. When’s the press going to take note? 

  • With The Megyn Kelly Vs. Donald Trump TV Summit, Everyone Wins (Except The GOP)

    Blog ››› ››› ERIC BOEHLERT

    The unfolding Republican primary season, which often resembles a soap opera with its endless drama and plot twists, saw a new media chapter when Fox News announced Megyn Kelly had landed her first interview with Donald Trump since the start of their public feud last year. 

    Scheduled to be included in Kelly’s first prime-time Fox TV special on May 17, the sit-down came after Kelly, the target of relentless Trump insults, made a hush-hush visit to candidate’s New York City office to ask for an interview. (Kelly also reportedly asked Trump stop personally insulting her.)

    The Fox News green room commotions just never end. Recall that in March, after going on a Twitter tirade in which he denounced Kelly as “crazy,” Trump announced he was skipping another Fox News debate, which led to the event being canceled. Fox News headquarters answered back, claiming the GOP frontrunner had a “sick obsession” with Kelly. But that was awkward because Fox showered Trump with nearly $30 million in free TV time from May through December of 2015. So who’s obsessed with whom?

    The Fox News vs. Trump saga represents a completely dysfunctional relationship: Much of Fox loves Trump’s right-wing politics; Trump loves to bully Fox. Now the latest love/hate chapter is that Trump has agreed to sit for Kelly’s interview, which is weirdly being hyped as a major campaign showdown. (Remember when campaigns were focused on voters, not cable news hosts?)

    Kelly’s Trump interview represents good news for her, good news for Fox, and good news for Trump.

    If he behaves himself, he might come across as magnanimous as he jousts with his foe. If Kelly uses the opportunity to aggressively challenge Trump, she'll likely garner more plaudits from mainstream outlets. (The interview also comes as Kelly is negotiating a new contract and potentially leaving Fox News for a less openly partisan outlet.)

    And even if Trump flops, the interview will come so late in the primary season that it will likely have little impact on the final voting tallies among Republican voters.

    The only interested partisan party not celebrating? The GOP. Because for the Republican Party, the whole Fox interview spectacle represents the latest Trump-fueled mess, as the marauding Frankenstein’s monster wreaks havoc on the way to the Republican convention this summer.

    Indeed, the ongoing Fox News/Trump saga represents something of a Keystone Kops production for both the GOP and Fox.

    Journalistically you’d think the spectacle would be something of a negative for Fox News -- the idea of Kelly being a target of Trump’s attacks and then trying to calm the waters by visiting his office to ask for an interview in person. (Has Anderson Cooper ever done that?) But Fox signaled a long time ago that journalism and truth telling aren’t what drives their operation. It’s ratings, and whenever possible, Republican propaganda that remain paramount.

    Fox cares about ratings and buzz, and most likely Kelly’s prime-time interview with Trump can deliver both, especially since much of the mainstream media positions itself as Kelly’s collective publicist, churning out endless puff pieces about her. She and Fox News can expect lots of praise for her performance.

    She’s an "independent" "rising star" with a "reputation for asking tough questions to anyone,” CBS Sunday Morning’s Charlie Rose recently stressed.

    Note that Rose insisted Kelly’s “willingness to take on some of America's big name conservatives, quickly made Kelly a rising star" at Fox News, which makes no sense. Why would taking on conservatives at a proudly partisan and conservative network propel Kelly’s career? It didn’t.

    But her strategic use of very occasional bouts of conservative pushback provides the press with anecdotal evidence it needs to push the narrative that reporters, and Kelly, were comfortable with: Journalism flourishes at Fox News!

    The incident that set off the feud was Kelly publicly (and deservedly) challenging Trump on his long record of noxious comments about women at a debate last August. (He promptly freaked out.) The press accolades began pouring in. She’s a “feminist icon of sorts,” with “star power” that rivals Julia Roberts, claimed Vanity Fair.

    The press turned a blind eye in order to promote Kelly. But readers of Media Matters know the unpleasant truth:

    She has frequently hosted an anti-LGBT hate group leader on her show, made flippant comments about racism and police brutality, and promoted conservative falsehoods about Planned Parenthood and the 2012 attacks in Benghazi, Libya. Kelly is notorious in her own right for shaming and blaming black victims of police brutality.

    Doesn’t it bother journalists that they’re holding up as a newsroom paragon somebody with an ugly record of supporting race baiting and homophobia? I’m curious which groups of people Kelly has to offend before elite journalists take notice.

    But none of that likely concerns her now. Kelly has her Trump interview to conduct for her star turn special, which Fox will endlessly promote, and Trump himself might even benefit from it.

    It’s the Republican Party that’s left asking itself how its 2016 presidential campaign devolved into a cable news soap opera.

  • As Trump Tries To Remake His Image, Why Isn’t The Press Mocking Him As Inauthentic?

    Calling Clinton A Phony Has Been Media Staple For Years

    Blog ››› ››› ERIC BOEHLERT

    Have we ever seen a presidential campaign be so open about trying to unveil a candidate makeover the way we’ve seen Donald Trump’s team tip off his new look in recent days?

    Huddling with nervous Republican elites, Trump’s senior aide Paul Manafort recently assured them the candidate’s “image is going to change,” according to a New York Times report. "You'll start to see more depth of the person, the real person. You'll see a real different way," Manafort stressed, according to the Associated Press. Trump to date has been “projecting an image" and "the part that he's been playing is now evolving,” the aide guaranteed members of the Republican National Committee.

    No equivocation here: Trump’s changing gears, and the person you’ve seen up to now has been putting on an elaborate act. 

    The attempted image makeover comes as Trump battles historically awful favorable ratings heading into the general election season.

    But the brazenness -- the openness -- of the move is startling simply because the Trump campaign seems to fear no backlash from the press for orchestrating an image makeover. And so far, Trump aides appear to be right. Because unlike previous instances when pundits and reporters thought they caught prominent candidates trying to change their stripes (especially when Al Gore and Hillary Clinton were the media targets), most of the press hasn’t erupted to denounce Trump for being a would-be charlatan. They haven’t cried out about his lack of genuineness.

    The fact is, much of the political press has spent the last nine months touting Trump’s supposed authenticity and praising his allegedly candid campaigning style. But now faced with evidence to the contrary, and faced with evidence coming directly from Trump’s campaign, the same press corps seems unwilling to puncture the previous Mr. Authentic storyline. The press seems unwilling to admit that perhaps they’ve been duped by Trump and the “image” he projected.  

    Even after noting the candidate’s pending image change, National Public Radio stressed, “Still, a subdued, presidential Trump will likely continue to be a unique brand of presidential candidate.”

    So even if Trump transparently sheds a new political skin, he’ll still be a “unique brand.”

    All of this runs contrary to the Beltway press’ well-established rules: If you attempt an image makeover during the campaign season, you will be ridiculed as a phony and a fraud and as someone who’s surrounded by so many overeager handlers that you’re incapable of understanding who you really are.

    For the campaign press, there really is no greater sin than being a phony; than being out of touch with your core beliefs. (Even Mitt Romney got singed by the press in 2012 when he was seen as trying to pull off a costume change mid-campaign.)

    Those have been the clearly marked ground rules. But for Trump? Apparently those rules don’t apply the same way, because his campaign is trying to retool the candidate’s image, yet the move hasn’t received instant and outraged pushback from the press.

    In fact, the media subtext I’m picking up is that Trump is smart to try to alter his image; that it’s a savvy move on his part to better position himself for the general election.

    “The change in tone is absolutely necessary,” wrote the Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza, who noted the new Trump incarnation on display during his New York primary victory speech “was markedly more disciplined, gentler and more appealing than the version of Trump we've seen for much of the last year.”

    So there’s no denial that an attempted makeover is underway. Everyone sees it. What’s missing is the outsized mockery.

    It's true that Trump’s new image has sparked some media denunciations, sprinkled around in recent days if you go looking for them. And yes, some members of the media have claimed Trump’s makeover is a bogus one and that the loudmouth candidate won’t be able to suddenly become presidential. But that’s different than calling out Trump for being inauthentic and for being a phony for trying on a new look.

    In contrast, when it came to Gore and Clinton image denunciations, you didn’t need to search them out. They arrived in buckets, scooped up from tidal waves of media condemnations.

    The dominant media theme from the 2000 campaign was that Gore was a phony, forever in search of a new image.

    For instance, during the 2000 campaign the press spun a tall tale about how Gore had supposedly been counseled to start wearing more “earth tone” colored clothing, and then laughed and belittled the candidate about it for weeks and months. For the press, it was a perfect example confirming their hunch that Gore just didn’t know who he was. (And don’t get me started on the media’s insane pile-on when, post-campaign, Gore grew a beard.)

    As for Hillary Clinton, there’s an entire press canon on the topic of her supposed lack of authenticity. The Beltway press for years has worked in unison with Republicans on this theme, working to depict Clinton as a calculating fraud.

    Remember when she teared up and let some emotion show on the eve of the New Hampshire primary in 2008? The New York Times’ Maureen Dowd responded with one of the meanest, most spiteful columns of that campaign season. (Headline: “Can Hillary Cry Her Way Back To The White House?”)

    Late last summer there was another wave of Clinton’s-not-authentic coverage. The Wall Street Journal suggested so much of what she does sounds "scripted and poll-tested." Politico declared she's a White House hopeful "with an authenticity problem." The Washington Post insisted, "Her campaign has struggled to present her as authentic and relatable." And McClatchy Newspapers asked "Is Hillary Clinton Authentic Enough for Voters," and likened her to Richard Nixon.

    Or you can just Google the evergreen topic:

    Hillary Clinton's inauthentic self - The Washington Post

    Hillary's Authentic Inauthenticity - National Review Online

    Maybe Hillary Clinton Isn't Fake Enough | New Republic

    Hillary Clinton the Inauthentic | RealClearPolitics

    So where are the judgmental denunciations of Trump’s attempted image makeover? Where’s the media finger wagging about how Trump doesn’t really know who he is?

  • Trump’s Media Makeover Game

    Blog ››› ››› ERIC BOEHLERT

    If you noticed that the last two Sunday mornings were slightly less chaotic on the talk show circuit, that’s because Donald Trump broke with his longstanding TV tradition and did not appear. (He didn’t even call in.) For five months running, Trump had been a fixture on the Sunday shows (he’s made 70 appearances since the beginning of 2015), spouting off endlessly and often creating controversy as producers watched their Trump-fueled ratings climb.

    It’s been a win-win for Trump and the press.

    The blueprint looked like this: Trump played the role of reality TV star turned-carnival barker while the press cheered him on, feasting off the clicks and audience surges he constantly delivered.

    Missing for too long from the equation? In-depth reporting and holding the blustery candidate responsible for his often fact-free statements. “I don’t think he’s been held accountable by the broadcast media for his erroneous statements and repeated lies,” Trump biographer Tim O’Brien tells me.

    The author of TrumpNation: The Art of Being Donald, O’Brien gives the press a D- grade for its covering of Trump as a presidential hopeful. He’s especially critical of cable news’ open-door policy of Trump coverage, such as live, unfiltered broadcasts of his rallies. “They give him the backyard to run around and then train their cameras on him to see what happens,” says O’Brien.

    But now, Trump is taking a step back and turning down media invitations. He’s also supposedly trying to roll out a new, more “presidential” image.

    Will the press take the bait?

    There’s no question that there’s been a makeover attempt within the Trump campaign in recent days. According to press reports, longtime political operative Paul Manafort has essentially taken over the campaign. The move has been widely seen as an effort to tighten up the operation. One key trait: pulling Trump out of the media spotlight where he’s been living for the last nine months.

    The campaign staff shakeup and Trump’s absence from the Sunday shows “give the impression that campaign veteran Manafort has taken the reigns and directed Trump to scale back on some of the off-the-cuff behaviors that have gotten the campaign negative coverage in the past,” wrote conservative blogger Larry O’Connor.

    The new-look Trump was unveiled Tuesday night after his New York primary victory when he gave an unusually succinct victory address and avoided his usual partisan insults.

    Right on cue, political commentators swooned over the costume change from Trump, giving him credit for not insulting his opponents and (temporarily) dialing back the buffoonery.

    “He actually called him Senator Cruz!” gushed ABC World News Tonight’s David Wright. “The consummate deal-maker changing his sales pitch to close the deal. The tone, more presidential.” (Old habits apparently die hard -- within a day, Trump was back to calling Cruz “Lyin’ Ted.”)

    To repeat, the press gave Trump credit for not brazenly insulting people during his victory speech. And overnight, the press is hyping as “presidential” a candidate who’s spent the last nine months wallowing in campaign bigotry. Talk about a standard that’s been invented out of whole cloth just for him.

    Commentators might be playing up the new, kinder and gentler Trump, “but where’s the evidence” anything has changed, asks Trump biographer O’Brien. So far there is none.

    Meanwhile, note that candidates who try to unveil a new look mid-campaign usually get called out by the media’s authenticity police. But there’s been very little of that regarding Trump this week; very little mocking of him for attempting to construct a new public persona on the fly. 

    We’ll soon know for sure whether Trump has any plans to abandon the thuggery that’s defined his campaign to date. But his absence from the Sunday shows the past two weeks suggests the campaign may be trying to throttle back his media availability to some extent. Instead of dashing in front of television cameras, or speed dialing into news programs, Trump has taken a step back, as witnessed by his recent Sunday show hiatus. 

    In doubt is whether Trump’s stepping back from his shiny-object media strategy, which the press gladly supported since last summer. “Every time he needs to raise his visibility, change the subject, or respond to an attack, he says something outrageous and the cycle starts again,” wrote Joel Simon at the Columbia Journalism Review.

    We’ve seen the drill over and over. He insulted Mexicans! He insulted Sen. John McCain! He insulted Megyn Kelly! He insulted Carly Fiorina! He insulted the Pope! He insulted Ted Cruz’s wife! Months of news cycles have been robotically handed over to the Trump shiny-object coverage.

    That in turn has served as one of the media’s justifications for showering Trump with unprecedented attention: They treat Trump differently because Trump acts so differently!

    Trump didn’t act like other politicians, the press claimed. He wasn’t guarded in his comments. He wasn’t surrounded by consultants. Trump was authentic and controversial. Or so goes the argument. And best of all, Trump gave lots and lots of television interviews. His sound bites demanded unending press attention.

    In the unlikely event Trump actually manages to find a softer, more “presidential” tone, and become slightly media shy, will the press dial back its obsessive, celebrity-like coverage, and apply a more critical eye to his wild claims? 

  • Even A Bigot Is Getting Better Campaign Press Than Clinton

    Blog ››› ››› ERIC BOEHLERT

    Sometimes this whole election season seems like a weird journalism experiment designed to determine just how out of whack Hillary Clinton’s campaign press coverage can become; how one-sided and nasty the media chronicling of her can be.

    As the Democratic front-runner moves closer to likely securing the nomination and potentially becoming the first female president in United States history, the press prefers to often treat her campaign as a mess that's perpetually facing looming pitfalls and possible setbacks. (When not critiquing the volume of her speaking voice.)

    The tone of the gloomy coverage should surprise no one who’s paid close attention to how the Beltway press has depicted Bill and Hillary Clinton over the last two decades. (Hint: With boundless snark and endless suspicion.)

    The would-be experiment in 2016? Create a wildly boorish, bigoted and dishonest Republican candidate such as Donald Trump and compare his press coverage to Clinton’s. There’s no way the press would award someone like Trump with more positive coverage than Clinton, right? There’s no way the respected, traditional Democratic candidate would be saddled with more negative coverage than the Republican liar whose rallies are marred by physical violence and who has denounced reporters as “scum,” right?

    Wrong and wrong.

    As Vox noted, a recent study found that in ten major media outlets, more negative stories have been published about Clinton than any other candidate (including Trump) since January 2015. During that same period, Clinton has been on the receiving end of the smallest proportion of positive stories, according to Crimson Hexagon, a Boston-based social media software analytics company that conducted the study.

    Clinton’s ratio of negative-to-positive coverage stands at approximately 10-to-1.

    I understand that Clinton’s White House run isn’t amassing glowing press clippings. That was never going to be an option for a national figure like her who’s always been a media target. (Last year there was open talk about how the press was primed to “take down” her campaign.) 

    As the graph indicates, all the candidates were hit with lots of negative coverage. But the most negative ratio for the candidate with the clearest path to the White House? That seems excessive.

    Despite being poised for more large-state wins, the press has often presented her candidacy as floundering. In fact, for long stretches, the tone and tenor of Clinton's coverage seemed to mirror that of Jeb Bush's -- the Republican who ran a fruitless campaign and bowed out after winning just four delegates. (Clinton has tallied nearly 1,800 delegates.)

    But for Clinton to be generating press reporting that’s less positive and even more negative than Trump’s is astonishing given the type of gong show campaign he’s been running.

    The quantitative study by Crimson Hexagon represents one of several that will likely try to catalog the coverage for the candidates over the course of the campaign. As a rule, studies that attempt to code coverage as positive or negative are open to interpretation and shouldn’t be seen as the definitive word on campaign press behavior. But the fact that this one shows Trump’s press coverage to be even remotely similar to Clinton’s in terms of tone and tenor, let alone tilting towards being more positive than hers, is remarkable.

    It’s remarkable because Clinton is running a serious and substantive campaign, while Trump is at the forefront of a misinformation circus and has unfurled countless red flags, like when Trump:  

    • Compared Ben Carson to a child molester.
    • Made fun of Carly Fiorina’s face.
    • Denigrated Sen. John McCain’s war record.
    • Insinuated Megyn Kelly’s menstrual cycle interfered with her ability to moderate a Republican debate.
    • Labeled Planned Parenthood “an abortion factory.”
    • Mocked a reporter for the New York Times who has a physical disability.

    That doesn’t even address Trump’s pathological inability to tell the truth, matched by his categorical refusal to correct his preposterous falsehoods.

    “There’s never been a presidential candidate like Donald Trump — someone so cavalier about the facts and so unwilling to ever admit error, even in the face of overwhelming evidence,” Washington Post fact-checker Glenn Kessler has noted.

    And Kessler should know. He and his colleagues have been doing their best to detail the nearly endless conveyor belt of absurd and completely nonsensical lies that Trump has been spouting on the campaign trail. On their scale of one to four Pinocchios, the Washington Post has doled out a cavalcade of demerits, giving the worst possible rating to the following claims from Trump: 

    Politico also recently put Trump’s prevarications under the microscope. Combing through four-and-a-half hours of campaign speeches given during the first week in March, Politico found Trump averaged a misstatement once every five minutes:

    His remarks represent an extraordinary mix of inaccurate claims about domestic and foreign policy and personal and professional boasts that rarely measure up when checked against primary sources.

    So yes, some news organizations are digging into Trump’s misinformation and highlighting it, which remains an imperative. But the amazing part is that even with that horrendous record of lies and insults, Trump’s overall press coverage is still better -- it’s still more positive and less negative -- than Clinton’s coverage, according to the Crimson Hexagon study.

    The Democratic front-runner has studiously avoided Trump’s open style of irresponsible campaigning. Her reward? Watching him roll up friendlier press coverage.

  • Trump, Clinton, And The Media's Charity Double Standard

    Blog ››› ››› ERIC BOEHLERT

    Another day and another flamboyant claim from Donald Trump that turns out to be not what it seems.

    In this case, it’s Trump often-told brag that he’s donated more than $100 million to charity in the last five years. It’s a boast that plays into his preferred image of a business tycoon who’s still looking out for the little guy. His campaign even compiled a list of nearly 5,000 contributions as supposed proof of his selflessness.  

    But according to the Washington Post, there’s no record of Trump donating any of his own money to charity in the last five years.

    “Not a single one of those donations was actually a personal gift of Trump’s own money,” the Post reported. “Many of the gifts that Trump cited to prove his generosity were free rounds of golf, given away by his courses for charity auctions and raffles.”

    Specifically, Trump listed nearly 3,000 rounds of golf as charitable gifts, even though some of the golf passes were given to his business clients and wealthy celebrities. As the Post explained, the donations list “reveals how Trump has demonstrated less of the soaring, world-changing ambitions in his philanthropy than many other billionaires. Instead, his giving appears narrowly tied to his business and, now, his political interests.”

    The Post story caused some media waves for a news cycle or two this week. But the press attention seems to have faded rather quickly, as have so many instances of Trump prevarications. For instance, the Post donation story broke on April 11. The next night CNN hosted a 60-minute town hall with Trump, but no questions were raised about the Post story and the candidate’s debunked claims of charitable giving. (That, despite Trump volunteering on CNN that he donates his earnings from paid speeches “to charities.”)

    So yes, the Washington Post deserves credit for doing a deep dive into Trump’s finances (with some help from the Associated Press); for effectively debunking a rather outrageous Trump tale about his supposed generosity.

    But let’s not pretend the coverage this week approached scandal-like attention and commentary. And let’s not pretend there’s any indication the Trump charity story has legs and will be revisited time and again in coming months as a template to raise doubts about the candidate’s character.

    To date, that kind of charitable second-guessing has been reserved only for the Hillary Clinton charity story; the one where she has helped raise nearly $2 billion to aid poor people around the globe via the Clinton Foundation.

    Talk about Bizarre World: Trump refuses to make personal donations to charities while Clinton helps bankroll a wildly successful charity, but she’s the one who’s been x-rayed by the press for the last year on the topic.

    Have you forgotten the Beltway media’s Clinton Foundation witch-hunt from last year? Last May, Rupert Murdoch's HarperCollins published Clinton Cash by longtime Republican partisan Peter Schweizer. A sloppy, book-length attack on Clinton Foundation donors, the book tried (and failed) to show how foundation donations corrupted Clinton's decisions during her time as secretary of state; how the foundation acted as a side door for millionaires to buy influence inside the Clinton camp. Media Matters at the time documented more than twenty errors and distortions in the book. 

    Still, The New York Times and the Washington Post teamed up with Schweizer and helped push his flawed Clinton opposition research.  

    Why? The Clinton Foundation in 2015 represented a major news story inside the Beltway because there might be something unethical going on. (To this day journalists still raise the specter of widespread corruption.) Yet one year and hundreds of news reports later, conservatives and the various mainstream outlets chasing the story still haven’t been able to prove that the foundation is some sort of “conflict of interest” slush fund that pocketed most of the donations.

    “There are no instances I know of where Clinton was doing the bidding of a donor or benefactor,” former New York Times editor Jill Abramson recently concluded, as she pushed back on the media’s conventional wisdom about Clinton being untrustworthy.

    As Vox's Jonathan Allen pointed out last year while detailing the press corps' "unspoken rules" to covering Hillary, "the media assumes that Clinton is acting in bad faith until there's hard evidence otherwise." That explains why the media’s foundation feeding frenzy was rooted in the newsroom assumption that the Clintons are always hiding something, that they’re not truthful, and cannot be trusted.

    In lots of those news accounts, the fact that the Clinton Foundation is a charity was often downplayed, including that the organization helps AIDS/HIV suffers around the world get cheaper, better  medicine. Or that the foundation battles global healtheconomic inequalitychildhood obesity, and climate change. (Still, it’s described as a “so-called charitable enterprise” by some journalists fixated on taking down the Clintons.)

    Meanwhile, it’s hard to imagine what the hysterical Beltway press reaction would look and sound like if the Washington Post discovered millionaires Bill and Hillary Clinton hadn’t donated one dollar out of their own pockets to charity in recent years, and especially if the Post debunked lofty Clinton claims to the contrary.

    It’s true that this Clinton/Trump comparison is slightly apples-to-oranges since the news about Trump charities revolves around his giving of funds (or lack thereof), and Clinton’s charity news centers on her raising of funds.

    So what about her giving? According to their 2014 tax returns, the most recent one available, Hillary and Bill Clinton gave $3 million to charities, which represents $3 million more than Trump has given in the last five years, according to the Washington Post’s reporting.

    But even when it comes to giving, the press has at times tried to spin the Clinton’s deep-pocketed generosity as something nefarious. The suspicion surrounding their 2014 donation? $1.8 million of their giving was “channeled” to the Clinton Foundation.

    The charity coverage nearly perfectly captures how the press deals with Trump and Clinton: Trump’s stunning embarrassment is noted but not obsessed over, while Clinton’s charitable success is deemed to be scandalous.

  • Rush Limbaugh Is Facing A Big Pay Cut

    With His Contract Up, Limbaugh’s Radio Boss Teeters On Bankruptcy

    Blog ››› ››› ERIC BOEHLERT

    One of the favorite pastimes for sports fans is commiserating over the worst contract their home team ever made; guffawing over management’s decision to waste tens of millions of dollars for a player who never justified the huge payday. (See: Gilbert Arenas.)

    For talk radio, there’s probably only one contract that enters that realm of notoriety: Rush Limbaugh’s eight-year, $400-million deal, signed in the summer of 2008 with his longtime radio employer Premiere Radio Networks.

    Owned by Clear Channel Communications, which has since changed its name to iHeartRadio, Premiere’s Limbaugh deal instantly dwarfed any payout in AM/FM history. (Only Howard Stern’s contract with Sirius was larger.) The contract, which included a staggering $100 million signing bonus, never panned out as the wheels began to come off Limbaugh’s radio empire.   

    This year, his contract is up and the timing couldn’t be worse. The talker is facing ratings hurdles, aging demographics, and an advertising community that increasingly views him as toxic, thanks in part to his days-long sexist meltdown over Sandra Fluke in 2012. (He’s also stumbling through the GOP primary season.)

    Concurrently, iHeartRadio’s parent company, iHeartMedia, is heading to court, teetering on bankruptcy. The once-dominant radio behemoth is saddled with $20 billion in debt, thanks to a misguided leveraged takeover engineered by Bain Capital in 2008, the same year the radio giant inked its disastrous Limbaugh deal.

    Today those two defining missteps from the past are crossing paths, which means Limbaugh’s radio future has never looked less bright. This, as Limbaugh passes his 65th birthday, which seems to mirror his audience’s age.

    "Who would even want someone whose audience is aging and is considered toxic to many advertisers," asked RadioInsight last year.  

    Some industry insiders are wondering if his AM days are over and if Limbaugh’s futures rest with satellite radio, where advertiser indifference wouldn’t penalize him. The problem? His audience is so old. “With the aging and decline of Limbaugh's audience, Sirius may not be as viable an option as it once was,” Darryl Parks tells Media Matters. A former talk radio host, programmer, and self-identified Republican, Parks writes about the industry at DarrylParksBlog.

    Indeed, the conservative talk radio format has morphed into the Classic Rock of talk; super-serving the same aging demo for the last twenty-plus years.

    “Everything needs to evolve, but stations, conservative talk hosts and programmers have decided to double down and focus on the aging Baby Boomers,” says Parks. “When a group is no longer appealing to advertisers, that spells the end of any radio format.”

    The former Clear Channel network owns 850 radio stations across the country and the syndication rights to right-wing stars such as Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity.

    During the late 1990s and early 2000s the company, feasting on the fruits of media deregulation, gorged itself with profits. (It also bullied the music business for years.)

    Since then, not so much. And what a brutal ride it’s been for investors:

    Clear Channel stock price, January 2000: $90

    Clear Channel stock value, April 2007: $39.

    iHeartMedia stock price, July 2011: $8.30.

    iHeartMedia stock price at close of yesterday: $1.15.

    The company hasn’t reported a profit since 2007. Today, iHeartMedia is busy selling off assets in an effort to shore up its bottom line. “It’s a case of burning your sofa to heat up the house,” Philip Brendel, a credit analyst recently told Bloomberg. “It’s not necessarily a good idea but you’re running out of options.”

    The company’s woes date back to the Clear Channel leveraged buyout deal in 2008. It was overseen by private equity giants Thomas H. Lee Partners and Bain Capital, once headed by Mitt Romney. Coming just months before the U.S. financial crisis of September 2008, the Clear Channel deal couldn’t have been hatched at a worse time.

    How bad was the deal? Monumentally bad:

    In 2007, the company, then called Clear Channel, reported a net income of $939 million. In the years since the LBO, the company has reported losses of between $220 million and $4 billion per year. For 2015, it reported a loss of $738 million.

    Today, the interest paid on iHeartMedia’s massive debt gobbles up earnings. “Revenue last year was $6.5 billion. A $1.74 billion interest expense drove a net loss of $661 million,” Billboard reported. (iHeartMedia also operates a huge billboard advertising and live concert business, among other interests.) 

    Is this a company that can continue to fill wheelbarrows full of cash and pay Limbaugh $38 million annually, and bless him with another $100 million signing bonus? No way.  

    In fact, iHeartMedia’s too busy putting out other raging fires right now -- like trying to stay solvent.

    What sparked the sudden specter of bankruptcy was an allegedly deceptive move made by iHeartMedia: Shifting money from one division of the business to another instead of paying debts owed to creditors.

    The creditors went to court and sued. They “believe the stock transfer constitutes a default and might call their debt within 60 days,” Billboard reported. iHeartMedia sought an emergency injunction, stressing that if creditors won their “default” claim, the dominoes would instantly fall and iHeartMedia would face an avalanche of bond defaults totaling $15 billion to a long line of creditors. Those are payments the company simply cannot make, which would mean bankruptcy for iHeartMedia. 

    Having secured a temporary restraining order to halt the creditors’ actions, the two sides are set to square off in a courtroom next month to determine the outcome of the injunction request.

    “It’s not a question of whether it collapses but when, and it’s likely to come sooner rather than later,” suggested Media Life. “It could be within months."

    Meanwhile, not only has the bottom line for Limbaugh’s corporate radio home cratered since 2008, but the talker’s own business plan has become riddled with holes in recent years.

    Just look at Boston, where Limbaugh stood out as a talk radio star for years. In 2015, his affiliate there dropped his midday show. Although not unheard of in the radio business (Limbaugh’s show is very expensive for stations to carry), what was surprising was that nobody else in Boston stepped forward to pick up Limbaugh’s program. Desperate not to lose coverage in the tenth largest radio market in America, iHeart shipped Limbaugh’s show down to a has-been station the company owns in Boston. Today, that station ranks 26th out of 29 stations in the market, boasting a .2 rating.

    Those aren’t the kind of major market ratings you want to take to the negotiating table for a new contract.

  • Rush Limbaugh's GOP Primary Season From Hell

    Blog ››› ››› ERIC BOEHLERT

    "It's almost like you're going so far out of your way and almost doing back flips and cartwheels to defend Trump. It's just a turn-off at this point." [Caller to Rush Limbaugh, March 31]

    Conservative media's "Trumpkins"-fueled civil war has spared few victims. Just ask Rush Limbaugh, who continues to take on fire as he stumbles his way through the right-wing media's divisive Primary Season from Hell.

    Routinely condemned for not calling out what Republican critics see as Donald Trump's brand of faux conservatism, Limbaugh continues to fish around for a middle ground. The host seems anxious to defend Trump from attacks, but also wary of offending his legion of listeners, who see the front-runner as a fraud, and see Limbaugh as a hypocrite for playing nice with him.

    Torn between the allure of what's popular (Trump) and abandoning everything Limbaugh's said about how he defines conservatism over the last 30 years, Limbaugh now often finds himself in no-man's land.  

    "Every day of Rush's show now feels like an exercise in strained, compulsory quasi-neutrality, which amounts in practice to him defending nearly everything Trump says and does but mixing in some praise for Cruz here and there just to make sure he's got his footing on the tightrope," wrote the Hot Air blogger known as Allahpundit.

    In other words, Limbaugh's playing defense, a mode that most talk radio hosts despise. 

    Have there been previous primary squabbles, and has Limbaugh been at odds with his famously like-minded listeners in the past? Of course. But as a rule, the conservative media world over the years hasn't been known as the home of freewheeling and raucous partisan debate within the GOP, pitting Republicans against Republicans. Instead, it's been known to be an amazingly disciplined echo chamber that directs its fire outward toward Enemy No. 1: Democrats.

    The current primary battle is the most bitter in recent memory. It's also threatening to implode the Republican Party -- and to a degree, the entire conservative movement as we know it -- as Trump angles to secure the party's nomination while breaking free from core beliefs that have been considered sacrosanct for generations by Limbaugh's listeners.

    The host, meanwhile, has become a piñata, as conservatives line up to take whacks at him in a way we've never really seen before.

    In a scathing critique of Limbaugh's support of Trump, The Wall Street Journal's Bret Stephens lamented that conservatives "used to have the good sense to dismiss" unserious candidates like Trump "as eccentrics, lowlifes or clowns."

    Michael Gerson, former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, complained, "Through a long series of controversies, Limbaugh has excused Trump's narcissism and bluster as an endearing 'schtick.'"

    Then he lowered the boom: "Populist anti-intellectualism, on the rise at least since Sarah Palin, has culminated in Trump. It is the passing of conservatism, even if Limbaugh baptizes the dead."

    At The Daily Caller, Matt Lewis nicked Limbaugh for "abdicating" his "responsibility" and not having the "intellectual honesty and moral courage" of local Wisconsin talk show hosts who stood up to Trump. Lewis blamed Limbaugh and other nationally syndicated hosts for feeding the Trump beast last year to the point where he now may be unstoppable.

    "Limbaugh is a mind-numbing, frustrating hypocrite," wrote longtime listener Travis Hale at The Hill. "His tacit endorsement of Trump, now occurring daily during his show, is almost impossible to understand."

    You don't get the sense that these brushback pitches are coming from Ted Cruz diehards who are furious with Limbaugh's partisan refereeing. Some of the missives are coming from people who are puzzled that someone they looked up to for so many years "to be our voice of conservative reason" is revealing himself to be a weather vane this primary season, pointing whichever way the (Trump) wind blows.

    That includes some of Limbaugh's Dittohead listeners, who are chewing him out, too. "I believe that most of the time you stimulate my intelligence, but today I feel like you're insulting my intelligence -- and that of many other people," a caller recently lamented to Limbaugh.

    In response, Limbaugh is alternately defending himself and periodically bowing out of the Republican free-for-all.

    Retaliating against conservative commentators who have branded the talker a "sellout," Limbaugh returned fire last month with his own accusations of hypocrisy: "They turn to me as a source of blame for the fact that Trump hasn't been taken out, despite the fact that they've tried. But I don't see where they've endorsed other people. I don't see where they have actually engaged in the behavior they demand that I engage in."

    When controversy erupted after Trump's campaign manager was charged with simple battery after grabbing the arm of a reporter, and after Limbaugh was seen as defending the Trump campaign, the host announced that the topic was suddenly off-limits. "I have determined here that because tensions are so tight, everybody is wound up to such a feverish pitch here, that no matter what I say it is misunderstood and is not helpful," he announced.

    Lamenting the state of the GOP primary season, Limbaugh conceded the arm-grabbing incident might not be the only one where he'd have to "muzzle" himself: "Because it's apparently impossible to be correctly, properly, understood."

    For someone whose entire career has been based on lies and misinformation, there's something wonderfully fitting about Rush Limbaugh silencing himself because his fans and conservative media just aren't listening properly and he just can't be understood.