As questions continue to mount surrounding Bill O'Reilly's many embellisments about his reporting career, a parallel media debate has formed over the long-term consequences of the controversy, and specifically whether being tagged as a liar even matters to Fox News hosts.
A common refrain goes like this: O'Reilly the entertainer isn't going to be fired by Fox News for his transgressions because it doesn't hold employees accountable. If O'Reilly's standing is secure and he's going to turn the allegations around and use them for political gain, do the confirmed fabrications even matter? And since Fox News relishes bare-knuckle fights, aren't Fox and O'Reilly the real winners?
"The media controversy is one that plays to his and Fox News' inherent strengths," announced the Columbia Journalism Review. Added the Daily Beast, "It doesn't matter what accusations are leveled at the veteran Fox News host, whatever the new evidence he will shout it down louder than ever." (i.e. This guy's bulletproof!)
The avalanche of revelations began last week when Mother Jones detailed how O'Reilly had "recounted dramatic stories about his own war reporting that don't withstand scrutiny."
This week, Media Matters documented two more O'Reilly fabrications. Copious evidence contradicts his previous claim over the years about hearing a shotgun blast that killed a figure in the investigation into President John F. Kennedy's assassination. And he lied about witnessing the execution of nuns while reporting on the civil war in El Salvador. Then yesterday, The Guardian reported six former O'Reilly colleagues from Inside Edition dispute accounts he has told over the years about his allegedly harrowing work covering the Los Angeles riots in 1992.
But again, lots of the media chatter has focused on how O'Reilly viewers expect a conservative-friendly version of the news so they won't hold O'Reilly accountable, especially if he portrays the controversy as nothing more than a "left-wing smear campaign." In other words, the partisan battle lines were drawn long ago and nobody's opinion about Fox News is going to be swayed by the O'Reilly uproar.
"The current flap seems unlikely to damage his reputation among his fans," reported The New York Times. "It could have the opposite effect."
Frank Rich at New York agreed: "This all looks like a win-win for O'Reilly." And Rich's colleague Gabriel Sherman wrote that the Mother Jones story had "backfired" because O'Reilly had used it to his advantage and "hit [it] out of the park."
I'm not so sure.
"The Republican Party needs to stop talking to itself."--The RNC's post-2012 election report.
Governor Scott Walker (R-WI) fumes about "gotcha" questions from "clueless" political reporters and vows not to be distracted by them on the campaign trail. Fox News host Bill O'Reilly blames the media for the swirling controversies surrounding his "combat" reporting, and even levels an on-the-record "threat" against a New York Times reporter for daring to cover the story. And now the Republican Party announces it's teaming up with partisan, conservative media partners to help host primary debates in an effort to make the forums more appealing for candidates.
The first three Republican debates will air on CNN and will be co-presented by the Salem Media Group, a major player in right-wing talk radio. (Its CEO is also politically active in conservative causes.) Salem talker Hugh Hewitt has been invited to be among those asking candidates questions at the first debate. Afterwards, Republican participants will "be invited to join Hewitt to talk candidly about the event," according to a press release. A Salem talk radio host will be included in each of the three debates.
In shifting some of the debate control away from independent journalists, RNC Chairman Reince Priebus is following through on his promise last year to make the debates more GOP-friendly and to tap media participants "who are actually interested in the Republican Party."
It's true that there's nothing inherently wrong with having a talk radio partisan like Hewitt in the mix on the night of a debate. Different perspectives should always be welcome. But the inclusion of unabashed Republican cheerleaders for this year's forums appears to be driven out of fear and distrust of the news media, not out of a GOP desire for inclusion. Indeed, the move has an undeniable whiff of paranoia about it.
As controversy surrounding Bill O'Reilly and his previous claims of harrowing "combat" journalism escalates, and as more than half-a-dozen former CBS News colleagues raise doubts about his storytelling, this would be the moment when most news organizations would step in and announce that an internal review was underway to ascertain the truth. Nervous about having its credibility diminished and committed to being accurate and fair, most major news organizations would take steps to stop the bleeding via a thorough review of the facts.
But not Fox News.
Ignoring the conscience blueprint recently set down by under-siege news outlets such as NBC News, CBS News and Rolling Stone, Fox instead has hunkered down and allowed O'Reilly to mount his own public, and increasingly erratic, defense that's built around obfuscation and name-calling. The result is that rather than containing the controversy, first sparked by David Corn's and Daniel Schulman's report in Mother Jones, Fox and its most famous host have allowed questions to multiply on a daily bases.
Now, the unanswered questions not only center around allegations that O'Reilly misled people for years by claiming he reported from the "war zone" during the Falklands War. (He did not.) New questions persist about the street protest O'Reilly covered soon after the end of the war; a street protest in Argentina's capital, 1,200 miles away from the fighting on the Falkland Islands. O'Reilly's former CBS colleague Eric Engberg, who was in Buenos Aires at the time with O'Reilly, claims virtually everything the Fox host has said about his Argentina work is erroneous.
"Bill O'Reilly's account of a 1982 riot in Argentina is being sharply contradicted by seven other journalists who were his colleagues and were also there at the time," reported CNN's Brian Stelter. One former CBS cameraman called O'Reilly's description of the events as "outrageous."
In other words, it's seven vs. one, so far. And in four days O'Reilly hasn't been able to produce one person who can corroborate his version of the Argentina story. Given those damning circumstances, most news organization in America would be anxious to get to the truth via an internal or even independent review.
But not Fox News.
The Clinton Foundation returned to the headlines this week and once again the topic was promoted with lots of media hand-wringing. The problem is, it's not always clear journalists understand what the foundation does. At least it's not clear based on the media coverage.
The news this week came from a Wall Street Journal article reporting that once Hillary Clinton left her job as secretary of state, the Clinton Foundation lifted its ban on donations from foreign governments. The ban was reportedly first put in place at the request of the Obama administration, which wanted to alleviate any possible conflicts of interest with its new secretary of state. When Clinton became a private citizen again in 2013, the foundation once again accepted money from foreign governments.
"A spokesman for the Clinton Foundation said the charity has a need to raise money for its many projects," the Journal reported.
The Journal article stressed that some ethics experts thought it was bad form for the foundation to accept foreign donations because Hillary Clinton is expected to run for president. The following day, Republican partisans piled on, insisting Hillary herself had accepted "truckloads of cash from other countries." (She had not; the foundation had.) The Beltway press largely echoed the Republican spin and lampooned the foundation's move.
Did the original Journal article raise an interesting question? It did. If and when Hillary formally announces her candidacy, will the foundation have to revisit its position on accepting foreign government donations? It likely will. But the only way the story really worked as advertised this week was to casually conflate the Clinton Foundation, a remarkably successful global charity organization, with Hillary's looming campaign coffers, and to suggest everyone who's giving to the foundation is really giving to her presidential campaign.
In order to make that allegation stick, Jennifer Rubin at the Washington Post simply suggested there's no difference between a global charity and "a PAC or campaign entity." (That kind of changes everything.)
The only way the story gained traction, and this has been true of Clinton foundation coverage for years, was for journalists to pretend the foundation isn't actually a ground-breaking charity, in order to make vague suggestions that it's one big Clinton slush fund where money gets "funneled." ("Money, Money, Money, Money, MONEY!" was the headline for Maureen Dowd's scathing New York Times attack column about the foundation in 2013.)
Traveling overseas last week, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, currently surging in Republican primary polls, stepped into trouble when he was asked if he accepts the theory of evolution. "I am going to punt on that one," said Walker, instantly creating news. "That's a question a politician shouldn't be involved in one way or another. I am going to leave that up to you."
Coming just days after likely White House hopefuls New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) stumbled badly over the issue of vaccinations, and at a time when many leading Republican leaders deny the reailty on climate change, Walker's evolution slip-up highlighted the party's penchant for getting tangled up in fights over science. And not just he latest scientific discoveries, but long-settled science.
Shifting into damage control mode in the wake of the "punt," the conservative press swooped in, established a secure perimeter around Walker and announced, 'No more evolution questions!' They're "silly," "ridiculous," "nonsense," "not serious" queries, came the angry proclamations.
"The Hazing of Scott Walker," lamented the Wall Street Journal's James Taranto.
The hand wringing sprang up overnight as partisan defenders announced that asking a possible candidate about his or her acceptance of evolution was suddenly Completely Out Of Bounds and represented a Deeply Offensive Inquiry. The goal? "Conservatives want to change what questions are acceptable and natural for reporters to ask," noted Bloomberg's David Weigel.
In other words, they're trying to work the refs at the outset of the campaign season.
But conservatives may have a tough time pushing reporters off the evolution questions simply because politicians, and specifically presidential candidates from both parties, have been asked about evolution for years and nobody seemed to mind. But suddenly it's Katie bar the door? Suddenly it's all an elaborate trap journalists have set for Republicans?
It is according to Fox News' George Will. On February 12, he conceded, "We should be able to come to terms with the fact when asked about evolution you say yes." But Will harrumphed that questions about evolution are "a standard way of trying to embarrass Republicans." (Isn't it only embarrassing if Republicans are embarrassed by their own answers?)
In truth, Walker's evolution query was actually the opposite of a trick, or gotcha, question. The governor wasn't pressed on the spot to make a tricky math calculation or to comment on an obscure scientific theory. He was simply asked to acknowledge a firmly-established scientific fact. What could be easier, when you think about it?
Naturally, President Obama's lighthearted appearance last week in a BuzzFeed video that promoted the deadline to sign up for health coverage through the Affordable Care Act triggered humorless responses from his conservative critics.
Like clockwork, conservative commentators, led by Fox News, swooped in. Assigning themselves the role of protocol police, they sternly announced that Obama had extinguished all "dignity" from the Oval Office. "I yearn for my president looking presidential and serious right now," announced Fox News host Greta Van Susteren.
Sound familiar? It should. For six years now Fox News' lineup of talkers and guests have been regurgitating the same condescending claim: Obama has "diminished" the office of the presidency and had done something unspeakable that's "beneath" his lofty position. It's part of an uglier, ongoing attack on Obama. It's the Fox News suggestion that Obama's not part of the American tradition, that he doesn't understand our history and doesn't know how conduct himself. Or, he's so arrogant that he just doesn't care.
But a review of the charges shows the alleged offenses have almost always been trivial and unimportant.
Here's a collection of at least 16 times Fox News figures claimed, or certainly insinuated, that Obama had diminished the office or done something "beneath" it. Each quote (via Nexis) is followed by the alleged etiquette slight that prompted the habitual hand wringing.
Jon Stewart collected his many media accolades this week following the announcement he's leaving as host of The Daily Show, which he's anchored for 16 years. The Comedy Central cornerstone, where comedy and politics intersect, has been rightfully toasted for its groundbreaking path and wide cultural influence. But I don't think there's a way to spin the departure as anything but discouraging news for progressives and their voice in the media.
As a viewer, I understand why Stewart is walking away. The show had started a feel a little creaky. And frankly, how can it not after sixteen years and more than 2,000 episodes intensely focused on the quickening news cycle. But as someone who's concerned about the public dialogue, and especially concerned about conservative misinformation, the news of Stewart's pending exit is troubling. It's particularly dismaying coming on the heels of Stephen Colbert's recent departure from Comedy Central.
Over the last decade, Stewart and Colbert emerged as the Mantle and Maris of political satire, revolutionizing the way viewers, especially young ones, consume news. (For years, both Stewart and Colbert drew more 18-24 year-old viewers than late-night talk shows on ABC, CBS and NBC; an impressive feat for cable programs.)
The duo's departures are disheartening because their satirical and often fearless work proved instrumental in spearheading progressive arguments and critiques. The two anchors helped spotlight issues, call out epic Republican bouts of hypocrisy, and undress Fox News in a way previous left-leaning media voices hadn't been able to. (And yes, they also called out Democrats with regularity.)
That's why I would argue that Stewart and Colbert represented two of the most influential American liberal voices in the last half-century. Why? (Aren't they just comedians!) Mostly because of their national television platform and because their shows attracted millions of viewers. But also because the hosts became cultural icons. And let's face it, liberalism hasn't always been synonymous with "funny" and "cool." But thanks to the Comedy Central dynamic duo, they provided the laugh track for national debates about the minimum wage, about health care, about pre-emptive wars, and about an endless array other hot topics.
Being funny and famous on TV in America allows you to open all kinds of doors for discussion.
Riding a hollow premise to new uncharted depths, Fox News not only tossed aside its own clearly stated position about airing violent propaganda videos distributed by terrorists, it also became, according to The Guardian, the only American news organization this week to toil in the realm of marketing an execution.
Fox not only aired graphic images of a controversial Islamic State (ISIS) clip on its signature nightly news show, it embedded the gruesome, unedited video on its website, and provided lurid, play-by-play description of Jordanian pilot Muath al-Kasaesbeh dying at the hands of his captures. (Shepard Smith: "Eventually the pilot collapses to his knees.")
This is just stunning. An American news organization hosting on its website an explicit terrorist video that captures the staged execution of an innocent hostage.
How do mainstream organizations handle newsworthy acts of barbarism touted by terrorist organizations? That debate raged last summer when ISIS beheaded American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff and hyped the executions via videos.
At the time, the New York Post was considered to have gone right up to edge of good taste with a front page that featured image of Foley just before his beheading, with the executioner's knife at his throat. (By contrast, the image Fox splashed on the screen Tuesday night showed the hostage engulfed in flames; in the process of being killed.) As USA Today media columnist Rem Rieder noted in August, "There seemed to be wide agreement that making the images available would both dishonor the memory of James Foley and play into the hands of the Islamic State radicals by doing what they wanted."
Recall the words five months ago of Michael Clemente, Fox's executive vice president of news/editorial, when the beheading videos emerged: "What we try to do is use judgment so that people are informed about what actually happened while showing as little of what took place as possible."
Now recall the words of Fox anchor Bret Baier less than 48 hours ago: "The reason we are showing you this is to bring you the reality of Islamic terrorism and to label it as such. We feel you need to see it so we will put up one of the images on your screen right now."
See, if Fox doesn't show ISIS evil in the form of a murder, people won't grasp the "reality."
Mitt Romney's decision to not seek the Republican Party's presidential nomination set off a cavalcade of commentary regarding the political repercussion. One popular angle was that Jeb Bush would benefit because of his appeal as a moderate. At least what he is according to the Beltway press.
The day Romney dropped out of consideration CNN's Wolf Blitzer explained Bush's positioning as a "right of center, moderate Republican." The next day, NPR's Ron Elving suggested Bush had more room to run on the "the center-right moderate establishment side." This week, The Christian Science Monitor labeled Bush "the moderate former Florida governor," while the New York Times suggested he was "out of touch" with the Republican Party because of his moderate ways, and that Bush would fit a pattern of Republicans selecting "relatively moderate presidential nominees."
Note that for years, "moderate" has been media shorthand for candidates who enjoy national appeal; the ones with enough fortitude to stand up to elements of their own party and forge a path to the middle.
The Bush narrative had been in the works for months. "Jeb Bush Charts Moderate Path to the White House," read a December headline at MarketWatch, the same month the Times announced Bush would seek the coveted "middle ground" with his possible candidacy. Yahoo News columnist Matt Bai tagged Bush as a "moderate Republican" last month, while NBC stressed his "centrist" path to the nomination.
The narrative for the former Florida governor is easy to follow: Eager to run as his own man, Jeb Bush the candidate won't abandon his core, common sense beliefs (i.e. he won't "bow down"). Instead, he stands ready to battle far-right cranks within his party.
It's true that on a vast array of issues, including taxes, climate change, abortion, repealing Obamacare (it's "clearly a job killer"), civil rights, right-to-die, gun control, relations with Cuba, legalizing marijuana, and crime, among others, Bush remains a far-right politician. (He once bragged he was "probably the most pro-life governor in modern times.")
And that's why veteran Bush watchers in Florida remain confused by the "moderate" chatter. "A lot of the politicos and lobbyists and long-term reporters are kind of baffled by this idea that he is a centrist or a moderate," Matt Dixon, a reporter in the Scripps-Tribune capital bureau and former statehouse reporter for the Florida Times Union of Jacksonville, told Media Matters' Joe Strupp. "His record as governor reflects some conservative and really Republican philosophies."
Yet according to D.C. media elites crafting the 2016 storyline, Bush yearns for the "middle ground" of American politics. If this heavy-handed Bush branding sounds familiar -- complete with the softened edges -- it should. Think back to 2000.
This week's messy, public breakup between conservatives and Sarah Palin was executed with brutal swiftness. After years of alternately worshiping and defending her from all comers while gleefully echoing her falsehoods about the Obama administration (death panels!), lots of conservatives -- and especially conservative pundits -- decided enough, and collectively tossed her overboard.
Palin's speech last weekend at a conservative confab in Iowa, odd and vacuous even by her standards, served as the trigger for the media mutiny. Morning Joe's Joe Scarborough tagged it "a tragedy," the Daily Beast's Matt Lewis apologized for his previous Palin support, and the Washington Examiner rounded up reactions from the GOP faithful: "Long and disjointed." "A weird speech." "Terrible. Didn't make any sense." (See video of the speech below.)
After six years conservatives have essentially conceded what Palin's critics on the Left have said all along: She's not a serious person and she serves no serious political purpose. Palin, who symbolized an uber-aggressive anti-intellectual conservative push that coincided with Obama's election, seemed more interested in self-promotion -- via reality shows and habitually flirting with running for office that never materialized -- than in building a lasting political legacy.
Note that Palin's accelerated descent this week represents a larger trend within the conservative media. It represents the decline of the tea party wing of the right-wing press and how a once-flourishing enterprise of outside upstarts, with their eyes on disrupting the GOP hierarchy, have in recent years faded in terms of importance and prestige within that sphere.
For instance, five years ago players like Palin, tea party guru Glenn Beck, and tea party "godfather" Rick Santelli from CNBC were on the cusp of powering of grassroots movement to retake the Republican Party and the country. Beck drew huge cable audiences on Fox News while weaving dark tales of Obama deception, Santelli helped inspire patriot rallies across the country, and Fox favorite Palin surfed political celebritydom and eyed a possible White House run. They represented a new and different brand of media agitators who didn't take the traditional paths to the masses.
But today they stand deflated. In fact, as the next campaign season looms, all three appear to be vanishing in the media's rear-view mirror.