The Hill's A.B. Stoddard was on MSNBC this afternoon discussing the media's focus on Barack Obama's purely theoretical (and not alleged by anyone) involvement in the Blagojevich allegations:
STODDARD: They've pushed that off into next week and according to lawyers quoted in the Wall Street Journal yesterday, they're just choosing to do this. They're choosing not to talk. They're under no legal impediment. There's no injunction against them. Although Patrick Fitzgerald doesn't want them to talk, they're not legally kept from doing so. They're not. They're choosing not to talk. So in some ways Barack Obama is sort of doing this to himself. He's going to keep getting those questions and it's going to be a feeding frenzy next week.
See, the media feeding frenzy is Obama's fault: if he would just disclose the contacts between his staff and Blagojevich, it would all go away.
This, of course, is inane. The questions most certainly would not go away. Indeed, they would intensify. Stoddard kept insisting that Obama is under no obligation not to talk. True. True, but dumb. Dumb because if Obama blows off Fitzgerald's request, the media would go into a frenzy about whether that means he is impeding the investigation, and why. And I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that A.B. Stoddard would be an active participant in it.
MSNBC's Contessa Brewer then responded:
BREWER: And it's leaving room for people to ponder and question and leave time for doubts to arise and in fact we're seeing this new Marist poll that shows that 63 percent of Americans feel the Obama transition is on the right track. Now that's pretty good, but an NBC News Wall Street Journal poll showed earlier that that number was more like three quarters of the people that had responded. Is the Blagojevich scandal and the surrounding questions, no matter what the answers are, if they remain unanswered, is it likely to affect how people view this transition?
This is a completely invalid point. Brewer is comparing the results of two different polls conducted by two different polling organizations and purporting to show a trend as a result.
Hey, look, this fruit has red skin, while that fruit has orange skin! Right ... one is an apple, and one is an orange.
But Brewer didn't merely err in comparing the results of two different polls. She portrayed the Marist poll as "new," and suggested the results reflect the "time for doubts to arise."
Well, guess what? The Marist poll was released today ... but it was conducted December 9th and 10th. That's the day charges were filed against Blagojevich, and the next day. In fact, the Marist poll began the day after the NBC/Wall Street Journal ended.
So Brewer is comparing two polls, by two different polling firms, which were conducted on consecutive days, both of which were completed more than a week ago, and both of which were completed before the Blagojevich story was 48 hours old - and in doing so, she is purporting to show an erosion in Obama's public standing as a result of "doubts" that have supposedly arisen in the past week.
Later, Brewer told Stoddard: "I know there are journalists who are taking a lot of heat for not being aggressive and tough with Obama."
Yeah, and there are journalists who are taking heat for being unfair to Obama by obsessively and misleadingly covering the story, despite the fact that there is no allegation that Obama or any of his staff has done anything wrong. But Brewer didn't mention that.
Because after all, these are such dull times. I mean, with the economy careening to new, historic depths and millions of Americans struggling to remain employed and in their homes, it's no surprise the Beltway press laments how there's not enough drama--enough entertainment--in the air.
Next up in Obama's insomnia treatment was an acceptance speech by the previously unknown nominee, followed by the president-elect's own blend of convoluted and passive answers to questions...The whole thing might have ended in snores if [Chicago Tribune reporter John] McCormick hadn't piped up about Blagojevich.
For Milbank and his colleagues, the only interesting part came when somebody asked about Blago. (Finally!)
Gene Lyons also noticed Milbank playing the bored care:
My personal favorite, however, had to be the Post's ubiquitous TV talking head Dana Milbank. Reacting on CNN to the disappointing news that Fitzgerald has asked Obama to delay releasing a list of staffers who'd discussed the coveted Senate seat, Milbank complained that the president-elect was trying to bore Americans to death by appointing obscure nobodies to posts like secretary of energy.
MSNBC's John Yang, just said in previewing President Bush's speech today: "The president has said in his interviews, his exit interviews as he calls them, that one of his greatest, the achievement he is proudest of is the fact that there has been no attack on US soil, no terrorist attack since September 11, 2001."
Journalists keep repeating this Bush spin, but it just isn't true.
You'd think an MSNBC reporter would remember the anthrax mailings that targeted Democratic members of congress as well as several news organizations - after all, one of the letters was sent to NBC.
Maybe John Yang should check in with Casey Chamberlain, the NBC employee who opened a letter containing anthrax. She understands that there has, in fact, been a terrorist attack since September 11, 2001; in 2006, she wrote an account of her experiences for MSNBC's web page:
Every September, like many, I feel sick and frightened around the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. But it was the weeks following September 11th that would forever change my life. During that time, I was the victim of terrorism when I opened a letter containing a lethal amount of anthrax.
You may remember hearing about Tom Brokaw's assistant who got sick after coming in contact with a letter containing a deadly amount of anthrax. I was the person who first opened that letter, before Tom's assistant became sick. You have not heard my story.
A week or so after I was sick, Mr. Brokaw's assistant became sick. Both of our symptoms were unusual. Authorities became involved. When Bob Stevens died at the American Media Building in Florida at the end of September, the pieces slowly began to come together.
The events over the next few months changed my life. I had carried anthrax back on my clothes and had contaminated my home. I chose to have all of my things destroyed. I lost my most personal belongings. All my precious pictures and mementos. I worried I might die. I'll have to see doctors the rest of my life.
Every time I hear the word terrorism or anthrax, it makes me sick. I often become a bit paranoid and feel as if people are staring at me. Whenever various media outlets alert Americans about "a white substance" that was found or some chemical smell or spill, the speculation that these things might be anthrax conjures up many negative emotions. I'll never have an overall sense of security again.
The next time John Yang feels like mindlessly repeating Bush administration talking points, he should give his colleague Casey Chamberlain a call first.
Or he might think about Greg McKendry, an usher at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church who died while shielding others from gunfire when Jim Adkisson opened fire during a children's musical performance.
Despite what much of the media seems to believe, not all terrorism is committed by people from Saudi Arabia
On Sunday, Kevin Drum noted that the New York Times Peter Baker ignored the media's role in hyping the Blagojevich scandal as a problem for Barack Obama. As Drum explained:
it's a little odd that Baker leaves out the role of the press in all this. I'll let Bob Somerby do the heavy lifting here, but I've lost count of the number of op-eds and TV talking head segments over the past week that have started out with something like this: "There's no evidence that Barack Obama was involved in Rod Blagojevich's pay-to-play scheme - in fact just the opposite - but...." After the "but," we get a couple thousand words with some take or another on why this is casting a "lengthening shadow" over Obama even though there's precisely zero evidence that he had even a tangential involvement in the whole thing.
Maybe Republicans still haven't learned their lesson from the 90s, but that's no reason the press has to follow them over a cliff once again. Cool it, folks.
In fact, Baker's whole piece was supposedly about "lesson[s] from the 90s" - but he has drawn some bizarre conclusions from the impeachment proceedings that capped the GOP's efforts to destroy Bill Clinton.
But the impeachment represented the triumph of partisanship on both sides of the aisle, a partisanship that remains today. Democrats made a calculated decision to stick by a president of their party no matter his transgressions and to promote partisan division in the Congressional proceedings so they could discredit the other side. Republicans were so intent on turning out Mr. Clinton that they turned away from opportunities for a bipartisan solution.
This is deeply flawed.
First, Democrats didn't decide to "stick by" Clinton "no matter his transgressions." They decided to "stick by" Clinton despite what his transgressions actually were. In Baker's formulation, the Democrats decided to stick with Clinton no matter what he did. That isn't what happened -- unless you believe that what Clinton did was the worst thing he could possibly have done. Washington journalists like Peter Baker always seemed to believe that, but the American people have never agreed. Nor has basic common sense.
Second, Baker's assertion that the Democrats' decision was "calculated" is utterly baseless. The Democrats opposed impeachment - but so did literally hundreds of legal experts, constitutional scholars, and historians, as well as the overwhelming majority of the American people. It is nothing short of mind-blowing that Peter Baker doesn't even entertain the possibility that this wasn't a "calculated" political decision, but rather a sober and well-reasoned assessment that impeachment was simply not the correct remedy for what President Clinton did.
Third, Baker's assertion that it was the Democrats who promoted "partisan division in the Congressional proceedings" is jaw-dropping. The very existence of the impeachment hearings was itself a partisan act by Congressional Republicans - a partisan act that was inconsistent with the views of overwhelming numbers of legal and constitutional experts, the American people, and even the proclamations of then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who had said earlier in the year that Congress would not proceed with impeachment based only on allegations relating to Lewinsky.
House Republicans conducted the proceedings in the same heavy-handed and partisan manner that they had brought to their pumpkin-shooting pursuit of Clinton for years. It was the Republicans who decided that Ken Starr would be the only fact witness during the Judiciary hearings, for example - and who gave him two hours to deliver an opening statement, and gave Clinton lawyer David Kendall only 30 minutes to question Starr. (Eventually, committee chair Henry Hyde was generous enough to give Kendall another 30 minutes.)
Anyone who wishes to examine the facts of the House Judiciary impeachment proceedings - and the ways in which the GOP's approach differed from the committee's inquiry into Watergate in the 1970s - can find ample evidence that the committee Republicans behaved in a shockingly zealous and partisan manner. To say the Democrats were being partisan in not going along with the GOP's lunacy is simply perverse.
But you don't even need those facts in order to see the flaws in Baker's reasoning. Baker thinks the Democrats were being excessively partisan in not going along with the GOP's efforts to impeach Clinton ... and the Republicans were being excessively partisan in insisting on impeachment. According to this logic, the only way for everyone to behave appropriately would have been for the Democrats to support impeachment and the Republicans to oppose it. But that's nonsense. Impeachment was either the right thing to do or the wrong. If you think it was right, there's no reason to criticize Republicans for supporting it. If you think it was wrong, there is no reason to criticize Democrats for opposing it.
Baker's formulation is typical of beltway journalists - right and wrong and policy and truth don't matter; the only way to be admirable is to disagree with one's party. Ridiculous. (Not to mention impractical: what if the majority of congressional Democrats had supported impeachment? Would it then have been the Democrats who opposed impeachment who had behaved honorably for eschewing partisanship?)
The result has been a distaste for impeachment but little appetite for consensus. Liberal Democrats agitated to impeach Mr. Bush in connection with the Iraq war, warrantless surveillance and interrogation policies, but party leaders had no interest in going down that road again. "Although there are powerful arguments that President Bush has committed high crimes and misdemeanors, there are questions about whether it is prudent to do so," said Bruce Ackerman, a Yale Law School professor.
Mr. Bush's defenders would strenuously disagree. In their minds, the very talk of impeachment over policy differences represents the real cost of the Clinton clash.
Wow. Wrong again.
For better or worse, there hasn't been any significant effort to impeach Bush. But to the extent anyone has advocated impeachment, it certainly hasn't been "over policy differences" - it has been over rampant law-breaking, constitution-trampling, and over lying in order to take the nation to war against a country that didn't attack us. Baker's framing could hardly be more Bush-friendly.
Which isn't to say he didn't try. Baker, continuing directly:
Mr. Bush, after all, campaigned for office promising to sweep out the toxic atmosphere in Washington, only to find that his disputed election had further polarized the capital and the nation. As he prepares to take leave eight years later, he calls his inability to change the political climate one of his regrets.
Yeah, poor George W. Bush - he really wanted to "sweep out the toxic atmosphere in Washington," but just wasn't able to get it done. Again, Baker's framing couldn't be more Bush-friendly if he tried; he ignores everything Bush and those acting in his name did to contribute to the toxic atmosphere in Washington.
Put it all together, and what do you have?
House Democrats were shamefully partisan for opposing the impeachment of President Clinton (though they were joined in that opposition by basically everyone in America except Congressional Republicans and Beltway journalists.)
And the polarization caused by his disputed election prevented President Bush from changing the tone in Washington - his own unbending partisanship had nothing to do with it.
Nobody in the Beltway likes to be left off the CW bandwagon, and Newsweek's Fineman finally got his ticket punched with this Blago/Obama doozie. Gee, nothing loaded in this language, right?
-"The Blago Distraction"
-"isn't great news for Team Obama"
-"a little suspicious"
-"It was widely speculated"
-"Emanuel (and, by extension, Obama) could pay a price"
-"the Chicago mess simmers"
-"there seems little doubt that Emanuel will survive"
-"Emanuel already has blown up"
-"he is already a bigger story than is good for either him or his boss"
-"however legally justified"
Our favorite passage was this [emphasis added]:
The original release was supposed to be this week. But it was pushed back, the Obama camp said, at the request of the official investigating Blago: Chicago-based U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, the 21st-century Eliot Ness. Fitz's office confirmed that he had made the request, though there is no way of knowing how adamant he was about it.
Behold your press corps at work.
Criticizing Obama's initial reaction to the Blago story (Obama wasn't hysterical enough, apparently), Steve Chapman writes:
But Mr. Obama had a "My Pet Goat" moment, freezing up in the face of the shock. "I don't think it would be appropriate for me to comment on the issue at this time," he said. "It's a sad day for Illinois." You'd have thought the Bears had failed to make the playoffs.
Of course, "My Pet Goat" is a reference to the book president Bush continued to read to Florida school children during a Sept. 11, 2001 photo-op, even after being told by his chief of staff Andy Card that, "A second plane hit the second tower. America is under attack!"
Chapman thinks Obama's reaction to the local Blago corruption story was just like Bush's reaction to news about deadly terrorist attacks on American soil.
The Rules, of course, stated that from the press' perspective, anything goes. No mysterious allegation or offensive slight was out of bounds. For some reason those rules were packed away during the Bush years and are now in the process of being taken out of storage to cover president-elect Obama.
For proof, let's look at Dana Milbank from the Washington Post, dutifully regurgitating the Beltway CW today [emphasis added]:
But Obama's response to Blagojevich questions has been decidedly junior varsity. Begging off because of an ongoing investigation? Hiding behind Patrick Fitzgerald's skirt? Warning a reporter not to "waste" a question and asking for an alternative question? All four techniques were popularized by Bush."
Obama's acting just like Bush, according to Milbank. Okay. Now going back and searching through the Nexis archives, how many times during Bush's eight year in office did Milbank refer to Bush as "junior varsity"? Zero. How many times did anybody at the Post refer to Bush as "junior varsity"? Zero.
How many times did Milbank suggest Bush ever hid behind somebody's skirt? Zero. How many times did anybody at the Post make that emasculating claim? Zero.
So according to Milbank, Obama is acting just like Bush. But Milbank used language that nobody at the Post ever dreamt of using while Bush was in office.
As we've seen for the last week, the Blago/Obama story is much more interesting when the press invents facts. Today it's the Daily News' turn:
Aides to the President-elect acknowledge Rep. Rahm Emanuel, Obama's incoming chief of staff, did talk to Blagojevich about the Senate seat and even handed over a list of candidates acceptable to Obama, a fairly common exchange in politics.
False. According to all available information, Emanuel talked with Blago's staff about filling the seat, not with Blago himself. Considering that the press seems to be hanging the entire Obama "scandal" around Emanuel's possible contacts with Blago, the fact that the Daily News mangled the key point is sort of important.
Rasmussen was out of the gate early in terms of national polling numbers regarding the unfolding Blago story and after reading Rasmussen's summary the only question we have is this: Was the polling firm trying to mislead people? Because the survey, and the Rasmussen write-up about the results, are pretty much a disaster.
First the poll findings:
Forty five percent (45%) of U.S. voters say it is likely President-elect Obama or one of his top campaign aides was involved in the unfolding Blagojevich scandal in Illinois, including 23% who say it is Very Likely.
The problem here is glaringly obvious: The Blago question asked to voters was utterly pointless. Polls are supposed to help us understand where Americans stand on the issues of the day. But that's pretty hard to do when pollster like Rassmussen ask completely worthless questions.
i.e. What does it mean to suggest Obama or one of his top campaign aides "was involved" in the Blago story? If a pollster called me at home over the weekend and asked me that question I could see possibly answering 'Yes' they were technically "involved" because obviously it's Obama's former U.S. senate seat that Blago was trying to auction off. And yes, Obama aides were in touch with Blago about filling the seat, as any campaign would. So I guess they were "involved," not unlike the way special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald is "involved" in the story.
But reporting the results, Rasmussen assumed the worst and suggested everyone who answered yes that Obama or his aides might be "involved" in the scandal meant they did something wrong. But that's not what Rasmussen asked. Rasmussen asked a pointless question about who might have been "involved."
If Rassmussen wanted to find out if people thought Obama or his aides helped Blago try to sell a U.S. senate seat and/or broke the law, than why didn't Rassmussen just ask people that very simple, straight forward question? Instead, Rasmussen posed a completely vague and meaningless question about who was "involved," and that's why the results are utterly pointless.
As for the Rasmussen write-up about the poll findings, it was just was useless [emphasis added]:
Up until now, no one in a position of authority is saying that Obama or anyone on his staff is guilty of wrongdoing.
Good grief that's bad. First, last time we checked it would a judge and jury to decide if "Obama or anyone on his staff is guilty of wrongdoing," not somebody in "a position of authority."
And second, prosecutors have been quite clear that neither Obama nor his top aide are even being investigated for wrongdoing, so why on earth is Rasmussen daydreaming about finding them guilty?