"Media Matters"; by Jamison Foser


Pick up a newspaper or turn on the television for some political news, and you'll likely read and hear two things: first, that the Republican party is in serious trouble, beset by an ever-growing list of legal and ethical troubles and watching their poll numbers goin' down, down, down. Second, that Democrats need a "plan" or a "positive agenda" - that simply opposing Bush and the Republicans isn't enough.

This Week:

Media figures say Democrats' alleged lack of agenda spells trouble -- but Republicans didn't unveil 1994 "Contract With America" until shortly before election day

With Plame leak investigation looking bad for Rove and others, old misinformation resurfaces

News organizations know White House events are staged -- so why don't they tell us more often?

Media figures say Democrats' alleged lack of agenda spells trouble -- but Republicans didn't unveil 1994 "Contract With America" until shortly before election day

Pick up a newspaper or turn on the television for some political news, and you'll likely read and hear two things: first, that the Republican party is in serious trouble, beset by an ever-growing list of legal and ethical troubles and watching their poll numbers goin' down, down, down. Second, that Democrats need a "plan" or a "positive agenda" - that simply opposing Bush and the Republicans isn't enough.

Republicans, predictably, are making this second point. For example, as we noted last week: when CBS made the curious decision to give Rep. David Dreier (R-CA) and two of his fellow Republicans the opportunity to appear on Face the Nation without Democratic opposition, Dreier took advantage of the free chance to trash Democrats, claiming that "there is really no plan that has come forward from Democrats on any issue whatsoever."

But the Democrats-need-a-plan mantra has been picked up by many in the media as well. MSNBC's Norah O'Donnell said on the September 28 edition of MSNBC's Scarborough Country:

O'DONNELL: We are talking like the sky is falling for Republicans. And, in order for the Republicans to be kicked out of office, clearly, the Democrats will have to come up with a message that works. ... The message that they are trying to, of course, today is talking about what Pelosi called a culture of corruption, which is this narrative, too, that Howard was talking about, all these are sort of puzzles that could fit together that could give the Democrats a message to sort of do that. But they also have to provide an alternative in terms of the right policies. And that is a tougher road for them.

NBC's Tim Russert agreed in a Q&A at MSNBC.com:

RUSSERT: I don't think the Democrats can recapture control of congress simply by saying, "We're not the other guy." I think they have to have a forward-looking proposal saying, "This is what we believe in," and contrast it with the Republicans.

On the October 13 edition of CNN's Lou Dobbs Tonight, Dobbs, CNN political analyst Bill Schneider, and The Wall Street Journal's John Fund also suggested that Democrats need a plan:

DOBBS: And at this point, there is the other party, the Democrats. And they haven't come up with a single message, a straightforward proposal or plan. They seem, Bill Schneider, absolutely rudderless in all of this as well?

SCHNEIDER: And enjoying every minute of it, because the White House is --

DOBBS: Well, they may be enjoying it, but that 28 percent who thinks the country is going in the right direction -- that 72 percent isn't thrilled with --

FUND: Half of the political success is waiting for the opposition to mess up. The other half is convincing the American people you can do better. The Democrats are not making that fundamental case.


DOBBS: I don't know about you guys, but I think a lot of us would like somebody to step forward with a plan here that makes some sense and start focusing on the middle class and the people that make this country work.

To be sure, the notion that Democrats need to produce a positive policy agenda of their own is a popular one, advanced by both liberal and conservative political figures and pundits. And it may well be true. But journalists and commentators shouldn't simply assume and assert that it is true without offering any explanation.

The obvious historical model to look at in assessing the Democrats' chances next year is the Republican success in the 1994 mid-term elections, in which they took control of both the Senate and the House. Indeed, that model comes up in reporting about the current political climate. Gloria Borger wrote in the October 10 issue of U.S. News & World Report:

[I]f you're a Democrat, things are looking up. And you're also looking back -- to 1994, when voters handed control of the House to Newt Gingrich and his Republicans, who railed against a "culture of corruption" in the Democratic majority. After 40 years of Democratic rule, the GOP mavericks moved in to run the place as the party of change. Now, after more than a decade, the revolutionaries look more like the ruling class -- a majority that has forgotten its reformist roots. And the polls show it: Congress's approval ratings are in the mid-30 percent range, the lowest in about eight years.

But wait. Before voters decide to throw the bums out, don't they have to know what they're buying into next? In 1994, Gingrich & Co. produced a "Contract With America" to let the voters in on their plan for governing. Today's Democratic agenda is somewhere between hate for George W. Bush and disdain for George W. Bush. That's not enough for a party looking to revive itself as a governing entity. People already know what they are voting against; they need to know what they're voting for.

But it's worth remembering that Republicans didn't unveil their "Contract With America" until September 27, 1994 -- less than two months before Election Day. The notion that Democrats today are in desperate need of the kind of positive agenda Republicans had in 1994 is based on a false premise: Republicans didn't unveil their agenda until the last possible minute, as a look back at contemporaneous news reports makes clear.

The Associated Press reported on the Contract with America announcement on September 27, 1994:

The GOP plan is familiar campaign-trail fodder. Tax cuts, tough action against crime, welfare reform, the balanced-budget amendment and term limits are among its promises.

But Republicans hoped the agenda would help soften the perception the GOP has become a party of naysayers with no positive program of its own, and appeal to voters tired of Washington gridlock.

The New York Times chimed in the next day:

One reason for the event today was to dispel the notion that Republicans are obstructionists who have no ideas of their own. Republican candidates for the Senate put out a similar platform last week.

"It's important that we stand for something," said Grant Lally, who is running against Representative Gary L. Ackerman in a district that includes parts of Long Island and Queens.

A matter that worries some Republicans is that they have given Democrats a target to shoot at for the rest of the campaign. Before this, when the Republican manifesto was limited to opposing President Clinton, Democratic candidates found it hard to take the offensive. Now, Democrats can tote up the Republican proposals and argue that they have promised to favor the rich at the expense of the less fortunate and would break the national economy.

The Washington Post's David Broder (who wrote a column in July headlined "Democrats in Need of Stances") wrote on October 16, 1994:

Those of us who believe that campaigns should have consequences are encouraged by the way this 1994 election is developing. What began as an empty exercise in Congress-bashing is taking on some dimensions of a clear partisan and ideological battle.

The change began late last month, when the Republicans, who had been content simply to run against what they call "the Clinton Congress" and its Democratic majorities, decided to tell people what they would do if they gained control in next month's voting.

The "Contract With America," signed by 300 Republican incumbents and challengers on Sept. 27, promised votes in the first 100 days on constitutional amendments to require a balanced budget and to limit congressional terms, on a series of tax cuts and on unspecified measures to strengthen national defense.

Even after the Contract was unveiled, Newsweek's Howard Fineman noted in the magazine's October 17, 1994, issue that many Republican candidates were shunning discussion of a specific policy agenda:

WHEN DR. BILL FRIST CALLED A press conference in Nashville last week, reporters from across Tennessee showed up, eager to hear specifics from the 42-year-old surgeon and Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate. Fat chance. Boyish but steely, Frist stuck to his crime script: more death-penalty provisions, more fixed sentencing, more prisons. He attacked his Democratic opponent, Sen. Jim Sasser, for having backed a judge who now opposes the death penalty. But when reporters pressed Frist to discuss details of the new federal crime law, his reply was, Don't know, don't need to know, don't even want to know. "I'm a heart-and-lung-transplant surgeon," he declared, at once put-upon, contrite and proud. "I'm a private citizen running for the United States Senate."

Labeling yourself a neophyte has been a path to power since 1828, when another man from Nashville, Andrew Jackson, took his muddy boots and frontier friends to the White House. But as Bill Clinton and his band of Democrats leave Washington to campaign, they're running into a new breed of Republican "outsider": innocents by calculation. Rather than play down their lack of experience, they advertise it. Instead of offering specifics, they avoid them. They don't vow to "save" the capital; they propose to dismantle it. Rather than try to sell themselves, they attack their foes. And though they seem like quirky insurgents, they are a carefully scripted elite with brains, connections and cash. If they sound like Gump on the Stump -- and they do -- it's not because they're stupid. On the contrary. Taking handlers' advice, they've dumbed down to fit the times.

Perhaps Democrats are currently in immediate need of new ideas, of a concrete policy agenda. But reporters and pundits who point to the 1994 Republican Contract With America as evidence are engaging in gross historical revisionism. The Republicans' 1994 campaign was extraordinarily negative, based almost entirely on attacking President Clinton and congressional Democrats until the last possible moment, when they finally unveiled a positive agenda shortly before Election Day. And things worked out pretty well for them. Granted, the political calendar is different today than it was a decade ago. But is it different enough that Democrats are in trouble because they haven't produced a detailed agenda a year in advance, when Republicans didn't do it until they were within two months of Election Day?

With Plame leak investigation looking bad for Rove and others, old misinformation resurfaces

As the investigation into the unauthorized disclosure of Valerie Plame's status as a CIA operative again receives extensive media coverage, old misinformation about the investigation has flared up again.

Among the most common distortions is the claim -- advanced by Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen and Victoria Toensing (a close friend of syndicated columnist Robert D. Novak), among others -- that the investigation is only about -- or should only be about -- whether anyone violated the 1982 Intelligence Identities Protection Act, which makes it unlawful for someone to knowingly disclose the identity of an agent whose "intelligence relationship to the United States" is being actively concealed. But special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald has a much broader mandate, as Media Matters has noted:

Fitzgerald's official delegation as special prosecutor, which was reprinted in a 2004 Government Accountability Office (GAO) decision paper, did not limit his prosecutorial authority to any particular statute. Rather, it granted him "all the authority of the Attorney General with respect to the Department's investigation into the alleged unauthorized disclosure of a CIA employee's identity."

Toensing went on to distort the qualifications of Plame's husband, Joseph C. Wilson IV, in an effort to portray the leak of Plame's identity as effort by the White House to expose nepotism, rather than as an act of political retribution against Wilson for his refutation of claims the administration made about the need to go to war against Iraq.

Conservative radio host and pundit Laura Ingraham suggested on Fox News' Hannity & Colmes that Plame couldn't have been outed because she was already out: "I think for [fellow Hannity & Colmes guest and Democratic strategist] Kirsten [Powers] to say he's [senior adviser Karl Rove] outed Valerie Plame -- Valerie Plame, the last time I checked out with her, she was on the -- in Valerie -- in Vanity Fair with her scarf and her sunglasses on." Ingraham's claim is nonsensical: The Vanity Fair photo Ingraham referred to appeared in January 2004 -- six months after Plame's cover was blown by a Bob Novak column. In using the photo as a defense, Ingraham is suggesting that Plame's work for the CIA wasn't a secret in July 2003 because a photo of her ran in a magazine six months later.

The Post's Cohen made a similarly bizarre claim about the Plame's covert status. Cohen suggested that Plame's work for the CIA was no secret; that it was "known to hairdressers, mistresses and dog walkers all over town." This is a common line from those seeking to dismiss the seriousness of the disclosure that Plame worked for the CIA; just this week, Rush Limbaugh claimed that Plame's "identity was known by everybody before all this anyway."

One thing people making this claim almost never say, however, is that they knew that Plame worked for the CIA before Novak's column. Cohen didn't indicate that he knew Plame's identity. How can that be? If her identity was as widely known in Washington as Cohen suggests, why didn't he know it? And, perhaps more importantly, if Cohen really is further out of the loop than Washington's hairdressers and dog walkers, why should the Post continue employing him? Shouldn't they give his job to a better-informed dog walker?

News organizations know White House events are staged -- so why don't they tell us more often?

President Bush conducted a staged discussion with U.S. troops in Iraq on Thursday. A satellite feed of the event showed Pentagon official Allison Barber talking with the troops before the discussion began, telling them what Bush would say and preparing them for their role in what was supposed to appear to be a spontaneous discussion. The existence of video from the satellite feed prompted news organizations to report that the event was staged.

CNN's Suzanne Malveaux, for example, told viewers:

MALVEAUX: For many of us who cover these White House events, that is nothing new. These are hand-picked audiences when he goes before to speak to people, the format is highly rehearsed, they're not spontaneous events. But Tom [Foreman, anchor], what makes today's so unusual is that you, me, and many of our viewers get a chance to see a rehearsal actually taking place. You're looking at a satellite feed. And it really pulls back the curtain, if you will. You see U.S. troops actually being fielded questions that are expected by the president, practicing the responses. There are 10 American soldiers as well, an Iraqi official in Tikrit that are running through this kind of dress rehearsal of the video conference, if you will. And what you're hearing is a senior Pentagon official, Allison Barber, who is prompting their responses.


[N]ot surprisingly, what we heard in the conference following that shortly after, the president asking the questions that were very much anticipated. How are things going in Iraq? How are you working with the Iraqi people when it comes to trying to vote on that constitution in the days ahead?

Fox News' Carl Cameron reported on the October 13 edition of Special Report with Brit Hume:

CAMERON: Ten handpicked American troops and one Iraqi soldier took part in today's event. In response to the president's questions, they repeatedly praised the readiness of Iraqi security forces and said voter registration is up significantly.


The White House and the Pentagon insisted the event was neither scripted nor rehearsed, but for 45 minutes prior to the president's involvement, the soldiers practiced their answers repeatedly with a Pentagon official who stood where the president would later address the troops and, in her own words, quote, "drilled them on questions he was likely to ask," along with what she called their own, quote, "scripted responses."

If, as Malveaux indicated, the staged event "is nothing new," we look forward to news organizations continuing to identify such events as staged -- whether or not they happen to have video of the pre-event choreography.

Discussing the event on the October 13 edition of MSNBC's Countdown with Keith Olbermann, Washington Post reporter Dana Milbank commented on White House press secretary Scott McClellan's handling of questions about the event:

MILBANK: Scott McClellan, who is a good and decent guy, has to get up there and say, This is not a rehearsed event, even when they've actually released the footage showing that it is a rehearsed event. So when he has to say up is down, and he has to go taking on challenging the motives of the press corps, he's obviously got a problem. I don't know how he could handle this any better, unfortunately.

Milbank calls McClellan a "good and decent guy" -- then, in the very same sentence, says that McClellan lied to Milbank's colleagues and the American people. Then he goes on to indicate that McClellan handled it as well as he could have. When did reporters start taking the position that lying to the American people constitutes handling things as well as possible? Wouldn't telling the truth be a better way to "handle this"? Why is Milbank defending McClellan's "challenging the motives of the press corps" -- Milbank's colleagues -- when he knows McClellan was lying?

We've changed our commenting system to Disqus.
Instructions for signing up and claiming your comment history are located here.
Updated rules for commenting are here.