The defining issue of our time is not the Iraq war. It is not the "global war on terror." It is not our inability (or unwillingness) to ensure that all Americans have access to affordable health care. Nor is it immigration, outsourcing, or growing income inequity. It is not education, it is not global warming, and it is not Social Security.
The defining issue of our time is the media.
The dominant political force of our time is not Karl Rove or the Christian Right or Bill Clinton. It is not the ruthlessness or the tactical and strategic superiority of the Republicans, and it is not your favorite theory about what is wrong with the Democrats.
The dominant political force of our time is the media.
Time after time, the news media have covered progressives and conservatives in wildly different ways -- and, time after time, they do so to the benefit of conservatives.
Consider the last two presidents. Bill Clinton faced near-constant media obsession with his "scandals," while George W. Bush has gotten off comparatively easy.
Even many members of the media have stopped contesting this painfully obvious point, instead offering dubious justifications. Bill Clinton's "scandals" made for better stories than George Bush's, we are told, because they were simpler and easier for readers and viewers to understand. "Sex sells," while George Bush's false claims about Iraq are much harder to explain.
This excuse is simply nonsense.
First, what's so hard to understand about this? George Bush and his administration systematically distorted available intelligence to lead the nation to war on false pretenses. His administration has been marked by corruption, incompetence, lies, secrecy, and flagrant disregard for bedrock constitutional principles. None of that can be too complicated: Polls suggest that the majority of Americans believe all of those things.
Second, even if it were true that Clinton's "scandals" were easier for consumers of news to understand, the ease of explaining an affair would, if we had a serious and functional news media, be more than offset by the far greater importance of Bush's misdeeds.
Finally, this is such a grotesque distortion of the media's treatment of Clinton that it is difficult to explain by anything other than outright dishonesty. Reporters who offer the excuse that they and their colleagues covered Clinton "scandals" so much because sex sells, and is easily explained and understood, are cherry-picking. They are ignoring the obsessive coverage they gave to Clinton "scandals" that had nothing to do with sex, and that were not widely understood.
They are ignoring, for example, years of coverage of Whitewater, an obscure land deal in which the Clintons lost money and that was investigated by multiple independent counsels, congressional committees, federal agencies, and every news organization in the country -- none of which found any wrongdoing by the Clintons. Whitewater had nothing to do with sex, and nobody understood it -- probably because there was nothing to understand. And that's not even going into Travelgate, Filegate, Vince Foster's suicide, or the myriad other "scandals" the media covered that did not involve sex.
In the 24 months between Jan. 1994 and Jan. 1996, long before Monica Lewinsky entered the picture and back when Whitewater was about an alleged crooked land deal, Nightline devoted 19 programs to the then-unfolding scandal and investigation, for which no Clinton White House official was ever indicted.
And that's how it was for eight years: obsessive media coverage and hype of made-up Clinton "scandals" that never went anywhere because they never existed anywhere other than the fevered imaginations of a few far-right Clinton-haters and the credulous news media that took them seriously.
How bad did it get? As we're fond of pointing out, the Washington Post editorial board called for the appointment of an independent counsel to investigate Whitewater "even though -- and this should be stressed -- there has been no credible charge in this case that either the president or Mrs. Clinton did anything wrong." That's right: The Post called for an independent counsel to investigate "no credible charge."
Boehlert offered a comparison to the Bush era:
But during the 24 months between Sept. 2003 and Sept. 2005, Nightline set aside just three programs to the unfolding CIA leak investigation, for which Libby, an assistant to the president, was indicted. On the night of the Libby indictments, Nightline devoted just five percent of its program to that topic.
And that's pretty much how things have been for the past five years: Clear, conclusive evidence exists that Bush and his administration have committed countless transgressions far more serious than whatever it is reporters thought Bill Clinton might have done. And it has received far less coverage than Clinton's non-scandals.
To be clear, this isn't simply about the CIA leak investigation, or the Downing Street memos, or Tyler Drumheller, or any other individual matter. It's about a clear and consistent pattern of under-reporting stories that would be damaging to Bush -- a pattern that began before Bush even took office.
The same news organizations that pursued the Whitewater "scandal" as though it were Watergate, Teapot Dome, and the Lindbergh Baby all wrapped into one virtually ignored Bush's controversial sale of Harken Energy stock. The basic information about that sale -- that Bush, while serving as a Harken director and member of the company's audit committee, dumped more than 200,000 shares of the company's stock shortly before Harken publicly announced massive losses -- was publicly available long before Bush ran for president. Yet The Washington Post, to name one news outlet, gave the matter a total of 26 words of attention during the 2000 presidential campaign. The July 30, 1999, edition of the Post reported:
Even now, questions linger about a 1990 sale of Harken stock by Bush that was the subject of a probe by the Securities and Exchange Commission.
That's it. Twenty-six words.
Two major news organizations, the Associated Press and Bloomberg news, ran substantive articles about Bush's stock sale, based on documents that were released by the Securities and Exchange Commission during the 2000 campaign. The AP reported in September 2000:
George W. Bush, before he sold his stock in a Texas oil company, was fully aware that the firm was suffering from a severe cash crisis and was poised to lose millions, according to newly released records of a closed insider trading investigation of the sale.
"The full capacity of the company is dedicated toward resolving this liquidity crisis," Harken Energy Corp. President Mikel Faulkner told Bush and the other members of the board of directors two months before the $850,000 stock sale in June 1990.
The Harken documents released under FOIA detail Bush's knowledge of the company's problems.
As a Harken director, he received memos in spring 1990 that referred in stark terms to the company's cash-strapped condition as banks demanded it pay down its debts. One document said the company was in the midst of a "liquidity crisis" and another told Bush the company was "in a state of noncompliance" with its lenders.
Bush also was informed that a company plan to make a public stock offering to generate cash was being abandoned because one of its lenders objected.
"On the eve of filing this offering, the Bank of Boston refused to grant waivers and consents necessary to allow the offering to proceed," Harken said in a letter to the SEC in 1991. "Bank of Boston refused to alter its position and instead made demands that it be removed from the company's credit." The company solved the crisis when two of its biggest stockholders loaned it the $43 million it needed.
The SEC investigators never interviewed Bush about what else he might have known about the company's financial situation before selling the stock.
To sum up: In the months before the 2000 election, newly disclosed documents revealed that shortly before he dumped his Harken stock, George W. Bush had been told that the company faced a "liquidity crisis" and was "in a state of noncompliance" with lenders and that its plan to raise money was being abandoned. The documents revealed that the SEC -- which, at the time, was run by a close ally of Bush's father, then-President George H. W. Bush -- never bothered to interview Bush about his stock sale during its investigation of the matter.
And The New York Times completely ignored it. Completely. The Washington Post completely ignored it. USA Today completely ignored it. ABC, CBS and NBC? Ignored, ignored, ignored. CNN? CNN is an all-news channel; it has a whole day to fill with news every single day. Surely CNN managed to squeeze in a mention or two of new evidence that a major-party presidential candidate may have made a fortune in an insider-trading scheme that was covered up by cronies of his father the president? No, CNN didn't even mention it. Not a word.
We can hear the apologists already: The media ignored these revelations because insider trading is too complicated. To which we say: So was Whitewater. Or maybe the apologists will argue that there was no story because the transaction had already been investigated by the SEC, with no finding of wrongdoing by Bush. To which we say: Whitewater had been investigated, too. Repeatedly.
Why do we insist on revisiting ancient history? Because the same garbage keeps happening over and over again. Because too many people -- journalists, activists, progressive leaders -- downplay the media's failings. Sure, they went overboard with Clinton, they say, but sex sells. But it wasn't just sex, and it wasn't just Clinton. Sure, they were a bit unfair to Al Gore, someone might concede, but he had it coming -- he was stiff and insincere. But it isn't just Al Gore. Sure, too many reporters may have been complicit in the so-called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth's smears of John Kerry, but he invited it by speaking openly and honestly about his service. Sure, Howard Dean's "scream" was overplayed, but he had it coming -- it was crazy! Sure, media elites fawn all over Bush, but he's just so likable! And John McCain, too. And Rudy Giuliani. They're all just so real and authentic.
At this point, you'd have to be blind to miss the pattern. Every prominent progressive leader who comes along is openly derided in the media as fake, dishonest, conniving, out-of-the-mainstream, and weak. We simply can't continue to chalk this up to shortcomings on the part of Democratic candidates or their staff and consultants. It's all too clear that this will happen regardless of who the candidate or leader is; regardless of who works for him or her. The smearing of Jack Murtha should prove that to anyone who still doubts it.
Meanwhile, any conservative who comes along is going to be praised for being strong and authentic and likable. Ask yourself: What prominent Republican is routinely portrayed in the media as a phony the way Al Gore and Hillary Rodham Clinton are?
(We can't say this often enough: Anyone interested in the way the media fit news reports into pre-existing storylines should make a habit of reading Bob Somerby's Daily Howler weblog, as well as Eric Boehlert's columns and book and Peter Daou. And, of course, Eric Alterman.)
Here's how breathtakingly inane these storylines are: Slate's Jacob Weisberg this week denounced Hillary Clinton for her answer to a question about what is on her iPod, claiming that her answer was "calculated" and "suggests premeditation, if not actual poll-testing." Clinton's sin, according to Weisberg? Telling the New York Post that her iPod contains music by the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Aretha Franklin, the Eagles, and U2.
No, Weisberg's complaint wasn't that the continued popularity of the Eagles is a clear sign of the nation's cultural decay. That would have at least been defensible, if completely subjective. Nor was it a silly attempt to psychoanalyze Clinton based on her music collection, determining her to be risk-averse and dull. That would have been silly and baseless, but (sadly) typical of political commentary. Instead, Weisberg came through with what may be the single most absurd column written about Hillary Clinton in years -- and that's saying a great deal.
You could see the other Clinton making the same sort of calculations this week, when the New York Post put to Hillary the key culturally identifying question of our era: What's on your iPod? Musical taste is eternally revealing, and thanks to the growing ubiquity of MP3 players, many people now wear this signifying data on their belts. The senator from New York responded that she has the Beatles and the Rolling Stones on the white iPod that her husband gave her for a birthday present, along with Motown and classical music. She then rattled off a list of songs: the Beatles "Hey Jude," Aretha Franklin's, "Respect," the Eagles "Take It to the Limit," and U2's "Beautiful Day."
Hillary Clinton is the least spontaneous of politicians, and this playlist suggests premeditation, if not actual poll-testing. She first indicates that she basically likes everything before coming to roost on classic rock and soul, which any baby boomer must identify with, lest she or he be branded terminally uncool. Hillary avoids, however, anything too racy, druggie, or aggressive, while naming tunes that are empowering and inspirational. On the world-is-divided-into-two-kinds-of-people question "the Beatles or the Stones," she, like her husband, finds a middle path: both. She names no Stones songs and chooses a consensus, universally liked, neither-early-nor-late Beatles tune, "Hey Jude." Hillary also manages a shout-out to racial diversity and feminism via Aretha Franklin, and she strikes a younger, socially conscious chord with U2. "Take It to the Limit," on the other hand, is such a lame, black-hole-of-the-1970s choice that it can't be taken for anything other than an expression of actual taste.
Think through this for a moment: According to Weisberg, Clinton's explanation of what music is on her iPod was "premeditated" and the result of political "calculations." For Weisberg to be right, Clinton's answer must be dishonest. Now: Does anybody really believe that Clinton doesn't like Aretha Franklin's "Respect"? How many professional baby-boomer women don't like "Respect"? Does anybody really believe Clinton doesn't like the Beatles? They're the Beatles! It's hard to believe any rational person could assume that Clinton doesn't actually like and listen to the music she listed. And if she does, Weisberg's entire premise can be tossed out the window: There's nothing calculated or insincere in answering a question about what music you like by listing the music you like.
But give Weisberg credit for trying: He describes Clinton's stated fondness for both the Beatles and the Rolling Stones as some sort of trying-to-have-it-both-ways Clintonian dishonesty. There's a word for arguments like this: Stupid. How many Beatles fans actually dislike the Rolling Stones? How many Stones fans dislike the Beatles? It's like suggesting someone is dishonest for saying they like both ice cream and cake: Who doesn't like ice cream and cake? Allmusic.com even lists the Beatles among 20 "similar artists" to the Rolling Stones.
Now, think about Weisberg's column another way. (No, Weisberg's column isn't worth a moment of consideration in and of itself, but as an illustration of how media constantly find new excuses to undermine progressives, it is invaluable.) Imagine how Weisberg would have reacted had Clinton answered the iPod query another way:
- If she had said she didn't have an iPod, she'd be hopelessly out of touch with America.
- If she said her music was her business, she'd be guilty of Nixonian secrecy.
- If she said she listened to classical music, she'd be portrayed as aloof and elitist.
- If she said she listened to country music, she'd be accused of pandering to rural Southern voters.
- If she said she listened to The Hives and the White Stripes, she'd be ridiculed for dishonesty and for trying to appear young and hip.
- If she said she listened to 50 Cent or Marilyn Manson, she'd be derided for her role in the coarsening of American culture.
There just isn't an answer she could have given that wouldn't have resulted in ridicule. Just as the media portray everything as good news for Republicans (just this week, Time's Mike Allen announced that the conviction of "friends of the president" is going to be "very helpful" to Bush), they portray everything as an example of progressives' flaws.
Indeed, apparently not content to illustrate the lengths to which journalists will go to make a prominent progressive look bad, Weisberg included a discussion of President Bush's stated iPod contents. After a brief discussion of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's music preferences (Weisberg's snarky aside: "I doubt that the relentlessly driven Hillary Clinton spends much time listening to music of any kind. Condoleezza Rice, by contrast ... clearly loves many kinds of music.") Weisberg moved on to Bush:
Last year, the president also revealed part of the playlist of his iPod, which he listens to while mountain biking. It includes "My Sharona" by the Knack, "Centerfield" by John Fogerty, "Brown-Eyed Girl" by Van Morrison, and music by the honky-tonk singer George Jones. Unlike Hillary and Condi, this all sounds pretty uncalculated. Bush doesn't worry about being politically correct or care what other people think of him. He likes to listen to white guys singing country and rock and doesn't care if Jerry Falwell objects to some of the lyrics.
Remember: President Bush is a man who has lied about everything from what kind of cheese he likes on his cheesesteaks to why he sent thousands of American troops to die in Iraq. And Jacob Weisberg finds his playlist "pretty uncalculated" because Bush "doesn't worry about being politically correct or care what other people think of him."
Why on earth would a man who doesn't care what other people think of him lie about the cheese he eats?
Evidence, facts, logic, and reason simply don't matter when it comes to media coverage of politicians. Journalists have decided: George Bush is authentic and honest, no matter how many lies he tells. Hillary Clinton is dishonest and calculating, no matter how obviously honest her answers are. And everything is evidence of these two premises.
Again: Nobody should make the mistake of thinking this foolishness only applies to the Clintons and to Bush. By spectacular coincidence, Al Gore is also dishonest, according to journalists -- and everything is evidence of that premise, too. Even if it means making up quotes he never said, journalists will find a way to demonstrate his dishonesty. The classics -- the Internet, Love Canal, Love Story, et al -- should be well-known by now, so we won't repeat them. Instead, here's Los Angeles Times columnist Jonah Goldberg, offering a new riff on an old favorite:
In a recent write-up of Gore's visit to the Cannes Film Festival to promote his new film on global warming, which premiered Wednesday in Los Angeles, [Arianna] Huffington hailed the "new Gore" as the "hottest star in town," beating out Bruce Willis and Tom Hanks. Gore told Huffington that this was his second trip to Cannes. "The first was when I was 15 years old and came here for the summer to study the existentialists -- Sartre, Camus.... We were not allowed to speak anything but French!" This, gushed Huffington, "may explain his pitch-perfect French accent." Perhaps. Though according to David Maraniss' biography of Gore, the former vice president's 15th summer was spent working on the family farm. Remember those stories about how Al Sr. said, "A boy could never be president if he couldn't plow with that damned hillside plow"? That was the same summer.
How dumb does Goldberg think we are?
First, Al Gore's "15th summer" occurred when he was 14 (work through it, Jonah, you'll figure it out). Maraniss's actual wording is "the summer of his fifteenth year," which also suggests that Gore was 14 at the time (ok, Jonah, we'll help: Your first year ends when you turn one year old. Therefore, your 15th year ends when you turn 15. Therefore, during your "fifteenth year," you're 14.) So, taking Gore's memory and Maraniss's writing as truth, the two statements aren't in any way contradictory, despite Goldberg's attempt to convince you that they are.
More significantly, as The American Prospect's Ezra Klein has explained: "As for which summer Gore spent in France, think about Goldberg's critique here: He's not arguing that Gore didn't take that trip, but that he's misremembering the year. This is the strike against Al Gore; that a trip he took almost 45 years ago might have happened at 14, or 16, rather than 15. Given our mind's learned tendency to drift towards multiples of five, this is pretty weak sauce. Goldberg, a bright guy, isn't actually making this critique -- it's more of a meta-critique, trying to dredge up old doubts about Gore and his tendency to embellish."
Even more significantly: Who cares? Seriously, who cares? Is Goldberg suggesting Gore didn't really work on the farm? No, he can't be -- not honestly, anyway: he has previously acknowledged that Gore did. Is he seriously suggesting that Gore didn't really travel to France as a teen? No, he isn't doing that, either. So what is he suggesting? He's trying to demonstrate that Al Gore is a liar because maybe he really went to France when he was 16, not 15.
That's how weak the evidence is that Al Gore is a liar. And yet, his purported dishonesty and tendency to exaggerate is the underlying premise of so much media coverage of him.
At least Goldberg invented his own absurd anti-Gore story. The New York Times and countless other media elites -- David Broder, Tim Russert, and Chris Matthews among them -- chose instead to take the lead from the Globe supermarket tabloid.
The New York Times -- the same newspaper that couldn't be bothered to report a single word about new evidence suggesting that George W. Bush possessed insider information when he dumped his Harken stock -- this week devoted 2,000 words and a portion of its front page to examining the state of the Clintons' marriage, tallying the days they spend together and rehashing long-forgotten baseless tabloid rumors of a relationship between former President Bill Clinton and Canadian politician Belinda Stronach.
Rather than ignore or denounce the Times' decision to interview 50 people for a story about the Clintons' private lives, the Washington media elite embraced it, turning the pages of the nation's most influential newspapers into glorified supermarket tabloids. And television, predictably, was worse.
The Washington Post's David Broder -- the "dean" of the nation's political journalists -- quickly jumped in, suggesting that the Times might have explored the purported Clinton-Stronach relationship in greater detail and declaring the Clintons' private lives a "hot topic" if Sen. Clinton runs for president. As Media Matters detailed, Broder has previously argued that journalists delve too far into the private lives of political figures. Highlights of old Broder columns include:
"In the public forums and roundtables I've attended this year, nothing seems to bother people more about today's journalism than the blurring of lines between the public records of candidates and their private lives." [12/15/99]
"It is certainly the case that reporters at times have pushed their examinations of candidates' personal histories beyond decent limits." [12/15/99]
"[T]he press ought to exercise some restraint and try harder to put these matters in perspective. The public is choking on a surfeit of smut." [1/27/98]
"It's equally unfair, as Clinton points out, to hold up his past conduct to microscopic scrutiny because he is still in his marriage, while divorced politicians and unmarried ones (such as Bob Kerrey and Jerry Brown) are given broad leeway when it comes to the details of their past lives. Surely those issues -- if any -- are of more import to the family members of these candidates than to the public at large." [1/28/92]
"The ransacking of personal histories diverts journalism from what is far more important -- the examination of past performance in public office and the scrutiny of current policy positions." [1/28/92]
"It's time to slow down and take another look at what we're doing, before more damage is done to the reputations of candidates and the credibility of the press." [11/15/87]
But Broder apparently no longer cares about the damage done to the credibility of the press; not when there is ransacking of personal histories to be done. He and his fellow Serious Journalists leapt in feet-first, gleefully speculating about the state of the Clinton marriage, all the while pretending their obsessive focus is something other than puerile window-peering.
We do not endorse the decision by The New York Times and David Broder and Tim Russert to take the Globe's lead. We don't endorse their decision to focus on Hillary Clinton's marriage rather than her energy policy. We don't endorse media figures deciding for the rest of us that private lives, rather than public policy, should and will be the "hot topic" of the next presidential election. We think that is childish, irresponsible, and foolish.
But as things currently stand, it's something else: It's grossly unfair. There seems to be one set of rules the media uses in covering the Clintons (and, to a lesser extent, other progressives: As Media Matters explained, the author of the Times article openly questioned in 2004 "what kind of marriage the Kerrys have" and how that marriage would affect his presidential campaign) and another for conservatives.
We've previously denounced "sexual innuendo" about political figures and the "frivolity" of questions about politicians' personal lives. We've argued that the media focuses far too much on these matters, at the expense of serious issues. Put simply, we don't think personal lives are the business of anybody but the people involved.
But if the media are going to put candidates' personal lives on the table, it's time they do so for all candidates. If common decency and the shame that should accompany behaving like voyeuristic 10th-graders aren't enough to convince the David Broders and Chris Matthewses and Tim Russerts of the world that the Clintons marriage is none of their damn business -- or ours -- then basic fairness dictates that they treat Republican candidates the same way. Because the only thing worse than a bunch of reporters peering into bedroom windows of candidates is a bunch of reporters peering into the bedroom windows of only one party's candidates.
Take John McCain, for example. He divorced his first wife (after having a series of affairs) to marry (a month after his divorce) a wealthy and politically connected heiress ... just in time to launch his political career. And what of his relationship with the second (and current) wife? Let's apply the New York Times test to them, shall we? How many days a month do they spend together? How many days are they apart -- she in Arizona and he in Washington, or traveling the country raising money? How close can they really be, given that he reportedly had no idea his wife was addicted to painkillers she was stealing from a charity she founded -- had no clue of an addiction that caused her to check herself into a drug treatment center.
Is this the sort of thing that should be a front-page story in The New York Times? No. Is it the sort of thing that Tim Russert and Chris Matthews and David Broder should tout and hype as a "hot topic" of McCain's presidential campaign, and speculate about endlessly? No. But there is simply no justification for covering John McCain and Hillary Clinton in such disparate ways. If Hillary Clinton's marriage is relevant, so is John McCain's.
And so is George Bush's. The New York Times repeats Globe speculation about Bill Clinton, so when can we expect to read on the front page of the Times about the Globe's report that George and Laura Bush have broken up and are leading "separate lives" in part because of "booze problems"?
We expect that some of our readers are angry that we're raising these matters. Good. You should be angry that anybody would raise John McCain's wife's addiction to painkillers, or a supermarket tabloid report about George and Laura Bush's marriage. It is, as David Broder once wrote, no way to pick a president.
But if you're angry about this, you should be far more angry that for years, the media has employed a double-standard in covering progressives and conservatives. You constantly hear about the Clintons' personal lives on television; you read about it in the newspaper. John McCain doesn't get the same treatment; nor does George Bush or Rudy Giuliani. Intrusive, irrelevant tabloid-style coverage of candidates is wrong. Intrusive, irrelevant tabloid-style coverage of some candidates, while others are afforded an appropriate zone of privacy is even worse. And it can't go on.