Murtha, Reid, and Hillary Clinton are just the latest progressive leaders to face deeply flawed media coverage -- but they won't be the last
Last week, we wrote:
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.
The recent media treatment of Rep. John P. Murtha (D-PA), Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY) illustrate this point: No matter who emerges as a progressive leader, or a high-profile Democrat, they're in for the same flood of conservative misinformation in the media. Too many people chalk up outrageous media treatment of, say, Al Gore or John Kerry to the men's own flaws, pretending that if they were better candidates, they'd have gotten better press coverage. That's naïve. The Democratic Party could nominate Superman to be their next presidential candidate, and two things would happen: conservatives would smear him, and the media would join in. To illustrate this, we look back over the last dozen or so years.
By the mid-1990s, after several years of obsessive media coverage of the non-scandal known as "Whitewater" -- but with several more still to come -- some journalists recognized that they (or their colleagues) had gone overboard. Miami Herald reporter Tom Fiedler -- who broke the Gary Hart-Donna Rice affair in 1987 and, thus, can hardly be considered overly kind to Democrats -- wrote on August 4, 1996:
Listen closely and you'll hear the sound of what's happening to the Whitewater investigations: Pffffssssssst!
The fact is, no matter how much Rush Limbaugh and the conspiracy theorists who bottom-feed on the Internet wish otherwise, none of the remaining matters raise legal questions of the sort that lead to indictments of the president's inner circle, including Mrs. Clinton.
All of which should raise this question in the public's mind: How could such a nothing loom so large for so long over the national scene?
Two things: superheated partisan politics and lousy journalism.
For me, the more troubling part of Whitewater is what it says about the state of American journalism. Many scholars and fellow journalists have documented well in recent years the danger of a national news media that practices a sort of ready- fire-aim sort of journalism.
Reporting on Whitewater and all its aspects is beginning to become a textbook example of ready-fire-aim journalism run amok. Ironically, about the only place in America that wasn't sucked in on all the alleged misdeeds has been Little Rock, where the local news media -- even the newspaper long dedicated to trashing the Clintons -- has pooh-poohed Whitewater as a non- story concocted by Arkansas Republicans that only the most gullible outsiders would swallow.
And we almost did.
The first reporter to fall for the tale was The New York Times' Jeff Gerth, an investigative reporter. He produced an almost incomprehensible report on the Clintons' Whitewater land investments in early 1992. But incomprehensible or not, the fact that it appeared in so prestigious a paper as The New York Times insinuated that something must have been wrong. And that meant that every other baying hound in the pack had to give chase.
If anything, Fiedler was too kind to his colleagues. Writing at Salon.com, journalists Joe Conason and Gene Lyons offered an example of the media's dishonest Whitewater reporting:
Even more damning was a "Nightline" report broadcast that same evening. The segment came very close to branding Hillary Clinton a perjurer. In his introduction, host Ted Koppel spoke pointedly about "the reluctance of the Clinton White House to be as forthcoming with documents as it promised to be." He then turned to correspondent Jeff Greenfield, who posed a rhetorical question: "Hillary Clinton did some legal work for Madison Guaranty at the Rose Law Firm, at a time when her husband was governor of Arkansas. How much work? Not much at all, she has said."
Up came a video clip from Hillary's April 22, 1994, Whitewater press conference. "The young attorney, the young bank officer, did all the work," she said. "It was not an area that I practiced in. It was not an area that I know anything, to speak of, about." Next the screen filled with handwritten notes taken by White House aide Susan Thomases during the 1992 campaign. "She [Hillary] did all the billing," the notes said. Greenfield quipped that it was no wonder "the White House was so worried about what was in Vince Foster's office when he killed himself."
What the audience didn't know was that the ABC videotape had been edited so as to create an inaccurate impression.
ABC News had seamlessly omitted thirty-nine words from her actual answer, as well as the cut, by interposing a cutaway shot of reporters taking notes. The press conference transcript shows that she actually answered as follows: "The young attorney [and] the young bank officer did all the work and the letter was sent. But because I was what we called the billing attorney -- in other words, I had to send the bill to get the payment sent -- my name was put on the bottom of the letter. It was not an area that I practiced in. It was not an area that I know anything, to speak of, about."
ABC News had taken a video clip out of context, and then accused the first lady of prevaricating about the very material it had removed. Within days, the doctored quotation popped up elsewhere. ABC used the identical clip on its evening news broadcast; so did CNN. The New York Times editorial page used it to scold Mrs. Clinton, as did columnist Maureen Dowd. Her colleague William Safire weighed in with an accusatory column of his own.
There's simply no other way to describe the Nightline report: it was dishonest.
Yet too many journalists and progressive activists shrugged off years of obvious journalistic misdeeds in pursuit of the Whitewater "story." Sure, maybe reporters got a little overzealous, the argument went, but it's just because the Clintons were a little dodgy -- they didn't answer questions completely or quickly enough, and it was suspicious that they didn't remember every detail of an ancient real estate deal. Surely that kind of frenzy -- or the Lewinsky-era media malpractice -- was something unique to coverage of Clinton.
And then Al Gore came along and, as The Daily Howler's Bob Somerby argues convincingly, was treated to the most relentlessly hostile (not to mention dishonest) media coverage any major party presidential candidate had ever seen. He was mocked for wearing "earth tones" (who doesn't?). Reporters simply made up quotes they attributed to him, then declared him a liar because the quotes -- which he never spoke -- were exaggerations. And, to be clear: when we say reporters made up quotes, we aren't talking about Rush Limbaugh or Matt Drudge. We're talking about The New York Times and The Washington Post.
And still, reporters and pundits and progressive activists and Democratic leaders -- people who should have known better -- chalked it all up to Gore being a lousy candidate. Sure, they said, the media exaggerated about Gore's exaggerations, but they wouldn't have if he wasn't such an exaggerator. Never mind that every example given fell apart under scrutiny: each lie told about Gore being a liar reinforced the others. It was Gore's fault the media went overboard, just as it had been Clinton's. And his consultants' fault, too -- there were too many of them, or too few, or too inside, or they weren't good enough. And so people who should have known better thought it wouldn't happen again; not when there was a new candidate with new consultants.
Then Howard Dean emerged as the front-runner for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination. And the media depicted him as a crazy man, a wild-eyed hippie liberal freak -- despite the fact that he had won the endorsement of the National Rifle Association during his career as governor of Vermont, during which time he was widely regarded as a moderate.
And still, reporters and pundits and progressive activists and Democratic leaders -- people who should have known better -- chalked it all up to Dean being a little crazy: How could he not be a little crazy: Remember that scream in Iowa? Sure, some reporters eventually acknowledged that they overplayed it. Sure, some eventually reported that audio and video clips of the "scream" were wildly misleading. Still: he must have brought the ridiculous coverage on himself. The same press corps that swoons daily over the notoriously ill-tempered John McCain relentlessly attacked Howard Dean for being "angry." And people who should have known better blamed Dean. And his staff -- they were too young, too inexperienced, too outside, too liberal.
Enter John Kerry. Sure, Clinton, and Gore, and Dean had all been misleadingly slimed by the national media. But that's just because, by stunning coincidence, they were all deeply flawed candidates who brought it on themselves. But John Kerry was a genuine war hero -- and so people who should have known better by then were surprised when right-wing activists connected to the Bush campaign smeared his military service, with the ready assistance of the nation's leading news organizations. And they were surprised (or worse, thought nothing of it) when Kerry was portrayed in the media as a flip-flopper and Bush was given a pass on his own lengthy history of flip-flops.
And still, too many journalists, pundits, progressive activists and Democratic leaders chalked this up to John Kerry's failings as a candidate, or his consultants failings. They blamed the victim (again): Kerry talked too much about his military service, they said: he was asking to be smeared by Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. He spoke with too many qualifiers (remember: when Dean was blunt, he was derided as angry and crazy). He flip-flopped too much (Bush's own flips and flops escaped similar scrutiny).
Those who would apologize for the media's treatment of Clinton, Gore, Dean, and Kerry -- or who somehow fail to recognize it even now -- chalk it up to Clinton's supposed slickness, or Gore's trouble with the truth, or Dean's craziness, or Kerry's liberalism, and on and on and on -- somehow failing to recognize that they're excusing flawed media storylines about these candidates by citing those same flawed storylines. Hopefully hoping for the day when a progressive leader would emerge without these weaknesses.
Enter Democratic Rep. Jack Murtha. Murtha is, by general consensus, a conservative Democrat. A U.S. Marine and a highly decorated veteran of the Vietnam War. Ranking member of the Defense Appropriations committee. The kind of politician the media tends to refer to as a "pro-military Democrat" (buying into the ridiculous and offensive right-wing smear that most Democrats are anti-military). A serious, plain-spoken man with an impeccable record of serving his country and a "leading Democratic hawk."
Surely, if Clinton, Gore, Dean, and Kerry faced such abusive media coverage because of there own faults, here was a Democrat who didn't share those flaws.
Of course, Murtha has been the target of relentless attacks anyway. Bill O'Reilly calls him a coward. (Yes, that Bill O'Reilly.) James Taranto calls him "pro-surrender." The Washington Post dutifully gives prominent coverage to thinly sourced smears of Murtha's military record (sound familiar?) Chris Matthews lies about Murtha's proposal to withdraw troops from Iraq as soon as possible. And Fox News gives John O'Neill, who spearheaded the Swifties' smears of John Kerry, airtime to do the same to Murtha.
Who else? How about Hillary Clinton? Media heavyweights like David Broder and Chris Matthews and Patrick Healy have stopped even pretending that they don't hold her to a different standard than the one to which they hold Republican candidates.
Last week, we noted that Patrick Healy's 2,000-word front-page New York Times gossip article about Clinton's marriage set off a media feeding frenzy, led by Broder and Matthews. This week, all three have responded to criticism of their obsessive focus on Clinton's personal life.
We'll take Healy first. Appearing on CNN's Paula Zahn Now, Healy acknowledged that the time the Clintons spend together is "pretty similar" to other families that include a member of Congress. Yet Healy didn't mention that fact in his article. Nor has he written a 2,000-word front-page article on the marriages of those other Congressional families.
Broder, during a June 1 broadcast of Washington Post Radio's Post Politics On-Air, acknowledged that he has heard from many readers who had told him Sen. Clinton's marriage "is her business and her husband's business, and it's nobody else's business." Broder claimed to "wish that were the case," before arguing that "in reality, because of the special role that he has played in her life -- played again yesterday in making a nominating speech, in effect, for her at the Democratic convention up in Buffalo -- he is not a silent partner."
The "special role" Bill Clinton plays in Hillary Clinton's life is, of course, "husband." If that "special role" demands the media explore the Clintons' personal lives and traffic in rumor and innuendo and leering speculation, the same is true of John McCain and his second wife. And Rudy Giuliani and his third wife. And the personal lives of all other candidates.
But Broder doesn't think so; he prefers to explore the Clintons' personal lives while giving Republicans privacy. During a June 2 online discussion, Broder was asked, "When can we expect an article from you on the marriages and divorces of the top Republican contenders for the presidental race of '08?" Broder's response? "Why would I write such an article? I know of no occasion for that."
Which tells you pretty much everything you need to know about David Broder: he traffics in baseless gossip about the Clintons' marriage, but can't imagine why he should treat Republicans the same way. Later, after another reader took Broder to task for his focus on the Clintons' personal lives, Broder dug himself even deeper:
David S. Broder: Thank you8 [sic] for s\your [sic] message. I recived [sic] a lot of criticism for the column on Senator Clinton, and I take the criticism seriously. As a general rule, I would shy away from discussions about the personal life of a public figure. But the Clintons have presented themselves to the public as a couple--beginning with his statement as a candidate, "Buy One. Get one free." They are deeply involved in each other's public life, as witness his role at the New York Democratic convention that just nominated her for a second term.
Broder's trying hard, we'll give him that. But this doesn't fly. First, Broder himself has previously argued against coverage of candidates' personal lives. Second, his "Buy One. Get one free" comment simply doesn't make any sense. Broder's invocation of that famous 1992 phrase about the Clintons might be justification for covering Bill Clinton during Hillary Clinton's (presumptive) presidential campaign -- but it isn't justification for media focus on their personal lives. Finally, and most crucially: nearly all candidates' spouses are "deeply involved" in the candidates' public life. Laura Bush was recently sent out to lie for her husband; does that mean that their marriage is fair game? Not to David Broder.
It is a fact of political life--as reflected in the New York Times story--that political people contemplating the possibility of her presidential candidacy are concerned about the role he would play in the campaign and in the administration. That concern is heightened by the history of the Clintons' marriage, which I do not have to rehearse here. But I cannot pretend that the concern does not exist when, in fact, it is a major topic of discussion.
When the question is whether the media should cover something, the fact that the media is covering it is a pretty poor justification. And, of course, Broder ignores his own role in making the matter a topic of conversation. But most importantly, Broder again highlights his double-standard: if the "history of the Clintons' marriage" makes their current personal lives fair game for reporters like Broder, the history of Rudy Giuliani's marriage, and the history of John McCain's marriage, and the histories of every other candidates marriage make them fair game as well. Rather than rebutting the suggestion that he is unfairly scrutinizing the Clintons while giving Republican candidates a pass, Broder confirms it.
MSNBC's Chris Matthews confirmed his own double standard during the June 1 edition of Hardball. When guest Hilary Rosen pointed out the ridiculousness of focusing on the personal life of the spouse of one candidate while ignoring the personal lives of other candidates, Matthews defended it:
ROSEN: You know, I have to say, I am the last person in the world to cry this, but I just find this whole discussion so ridiculously sexist, that there is no --
ROSEN: Sexist. There's no rationale for focusing on a candidate's husband's love life at this point, who is not even a candidate. I mean, if we went down the list, for every potential presidential candidate between now and the next election, and talked about their marriage, their relationship, the potential extracurricular activities, it's offensive, and I actually think --
MATTHEWS: Why don't we just limit that discussion to people who have been impeached over the issue?
ROSEN: I actually think that people were offended when they read. They were serious, but offended.
MATTHEWS: Why don't we just limit the discussion to people who have been impeached over the issue?
ROSEN: Well, you know why? Because nobody was scrutinized the way he was.
Matthews's argument that we should "limit that discussion" to "people who have been impeached over the issue" is the same kind of tautology Broder employed: The Clinton's personal lives are newsworthy because they are newsworthy. It's also incredibly disingenuous. Matthews and countless other D.C. journalist-pundit types spent so much time in 1998 insisting that impeachment "wasn't about sex," it was about perjury and obstruction of justice and lying. Here's Matthews on the December 18, 1998, edition of CNBC's Hardball:
MATTHEWS: I think the reason that President Clinton is probably going to be impeached tomorrow is not because he broke the law in a couple of legal settings, but that for months and years he has a problem of breaking deals and breaking arrangements and not keeping his word with other politicians and with journalists. And that has led to a snowballing effect which caught up -- caught him up in this Lewinsky affair, that began a lot longer ago than him getting involved with Monica. What do you think of that theory?
And here's Matthews on October 15, 1998, arguing against focusing on personal lives:
MATTHEWS: Let me ask you a question. There's two ways to go at this president where he's vulnerable, and he is vulnerable about Lewinsky and lying about it and covering it up and the whole thing. I can tell you that a million times, off the record, on the record, on this show or off the show, I say the same thing. There's two ways to attack him. One way to attack him was the guy's a lying SOB. He's been lying to the American people from day one. He lied to the court. He lied in the deposition. He lied to the grand jury, and he lied to us when he pointed his finger at us. We all know that. Eighty percent of the American people agree on that. The other is that he's had a bad marriage, he's not really a good husband. Why does your party keep focusing on the second question, which is always qu--tricky?
WILLIAM KRISTOL [editor, The Weekly Standard]: Well, I don't really think it's my party. I wish it were my party. I think I could give it some good advice, but...
MATTHEWS: Don't you realize -- do you agree that that's the wrong place to put the emphasis?
In 1998, when they wanted to justify impeaching a wildly popular president, pundits like Matthews insisted that it wasn't about sex. It was about lying; it was about the rule of law. And now, when Matthews wants to justify peering in the Clintons' bedroom windows, he insists that it's relevant because President Clinton was impeached over his personal life.
For anyone still not convinced that the media's treatment of Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Howard Dean, John Kerry, Jack Murtha, and Hillary Clinton has less to do with their shortcomings and more to do with the media itself, we offer one more example: Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid.
One need only look at the coverage Reid has received in the Associated Press in recent months to recognize that something is wrong here.
In February, Media Matters demonstrated that an AP article co-written by John Solomon:
left out important details of two incidents that purportedly link Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) to disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff. The AP noted that Reid opposed legislation to approve a Michigan casino for a Native American tribe that would have rivaled a casino owned by a tribe represented by Abramoff. But the article omitted the fact that Reid said at the time that he opposed the legislation because it would create a "very dangerous precedent" for the spread of off-reservation gambling -- something Reid had opposed for nearly a decade. The article also suggested that Reid coordinated with Abramoff to sabotage proposed legislation that would have raised the minimum wage in the Northern Mariana Islands, a U.S. territory represented by Abramoff, without noting that, in fact, Reid was a co-sponsor of that legislation and spoke on the Senate floor in favor of its passage.
As Media Matters detailed, Solomon's article left out several key pieces of exculpatory evidence -- evidence that badly undermined the entire premise of the article. And, according to Josh Marshall, the AP didn't even bother to contact one of the key people mentioned in the article. The AP's shoddy and excessively accusatory article was quickly picked up by other news outlets, including CNN.
Now, Solomon is back at it. On May 29, the AP published a Solomon article that breathlessly reported:
Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid accepted free ringside tickets from the Nevada Athletic Commission to three professional boxing matches while that state agency was trying to influence him on federal regulation of boxing.
Reid, D-Nev., took the free seats for Las Vegas fights between 2003 and 2005 as he was pressing legislation to increase government oversight of the sport, including the creation of a federal boxing commission that Nevada's agency feared might usurp its authority.
But as Media Matters and TPM Muckraker quickly demonstrated, Solomon's article was badly flawed, omitting and downplaying crucial information that undermine's his suggestion that Harry Reid did something wrong. Among the problems:
- The "free ringside tickets" Reid took turn out to have been credentials that had no cash value.
- Reid couldn't have paid for the "tickets" even if wanted to, as they had no cash value, and the Athletic Commission was legally prevented from accepting payment for them.
- Reid sat on a folding chair in a small, cramped area, not in the fancy ringside seats Solomon suggested.
In a May 31 follow-up article, Solomon continued deceiving readers, falsely suggesting that Reid "abruptly reversed course" and abandoned his prior defense of his actions when, in fact, Reid had done no such thing. Reid instead "reversed course" only on the issue of whether, as he had previously stated, the Senate gift ban allows lawmakers to take gifts only from state agencies in their home state. In fact, the gift ban is less stringent than Reid thought: Senators can take gifts from agencies of any state. That's how Reid "abruptly reversed course": he found out and acknowledged that the gift ban was actually less strict than he thought. Yet the AP spun this as an admission by Reid that he had been wrong to take the tickets. As Media Matters explained:
Moreover, in the lead paragraphs of the article, he reported that Reid's office had "abruptly reversed course" in correcting the senator's claim, but failed to provide readers with the substance of Reid's error. This left the false impression that Reid had abandoned his defense of his decision to accept the NAC credentials, when in fact he still stood by it, as the weblogs AmericaBlog and TPM Muckraker noted. Only much later in the article did Solomon inform readers of the manner in which Reid had apparently misinterpreted the Senate rules.
The New York Times compounded the problem by running a version of the AP article that omitted the key portions explaining the nature of Reid's statements. And the AP's faulty reporting was quickly repeated by The New York Times editorial page, as well as other news organizations: the New York Times ran an editorial that ludicrously lumped Harry Reid in with convicted felon Randy "Duke" Cunningham -- the former member of Congress who gave lobbyists a bribe menu. Fox News amplified the AP's distortions. CNN and NPR and countless other news outlets repeated the "story."
To anyone who remembers Whitewater, the pattern should be clear: an overheated, excessively prosecutorial article in a major news outlet downplays exculpatory information and makes suggestions not quite supported by the facts. It's quickly debunked -- but not before other news organizations repeat it so often it "becomes true." And the news outlet that got the story wrong in the first place, rather than acknowledging its error, compounds it in an effort to save face.
Arkansas journalist Gene Lyons described how Whitewater unfolded in his book Fools For Scandal: How the Media Invented Whitewater (Franklin Square Press, 1996):
[T]he role of The New York Times and, to a somewhat lesser extent, The Washington Post in creating and sustaining the Whitewater hoax can hardly be overstated. Having bungled the Whitewater story to begin with, both newspapers' goal for months, indeed years, has been to protect themselves and their damaged credibility.
Having bungled the Whitewater-Madison Guaranty S&L story in the first place, the Times found itself in the position of a bookkeeper who'd "borrowed" a couple of thousand from petty cash and, finding himself unable to return it, had two choices: own up and face the music or borrow more cash, head to the race track, and play the trifecta. For whatever combination of reasons, Times reporters and editors opted to gamble. In so doing, the newspaper's coverage fell captive to Republican partisans with a vested interest in promoting scandal. The rest of the media obediently followed.
[I]t all began with a series of much-praised articles by investigative reporter Jeff Gerth in The New York Times: groundbreaking, exhaustively researched, but not particularly balanced stories that combine a prosecutorial bias and tactical omission to insinuate all manner of sin and skullduggery.
That's what seems to be happening at the Associated Press right now: for whatever reason, Solomon has repeatedly ignored or downplayed key exculpatory evidence in several articles that purport to detail ethical problems on the part of Democrats Harry Reid and Byron Dorgan. The AP, like the Times before it, has a decision to make: own up and face the music, or head to the track.
Whatever the AP does next, however, nobody -- no journalist, no activist, no political leader -- should make the mistake of thinking this kind of shoddy reporting will be limited to Harry Reid. Just ask Bill Clinton. Or Hillary Clinton. Or Al Gore. Or Howard Dean. Or John Kerry. Or Jack Murtha.