"Media Matters"; by Jamison Foser

››› ››› JAMISON FOSER

In the wake of Connecticut Democratic Senate candidate Ned Lamont's primary victory over incumbent Sen. Joe Lieberman, and Lieberman's decision to run against Lamont as an independent in the general election, the political media were awash in pro-Lieberman and pro-Republican spin about Lamont, Connecticut voters, and what it all means for this fall's congressional elections.

Coverage of Lamont-Lieberman race: a case study in how anti-Dem narratives dominate political media -- even as political threat level for Republicans rises to "severe"

In the wake of Connecticut Democratic Senate candidate Ned Lamont's primary victory over incumbent Sen. Joe Lieberman, and Lieberman's decision to run against Lamont as an independent in the general election, the political media were awash in pro-Lieberman and pro-Republican spin about Lamont, Connecticut voters, and what it all means for this fall's congressional elections.

Faulty media storylines ranged from the laughable claim that Lamont supporters are "elites" (can a majority really be "elite"?) to the predictable onslaught of claims that the result helps Republicans because it demonstrates Democrats' weakness on national security issues.

That last one is likely to be among the dominant themes of media coverage of this year's campaigns. We've dealt with it many times before, and we will many times again. In short, many political reporters assume that, from both a policy and political standpoint, Democrats are weaker than Republicans on national security issues.

From a policy standpoint, this is simply absurd: the Bush administration and its allies in Congress, who decided to divert attention from pursuing the people who attacked us in order to invade a country that didn't, are supposed to be the strong-on-security party? That would be funny if it weren't so deadly serious.

From a political standpoint, the simple fact is -- as we've noted again and again, and will keep noting until reporters start to catch on -- that national security issues are no longer winners for Republicans. Here's an example:

Three of the last four Washington Post polls have found that a plurality of Americans trust Democrats rather than Republicans to handle the "campaign against terrorism." Four consecutive Post polls -- and seven of the last eight -- have found that a plurality trust Democrats more when it comes to handling "the situation in Iraq." The lone exception found the parties tied.

[...]

Four consecutive Post polls had found that at least 62 percent of Americans disapproved of President Bush's handling of Iraq; 22 of the 23 most recent polls had found majority disapproval, and all 23 found that a plurality disapproved.

Here's another:

In a CNN poll taken by the Opinion Research Corporation last week -- before the arrest of terror suspects in Britain -- terrorism topped the list of issues that voters said would be "extremely important" to their vote this year.

[...]

But among voters concerned about terrorism, slightly more said they would vote for a Democrat (50 percent) rather than a Republican (45 percent) for Congress.

Republicans still do better on terrorism than on any other issue except same-sex marriage, which is far less important to voters. But the Republican advantage on terrorism had vanished, at least before the news from Britain.

Why did that happen? Here's a clue. As of last week, only 31 percent of Americans believed the United States and its allies were winning the war on terror. That is the lowest figure recorded since 9/11. The prevailing view (45 percent) is that neither side is winning.

We'll come back to this topic in coming weeks. For now, news coverage of Lamont's victory provides several examples of the way media coverage of tactical skirmishes in campaigns often advances the agenda of the more conservative candidates.

At an August 10 campaign stop in Waterbury, Connecticut, Lieberman said: "I'm not saying we shouldn't have healthy disagreement and discussion about national security, but to make it into a partisan political football, it's just unacceptable and in my opinion un-American."

Apparently, he meant that for Democrats to use national security as a "political football" would be "unacceptable" and "un-American" -- but that it's just fine if he wants to do it. Because at the same campaign stop, Lieberman himself used national security to bludgeon his opponent.

Less than 48 hours after claiming in his concession speech that he "went into public service ... to unite, not divide," (sound familiar?) Lieberman said:

"If we just pick up like Ned Lamont wants us to do, get out [of Iraq] by a date certain, it will be taken as a tremendous victory by the same people who wanted to blow up these planes in this plot hatched in England. It will strengthen them and they will strike again."

How did the media treat Lieberman's apparently hypocritical comments? Did they point out the contradiction -- that, by his own standard, he made an "unacceptable" and "un-American" attack on Lamont?

They did not.

The Associated Press, as Media Matters detailed, quoted Lieberman's attack on Lamont -- but omitted his condemnation of such attacks. (A later AP article by the same reporter included the condemnation, but did not point out the contradiction between the two comments or in any way link them.)

The New York Post and Chicago Tribune, among other news organizations, likewise reported Lieberman's criticism of Lamont without including the "un-American" line. Most incredibly, so did The New York Times in an article by Patrick Healy and Jennifer Medina. Why is the Times' omission particularly noteworthy? Because Healy and Medina had previously included the "un-American" line in a post on the Times' Empire Zone blog -- though they did so several paragraphs after detailing Lieberman's criticism of Lamont, and without noting the hypocrisy.

The media's failure to report Lieberman's attempt to have it both ways is particularly startling in light of the fact that this is becoming something of a habit for him. His decision to run as an independent after losing the Democratic primary is only the most recent example: Lieberman famously rebuked Democratic critics of President Bush, saying, "We undermine the president's credibility at our nation's peril." Yet his spokesman, Dan Gerstein, argues that it is a "myth" that Lieberman has not criticized Bush's handling of Iraq, argues that he has done so "since the war started." He has been criticized for running for re-election in 2000 at the same time that he was running for vice president, which would have given then-Gov. John Rowland, a Republican, the opportunity to choose his Senate replacement had he become VP.

A common theme in media coverage of Lamont's victory is that Democrats will lose "centrist" voters as a result; CNN's Candy Crowley and Anderson Cooper went so far as to claim that the primary result indicates that centrists can't win Democratic primaries. These claims are based on the false premise -- promoted by Lieberman and Republicans and debunked repeatedly by Media Matters -- that opposition to the Iraq war is anything but "centrist." In fact, poll after poll finds that the Bush-Lieberman position on the war is the minority view.

But media figures aren't just granting a false premise when they speculate about Democrats losing "moderates" as a result of Lamont's victory. They're also ignoring a potentially disastrous result of Lieberman's continued candidacy. Blogger and Lamont supporter Chris Bowers has argued that it is important for Democrats to united behind Lamont. He explained:

Seeing all of the Ned Lamont's endorsements come in today reminded me of what it was like to be a Democrat during the Social Security fight in early 2005. Up and down the line, the Democratic leadership came through and did the right thing. By endorsing Ned Lamont and the primary process, Democratic leaders endorsed party democracy, and the will of the people they represent. This is how we keep our coalition from flying apart: by using mutually agreed upon, democratic mechanisms to settle our disputes.

Whether Bowers meant it or not, his post also suggests a danger to the party if Democrats do not unite behind Lamont. The people who supported, worked, volunteered, and voted for Ned Lamont chose to work within the Democratic Party rather than leaving it. They chose to abide by the results of the primary, win or lose. Now that Lieberman has decided not to do so -- and a scattered few Democrats have announced their support of his independent candidacy -- some Democrats may wonder why they should support future Democratic primary winners in other races. If Lieberman prevails, or even continues with the support of other prominent Democrats, how will Democratic Party leaders have any moral authority to urge moderates and progressives not to vote for the next Ralph Nader? How can they ask the party to unite behind conservative nominees? And how many Democratic candidates would win a three-way race that includes a candidate running to their left?

In short: why should some factions of the party continue to work and run within the party and support primary winners if other factions do not? And, if they chose to emulate Lieberman and his supporters, what are the possible electoral consequences -- both to the Democratic Party as a whole, and to the specific elected Democrats who back Lieberman?

All of those are hugely important -- and incredibly obvious -- questions raised by Lieberman's independent candidacy. And yet, journalists ignore these questions in favor of fundamentally flawed speculation, based on false assumptions, that "moderates" will find Ned Lamont's anti-Iraq war stance objectionable.

We recently noted the apparent double standard with which the media cover controversial figures on the left and the right, focusing in particular on coverage of bloggers. Attacks on progressives and bloggers have been a recurring feature of the Lieberman campaign -- and the media have covered them in a typically irresponsible and one-sided fashion.

As Media Matters noted in July, The New York Times printed Lieberman adviser (now communications director) Dan Gerstein's claim that "there is a growing tolerance" in the "progressive community" of a "perhaps anti-Semitic" faction. If Gerstein provided the Times with examples or evidence, the Times didn't include it. Nor did it include any of its own examples, or quote anyone disputing the assertion.

Despite the lack of evidence, the smear that progressives opposed to Lieberman are anti-Semitic made its way into other news reports. Glenn Greenwald wrote in Salon.com's War Room:

Whatever the outcome is Tuesday night in the Lamont-Lieberman race, this contest should be remembered for the clear emergence of an ugly and alarming development -- namely, the unabashed and undiluted use of anti-Semitism accusations as a partisan tool to win elections. And that tactic is clearly part of a growing right-wing reliance upon the basest and most divisive tactics of identity politics and religious tribalism.

In recent weeks, as Lieberman supporters became more fearful that their candidate could actually lose, accusations that Lieberman opponents are motivated by anti-Semitism have become commonplace. Bill Kristol's latest column is titled "Anti-war, Anti-Israel, Anti-Joe," and Kristol claims that "Democrats have adopted a 'European' attitude toward Israel. And toward the United States. That is the meaning of Connecticut Democrats' likely repudiation of Joe Lieberman." A column on Hugh Hewitt's blog, promoted today by Glenn "Instapundit" Reynolds, alleges that there has "been a disquieting whiff of anti-Semitism in the anti-Lieberman campaign." Dean Barnett wrote in the Weekly Standard: "Some Americans believe that Israel should not exist. And these are the Americans that Lamont and other Democrats have so eagerly embraced."

[Democratic Leadership Council senior fellow and former Heritage Foundation and Christian Coalition employee] Marshall Whittman [sic: Wittman] Monday insinuated darkly that "the degree of left hatred (sic) toward Joe sometimes betrays something deeper," and then came right out with it: "Anti-Semitism will often not speak its name directly, but there is a distinct undercurrent that may explain some of the irrational venom." The Lieberman camp itself has blamed what it claims is a "growing strain of anti-Semitism" for opposition to the senator. As the New York Times put it in a recent article: "Some of Mr. Lieberman's supporters say there is a strain of anti-Semitism in the antiwar left that could make Jewish voters uneasy about supporting Mr. Lamont."

A New York Sun editorial that ran the morning after the Connecticut primary argued:

As these columns went to press last night, it was still too early to call a victor in Connecticut's Senate primary. One thing is sure despite the outcome, however: Senator Lieberman confronted more than just a hard-fought campaign. He was up against a jihad. If Mr. Lieberman is celebrating a victory this morning, it's a sign that there is still room for moderation in the Democratic Party. But any celebration will be clouded by the vitriol, resembling a perverse kind of religious fervor, he had to overcome.

[...]

To what do the attacks on Mr. Lieberman speak? As far as we can tell, to no concern more noble than anti-Semitism and racism, with a smattering of anti-Bush paranoia mixed in for taste. Just consider the rantings that have been directed at the senator in the left-wing blogosphere, as recounted by Democratic strategist Lanny Davis in yesterday's Wall Street Journal. One commenter on the influential blog DailyKos.com wrote, "as everybody knows, jews ONLY care about the welfare of other jews; thanks ever so much for reminding everyone of this most salient fact, so that we might better ignore all that jewish propaganda [by Lieberman] about participating in the civil rights movement of the 60s and so on." Or this: "Ned Lamont and his supporters need to [g]et real busy. Ned needs to beat Lieberman to a pulp in the debate and define what it means to be an AMerican who is NOT beholden to the Israeli Lobby."

But the Sun -- like Fox News host Bill O'Reilly -- erred in relying on Lieberman adviser Lanny J. Davis's claims. As Media Matters demonstrated, at least one of the quotes Davis and others used to buttress their claims of what Gerstein described as "growing tolerance" of anti-Semitism among progressives was, in fact, actually a repudiation of potentially anti-Semitic comments. In his Wall Street Journal op-ed, Davis quoted a comment from a Daily Kos post by someone who goes by the name "tomjones" as saying:

right ... because as everybody knows, jews ONLY care about the welfare of other jews; thanks ever so much for reminding everyone of this most salient fact, so that we might better ignore all that jewish propaganda about participating in the civil rights movement of the 60s and so on

Even without looking into the context, it seems clear the poster meant his comments sarcastically. But looking at the context, as Media Matters did, removes any doubt. It is clear that "tomjones" was rebuking another poster for a comment that tomjones apparently found inappropriate:

Why Should Joe Care ... about a bunch of goyim dying in Iraq? It's not like anybody he cares about is suffering as a direct result of the war.

by greenskeeper on Wed Dec 07, 2005 at 01:53:09 PM PDT

right ... because as everybody knows, jews ONLY care about the welfare of other jews; thanks ever so much for reminding everyone of this most salient fact, so that we might better ignore all that jewish propaganda about participating in the civil rights movement of the 60s and so on

by tomjones on Wed Dec 07, 2005 at 02:04:20 PM PDT

Unfortunately, Bill O'Reilly and The New York Sun were taken in by Davis's misrepresentation of the comment and joined him in using it as an example of anti-Semitism on the left -- exactly the opposite of what the comment actually was.

Media Matters found no indication that Davis, O'Reilly, and the Sun have yet corrected their false smear of progressives in general and the Daily Kos poster in particular.

But even if "tomjones" wasn't being sarcastic; even if his comment was anti-Semitic, why would any news organization take a random comment by a pseudonymous poster on an Internet message board as indicative of any significant anti-Semitism on the part of Lieberman opponents?

The Lieberman camp is making an ugly allegation against, as Gerstein described it, "the progressive community," apparently based on nothing more than pseudonymous blog comments. The supporting evidence offered thus far seems less than compelling, but the allegations surely deserve closer media scrutiny. If true, they say something significant about "the progressive community"; if false, they say something significant about the Lieberman campaign.

But if news organizations aren't going to explore and explain this smear campaign, shouldn't the Lieberman camp at least be held to the standards it sets for its opponents? Shouldn't media outlets scrutinize comments made by the Lieberman camp and other Lamont foes -- particularly from those who have a much higher profile and greater significance than pseudonymous message-board commenters?

Lieberman, for example, has repeatedly suggested that Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA) has taken over the Democratic Party. On the August 9 broadcast of NBC's Today, he said, "I am committed to ... bringing the Democratic Party back from Ned Lamont and Maxine Waters to the mainstream." On Fox News the same day, he added, "I don't want my party to be taken over by the Ned Lamonts and Maxine Waters."

Coincidentally, in a column attacking Lamont, Ann Coulter also attacked Waters:

Congresswoman Maxine Waters had parachuted into Connecticut earlier in the week to campaign against Lieberman because he once expressed reservations about affirmative action, without which she would not have a job that didn't involve wearing a paper hat. Waters also considers Joe "soft" on the issue of the CIA inventing crack cocaine and AIDS to kill all the black people in America.

In a Wall Street Journal column the day before the Connecticut primary, Martin Peretz, the editor-in-chief of The New Republic, attacked Lamont, arguing that "[t]he Lamont ascendancy, if that is what it is, means nothing other than that the left is trying, and in places succeeding, to take back the Democratic Party. Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton and Maxine Waters have stumped for Mr. Lamont."

Waters isn't exactly a household name. Why would Lieberman, Coulter, and Peretz all happen to invoke her, rather than a more widely known symbol of the liberal wing of the Democratic Party? Peretz's decision to add Jackson and Sharpton to the mix recalled Time magazine columnist Joe Klein's recent warning that White House senior adviser Karl Rove (who, coincidentally, called Lieberman on primary day to wish him well) would "play the race card, as Republicans have ever since they sided against the civil rights movement in the 1960s," by invoking Democrats such as Rep. John Conyers (D-MI), an "African American of a certain age and ideology, easily stereotyped by Republicans." Waters, like Jackson, Sharpton, and Conyers, happens to be an African-American. Even before the primary, Lieberman could have pointed out Sen. Russ Feingold's (D-WI) endorsement of Lamont. Following Lamont's victory, Lieberman had a vast universe of prominent white politicians -- including the entire congressional Democratic leadership, former President Bill Clinton and former Vice President Al Gore -- with whom to tag Lamont. And, yet, Lieberman chose Waters. If they're going to repeat the Lieberman camp's ridiculous use of pseudonymous blog comments to suggest rampant liberal anti-Semitism, maybe The New York Sun should ask how it happens that Lieberman and company can't seem to think of a single white liberal with whom to scare voters?

While we're on the topic of the media mindlessly repeating Lieberman campaign allegations, maybe news organizations should follow up on the unsubstantiated claim that a Lamont supporter "hacked" Lieberman's website on election day?

Lieberman's website became unavailable to visitors sometime on the night of Monday, August 7. By Tuesday, his campaign was claiming that the Lamont campaign had "hacked" the site, forcing it off-line. And news organizations credulously repeated the claim as fact. Here's a typical CNN report:

BETTY NGUYEN (CNN anchor): On the day of the Connecticut -- it's the Senate primary, Joe Lieberman says his web site has been hacked and that it's causing major disruptions, not only with the web site but with his e-mail. And he blames his challenger, Ned Lamont, for causing these problems.

Let me just read you a statement from the Lieberman campaign, this from the campaign manager, saying, "For the past 24 hours, the Friends of Joe Lieberman's web site and e-mail have been totally disrupted and disabled. We believe that this is the result of a coordinated attack by our political opponents. The campaign has notified the U.S. attorney and will be filing formal complaints reflecting our concerns."

Also goes on to say, "This type of dirty politics has been the staple of the Lamont campaign," referring to Ned Lamont, the challenger, "from the beginning, from the nonstop personal attacks to the intimidation tactics and offensive displays to these coordinated efforts to disable our web site."

After this web site was attacked, the Lieberman campaign called the Democratic state party chair and ask that the Lamont campaign call off its cyber allies.

Now, all of these claims, mind you, Kyra, coming from the Lieberman camp. Again, on today, the primary, where voters are, you know, placing their votes on who they want to represent them, whether it be Joe Lieberman or Ned Lamont.

We do have to tell you that CNN has tried to contact the Lamont campaign. We're making those calls as we speak. This information just coming to us now. We do have correspondents on the ground to get to the bottom of this.

Lieberman says Lamont is responsible for this web site attack, shutting down not only the web site but the e-mails. We'll see if that's true or not. As soon as we get that information in, we'll bring it to you.

The Lieberman campaign's complaints have prompted federal and state investigations. And it's certainly possible that the extensive coverage the Lieberman campaign's allegations of Lamont "dirty tricks" were given by the media may have given a boost to Lieberman in the first post-primary poll, which shows him with a slim lead over Lamont in a three-way general election campaign.

But while the cause of the website's unavailability is not yet known, there are increasing indications that it was something other than a hack by Lamont supporters -- and that if a "hack" of any kind or source was the original cause, it was not to blame for the extended downtime:

  • Political Wire noted that the site was still down two days after the primary, concluding, "there's no reason the site should still be down. At this point, it's obvious no one is trying very hard to get it back up." (At this writing, the site was still "down," with a message from the campaign reading, "Watch for our re-launch -- and thanks for coming by!" -- which meant that the campaign is able to post to the site; it just chooses not to.)
  • TPM Muckraker reported that it is possible that, contrary to the Lieberman campaign's claims, their email may never have been down, noting that the campaign sent out emails during the supposed downtime. (TPM Muckraker also noted an alternate possibility: that the emails in question were sent through "a marketing email service" on a separate server.)
  • Blogger Greg Sargent has pointed out that the Lieberman campaign admitted it had no evidence to substantiate its claims that Lamont supporters were behind the matter.

In light of all this, blogger and Lamont supporter Matt Stoller wondered why there isn't any follow-up from the news organizations that rushed to report the Lieberman campaign's baseless allegations:

Now that the accusations that the Lieberman campaign spokespeople made -- Dan Gerstein in particular -- turned out to be false and dishonest, it's time to point out how pathetically dishonorable the press was in perpetuating the story. First of all, it wasn't hard to figure out that this was incompetence and not malice. I raised enough doubts within two hours to call into question the whole story. Joe2006.com is after all still down, which is all the proof you need about this primarily being about incompetence.

But that's not really the point. You see, on the day of the election, the news cycle was buzzing with this false and misleading story put out specifically by the Lieberman campaign as an obvious cover-up of their own incompetence. The story could have swung the election, even though its basis was false. Now, if a reporter puts out information that is false without checking it, that reporter should be severely disciplined or fired. I don't care if he or she is just quoting someone else. Quoting a verifiable lie is wrong, and it doesn't matter how many qualifiers there are in the story. It. Is. Wrong.

Now let's take the consequences for Sue Haigh, who reprinted the lie. I don't believe there has been one story on how the Lieberman campaign outright lied about the Lamont campaign hacking their site. There hasn't been a retraction or clarification of AP reporter Sue Haigh's disgraceful piece on the issue. There hasn't been an examination of the Lieberman campaign's use of dishonest tactics to create fake controveries. There hasn't been a a [sic] story about how the website is still down, and how the Lieberman team blamed its own operational problems on its challenger, and used the FBI's time to politicize its own incompetence.

No, Lieberman's election night lie about his web site being hacked is still on the record, unchallenged by the disgraceful pest Sue Haigh. Dan Gerstein is still the spokesman, and he'll be quoted by journalists as if he has credibility as anything but a professional liar.

Stoller is more certain than we are that the site went down due to "incompetence." Frankly, we have no idea why it went down. And he's more certain than we are that the word "lie" is appropriate here. But he's absolutely right about one thing: the news organizations that breathlessly reported the Lieberman campaign's allegations have dropped the ball in following up. Was this really a Lamont campaign "dirty trick"? Did the Lieberman campaign itself play such a trick by taking their own site down, then blaming the opponents? Is it all an innocent mistake? The result of negligence by the Lieberman campaign's hosting service? These are questions the media should be exploring -- but isn't.

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