Mark Halperin's flip-flop at ABC News

››› ››› ERIC BOEHLERT

Conservatives forever braying about a liberal bias in the press received a big boost last month when Mark Halperin, director of ABC's political unit, took to the airwaves with the reddest of Bush partisans -- talkers Sean Hannity, Bill O'Reilly and Hugh Hewitt -- to voice his heated agreement that the mainstream press treats Republicans unfairly.

Conservatives forever braying about a liberal bias in the press received a big boost last month when Mark Halperin, director of ABC's political unit, took to the airwaves with the reddest of Bush partisans -- talkers Sean Hannity, Bill O'Reilly and Hugh Hewitt -- to voice his heated agreement that the mainstream press treats Republicans unfairly.

Confirming their longstanding fears, Halperin insisted that reporters are "overwhelmingly liberal," they "hate the military," are "blind" to their bias, and should use the closing weeks of the campaign season to "prove" their worth to right-wingers. Suddenly, instead of conservatives working the refs -- badgering journalists with complaints of bias in hopes they would get the benefit of the doubt next time there was a close call in the newsroom -- it was one of the refs (Halperin) working the refs.

Keep in mind, this wasn't Bernard Goldberg, the disgruntled former CBS lifer who wrote Bias, a book claiming that network news leans left. This was Mark Halperin, the public face of ABC's political news team and founder of The Note, the influential online Beltway tip sheet. Halperin's words carry real weight.

And that's why within days, Halperin's verbal darts were being used on Fox News by Brit Hume to provide context as to why, in Hume's view, the mainstream press had not given Sen. John Kerry's "botched joke" adequate attention. (By the way, Fox News mentioned Kerry's name approximately 900 times on the air during "botched joke" week, according to TVEyes.com.)

Note that 48 months earlier there was no chance Hume or anybody else at Fox News would have quoted Halperin approvingly. In fact, they were attacking him because of his perceived anti-Bush bias.

And that's what's so peculiar about Halperin's misguided offensive against the press; it completely contradicts what he was instructing his staff at ABC News to do during the 2004 campaign, when he specifically urged them to have the courage to report on the Bush team's habit of using blatant distortions to attack his Democratic opponent, Sen. John Kerry.

How can the same Mark Halperin who today parades around on right-wing radio shows bemoaning the "outrageous" behavior of liberally biased reporters who are out to get Bush and Rove, be the same Mark Halperin who in an October 5, 2004, memo wrote, "I'm sure many of you have this week felt the stepped up Bush efforts to complain about our coverage. This is all part of their efforts to get away with as much as possible with. the stepped-up, renewed efforts to win the election by destroying Senator Kerry at least partly through distortions."

Clearly Halperin has flip-flopped. But why?

I think the answers are pretty obvious. First, he's out shilling a new Karl Rove-is-a-genius book, The Way to Win, which means Halperin has a vested interest -- a financial incentive -- in seeing Rove's Republicans to do well (i.e., a GOP win would reinforce the friendly premise of his book).

And secondly, Halperin's 2004 memo sparked a riot among angry, pitchfork conservatives who, fresh off their victory over Dan Rather and CBS' botched Texas Air National Guard report, were looking for another mainstream media target. Convinced Halperin's memo was the proof they needed, they called for his ouster.

Watching his professional life flash before his eyes, it seems Halperin decided he'd never leave himself open to that kind of political attack again. And he hasn't. In 2005 he quickly tacked right (that's when The Note became truly sycophantic) and scored a high-profile book deal to chronicle the political brilliance of Bush and Rove.

In other words, follow the money. Note this key quote from Halperin's recent appearance on Fox News' The O'Reilly Factor. It pretty much lays bare the motivation behind the kowtowing:

As an economic model, if you want to thrive like Fox News Channel -- [if] you want to have a future -- you better make sure conservatives find your product appealing. [Emphasis added.]

This is about moving product, not producing good journalism.

It's interesting to note that early on in The Way to Win's marketing blitz, Halperin wasn't panhandling conservatives, making broad accusations about "overwhelming" liberal bias in the press. For instance, he sat for a one-hour interview on the October 5 edition of PBS' Charlie Rose, and the allegation of a "liberal media" was never made. It was not until the last week of October, after The Way to Win had failed to crack the best-seller list, that the feel-good conservative talking points about the biased press began to leap out of Halperin's mouth.

I'm sure the frustrating part for Halperin is that even his public genuflection to the right wing, confirming every dark fantasy they have about the press, has not been enough to boost book sales. Indeed, I cannot recall a recent book that received such blanket, mainstream media notice as The Way to Win has and still been unable to translate that exposure into substantial sales. Since the book's release in October, Halperin has been invited onto The Diane Rehm Show, Charlie Rose, The O'Reilly Factor, Glenn Beck, Reliable Sources, Late Edition, Imus in the Morning, Good Morning America, Lou Dobbs Tonight, The Sean Hannity Show, The Jim Bohannon Show, The Colbert Report, Washington Journal, Washington Week, and The Michael Medved Show, as well welcomed into the pages of Slate, Newsweek.com, and The Washington Post, just to name a few. (The Drudge Report also hyped the book.)

In book publishing, it's almost physically impossible to garner that much press attention -- especially national TV exposure -- and not score a best-seller. Yet Halperin has managed to defy the odds.

Nonetheless, it's been a sad and bewildering spectacle to watch someone of Halperin's professional stature grovel before conservatives while he denigrates fellow journalists in the process. I've written a lot this year about Halperin. In fact I devoted an entire chapter to The Note in my book about Bush and the press, and I wrote a lengthy analysis of The Way to Win, which he co-wrote with John Harris from The Washington Post. The reason for the attention is that I think Halperin so perfectly captures what's wrong with much of the Beltway press. And his recent behavior is indicative of a larger trend taking place within the uppermost echelons of the elite media: a borderline obsession to "prove" to conservatives that the press can play fair. Corporate journalists have developed an acute case of rabbit ears, becoming preoccupied with the catcalls from the right, and have decided, for increasingly selfish and personal reasons, to make nice with the right-wing crowd, even if it means trampling journalistic standards in the process.

Can you think of a single other reason why Katie Couric invited Rush Limbaugh to tape a commentary on CBS for an Evening News forum that's supposed to advance "civic discourse"? Can you think of a single other reason why ABC commissioned a right-wing partisan to rewrite the history of 9-11 and douse it with an anti-Clinton spin?

And consider this: If someone like Halperin feels comfortable publicly bemoaning how the press "hates the military" and how reporters are incapable of covering a whole host of issues honestly, I assume he's speaking for lots of other journalists. Indeed, if Halperin's well-publicized comments were considered to be beyond the pale, his colleagues -- both in and out of ABC News -- would have condemned them. Instead, the silence from the Beltway has been deafening.

Halperin signs off on right-wing press conspiracies

Here are some of the Rush Limbaugh-like talking points Halperin echoed during his appearances on conservative outlets:

  • "I think we've got a chance in these last two weeks to prove to conservatives that we understand their grievances."
  • "The reality of how [liberal bias] affects media coverage is outrageous."
  • "[T]he Mary Mapes' of the world are ruining it for the rest of us, and they are the dominant majority."
  • "Most of my colleagues, as you know, are in denial about [liberal bias], or blind to it."
  • "The old system was biased against conservatives; there's no doubt about it."

"There's no doubt about it," said Halperin, who then offers little proof to back up his assertions. In contrast, I'll pick three media examples out of a hat that disprove Halperin's hollow point about the press being "biased against conservatives":

  • In February 2003 alone, the supposedly liberal Washington Post editorialized in favor of Bush's war with Iraq nine times. Between September 2002 and February 2003, the paper editorialized 26 times in favor of the war.
  • In December 2005, supposedly liberal network anchors Tom Brokaw and Ted Koppel both agreed that if Bill Clinton had been president on 9-11, he too would have ordered a pre-emptive invasion of Iraq, just like Bush did.
  • Separately, supposedly liberal CBS anchor Bob Schieffer agreed, insisting "there was no other choice for the president [Bush] to make," but to invade Iraq. No other choice.

The most troubling part is I assume Halperin knows the truth about the press, which brings us to his dramatic flip-flop.

Back during the closing weeks of the 2004 presidential run, Halperin sparked a frenzied outcry from conservative press critics after Halperin wrote a memo to the ABC staff urging everyone to hold both Kerry and Bush accountable for their misstatements. He emphasized that ABC should not feel constrained, in the name of balance, to simply report they're both doing it. Halperin suggested, correctly, that Bush's campaign was using misstatements as a cornerstone to its re-election push and had gone "way beyond what Kerry has done."

After the memo was leaked to the Drudge Report, members of the conservative media echo chamber set upon Halperin, demanding ABC fire him for his obvious bias. (Conservatives pretended that orders from an ABC editor to accurately report on the presidential campaign somehow pulled back the curtain on the mainstream media's liberal tilt.) The New York Post labeled his memo the "smoking gun" of media dishonesty. Most of the attacks were quick to draw parallels between the ABC memo and CBS' 2004 botched report on Bush and the Texas Air National Guard; a press scandal that cost anchorman Rather his job.

Some on the radical right went even further, also smearing Halperin's father, Morton Halperin, who worked for Henry Kissinger on the National Security Council (and as President Richard Nixon's assistant for national security affairs) but quit in 1970 to protest the U.S. invasion of Cambodia. Twenty-two years later, when President Clinton nominated Halperin to the new position of assistant secretary of defense for democracy and peacekeeping, conservatives, still angry about the Vietnam War, orchestrated a nasty, personal campaign to defeat Halperin's appointment and to ruin his reputation, suggesting the CIA had a secret dossier on Halperin and hinted he was a traitor.

In short, the 2004 attacks got ugly. And what conservatives did to Mark Halperin's father in the 1990s they were threatening to do to him: bury his career. Throughout the 2004 controversy, though, Halperin refused to publicly defend the logical contents of his campaign memo. Instead, he shoved The Note even further to the right, adopting an openly Republican-pleasing perspective heading into 2005.

His retreat intensified in 2006. As Halperin readied the release of his book, he seemed to lose independent perspective. In January, he was so bowled over by Bush's rhetorical flourish that he announced, "That is the kind of answer and vision that will get a man's approval rating back over 53% any day now." (Raise your hand if you think Bush will ever again reach a job approval rating of 53 percent.)

In June, Halperin was warning Democrats about their bleak prospects for electoral gains this year: "If I were them, I'd be scared to death about November's elections," he announced. When the forecast turned gloomy for Republicans in the fall, Halperin, channeling the right wing, lashed out at the press. From the October 23 edition of The Note:

How the (liberal) Old Media plans to cover the last two weeks of the election:

1. Glowingly profile Speaker-Inevitable Nancy Pelosi, with loving mentions of her grandmotherly steel (see last night's 60 Minutes), and fail to describe her as "ultra liberal" or "an extreme liberal," which would mirror the way Gingrich was painted twelve years ago.

2. Look at every attempt by the President to define the race on his terms as deluded and desperate; increasingly quote Republican strategists saying that the President is hurting the party whenever he enters the fray.

3. Refuse to join the daily morning Ken Mehlman-Rush Limbaugh conference calls, despite repeated invitations.

4. Imbue every Democratic candidate for whom Bill Clinton campaigns with a golden halo.

The list went on and on, all the way down to No. 12. (Bill O'Reilly applauded Halperin's "tough piece of analysis.") Notice that Halperin didn't hide behind a third-person voice, or suggest this was what Republicans were afraid might happen, or this was how the coverage would appear to conservatives. Halperin, affirming a vast right-wing conspiracy theory, matter-of-factly announced the press was going to deliberately skew its campaign coverage.

Halperin's proof of this "overwhelming" liberal bias? Beyond CBS' National Guard miscue, he doesn't point to much, which explains why he has to fabricate some of his proof. For instance, in assuring Sean Hannity there were "lots" of "examples" of bias, Halperin cited the 2004 presidential race and pointed to America Coming Together (ACT), a progressive 527 group that worked to get Kerry elected. Halperin said the group's existence should have caused an uproar in the press, and that if Republican forces had banded together like the ones that made up ACT, "The old media would have said this is completely unacceptable. And yet the Kerry group, the Democratic group, was celebrated." [Emphasis added.]

Halperin continued: "Now, people say to me, 'Well, you work at ABC News -- why didn't you do anything about that?' I did. ABC covered that story fairly. But the overall old liberal media covered that [ACT] story in such an unfair way, and I think anybody who denies that just isn't paying attention."

"Isn't paying attention"? First, Halperin suggested that Democrats teaming up and spending millions to defeat Bush in 2004 was somehow a campaign anomaly, never bothering to mention that it was a 527 group with close White House ties that backed the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth crusade against Kerry. Secondly, a warning to conservatives who go back in search of ABC's exposes about ACT, you're going to be disappointed because the tough pieces Halperin hints at do not exist. In fact, ABC News barely mentioned ACT during the entire 2004 campaign. Yet now in 2006, Halperin, eager to advertise his conservative bona fides, has concocted a convenient cover story about how ABC, alone amidst the liberally biased media, told the truth about ACT.

In a sense it's fitting; Halperin, like his newfound conservative allies, has a tough time backing up his claim of a left-wing media conspiracy.

Network/Outlet
ABC
Person
Mark Halperin
Stories/Interests
Propaganda/Noise Machine
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