Someone's got it in for me, they're planting stories in the press
America's political reporters don't like John Edwards, and have tried to destroy him.
But don't take my word for it.
Marc Ambinder was one of the founders of ABC's The Note and is a contributing editor to the National Journal's Hotline newsletter. The Note and the Hotline consist largely of links to and excerpts of political news and commentary by other reporters with ample doses of snark and Rove-worship thrown in. Whatever they may lack in insight and judgment, The Note and the Hotline are at the center of the D.C. political media establishment.
Ambinder, in other words, is a political reporter whose job has largely been to understand the political media.
There is a difference in the political reality: fairly or unfairly, a healthy chunk of the national political press corps doesn't like John Edwards.
Fairly or unfairly, there's also a difference in narrative timing: when the first quarter ended, the press was trying to bury Edwards. It's not so much interested in burying Romney right now -- many reporters think he's the Republican frontrunner.
Now, if reporters dislike a candidate, that's their business. But when they wage a relentless and petty campaign to "bury" that candidate, that's our business. All of us.
And we've been through this before.
The 2000 election was close enough that any number of things can fairly be described as having made the difference. But what Bob Somerby describes as the media's "War Against Gore" was undoubtedly one of the biggest factors in Bush's "victory." The contempt many political reporters felt for Gore is clear, as is the inaccurate, unfair, and grossly distorted coverage of Gore that decided the campaign. And, again, you needn't take my word for it: Bob Somerby, Eric Alterman, Eric Boehlert, and others have chronicled the acknowledgements by working journalists of their colleagues' hate for Gore. Jake Tapper described reporters "hissing" -- actually hissing -- Gore. Time's Eric Pooley described an incident in which a roomful of reporters "erupted in a collective jeer" of Gore "like a gang of 15-year-old Heathers cutting down some hapless nerd."
And Joe Scarborough -- conservative television host Joe Scarborough; former Republican Congressman Joe Scarborough -- has said that during the 2000 election, the media "were fairly brutal to Al Gore. ... [I]f they had done that to a Republican candidate, I'd be going on your show saying, you know, that they were being biased."
Somerby has long argued that one of the reasons the media's hatred for Gore was able to define the 2000 campaign so completely is that too few people talked about it -- and demanded that it stop -- at the time. Indeed, as he writes today, too many of those who should be combating these nonsensical but damaging storylines repeat them instead:
But then, inside Washington, establishment liberals and Democrats often seem congenitally unable to understand the shape of the past fifteen years. Haircuts -- and earth tones -- have destroyed the known world! But so what? Dems and libs keep reciting these trivia! We keep inviting the public to draw conclusions from these idiot tales.
One recent example occurred during Wednesday's Lou Dobbs Tonight, when Air America Radio host Laura Flanders said that Barack Obama has "kind of become the female on this race. ... He's seen as the weaker -- cute, attractive. ... Hillary is the one with the balls." In just a few moments, Flanders managed to suggest that a male progressive is feminine and that a female is masculine -- one of the conservatives' favorite tactics for marginalizing progressives -- and to equate being "female" with being "weak." With progressives like Laura Flanders, who needs Ann Coulter?
For anyone who would rather fight these absurd media storylines than repeat them, coverage of Edwards' haircut presents a valuable opportunity to do so.
Last week, we noted that NBC senior correspondent Jim Miklaszewski took $30,000 from the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce for a speech in which he reportedly called John Edwards a "loser" for defending his haircut. (Not that it really matters, but Edwards hasn't defended the haircut.)
This is a grossly unethical act on Miklaszewski's part -- taking tens of thousands of dollars from a special interest group for a speech, then attacking a candidate in that speech. Last year, NBC president Rick Kaplan said that company policy prevented anchors from taking speaking fees, and that anyone who violates that policy "would risk being fired."
But this is worse than simply taking speaking fees: this is taking a speaking fee from a special interest group that has supported tax cuts for the wealthy -- and attacking a candidate who has proposed eliminating a tax break for the wealthy in order to pay for health care.
If Miklaszewski took $30,000 from, say, the Children's Defense Fund to give a speech in which he attacked President Bush for announcing that he would veto a children's health program, you can bet the Right would be up in arms and calling for his head. They'd claim it proves that the media is biased against them. And their criticisms would promptly be amplified by that same media. Howard Kurtz would waste no time at all in telling you what Rich Lowry and Glenn Reynolds thought of the matter.
Well, Miklaszewski didn't take $30,000 from the Children's Defense Fund, and he didn't blast George Bush for threatening to veto health care for kids. He took $30,000 from the business lobby, and in exchange for it, he attacked John Edwards.
If you care about stopping misinformation in the media -- if you care about the media at all, really -- it doesn't get much clearer than this. Contact NBC. Tell them Miklaszewski's actions are unacceptable. Ask them if he violated NBC policy -- and if he hasn't, ask NBC to change their policies to prevent such behavior.
This isn't going to stop unless you make it stop.
After you contact NBC, contact Howard Kurtz. As the media beat reporter for The Washington Post and the host of CNN's Reliable Sources, Kurtz may be the nation's highest-profile media critic. Yet a Nexis search shows that Kurtz hasn't written a word about media coverage of Edwards' haircut for the print edition of the Post. And it has come up only in passing on his television show. (In a "Media Backtalk" online discussion with Washington Post readers, Kurtz acknowledged that "[t]he haircut thing has been overdone." Then -- in the next sentence -- he defended Post reporter John Solomon's much-maligned effort to count Edwards' haircuts.) So: contact Howard Kurtz. Ask him to cover Miklaszewski's unethical attacks on Edwards.
This isn't going to stop unless you make it stop.
How can we be so sure? Well, the 2000 campaign should be all the proof anyone needs. But here's another indication of how relentless the media will continue to be in harassing John Edwards about his haircut: So far this week alone, there are nine Washington Post articles available in Lexis-Nexis that mention John Edwards. Four of the nine mention his haircuts. Three mention his haircuts or his wealth in either the first or second sentence. Another doesn't mention either until the fifth paragraph -- but then makes up for lost time with three paragraphs about "controversies" including the haircut, Edwards' big house, and his work at a hedge fund before finally focusing on the ostensible topic of the article: Edwards' poverty tour.
And that doesn't even include an online-only article by Dan Balz and Chris Cillizza about an interview Edwards gave to the washingtonpost.com "PostTalk" program. The article began: "Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards defended himself against criticism that his expensive haircuts and lucrative income from a hedge fund undercut his campaign's effort to highlight the issue of poverty in America."
Keep in mind that it has been more than three months since the haircut story first appeared. But the media continue cover it as though it is both new and important. It is not. It is old and utterly insignificant.
There's another lesson to be drawn from 2000. Too often, those who weren't actively participating in the media's War Against Gore were enabling it by suggesting he brought it on himself. Sure, the media was unduly harsh toward Gore -- but he gave them ammunition. We hear the same thing said about John Edwards today: The Washington Post's decision to assign its star investigative reporter to count Edwards' haircuts may be absurd, but Edwards opened himself up to the attack by getting the pricey cut in the first place. It showed poor judgment; he should have known it would provide fodder for the media.
This is blame-the-victim nonsense.
If you think it is foolish to suggest that John Edwards' haircut makes him a hypocrite, it is foolish to hold him responsible for such suggestions. If there is nothing inherently wrong with a haircut, it's unfair to hold it against a candidate just because some reporters decide to pretend there is.
But shouldn't the candidate have known it would be unfairly held against him? No. If reporters don't like a candidate and decide to "bury" him, they're going to do so. If they can't do it by pointing to his "ostentatious" displays of wealth, they'll do it by claiming he is hiding his wealth. It isn't hard to imagine the media reaction if John Edwards, like Fred Thompson, rented a red pickup truck to campaign for office: he's a phony, they'd say; a rich man pretending to be otherwise. Or they'd find out he gets the Biggie Fries during his anniversary dinners at Wendy's. The key details here are that reporters don't like him, and they're willing to be unfair in order to bury him.
John Edwards could not have avoided making a "mistake" that the media would trash him for, because they were willing to trash him for any dumb thing they could think of. And if they couldn't have found something dumb-but-real, they'd have used something dumb-but-made-up, like they did in falsely claiming Al Gore had taken credit for discovering Love Canal. If it is impossible for a candidate to avoid unfair, absurd coverage like this, then it is unfair to hold that candidate responsible for a meaningless "mistake" that is only a "mistake" in that it plays into that coverage.
Earlier this year, Ambinder inadvertently illustrated the circularity of the blame-the-victim approach to these bogus media stories.
The truth is that the media seems to be confusing "hypocrisy" -- doing what one says one must not do -- with bad optics and a few cases of ill-considered judgment.
The fact is, if you're in politics and you talk about poverty, extra attention will be paid to the manner in which you display your personal wealth -- whether, by dint of expensive haircuts and mammoth homes, you spend the money you earn and don't care about "what it looks like."
Edwards has been uncautiously ostentatious. That's the basic mistake. He's set himself up for questions about the work his poverty center did, the Cayman Islands, why he joined Fortress, Sudan holdings, etc, not because he held himself to a different moral standard, but because he didn't hold himself to a high enough political standard. The press reads this as arrogance.
Knowing he was going to focus on poverty, he probably should have dialed back his displays of wealth. The optics would look better. Roger Simon wrote that the problem with Edwards's $400 haircut was not the haircut itself; it was the fact that it slipped into his campaign finance report. Wrong. The problem was the haircut -- or, more precisely, the shrug of the shoulders that accompanied his decision to get it. The press pays attention to these things. It -- we -- have a fetish for the discrepant, the unseemly, the showy. You just don't get a $400 haircut during a campaign to eradicate poverty. Your credibility as a messenger suffers.
It may seem at first like Ambinder's explanation makes sense. But if -- as Ambinder stipulates -- there is nothing hypocritical about a rich man talking about poverty, or about a haircut, what are we left with? Precious little.
Ambinder tells us: "If you're in politics and you talk about poverty, extra attention will be paid to the manner in which you display your personal wealth" But why? Why will extra attention be paid to the wealth of the candidate who talks about poverty rather than to the wealth of the candidate who wants to lower taxes for the wealthy? There is no logical reason; nor is there a legitimate emotional reason. Ambinder has already acknowledged there is no hypocrisy at play in the former case. In the latter, there is arguably self-serving greed. So why will "extra attention" be paid? Ambinder doesn't tell us -- he doesn't even seem to think the question needs an answer. Extra attention will be paid because it will be paid.
The haircut is bad "optics," Ambinder tells us. But why? Candidates (all humans, really) do a dozen things a day that could look bad if they were endlessly repeated and mocked. Why is this one bad "optics"? What makes it different from, say, lobbyist Fred Thompson renting a red pickup, or Mitt Romney spending a lot of money on makeup (or strapping his poor dog to the roof of the Family Truckster)? Why are those not optically bad? All we're left with is that the optics of the haircut are bad because the press covers it so much, and the press covers it so much because the optics are bad.
These aren't reasons, they are excuses.
Grasping, Ambinder announced that the media "have a fetish for the discrepant, the unseemly, the showy."
Bunk. "Discrepant" doesn't apply, as there is nothing inconsistent with being rich and talking about poverty, as Ambinder himself already acknowledged. So, we're left with "unseemly" and "showy." But that cannot explain the media's focus on Edwards. Mitt Romney has a big house -- in fact, he has three. President Bush hand-picks the cloth for his custom-made suits, each of which costs thousands of dollars. That's awfully "showy," and coming from people who support tax policies that benefit ... themselves. No, the media's "fetish" for the "showy" can't explain the abuse Edwards has taken, because other "showy" behavior isn't treated similarly.
"You just don't get a $400 haircut during a campaign to eradicate poverty," Ambinder finally announces. But ... why not? You "just don't." That's the best Ambinder can come up with: you just don't. And that is perhaps the best indication that there is no real reason; that there is no actual problem with the haircut.
If the media is going to spend three months -- and counting -- relentlessly covering a damn haircut, is it too much to ask that they have a better explanation for it than that "you just don't" get such a haircut? These are professional journalists, who hold enormous power over our political process, and they can't come up with a better reason than a parent gives for not letting a teenager stay out 15 minutes later? "You just can't."
This kind of media coverage, as Bob Somerby says, is what gave us President Bush. It is why we are in Iraq today. It isn't going to go away on its own, and it isn't going to go away if John Edwards is no longer a candidate. There is an endless supply of nonsense for reporters to say about progressives, whether it is Hillary Clinton's alleged display of cleavage (the horror!) or bogus attacks on Barack Obama's comments about teaching kindergarteners about "inappropriate touching."
This isn't going to stop unless you make it stop.