Listen up, Tucker
In the week since former Vice President Al Gore became Nobel Peace Prize winner Al Gore, The Daily Howler's Bob Somerby has written extensively about news reports and commentary about Gore's win that have failed to note the brutal and often false savaging Gore experienced at the hands of the media during his presidential campaign. Looking at the first news reports about Gore's award, a similar thought occurred to me: so many of those reports focused on whether Gore would again run for president, yet they made no mention of the primary reason he is not president today -- years of news reports (led by The New York Times and The Washington Post, not Fox News) that falsely portrayed Gore as a liar and childishly mocked him for his clothes.
It's a story that has been told many times, by countless people. And yet we keep telling it, and we sometimes criticize others for not telling it. Why? Simple: because it is important, because horrible media coverage of progressives didn't stop with Al Gore, and because not enough people are aware of it.
Editor & Publisher recently reported on a new poll of Americans' attitudes toward the news media:
A new Gallup poll released today show[s] a wide gap between how Republicans and Democrats view the mass media. Nearly 3 in 4 Republicans say the media is "too liberal."
[Gallup director Frank] Newport explains: "Republicans in America today remain deeply distrustful of the national news media -- in sharp contrast to Democrats, who have a great deal more trust in the media's accuracy." Exactly twice as many Democrats (66%) express some faith in the media compared with Republicans (33%).
More than twice as many Americans say the news media are too liberal (45%) rather than too conservative (18%). But Newport adds: "Americans' views of the bias in news media are highly related -- as would be expected -- to underlying political orientation."
Some 22% of Democrats find the media "too conservative," but this is a much lower number than the Republican assertion [that the media are too liberal] (77%).
Between the media's treatment of Gore and their handling of the run-up to the Iraq war, how can Democrats have so much faith in the media and Republicans so little? There are probably a large number of factors that play a role, but two seem obvious: The American people are rarely told about the media's peddling of conservative misinformation, and they are frequently told that the media are "liberal."
The October 16 edition of MSNBC's Tucker provides an excellent, if infuriating, case study. Host Tucker Carlson and his two journalist guests peddled a steady stream of conservative misinformation -- and at the same time suggested that the very cable channel on which they were doing so is biased against conservatives.
Carlson led A.B. Stoddard of The Hill and Josephine Hearn of the Politico in a discussion of an allegation that, in 1992, Hillary Clinton listened to a recording of a telephone call held by political adversaries of her husband. The allegation first appeared in Her Way, the Clinton biography released earlier this year and written by New York Times reporter Don Van Natta Jr. and Jeff Gerth, formerly of the Times. The sole citation Gerth and Van Natta provided for the allegation read, in full, "Author interview with former campaign aide present at the tape playing in 2006."
Her Way was poorly received when it was released months ago, perhaps because it was heavily reliant on anonymous sources like the "former campaign aide" who made the telephone-recording allegation, and perhaps because of the authors' history of dubious reporting. In any case, the phone allegation was almost universally ignored.
Nevertheless, Carlson declared Tuesday evening that "rumors of scandal" might disrupt Clinton's presidential campaign:
CARLSON: A new book out by a pair of Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times reporters makes a startling claim. Back in 1992, it says, Hillary Clinton allegedly eavesdropped on the phone calls of her husband's political opponents. Some Republicans say that smacks of hypocrisy especially since Senator Clinton criticizes the warrantless wiretapping of suspected terrorists -- trouble for Hillary Clinton?
In fact, Her Way isn't new, and it wasn't the reason Carlson devoted a segment to the allegation -- Carlson later admitted he hasn't even read the book. So why did Carlson, Stoddard, and Hearn -- along with other media figures -- devote so much time to such a vague and thinly sourced allegation in a months-old book that nobody much cared about at the time?
Perhaps because the GOP told them to. This flurry of media attention began with an article in The Hill laying out the Republicans' plan to attack Clinton over the allegation.
Republicans plan to seize on an allegation from the 1992 presidential campaign to tarnish Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) on the red-hot issue of government surveillance.
Republicans are focusing on an allegation in a recent book by two Pulitzer Prize-winning reporters, which suggests Clinton listened to a secretly recorded conversation between political opponents.
A GOP official said, "Hillary Clinton's campaign hypocrisy continues to know no bounds. It is rather unbelievable that Clinton would listen in to conversations being conducted by political opponents, but refuse to allow our intelligence agencies to listen in to conversations being conducted by terrorists as they plot and plan to kill us. Team Clinton can expect to see and hear this over and over again over the course of the next year."
By attributing the segment to revelations in a "new book" (that isn't new and that he hadn't read) rather than to the fact that Republican political operatives were criticizing Clinton, Carlson managed to give an air of credibility to what was a thinly sourced partisan attack.
The Politico's Ben Smith explained how the Republican National Committee successfully (and dishonestly) used The Hill to launder the eavesdropping allegation and make it appear more solid than it actually is:
The allegation was reported in passing, and without a named source, in Jeff Gerth and Don Van Natta's recent Hillary bio. I'm not sure about other reporters; it caught my eye, and I tried and failed to confirm it with veterans of that campaign.
Anyway, it's not really sourced in a way that it could stand on its own, and got scant coverage when the book came out this summer.
So the RNC pushes it to the Hill. And today, RNC co-chairman Mike Duncan sent out an e-mail with this assertion:
If you needed further proof that Hillary Clinton will do anything to win, a Capitol Hill newspaper is now reporting that she eavesdropped on Bill's political opponents during his time as governor of Arkansas.
Well, not really.
But the RNC couldn't have done it on its own: It needed the help (intentional or not) of journalists who 1) reported the allegation and 2) did so without noting the dubious sourcing -- sourcing that, according to Ben Smith, "could not stand on its own." And, indeed, the Republicans' "plan to seize" on the allegation was enough to spur several news reports. As Media Matters noted yesterday, Slate.com, National Review, CNN's Paula Zahn Now, ABC News' The Note, Fox News' Fox & Friends, MSNBC's Tucker, The Washington Times, and The American Spectator all reported the allegation without noting that it was based on a single anonymous source.
Worse, the purported recollections by an anonymous source of an event that supposedly happened 14 years prior was enough for some reporters to flatly declare the event to have been illegal.
On Tucker, the first thing the Politico's Hearn said was: "And it looks like it is illegal and was illegal then, in '92." Later, Hearn all but invited an official investigation: "[Y]eah, I think it's a big deal if somebody decides to investigate it." She then seemed to reverse herself, noting, "I mean, it's 15 years old. I think, lacking an investigation, I don't know, it seems pretty tenuous right now." But not too tenuous for her to declare it to have been "illegal."
Nor did Hearn hesitate to defend the authors who brought us this "tenuous" allegation; she falsely stated that Clinton's staff "apparently ... never challenged anything in the book at all." Hearn was presumably basing that statement on an identical claim by Gerth that was included in the article in The Hill. But Gerth is hardly a disinterested observer whose statements on the matter can be taken as fact; he is one of the book's authors and has an obvious interest in portraying it as beyond factual reproach. Had Hearn spent a moment looking into the matter before simply repeating the author's defense of his book as fact, she would have known that Gerth was not telling the truth. (Not only was Gerth's claim -- repeated by Hearn as independent fact -- that the Clinton camp hasn't challenged anything in the book false, it is largely irrelevant. In assessing the book's credibility, it matters far less whether the Clinton camp has pointed out flaws than whether anyone has pointed out flaws. And Media Matters, among others, has done so, repeatedly.)
But what makes the Tucker segment noteworthy is not that it featured false, misleading, and oversimplified claims about a prominent progressive -- that happens all the time on cable news. What really makes it noteworthy is that at the end of the segment -- a segment in which three journalists had discussed at length an allegation against Hillary Clinton that appeared, based on a single anonymous source describing a 14-year-old event, in a factually flawed book that at least two of the three had not read -- Carlson and his guests agreed that the media is giving Clinton a pass on the allegation.
None of the journalists had noted the allegation's dubious provenance. None noted that Gerth, at least, has a long history of deeply flawed reporting about the Clintons. Instead, they made false claims (as in Hearn's assertion that nothing in the book had been contested) and misleading statements (as in Carlson's description of the authors as "not two guys from The American Spectator. These are two -- in at least one case, I think, a pretty well-established, at least, former liberal. I mean, they're not screaming right-wingers") bolstering the credibility of a book that at least two of them had not read. After this laughable display, in which they had been manifestly unfair to Hillary Clinton, these three journalists decided that she was getting off easier than Rudy Giuliani would in a similar situation:
CARLSON: If this were a story about Rudy Giuliani from 1992, it would lead every show on MSNBC today. There's just no question it would. Is that -- I mean, you know it would. Rudy Giuliani using a police scanner to listen to people's cell phone calls? Holy smokes, man.
[Hearn nods and smiles]
STODDARD: But, no, no. But it's not clear that she -- it was her husband's campaign.
CARLSON: Her campaign.
If it was Bernie Kerik working on behalf of Rudy Giuliani -- I'm not just claiming media bias, it's more complicated than that, but do you -- would that not be a story?
STODDARD: It might be true. It might be true.
CARLSON: Could he get away with saying --
STODDARD: Well, anything about Bernie Kerik is a story these days. I mean, to be fair.
Bernie Kerik has been Rudy Giuliani's business partner, police commissioner, and recommendation to be secretary of homeland security. And Bernie Kerik is currently facing indictment for assorted crookedness. Of course Bernie Kerik is a story -- he and his ties to Giuliani should probably be more of a story. There is no way in which Giuliani's relationship with Kerik is analogous to a single anonymous source claiming that Hillary Clinton listened to a recording in 1992.
Later in the same show, Carlson made another comment that, while not directly accusing the media of bias, likely led some viewers to conclude that the media inaccurately portray Republicans as the party of the wealthy. Carlson claimed to speak a simple truth that "nobody ever, ever mentions":
CARLSON: OK, but here's the fact that nobody ever, ever mentions -- Democrats win rich people. Over 100,000 in income, you are likely more than not to vote for Democrats. People never point that out. Rich people vote liberal. I don't know what that's all about.
The reason that "people never point that out" probably has something to do with not wanting to be thought of as a fool or a liar. Carlson's claim that people making more than $100,000 a year tend to vote for Democrats is simply false.
In the 2006 congressional elections, Republican candidates won among those making at least $100,000; they won by an even larger margin among those making more than $200,000. The same was true in the 2004 presidential election, the 2004 congressional elections, and the 2000 presidential elections (exit poll data are not available for the 2002 elections, but it's a safe bet that the pattern held, particularly given that Republicans did better overall in the 2002 elections than in any of the others).
Tucker Carlson's entire job is covering politics and has been for years. It would be bad enough if Carlson simply didn't know something so basic about contemporary American politics as the fact that people who make at least $100,000 tend to vote for Republicans. But it's worse than that: He actively believes (unless he is simply being dishonest) the opposite; so much so, that he takes others to task for not joining him in spreading his false claims. And not just once -- he made the same claim in July:
CARLSON: I think this is a longer-term trend that has been unnoticed by a lot of people. I'll never forget that in 2000, exit polls showed that Al Gore won the over-$100,000 income bracket. Rich people are liberal. Rich people vote Democratic. There's this hangover from the 1930s that the Democratic Party is the working man's party. No, it's the party of Silicon Valley. It's the party of rich people. It's the party of the poor and of the rich.
In fact, 2000 exit polls show that only 43 percent of "the over-$100,000 income bracket" voted for Al Gore; 54 percent voted for George W. Bush. That was the income range Gore lost by the largest margin -- but Carlson will "never forget" that Gore won it!
Carlson recently wondered why he should listen to Media Matters. The answer is simple: because he doesn't have any idea what he is talking about and would be well-advised to listen to people who do, even if he doesn't share their ideology.