Hillary, the debate, and the media folly

››› ››› ERIC BOEHLERT

At least reporters covering last week's Democratic debate didn't openly mock Sen. Hillary Clinton during the session by emitting loud groans and hisses in the press room whenever she answered questions for the nationally televised audience.

At least reporters covering last week's Democratic debate didn't openly mock Sen. Hillary Clinton during the session by emitting loud groans and hisses in the press room whenever she answered questions for the nationally televised audience.

That's what contemptuous journalists famously did to Vice President Al Gore backstage during a 1999 Democratic debate in New Hampshire. ("The room erupted in a collective jeer, like a gang of 15-year-old Heathers.") So I suppose it was progress last week that excited reporters and pundits waited until the debate was over before they poured out of the bleachers to announce how badly Clinton had done.

Have we ever seen such a comically overwrought media reaction to a presidential primary debate before? I can't recall one. Echoing GOP talking points virtually word-for word and steadfastly ignoring poll after poll that showed the debate hadn't changed the campaign dynamics one bit, pundits tripped over themselves describing just how badly Clinton had been bloodied and "cut" in the debate fight. By the time the cacophony of negative reviews hit the airwaves during the weekend talk shows, I half-expected to hear pundits suggest that Clinton think about getting out of the race; the damage from the debate was that bad.

Her performance was "disastrous," Time's Mark Halperin announced last week; a "debacle" that could mark "the first step to her defeat." Of course, this was the same Mark Halperin who announced in the spring of 2006, "If I were them [Democrats], I'd be scared to death about November's elections." (Halperin was sure the Iraq war was going to be a loser for Democrats at the polls during the midterm elections. Oops.)

So forgive me if I don't embrace the chattering class' breathless consensus that the Philadelphia debate was a turning point in the campaign. It was clearly a watershed moment for the media. But for voters? Not so much. There was little evidence that everyday voters even thought the debate was a remarkable event. (And why should they? It was viewed by less than one percent of all Americans.)

As for progressive activists who would have to fuel any post-debate shift within the Democratic race, the debate was also a nonstarter. At least that was the take-away last week from reading the key liberal blogs, where Clinton criticism usually flows freely. Instead, there was very little complaining about Clinton's debate performance. The story did not receive much play at the widely read Huffington Post; at firedoglake.com, influential blogger Jane Hamsher, posting under the headline "Thanks But I Think I'll Skip the Pile-On," actually credited Clinton for tackling several controversial issues during the debate.

For the Beltway press, though, the debate was Katy-bar-the-door time because reporters and pundits, prompted by the harsh debate attacks, were finally allowed to give voice to their longstanding personal contempt for Clinton and do it under the guise of political analysis. The debate performance crystallized for them what they don't like about Clinton. And for the press, that revelation qualified as news.

Politico's Roger Simon, the head anti-Clinton cheerleader following the Philadelphia forum, complained the candidate looked "political" during the debate and that "people didn't like it." Set aside the odd sentiment. (Politicians normally don't appear political during debates?). Instead, insert the word "journalists" for "people" in Simon's comment and you'll get a much more accurate reading: Clinton looked political and "journalists didn't like it."

Speaking of Simon, I had to chuckle when he pooh-poohed the senator's "tone and demeanor" for the evening. Clinton was "largely emotionless and detached," Simon complained. I chuckled because we just had to endure the media's fully manufactured controversy over Clinton's laugh, remember? Just a few weeks ago the chattering class was all wound up about how Clinton was laughing way too much in public. But suddenly in Philadelphia the press was deducting points because Clinton wasn't whooping it up onstage.

That was just another example of why the media's post-debate analysis didn't strike me as a rational dissection but, rather, as a phony press campaign crisis assembled by frustrated journalists who had been covering a largely news-free Democratic race for months on end. For instance, pundits suggested that because Democratic candidates had finally turned up the heat and insinuated that Clinton is a liar that she'll be badly damaged; that once that topic is on the table, all bets are off. And that's why journalists treated the debate as such a momentous event; the race was certain to change -- and change dramatically -- because voters would be forced to reassess the campaign in light of the allegation that Clinton is unethical and dishonest.

Slight problem: That anti-Clinton narrative, as fueled by the Beltway press, has been in play for 15 years now. That talking point is so prevalent grade school kids could probably recite it. But pundits claim it's suddenly going to change everything.

Blown out of proportion

That's not to dismiss what happened during the debate or to suggest Clinton did not stumble. And if Democratic voters, after watching the debate, don't think Clinton is up to the challenge of being president, then so be it.

I was simply struck by the the level of media hysteria that followed what was, by historical standards, a relatively uneventful debate and certainly not one that should have prompted such heavy breathing, like Newsweek.com using "blood in the water" and "feeding frenzy" in its headline, or ABC's The Note insisting that "the fight is already beyond even the vaunted Clinton spin machine's ability to contain it." (Although according to the polls, there was nothing to contain.)

What was it about the debate that sparked the media's overly dramatic hand-wringing last week and the endless conjecture? "[Clinton] gave answers that, at the least, allowed her rivals to effectively challenge her candor and consistency," reported the Los Angeles Times. Holy smokes, I'm sure that's a presidential campaign first.

What was interesting about the debate was that commentators who later described the night as a train wreck for Clinton were surprisingly subdued as the debate unfolded in real time. It was only later, as the pundits fed off each other and whipped themselves into a frenzy, that the reviews become increasingly harsh, to the point where it was written in Beltway stone that Clinton had absolutely bombed during the debate; a "debacle."

But again, as it unfolded live, that's not how it was reported. For instance, live-blogging the debate at abcnews.com, Rick Klein, who later hyped the dire debate consequences for Clinton at ABC's The Note, wrote at 9:33 p.m.: "Clinton is strong, concise, and sharp tonight. She is finding ways to contrast herself with the Bush administration even while defending herself."

By 10:35 p.m., Klein wished the two-hour debate was over already: "The last few minutes remind me of why debates should end at 90 minutes. Less energy on the stage, and fewer interesting things to be said."

Up until the moment very late in the debate when Clinton was asked whether she supported the New York governor's initiative to give driver's licenses to illegal immigrants, anybody reading ABC's live-blogging of the debate would have thought the forum was another mostly ho-hum affair, with Clinton getting hit with slightly more barbs than usual from her opponents. Nothing Klein had written up to that point matched the later media rhetoric about how the debate might cripple Clinton's campaign.

As for the late question about driver's licenses, which served as the anchor for virtually all the post-debate critiques, Klein in real time devoted just 100 words to the exchange, out of the 2,000-word live-blogging transcript he produced. Nonetheless, at the conclusion of the 120-minute debate, journalists used that two-minute discussion about driver's licenses and pretended it encapsulated the entire evening.

The exchange, which I'm sure Clinton wishes she could have back, was clearly blown way out of proportion. After all, it's not like she misstated the facts of the New York initiative. It's not like Clinton pulled a Gerald Ford, who amidst the Cold War during a 1976 debate with Jimmy Carter famously announced to a stunned country, "There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe."

Not surprisingly, all that media hyperventilating about the debate produced some sloppy journalism. Or perhaps it was sloppy journalism that helped propel the hyperventilating. Either way, it wasn't pretty. For instance, in a debate follow-up article The New York Times' Adam Nagourney reported that Clinton "advisers" viewed the candidate's response to the driver's license question as having "long term potential to undermine her candidacy." If true, it was an astonishing admission.

Nagourney, though, provided no proof to back up the claim. In fact, after floating the provocative claim early in the article, he never revisited it.

And then there was moderator Tim Russert -- who, if he cared about journalism and accuracy in the slightest, would air a correction regarding the assertion he made during the debate that President Clinton had imposed a "ban" on the release of presidential documents containing communications during the Clinton administration between the Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton until 2012. The claim is completely bogus.

But the deceptive assertion about the Clinton archives was typical of Russert's performance, which was less as co-moderator and more of GOP hired hand. As Taylor Marsh wrote last week at the Huffington Post, "Russert didn't moderate the debate. He became part of the proceedings, coloring the questioning and supporting the attack dog theme, the brawl theme that the hack pack press wanted."

This was perhaps the most illuminating back-and-forth from the debate as Russert clearly badgered Clinton:

RUSSERT: Senator Clinton, would you pledge to the American people that Iran will not develop a nuclear bomb while you are president?

CLINTON: I intend to do everything I can to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear bomb.

RUSSERT: But you won't pledge?

CLINTON: I am pledging I will do everything I can to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear bomb.

RUSSERT: But, they may.

CLINTON: Well, you know, Tim, you asked me if I would pledge, and I have pledged that I will do everything I can to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear bomb.

[laughter]

Russert asked Clinton if she'd make a pledge. She said yes. Russert pressed her again to make the same pledge, which she did. Then for a third time Russert wanted her to make the pledge again. Clinton cut him off and explained she had answered the question. Then the audience laughed at Russert. (Moments later, the audience laughed at Russert again when Obama deftly mocked the premise of the hokey make-a-pledge-against-Iran question.)

Lastly, let's note that the mainstream press and the Republican Party are now in perfect unison when it comes to the topic of Clinton: She has a deeply flawed character. (It's the same conclusion they came to about Gore's character in 2000 and about Sen. John Kerry's character in 2004.) In fact, when the RNC released a Clinton attack video on the Internet last week, it was filled almost entirely with clips of reporters and pundits denigrating Clinton's debate performance.

Republicans don't even have to send out their talking points; members of the press are more than willing to recite the old ones for free.

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