Spoiling for a fight
In the days leading up to the October 30 Democratic presidential debate in Philadelphia, you could hardly turn on the television or read a newspaper without encountering a reference to the "inevitability" of Hillary Clinton's bid for her party's nomination. The Chicago Tribune called her campaign "the inevitability express"; Sean Hannity declared that "[i]t appears Hillary is the inevitable nominee for the Democrats"; The Washington Post referred to her "fortified sense of inevitability"; Tucker Carlson added that "Hillary is inevitable. Everybody is on her side. You can't stop her, don't bother even to try."
The hype all seemed too silly to be sincere: Clinton's opponents for the Democratic nomination include Barack Obama, who has been electrifying audiences since his breakthrough keynote address at the 2004 Democratic convention and who has raised more than $80 million, and John Edwards, the party's 2004 vice presidential nominee -- not to mention a field that includes at least two other candidates who would likely be among the front-runners in any other year. Against such a field, it seems laughable to declare any candidate the "inevitable" victor two months before the first vote is cast.
So what was all that talk about "inevitability" really about?
Maybe it reflected the impression the Clinton campaign itself was trying to create; political reporters and pundits have long ascribed that strategy to the campaign even as candidate and staff insisted they weren't taking anything for granted.
But maybe it was something else. Take a look at how some of the nation's most influential journalists have described their profession in the past:
Gloria Borger: "We take people to the top of the mountain and then once we get them to the top of the mountain, it's our job to knock them down." [9/10/06]
Brian Williams: "[I]t does seem true over the years that the news media almost reserve the right to build up and tear down and change their minds and like an underdog." [9/21/00]
Howard Fineman: "We want a race, I suppose. If we have a bias of any kind, it's that we like to see a contest, and we like to see it down the end if we can. And I think that's partly the psychology at play here." [9/21/00]
Many in the media certainly seemed to be building Clinton up prior to the Philadelphia debate -- though it should be noted that they were doing so strictly in a horse-race context. Clinton wasn't getting the kind of fawning media coverage that George W. Bush, John McCain, Rudy Giuliani, and Mike Huckabee have enjoyed at various points in recent years. The storyline wasn't that Clinton is a "straight-talker" or someone you'd "want to have a beer with" or an apolitical "maverick" with "folksy charm."
Instead, media built her up as "inevitable."
Were they doing so simply so they could knock her down? Here's The Washington Post's Anne Kornblut, only moments after Tucker Carlson called Clinton "inevitable" on the October 26 edition of MSNBC's Tucker:
KORNBLUT: I have to say we in the media are spoiling for a fight. Usually we are biased in favor of a good tussle at about this point. ... I wouldn't be surprised if somewhere between now and January 3, now that we know that's when the Iowa caucuses are going to be, to see some kind of reverse, some kind of Obama surge or an Edwards surge. Something that is going to knock Hillary down a few pegs. Whether it's a media creation, or something that actually happens on the ground. I would be shocked if there were nothing like that.
Precisely seven weeks later, to judge by the polls and especially the media, something certainly has "knock[ed] Hillary down a few pegs." As Kornblut recognized, the question wasn't whether it would happen, but when it did happen, whether it would be a "media creation" or the result of something that actually happened. But, of course, that's a false choice -- the most likely answer is that it was all of the above: legitimate missteps by Clinton and her campaign, good performances by Obama, Edwards, and their respective campaigns, and some "media creation," all converging during the same two-month period.
The candidates' performance is for others to assess; our interest is in the "media creation" side of things.
Media coverage of Clinton and her campaign has been strikingly negative since the Philadelphia debate. Unlike coverage of her two closest rivals, Obama and Edwards, that negative coverage doesn't seem to have been as concentrated on a few topics or themes.
Over the past year, Obama has faced a barrage of smears suggesting he is somehow un-American -- false claims about his religion, too-cute-by-half efforts to emphasize his middle name, and ridiculous commentary on his wardrobe. These smears have thrived in the right-wing media and even further under the radar via chain emails of uncertain origin, but they've been helped along by establishment media jokes and botched attempts to debunk the smears.
Likewise, John Edwards faced a barrage of simply ridiculous news coverage of his hair, his house, and his alleged hypocrisy -- allegations of which were based on reporters' fundamental misunderstanding of what the word means -- all of which, the media told us, proved he was a big phony. It was nonsense, but it was relentless nonsense for several months earlier this year, before seeming to subside. (The Washington Post, apparently looking to regain its status as the worldwide leader in haircut journalism, resurrected the nonsense by mentioning Edwards' trim in four different pieces in the paper's December 11 edition.)
Compared to the media smears of Obama and Edwards, coverage of Clinton over the past several weeks hasn't been as overtly negative -- nobody is hinting that her religious views and sartorial choices betray a deep anti-Americanism, for example. Instead, she has faced weeks of relentlessly negative coverage about an ever-changing array of topics, large and (mostly) small and often quite baseless; a steady, dull drumbeat of critical reporting and speculation.
It all seemed to start with Clinton's performance in that Philadelphia debate, which the media quickly declared to be a "disaster" and talked about seemingly 'round the clock for weeks. Considerably less attention was paid to the fact that her struggles in that debate came in response to false and misleading questions from the debate's moderator, Tim Russert, who misquoted her previous statements as well as his own. The Annenberg Center's nonpartisan FactCheck.org website ultimately agreed that Russert had been "breathtakingly misleading." Russert's fellow journalists -- the ones Anne Kornblut admitted just a few days earlier were "spoiling for a fight" -- responded by praising his performance and ridiculing Clinton.
One of the more contrived Clinton storylines the media have played up in recent weeks is the idea that if she were elected, there would be some grave crisis provoked by having "two presidents" in the White House. This theme seems to have started with Sally Bedell Smith, who invoked the "extraordinary" complications such a situation would present -- something, Smith gravely noted, "people have not focused on" until she brought it to our attention. Smith brought this up again and again on television, radio, and in print while promoting her recent book about Bill and Hillary Clinton, For Love of Politics.
Smith and her book were warmly embraced by much of the media. Chris Matthews welcomed her to Hardball with a friendly "Sally, old buddy"; CBS anchor Harry Smith called her book "meticulous"; and the Houston Chronicle declared it "well-written and detail-rich."
"Meticulous" might not be the best description of Smith's book; as Media Matters detailed this week, For Love Of Politics is filled with errors large and small, from her apparent wholesale fabrication of quotes attributed to John Podesta that appear neither in the source material she cited nor in any source available on Nexis or retrievable via Google, to her repetition of the long-ago-debunked myth that Bill Clinton delayed air traffic at the Los Angeles airport while getting a haircut, to her false claim that Bill Clinton didn't mention the minimum-wage increase during his 1996 Democratic convention speech.
That last one was so transparently false -- quick, try to think of a Democratic presidential nominee who hasn't talked about the minimum wage -- that it almost wasn't worth checking. But we did; it took about 11 seconds to prove Smith wrong. Go to Google; type "Bill Clinton 1996 Democratic convention speech"; click on the first result -- a transcript available via PBS -- and search for "minimum wage."
That's what passes for "meticulous" these days -- a book that contains quotes that seem to be made up out of whole cloth and highly implausible claims that can be debunked in less time than it takes to type this sentence.
But Sally Bedell Smith wasn't just greeted with open arms by her "old buddy" Chris Matthews; her "two presidents" theme was eagerly repeated by other journalists.
On NBC's Meet the Press, Smith wondered "if we're going to have two presidents in the White House, who's going to be in charge" -- as though the military wouldn't know whom to take orders from. On that same program, Smith told viewers that Bill Clinton "reads all the books and underlines them for her. I mean, she relies on him for so much." On CBS, she suggested that the Clintons are skirting the Constitution: "[W]e have a 22nd Amendment that precludes a president from serving more than two terms, and it might not be too far-fetched to say that this is a sort of end run." In an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal, she conceded that "Mr. Clinton's return to the West Wing wouldn't directly violate the 22nd Amendment" but darkly warned that it would have "significant implications" nonetheless.
Silly as it may seem to wonder "who's going to be in charge" with "two presidents in the White House" -- one of them, most people understand, would actually be an ex-president and, as such, would not exactly have access to the nuclear launch codes -- others began professing to share Smith's concern.
And in typical Beltway media fashion, they pretended that it wasn't merely their concern -- no, despite voluminous evidence to the contrary, they insisted that the American people shared this concern.
Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer -- whose column is carried in 110 newspapers with a combined circulation of nearly 12 million -- devoted his November 2 column to "The Real Hill-Bill Problem." In doing so, he led off with what might just be the most implausible claim made by a media figure all year:
Americans don't normally take much notice of Argentine elections. But they did notice when Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, wife of President Nestor Kirchner, was elected to succeed him on Sunday, ensuring not just a co-presidency but the prospect of alternating presidencies as far as the eye can see.
I've seen no polling to back this up, but I'd be shocked if even 10 percent of Americans "did notice" that Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner was elected president of Argentina in October. Yet Charles Krauthammer claims that Americans -- not just a handful of Americans, mind you: Americans -- took notice of Argentina's presidential elections because "[t]he Argentine example is a pretty vivid dramatization of the Clintons' intentions -- and of the cloud hovering over the current Clinton candidacy."
Krauthammer, who worked as a resident in psychiatry in the late 1970s, once declared, "It looks as if Al Gore has gone off his lithium again." In light of Krauthammer's willingness to diagnose Gore based on a speech, it seems only reasonable to note that his column about the Clintons and Argentina appears to be a textbook case of projection -- projection that continued well beyond his fanciful image of millions of Americans huddled around the television anxiously awaiting Argentine election results. Krauthammer continued:
Which is why Hillary's problem goes beyond discomfort with dynastic succession. It's deep unease about a shared presidency. Forget about Bill, the bad boy. The problem is William Jefferson Clinton, former president of the United States, commander in chief of the armed forces, George Washington's representative on Earth.
We have never had an ex-president move back into the White House. When in 1992 Bill Clinton promised "two for the price of one," it was taken as a slightly hyperbolic promotion of the role of first lady. This time we would literally be getting two presidents.
Well, sure, literally. But not really. We would really have a president and a former president. In the context of discussing the Al Haig question -- who's in charge in the White House? -- that Krauthammer and Smith are raising, this is a little like pretending there would be some confusion about whether a medical doctor or a doctor of divinity should perform open-heart surgery. Sure, they're both "doctors," but the staff is going to have a pretty good idea whom to take directions from.
Americans did not like the idea of a co-presidency when, at the 1980 Republican convention, Ronald Reagan briefly considered sharing the office with former president Gerald Ford. (Ford would have been vice president with independent powers.) And they won't like this co-presidency, particularly because the Clinton partnership involves two characters caught in the dynamic of a strained, strange marriage.
Neat trick Krauthammer pulled there, isn't it? Americans did not like the actual co-presidency Reagan considered, in which his vice president would have had "independent powers." But that's nothing like the Clintons' situation.
Still, Smith found more converts to her wholly made-up cause. Author and former Republican Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich -- who, to be fair, knows a little something about what Americans don't like -- raised the question on ABC's Good Morning America: "[D]o you really want two presidents in the White House?" And Krauthammer's fellow Washington Post columnist David Ignatius chimed in with his own projection-filled column asserting that there is a "nagging uneasiness" among voters about the " 'two presidents' issue" -- an uneasiness that is contradicted by polling conducted by his own newspaper, which found that 60 percent of Americans are comfortable with "the idea of Bill Clinton back in the White House."
This week's coverage of Hillary Clinton has prominently featured two storylines that may well have basis in reality, but that have been greatly blown out of proportion.
One is that the Clinton campaign is on the verge of a staff shake-up. Maybe such a shake-up is imminent; maybe it isn't. But one thing is clear: Media attention given to the topic has far outpaced the available evidence.
The story seems to have started with columnist Al Hunt, who wrote on December 10: "It's a good bet that Clinton, encouraged by her husband, is weighing a shakeup, such as bringing in former White House Chief of Staff John Podesta to direct the overall campaign. The question is whether it's too late and too awkward before those first contests, which are to be held in 3 1/2 weeks."
Note that not only did Hunt not reference a single source, he doesn't even report that this is being considered; he simply asserts that "it's a good bet."
Thin stuff -- but this unsourced, speculative throwaway line near the end of Hunt's column was followed two days later by a Newsday article headlined "Clinton insiders question top aide's approach." Nearly 500 words later, Newsday had cited "sources familiar with the situation" and claimed that "some say" and quoted a "top Clinton ally" and relied on the impressively vague "sources say" -- but the newspaper hadn't quoted or paraphrased or even referenced a single named source in support of its portrayal of campaign infighting.
That same day, the New York Daily News ran an article declaring "Bubba to the rescue! Alarmed by his wife's slide in the polls and disarray within her backbiting campaign, a beside-himself Bill Clinton has leaped atop the barricades and is furiously plotting a cure - or coup." According to the Daily News, "Several other Hillary Clinton partisans ... aren't so shy about critiquing the performance of her campaign - and predict a major staff purge is inevitable."
But apparently they are "shy" -- the Daily News, like Newsday and Al Hunt, didn't have a single named source criticizing the performance of the campaign, or predicting (or advocating) a "staff purge."
Clinton "partisans," the Daily News breathlessly told us, "aren't so shy" about criticizing her campaign and predicting a staff shake-up. Then the Daily News gave us a bunch of anonymous quotes.
Newsday and the Daily News clearly had sources -- maybe even very good sources. But there are all kinds of reasons why a source might tell a reporter that a campaign shake-up is being considered. Without a single person willing to discuss it on the record, and without sources described in vague terms like "Clinton partisans" and "sources familiar with the situation" and even "sources say," it's impossible for a reader to assess the credibility of the stories, or the motivations of the "sources." And yet these flimsy stories led to days of media speculation about a campaign in turmoil -- the kinds of stories that have a way of coming true.
Finally, the past 24 hours have featured a barrage of news reports claiming that Clinton pollster Mark Penn "on his own brought up" speculation about Obama's teenage drug use during a Thursday appearance on Hardball. The controversy began when Bill Shaheen, a Clinton campaign co-chair, made speculative comments about Obama -- comments the campaign denounced -- and Shaheen stepped down. Penn appeared on Hardball along with Edwards campaign strategist Joe Trippi and Obama campaign strategist David Axelrod. Afterward, MSNBC's Norah O'Donnell asserted that Penn "once again brought up cocaine -- twice" and later claimed that Penn "on his own brought up cocaine." Others, including New York Times reporter Kit Seeyle, similarly suggested that Penn brought the topic up out of the blue.
In fact, Penn didn't bring the topic up; he was responding to a question about it by Chris Matthews. And by the time Penn first spoke, the entire conversation had been about the drug controversy. Greg Sargent explained:
[I]f you watch the actual exchange, which is posted over at Taylor Marsh's site, you see that virtually the entire segment was about the drug flap, and that they'd been talking about the drug thing for literally minutes before Penn said "cocaine." Even if you want to read something into Penn using the word "cocaine," rather than "drug," failing to tell readers that this whole conversation was about the drug flap is a blatant misrepresentation of what happened. And no, slugging this a "news analysis" doesn't make it okay -- this is a factual misrepresentation, and it is the key piece of evidence offered to support the entire speculative premise of the piece, i.e., that the Hillary camp wants to keep this alive.
Look, a lot of people probably think the Hillary camp does want to keep this alive. I happen not to think this -- it's obvious to me that they see this issue as a big loser for them and want it to go away -- but lots of folks probably think they do want to. And few people will care about this because Penn is such a loathed figure. But it matters when crap like this is published, and even Penn and the Hillary campaign deserve to be treated by The Times with a modicum of fairness and journalistic integrity. And in this case, they weren't.
As Sargent noted, if people want to read something nefarious into Penn's use of the specific word, they can do so -- maybe there was something nefarious there; we can't really know for certain one way or another. What we can know for certain is what the video quite clearly shows: Mark Penn simply did not bring this topic up out of the blue; to suggest otherwise, as O'Donnell and Seeyle have done, is false. In fact, in response to the first question he was asked about the topic, Penn seemed to be trying to change the focus of the conversation away from the drug controversy. The only words he said about the matter were: "So, I'm really disappointed. I think this thing with Billy Shaheen, he's stepped down. It was never a part of this campaign. It was unacceptable."
It was Chris Matthews who insisted on continuing the focus on the controversy, not Mark Penn. The video and transcript are as clear as can be.
And given that the Clinton campaign had already been getting a great deal of negative attention for Shaheen's comments, that the controversy was hurting Clinton, it seems far-fetched to think that Mark Penn would try to extend the controversy.
In predicting nearly two months ago that something "is going to knock Hillary down a few pegs," The Washington Post's Anne Kornblut wondered whether it would be "a media creation, or something that actually happens on the ground." The Shaheen-Penn controversy establishes that it really isn't an either-or situation: Shaheen's comments were real and were almost certainly a mistake that hurt Clinton. Yet the controversy continued, and probably continued to hurt Clinton, as a result of a phony media creation about Mark Penn's comments.
None of this by itself -- not Sally Bedell Smith's strange "two presidents" fixation, not a few days of poorly sourced media speculation about a Clinton campaign staff shake-up, not a series of false claims about Mark Penn's comments on Hardball -- comes close to the magnitude of the media smears of Obama's patriotism or relentless portrayal of Edwards as a phony because of his haircuts. But added together, and combined with countless other examples of flawed and negative coverage of Clinton over the past seven weeks, they constitute a suffocating barrage of hostile coverage that may be every bit as damaging.
The media were "spoiling for a fight," Anne Kornblut revealed seven weeks ago. And, as is now clear, they picked one.