Jake Tapper followed his nose.
Last week, relying solely on his sense of smell, Tapper basically accused Sen. Barack Obama of being a liar because, seven months ago, Tapper, who claims to be a bloodhound of sorts, got a whiff of smoke on Obama when he ran into the senator for "a second" outside the Senate chamber in the Capitol. When Tapper inquired whether the candidate had smoked any cigarettes after announcing he was going to try to kick the habit, the campaign, after checking with Obama, insisted he had not. The reporter never saw Obama light up, but Tapper "knew what [he'd] smelled."
After Obama last week conceded on television that he'd slipped off the nicotine wagon a couple of times, Tapper had his a-ha moment: He'd been right all along! (Although Tapper still had no proof Obama had been smoking last August.)
So Tapper wrote up an item on his ABC News blog suggesting Obama was a liar and hinting he had a credibility problem. Tapper also stressed that he didn't "like feeling that [he] wasn't being dealt with honestly" by the Obama campaign.
Defensive about writing up such an obviously trivial report, Tapper insisted the I-think-Obama-lied-about-smoking saga was important because journalists were doing the people's work and they needed to hold politicians accountable for the good of the country.
Was Tapper doing the people's work and holding leaders accountable back in late January, when a blog post of his violently ripped words from Bill Clinton out of context and suggested the former president audaciously advocated slowing down the U.S. economy to fight global warming? Or how about when Tapper subsequently refused to apologize when readers and bloggers highlighted the egregious error he had made? That sad tale still represents one of the low points in terms of campaign journalism this year.
Question: Do campaigns ever get the feeling they're not being dealt with honestly by Tapper?
It's true that the prolific reporter has done some good fact-checking work this year, which made the misguided I-think-Obama-lied-about-smoking effort all the more depressing. I don't even know how to describe or categorize that kind of work, which, sadly, has become commonplace on the campaign trail this year. It certainly does not represent journalism in any fundamental way. I don't mean to be juvenile, but I think the phrase brain fart comes closer to the actual description. Meaning, it's, "I have an idea in my head. I don't know if it's true but I'm going to type it into my computer and post it online under the auspice of ABC News."
The irony is that these sort of careless, thoughtless online endeavors represent precisely what mainstream journalists accuse bloggers of being: unserious and unsupervised. Yet, in truth, I can't think of a single A-list (liberal) blogger who would attach their name to such a speculative -- and meaningless -- allegation as the one Tapper lobbed at Obama.
The I-think-Obama-lied-about-smoking post, titled "Obama is Smokin'," was not that long and really ought to be read in its entirety in order to get a sense of the vacuous tone, the creeping narcissism, and the misplaced sense of duty:
Last August, I ran into Sen. Barack Obama, D-Illinois, outside the Senate chamber in the Capitol.
This was before the Obama surge, before he had omnipresent Secret Service agents, back when you might see him strolling solo.
We chatted for a second, mainly about the Pakistan speech he'd recently given and about how the media had covered it. He was in good spirits.
As any close friend or family member can attest, I have an unusually keen sense of smell and immediately I smelled cigarette smoke on Obama. Frankly, he reeked of cigarettes.
Obama ran off before I could ask him if he'd just snuck a smoke, so I called his campaign.
They denied it. He'd quit months before, in February, they insisted. He chewed nicorette.
But I knew what I'd smelled and I asked his campaign to double-check and to ask him if he'd had a cigarette.
They reported back that he had told them he hadn't had a cigarette since he quit.
And maybe that was true. Maybe I imagined the cigarette smoke. My olfactory nerve somehow misfired.
Except ... last night on MSNBC's Hardball, Obama admitted that his attempt to wean himself from the vile tobacco weed had not been entirely successful.
"I fell off the wagon a couple times during the course of it, and then was able to get back on," he said. "But it is a struggle like everything else."
Now I wonder about last August.
It's not a big deal in the scheme of things -- the war on Iraq, a major economic crisis -- indeed, it's miniscule. Hardly worth mentioning.
Except that I don't like feeling that I wasn't being dealt with honestly. And as much as citizens who are suspect of the media might scoff at such a notion, many of us consider ourselves to be your representatives to help make sure our leaders are telling us the truth, and leading the country down a path we're confident is the right one. (Corny, I know.)
This isn't the only time I've felt that way about the Obama campaign, of course -- its response to the Austan Goolsbee controversy was a profile in dissembling. (Not that Sens. Hillary Clinton and John McCain or their campaigns are entirely innocent in this area either. Or even that Obama is necessarily the worst offender.)
Did Obama fib about not smoking? I have no idea. Does it matter in terms of the context of his White House campaign? I can't imagine how it would.
But after reading the item, don't you get the feeling that the news report was just as much about Tapper as it was about Obama? About the journalist's heightened sense of smell, his Hardy Boy detective work, his deep feeling of betrayal after being (allegedly) misled by a politician? Let's take a look:
Number of references Tapper made to himself: 14
Number of references Tapper made to Obama: 16
That fact simply highlights a growing narcissistic disease within the campaign press corps in which members increasingly see themselves as central players in the unfolding political production. Specifically, with regard to the Democratic primary, the press clearly views itself as the third candidate on the stage. No longer content to be observers, journalists want to be players in the drama, and have been assigning themselves increasingly influential roles in the campaign. (As blogger Susie Madrak recently suggested to me, journalists now see themselves as de facto super delegates.) That's why Tapper didn't think twice about framing the I-think-Obama-lied-about-smoking as a showdown between himself and the Democratic front-runner.
Just a few years ago, that would have been seen as wildly arrogant and presumptuous -- but no more. If a journalist has a hunch -- a gut feeling -- that a presidential candidate has lied to him about an irrelevant issue, a journalist like Tapper shows no hesitation about airing that allegation, even without having the slightest bit of proof to back it up. It's his word against Obama's, and since they're both equals -- since journalists see themselves on the same plane as the candidate -- it makes perfect sense to post the allegation.
Tapper advertised that oversized sense of entitlement right at the end of his post, when he insisted journalists see their job as making sure politicians are "leading the country down a path we're confident is the right one." [Emphasis added.]
Huh? Since when did reporters like Tapper assign themselves the task of deciding the right direction for this country? Honestly, WTF?
Meanwhile, isn't it time to finally bury this altruistic notion that campaign journalists are the people's representatives and that they're driven by a desire to hold candidates accountable? It's a quaint idea. I just don't see much evidence to support that anymore.
What I do see is lots of media "gotcha" moments that continue to drive political journalism into the ground.
For instance, blogger Digby dissected this Tapper dud from earlier in the campaign. And then there was the atrocious example when Tapper literally invented a news story by suggesting Bill Clinton thought it would be a good idea to slow down the U.S. economy to fight global warming.
Following an address Clinton gave in Denver in late January, Tapper, who, online at times refers to the former president with the Clinton-haters' pejorative, "Bubba," wrote that Clinton "characterized what the U.S. and other industrialized nations need to do to combat global warming this way: 'We just have to slow down our economy and cut back our greenhouse gas emissions 'cause we have to save the planet for our grandchildren.' "
Tapper wondered out loud: "At a time that the nation is worried about a recession is that really the characterization his wife would want him making? 'Slow down our economy'?"
At various times in the post, Tapper expressed bewilderment about what Clinton had meant by his comments and Tapper questioned whether he was somehow misreading the quotes. He was so unsure, he even reached out to the Clinton campaign and asked for help in explaining what Bill Clinton had meant. [In a follow-up post, Tapper wrote, "The Clinton campaign did not provide for me, as requested, an explanation of what he meant."]
Yet the original, sensational headline for Tapper's piece suggested no confusion: "Bill: 'We Just Have to Slow Down Our Economy' to Fight Global Warming."
The sheer absurdity of Clinton's alleged claim quickly earned Tapper a link at the Drudge Report, and just as quickly spawned a Republican National Committee press release mocking Clinton's comments, as reported by Tapper. (The RNC conveniently transferred the notion of slowing the economy from Bill Clinton to "Senator Clinton's campaign.")
But as scores of blogs such as Sadly No! immediately noted, anybody with a GED should have understood what Clinton had said because he expressed his thoughts in a very clear manner. Only Tapper, a senior political reporter for one of the largest news organizations in the country, had trouble grasping the obvious. (Click here to see a clip of Clinton's remarks at Crooks and Liars.)
Only Tapper concluded that Clinton's point had been precisely the opposite of what Clinton had said, which is that, hypothetically, "rich" countries could try to slow their economies to fight global warming but that wouldn't work end in the end, and that the "only way" to fight global warming was to prove that doing so "is good economics that we will create more jobs to build a sustainable economy."
It got worse, though. When the Clinton campaign corrected Tapper's blunder and accused him of "parsing" Clinton's words (a generous description, if you ask me), rather than admit his obvious error, Tapper doubled down: "I will plead guilty to 'parsing' -- the dictionary definition of the word -- 'To examine closely or subject to detailed analysis, especially by breaking up into components' or 'To make sense of; comprehend.' "
Tapper claimed he was making sense of Clinton's global warming comments, when he appeared to be the only who couldn't figure them out. Even some conservative bloggers set aside their chronic disdain for Clinton to note just how dishonest Tapper had been on the issue: "That's not good journalism in any sense," wrote Iain Murray at National Review Online.
And just for the sake of context, note that the day before the global warming journalism disaster, Tapper had posted an item on his blog which he lifted straight from the far-right, Clinton-hating website WorldNetDaily.com. The item was about how Ken Starr footnote Kathleen Willey had ominously warned Obama to beware of the Clinton's "secret private-investigator army." That, for Tapper, represented news.
But back to the global warming nonsense because Tapper has made a habit of expressing bewilderment at what the Clintons say on the campaign trail; of being just utterly confused about the meaning of their words. For instance, on March 17, Tapper wrote that he was "struck" after hearing Sen. Hillary Clinton speak about Iraq on the campaign trail in Pittsburgh -- "she sounded as if she were implying that the Iraqi people were entirely to blame for their current troubles." [Emphasis added.]
Not content to analyze what the candidate said, Tapper reported on what it "sounded" like Clinton was "implying." By the way, here's what Clinton actually said in Pittsburgh regarding Iraqis:
CLINTON: And I believe that at the same time that we have to make clear to the Iraqis that they have been given the greatest gift that a human being can give another human being -- the gift of freedom. And it is up to them to decide how they will use that precious gift that has been paid for with the blood and sacrifice and treasure of the United States of America.
How any adult, let alone a senior political journalist, could suggest that, based on those comments, Clinton had claimed the Iraqi people were entirely to blame for their current troubles, boggles the mind.
That's why I get nervous when Tapper announces political journalists are in charge of choosing the right path for this country. Personally, I hope we pick a different path.