To anyone who lived through the media feeding frenzy of the 1990s, during which the nation's leading news organizations spent the better part of a decade destroying their own credibility by relentlessly hyping a series of non-scandals, the past few days, in which the media have tried to shoehorn Barack Obama into the Rod Blagojevich scandal, have been sickeningly familiar.
Whenever reporters think -- or want you to think -- they've uncovered a presidential scandal, they waste little time in comparing it to previous controversies. Yesterday, CNN's Rick Sanchez tried desperately to get the phrase "Blagogate" to stick -- the latest in a long and overwhelmingly annoying post-Watergate pattern of ham-handed efforts to hype a scandal by appending the suffix "-gate" to the end of a word.
Sanchez's efforts to create a catchphrase aside, the criminal complaint filed against Blagojevich this week isn't the Watergate of the 21st century -- though it shows signs that it may become this decade's Whitewater.
Right about now, you may be scratching your head, trying to remember what, exactly, the Whitewater scandal was. Didn't it have something to do with a bank? Or a land deal? But didn't the Clintons lose money? How did the congressman who shot the pumpkin fit in?
But Whitewater is quite simple, when it is understood as it should be -- as a media scandal, not a presidential scandal.
As an endless series of investigations, costing taxpayers tens of millions of dollars, revealed, the Clintons broke no law and violated no ethics regulations in connection with Whitewater. They lost money on a failed land deal in which their business partner cheated them. That's all there was. Republicans Ken Starr, Robert Fiske, Robert Ray, Al D'Amato, and Jim Leach, among others, investigated the matter, and none of them found illegality. There was simply nothing there -- except year after year of obsessive, and often dishonest, media coverage, fueled by conservatives who would stop at nothing to destroy the president.
As Joe Conason explains today, "The madness that was eventually classified under the quasi-clinical rubric of 'Whitewater' began, in no small degree, with the dubious idea that Arkansas, the Clintons' home state, was a peculiarly corrupt place -- and that any politician from Arkansas by definition was suspect (but only if he or she happened to be a Democrat)."
Arkansas journalist Gene Lyons noted in Fools for Scandal, his 1994 book about how the media invented Whitewater, "Scarcely a Whitewater story has appeared in the national press that hasn't made references to the state's uniquely 'incestuous' links between business, government, and the legal establishment -- concepts utterly foreign to places like Washington, D.C., and New York City, of course." (Conason and Lyons co-wrote The Hunting of the President, a book that -- along with Fools for Scandal -- are must-reads for anyone interested in the media or politics.)
By portraying Arkansas as thoroughly, and uniquely, corrupt, the media (and Clinton's political opponents) tied him to a long line of misbehavior that had nothing to do with him -- and created the impression that Clinton must be corrupt merely for being from such an ethical cesspool.
Of course, Arkansas was neither thoroughly nor uniquely corrupt.
In addition to the ages-old clichés -- big cities like New York and Chicago; the anything-goes Wild West of Las Vegas and Texas; perennial whipping boy New Jersey -- countless other states and cities have reputations for "unparalleled" corruption. People experienced in Connecticut politics will forcefully argue that their state takes a back seat to no other when it comes to the frequency with which public officials are caught in various degrees of wrongdoing. Then there's Florida, about which the less said, the better. And on and on and on.
Such reputations stem not only from actual examples of actual corruption -- California gave us Nixon; Maryland gave us Agnew; two of the Keating Five, including John McCain, hailed from Arizona -- but from the fact that many people, particularly those who work in politics and the media, tend to engage in a bit of tongue-in-cheek bragging about their home city or state's propensity for scandal.
The point isn't that everyplace is corrupt, or that nowhere is. It's that no location has a monopoly on crooked politicians (nor has there yet been a location over which crooked politicians held a monopoly) -- and that any claim of a city or state's unique history of public officials abusing their office should be taken with a whole shaker of salt. (For what it's worth, USA Today determined this week that "[o]n a per-capita basis ... Illinois ranks 18th for the number of public corruption convictions the federal government has won from 1998 through 2007," behind both Dakotas, Alaska, Alabama, Florida and several other states.)
And yet, here we are again, with an incoming Democratic president who hails from a city we are all supposed to believe is the most corrupt place this side of Dick Cheney's undisclosed location. Chicago, we are told, is a den of villainy so irredeemable it defies credulity to suggest anyone could emerge from so much as a long layover at O'Hare without a closet full of skeletons.
This nonsense was well under way during the presidential campaign, during which John McCain suggested a lack of integrity on Obama's part simply because he is from Chicago. You might think that a man who was a participant in one of the most notorious scandals in the history of the U.S. Senate would be laughed at if he tried to claim his opponent lacked integrity simply because of his ZIP code. Instead, the national media laughed along with McCain, endlessly repeating his witty zinger about Chicago.
And so this week, we've heard over and over how politics in Illinois are rotten to the core.
At Obama's press conference yesterday, the third questioner asked, "What's wrong with politics in Illinois?" Chris Matthews made sure viewers knew that "Barack Obama, of course, rose to political power in a city, Chicago, in a state, Illinois, known for corruption."
ABC's Rick Klein chimed in: "[W]ith one stiff wind, Chicago has grabbed Obama and his transition -- and blown it off-course. ... The underbelly of the Obama political operation, with all its Chicago tints and taints, is now fair game for reporters looking for a story." (Nonsense. If the "Obama political operation" has an "underbelly" featuring actual wrongdoing, it's fair game whether or not a governor is busted in a scandal that has nothing to do with Obama. And if that "underbelly" hasn't actually done anything wrong, Blago's bust doesn't change that -- regardless of tint or taint.)
On his radio show, Bill O'Reilly asked Chicago Tribune columnist John Kass if it is even possible for Obama to have existed in Chicago without being dishonest, leading Kass to reply: "Yes, that is possible. It's also possible that he was found as an infant in a reed basket floating in the Chicago River."
The similarities between the media's current behavior and their shameful performance in the 1990s doesn't stop with their bizarre suggestions that geography is destiny.
One of the central flaws of the media's coverage of the Clintons was that they portrayed nearly everything as evidence of guilt. Perhaps most perverse was the suggestion that the conviction of Clinton Justice Department official Webster Hubbell was evidence of wrongdoing by the Clintons. What made that so perverse? Hubbell was convicted, essentially, of stealing money from the law firm in which he and Hillary Clinton were both partners. Hubbell, in other words, stole from Hillary Clinton. The Clintons were Hubbell's victims -- and yet many journalists portrayed his conviction as evidence of their guilt.
Which brings us to Tuesday's New York Times. As Will Bunch has explained, the Times reported that Obama supported an Illinois ethics reform package that passed over Blagojevich's veto, which led to Blagojevich pressing state contractors for contributions before the reform takes effect, which "indirectly contributed to the downfall." Good news for Obama, right? He supported a reform package, even urging the state Senate to pass it over Blagojevich's veto. And yet the Times concludes that this story demonstrates that Obama "has never quite escaped the murky and insular world of Illinois politics" -- as though the fact that Blagojevich allegedly did something improper in an effort to avoid the effects of the reform Obama championed somehow taints Obama. Bizarre.
Most telling is the tendency of many journalists to speculate that the Blagojevich scandal may ensnare Obama without acknowledging that the complaint against Blagojevich contained absolutely no evidence of wrongdoing by Obama, or that U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald has said, "I should make clear, the complaint makes no allegations about the president-elect whatsoever, his conduct." (You may remember The New York Times' reaction to the Resolution Trust Corporation investigation that exonerated the Clintons of Whitewater wrongdoing in 1995: The "paper of record," which had been relentlessly hyping the non-scandal, all but ignored the RTC report and continued pushing Whitewater.)
Even worse than ignoring Fitzgerald's exculpatory comments, Time actually suggested they are bad news for Obama:
On more than one occasion during his stunning press conference on Tuesday, U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald bluntly said he has found no evidence of wrongdoing by President-elect Barack Obama in the tangled, tawdry scheme that Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich allegedly cooked up to sell Obama's now vacant Senate seat to the highest bidder. But for politicians, it's never good news when a top-notch prosecutor has to go out of his way to distance them from a front-page scandal.
Got that? Fitzgerald said there's no evidence Obama did anything wrong. Bad news for Obama! (For the record: The reason Fitzgerald "has to go out of his way" to distance Obama from the scandal is that news organizations like Time keep going out of their way to baselessly link Obama to the scandal.)
Such attempts to link Obama to scandal via tortured logic and geography rather than more substantive ties were necessary because of the complete lack of substantive ties.
Perhaps the most striking aspect of the media's attempts to link Obama to the Blagojevich scandal has been the volume of news reports that are purely speculative -- and not only speculative, but vaguely speculative. That is, they don't even consist of conjecture about specific potential wrong doing. They simply consist of completely baseless speculation that Obama might in some way become caught up in the investigation at some point in the future, for some reason. It's little more than, "Maybe Obama will be involved." Well, sure. And maybe he'll play shortstop for the Washington Nationals next year.
Associated Press reporter Liz Sidoti set the standard for pointlessly speculative news reports with an "analysis" piece declaring that "President-elect Barack Obama hasn't even stepped into office and already a scandal is threatening to dog him." In the very next sentence, Sidoti had to admit that "Obama isn't accused of anything" -- but that didn't stop her from continuing to offer ominous warnings that Obama could be implicated in the scandal, interspersed with concessions that he, you know ... isn't.
Not that Sidoti was unique in stringing together a bunch of coulds and mights and maybes and ifs to create something that vaguely resembles -- but is certainly not -- an actual news report.
ABC's Rick Klein, for example:
The scandal surrounding Blagojevich, the Democratic governor of Illinois, may or may not implicate members of Congress, in addition to at least the outer ring of advisers in the incoming Obama administration.
Got that? The scandal may or may not implicate members of Congress. Awfully hard to argue with that. The modifier "at least" is a nice touch, too -- suggesting that the outer ring of Obama advisers has already been implicated in the scandal (they haven't).
That was par for the course this week, as reporters breathlessly asked what Obama knew and when he knew it (the decidedly non-scandalous answers are apparently "very little" and "very recently").
If you want to make a "scandal" stick to someone despite the inconvenient truth that they aren't actually guilty of the purported wrongdoing in question, one thing you do -- if you're the media covering a Democratic president, or an overzealous conservative -- is continually expand the scandal's definition. So the "scandal" grows and evolves into an amorphous mass of innuendo as political opponents and journalists begin throwing everything against the wall, hoping something will stick.
Eventually what begins as a land deal (in which the Clintons did nothing wrong and lost money) includes an investigation of the tragic suicide of a White House staffer -- and the next thing you know, some B-list congressman is traipsing into his backyard with a shotgun, taking aim at a perfectly innocent pumpkin because the voices in his head told him that gunning down some produce would somehow "prove" that the staffer was murdered as part of an elaborate cover-up of ... well, of nothing. There was nothing to cover up, and no murder to cover it up. The pumpkin died in vain.
And so on Wednesday, the Associated Press issued an article headlined "Questionable associations of Obama." Prompted by the Blagojevich scandal -- which, again, involves no indication that Obama did anything wrong -- the article announces, "In his life and career in Illinois, President-elect Barack Obama has crossed paths with some notable figures who have drawn scorn and scrutiny."
From there, the AP proceeds to describe several such "notable figures," most of whom have little if anything to do with Obama -- or the Blagojevich scandal. What, for example, is Jeremiah Wright doing here? None of their connections to Obama involve so much as a hint of an allegation of legal or ethical wrongdoing. To the extent they are controversial, it is for their views. They couldn't possibly have less to do with the Blagojevich scandal; there is no conceivable reason for the AP to bring them up now -- except to try to fling a bunch of garbage against the wall in hopes of something, somehow, sticking. It's as though the AP, recognizing how tenuous Obama's ties to the Blagojevich scandal are, tried to make it look more substantial by tossing in a bunch of other "notable" ties.
Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz complained that it took Obama "24 hours" to decide that Blagojevich should resign, worrying "that kind of excessive caution" could "define his presidency."
Obama called for Blagojevich's resignation within 24 hours, and Howard Kurtz thinks that wasn't fast enough. It's so fast, Kurtz had to measure the time elapsed in hours rather than days. And yet, Kurtz thinks it constituted excessive foot-dragging. This is simply not a sane assessment. It's a desperate attempt to find something to criticize about Obama. Obama is not involved in the scandal, so Kurtz sits by with a stopwatch, trying to document Obama's slow response to it.
CNN's Wolf Blitzer announced yesterday that "some are calling this Obama's first presidential scandal." It isn't. There is no evidence he has done anything wrong. This is not Obama's first presidential scandal -- but it shows signs of becoming the first media scandal of the Obama presidency.
Obviously, the news media should aggressively investigate and report on actual involvement in actual wrongdoing by public figures. There was far too little of that reporting during the Bush administration. (Remember when the media refused to report on the Downing Street Memo? Good times.)
If the news media regains a bit of the skepticism so many of them set aside for the past eight years, that would be an unequivocally good thing, and it should be applauded.
But this week brought signs that much of the media is set to resume the absurd and shameful behavior that defined the 1990s -- guilt by association, circular analysis whereby they ask baseless questions about non-scandals, then claim they have to report on the "scandal" because the White House is "besieged by questions," grotesque leaps of logic, downplaying exculpatory information, and too many other failings to list.
If that happens -- if the media continue to behave as they did in covering Whitewater -- they will damage the country. It's really that simple. We cannot afford to be distracted from serious problems by overheated conjecture and baseless insinuation masquerading as journalism.
Not to mention the outright fabrications. To take just one of many examples, Jeff Greenfield and ABC selectively edited Hillary Clinton's comments during a Whitewater press conference, then accused her of lying -- an accusation that, based on Clinton's full comments, was clearly false. It was a shockingly dishonest report; Greenfield and ABC were simply lying about Clinton -- there's really no other way to put it. Those involved should have seen their reputations take a serious hit -- at the very least. Yet they suffered no consequences due to their dishonorable and unprofessional actions.
That's how the media behaved the last time we had a Democratic president. They devoted wall-to-wall coverage to invented "scandals," ignored exculpatory evidence, saw evidence of guilt everywhere, took people out of context in order to accuse them of lying, and generally behaved like a pack of wild animals who couldn't tell right from wrong or truth from fiction -- or who simply didn't care. As a group, they behaved without ethical standards and without regard for the truth.
It's our responsibility -- all of us -- to make sure it doesn't happen again.
Jamison Foser is Executive Vice President at Media Matters for America.