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Earlier this week, Bloomberg View columnist Barry Ritholtz took Art Laffer to task for a piece of economic analysis the former Reagan adviser penned in 2009 that proved drastically wrong. Ritholtz used the column to ask : Why aren't pundits held accountable?
It's an important question, and one that warrants consideration, particularly as unrepentant architects of the Iraq War enter the public sphere to opine on the deteriorating situation in that country.
Following President Obama's speech on the increasing violence in Iraq, Ari Fleischer weighed in on Twitter:
Regardless of what anyone thinks of going into Iraq in 2002, it's a tragedy that the successes of the 2007 surge have been lost & abandoned.
-- Ari Fleischer (@AriFleischer) June 13, 2014
As critics were quick to point out, it's impossible to have a credible discussion about the situation in Iraq without consideration of how we got there in the first place (also, we actually invaded Iraq in 2003). And it's certainly convenient for Fleischer to wave away questions about the initial invasion given that he helped to sell it as President Bush's press secretary.
Here are some quotes from the former Bush flak that Think Progress assembled in 2007, when Fleischer surfaced as a leading voice behind that year's escalation:
"[T]here's no question that if force is used, it will achieve the objective of preserving the peace far faster than the current path that we're on." [2/14/03]
"My point is, the likelihood is much more like Afghanistan, where the people who live right now under a brutal dictator will view America as liberators, not conquerors." [10/11/02]
"There have been contacts between senior members of -- senior Iraqi officials and members of the al Qaeda organization, going back for quite a long time. ...Iraq provided some training to al Qaeda in chemical weapons development. There are contacts between Iraq and al Qaeda." [1/27/03]
"There is no question that we have evidence and information that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction, biological and chemical particularly. ... And all this will be made clear in the course of the operation, for whatever duration it takes." [3/21/03]
"[N]o, I don't think there's any chance of losing the peace, but it is going to be a battle to continue to win the peace." [5/19/03]
Fleischer has no apology for what he did -- he'd simply prefer not to speak of it.
The role people like Fleischer played in supporting and selling the invasion of Iraq and whether or not they've assessed that role and found their actions wanting are factors media should consider as they report on current efforts by conservatives to pin all the blame for the current state of that country on President Obama.
This need for pundit accountability isn't limited to Iraq. Earlier this month, Fox News hosted Oliver North to criticize President Obama for negotiating with terrorists to release Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl. North, of course, is famous for his role in the Iran-Contra scandal, in which he facilitated the illegal sale of missiles to Iran in exchange for the release of U.S. prisoners in Lebanon.
Such pundit antics are par for the course at Fox, which hosts Judy Miller to discuss Middle East weapons of mass destruction, Mark Fuhrman to opine on race, and "heckuva job" Michael Brown to talk about disaster relief.
Right-wing media denied the effectiveness of anti-poverty policies in response to President Obama's recent push to reduce income inequality, instead hyping marriage as a preferable economic solution. But experts have rejected that notion, citing a systemic lack of economic opportunity as a more critical issue.
Stressing style over substance, lots of Beltway pundits teamed up with Republican partisans to push the theater criticism point that Vice President Joe Biden may have blown last night's debate with his body language. Specifically, critics are complaining he smiled and chuckled too much while Rep. Paul Ryan was speaking.
Even after CBS News' snap poll showed that Biden had scored a big win with undecided voters, pundits and Republicans suggested Biden's facial expressions, not the substance of his comments, were newsworthy.
From the Washington Post's Jennifer Rubin:
And BuzzFeed's Ben Smith:
The media effort is reminiscent of when pundits and Republicans teamed up on Al Gore after his first presidential debate with George W. Bush in 2000. Back then, they pushed the line that Gore had sighed too often in response to Bush's answers. History shows that right after the debate viewers crowned Gore the winner of the face-off. But after the media's sigh initiative, Bush was perceived to have won the debate. Today, Gore's sighs are routinely referenced as debate blunders. ("Utterly insufferable," Esquire recently wrote.)
It's unlikely the press can turn Biden's strong showing into a stinging defeat, in part because the 2000 sigh episode was part of a much larger anti-Gore press push. But it's telling how seamlessly the mainstream press joined with Republican operatives to launch post-debate (style) spin targeting Biden last night and trying to tie him to Gore's performance.
From former White House spokesman Ari Fleischer:
And the Washington Post's Chris Cillizza:
In its piece, "Is Joe Biden The New Al Gore?" Politico reported that "at least among some pundits and Republican strategists: it reminded them of Al Gore's infamous sighs in the 2000 presidential debates against George W. Bush, which were enough to seriously hurt Gore's candidacy." [Emphasis added.]
Politico stressed that Gore's sighs were "universally panned by pundit" are now "remembered as one of the standout aspects of the debates that year." What's lost in that rewriting is that Gore actually won the first debate. The Associated Press reported on October 4, 2000 that Gore had won three out of four snap polls conducted that night.
Blogger Bob Somerby meticulously documented Gore's press treatment during the 2000 campaign. He recently revisited the infamous sighs:
Did George Bush win that first debate? Only after the press corps began playing videotaped loops of Gore's troubling sighs (with the volume cranked, of course).
Debates matter. But so can the media's lazy style spin.
CNN contributor Ari Fleisher distorted the history of a Wisconsin auto plant that closed in 2008, a dishonest attempt to defend Paul Ryan from scrutiny over false claims he has made.
Ryan has been sharply critical of President Obama's rescue of the U.S. auto industry in 2009, falsely accusing Obama of going back on a promise to save a GM plant in Janesville, Wisconsin. Ryan returned to that claim during his convention speech Wednesday:
A lot of guys I went to high school with worked at that GM plant. Right there at that plant, candidate Obama said: "I believe that if our government is there to support you ... this plant will be here for another hundred years." That's what he said in 2008.
Well, as it turned out, that plant didn't last another year. It is locked up and empty to this day. And that's how it is in so many towns today, where the recovery that was promised is nowhere in sight.
Independent fact-checkers have rated Ryan's charge false, pointing out that the Janesville plant closed in 2008, before Obama took office. Fleischer, who appeared on CNN to dissect Ryan's speech, rejected the analysis of those fact-checkers. Announcing his intention to "fact-check the fact-checkers," Fleischer cited a September 2011 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article and said:
The Janesville plant stopped production of SUVs in 2008 and was idled in 2009 after it completed production of medium-duty trucks. Paul Ryan was right. The fact-checkers are wrong.
But fact-checkers have already factored that evidence into their analysis. According to PolitiFact, which pointed out that the plant did in fact close before Obama took office, "Several dozen workers stayed on another four months to finish an order of small- to medium-duty trucks for Isuzu Motors."
This evidence, already in the public record, does nothing to disprove the fact that the decision to close the Janesville plant was made before Obama took office.
The very same Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that Fleischer cited as the authoritative voice on this issue reported that the Janesville plant closed in December 2008:
Workers finished the final production shift and walked out of the General Motors plant Tuesday, personal belongings and unchecked emotions in tow, never again likely to see the inside of the sprawling industrial complex that provided a livelihood and a way of life for generations.
That the last vehicle rolled off the line on a gloomy late December day punctuated by snow and biting wind under a sodden gray sky seemed appropriate. [Milwaukee Journal Sentinal, 12/24/08, via Nexis]
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Leading up to President Obama's State of the Union address, Fox & Friends repeatedly questioned Obama's sincerity by asking, "What's behind his move to the center?" and claiming that he's trying "to make sure he gets re-elected," because "he understands that's the popular thing to do." Fox & Friends also repeatedly asked if "the American people [will] buy what he sells" in the speech.
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