It's hard to miss the media's looming sense of bewilderment over Donald Trump's continued strong showing among Republican voters. As the bulling billionaire cements his status as this summer's star GOP attraction, many pundits and reporters have been left scratching their heads over the turn of events.
Regularly dismissed one month ago as a campaign distraction, much of the Beltway media appeared to be in agreement that Trump's campaign was nothing more than a joke and might not even be worth covering.
But now with poll after poll showing him racing to the front of the Republican pack, journalists are trying to make sense of it all. (The fallout from Trump's attack on Sen. John McCain's war record is still being calculated.)
"Everybody has been surprised that Donald Trump has seen these kind of poll numbers," noted Bloomberg's Steven Yaccino. Indeed, Trump's "surprising" frontrunner status has been a constant media theme -- especially after his campaign was first tagged as a "giant joke" and "sideshow" by some pundits. (Last month, the Washington Post pointed to Trump's favorability rating among Republicans as evidence for "Why no one should take Donald Trump seriously.")
But is Trump's run really that surprising? It shouldn't be if you've been paying attention to the radical, obstructionist turn both Republican politics and the right-wing media have taken over the last six-plus years. Yet during most of that span, the D.C. media stoically pretended the GOP hadn't taken an ugly, radical turn. And that's why so many seem baffled by Trump's rise.
Increasingly, Trump represents Fox News' Republican Party. He's holding up a mirror. But many journalists seem slow, or unwilling, to acknowledge that.
Some Beltway analysts blame the press for Trump's rise, insisting it's only because he's generating so much media attention that Republican voters are selecting him as their top choice. But that premise only works if you assume Trump doesn't connect with a certain group of voters. The fact is, most of Trump's coverage over the last month has been highly unflattering, as journalists and pundits detail his seemingly endless string of outrageous statements. (Minus Fox News, of course, where several hosts continue to fawn over him.) Yet Trump's favorable rating among Republican voters has been on the rise, suggesting that he is, in fact, connecting with the GOP base.
The idea that Trump's appeal isn't genuine or that the press has lured Republicans into supporting him is likely more comforting than acknowledging the truth: Trump, an ignorant, nativist birther, is appealing to an often-ugly streak within the conservative movement. He's winning over the illogical, demagoguery wing of the Republican Party that's been feasting off far-right media hate rhetoric for years.
This was the "grassroots" political movement that was so freaked out by Obama's ascension to power that it reached for the Nazi analogies just months into the president's first term, before he'd barely even finished filling out his cabinet positions. This is a wing of the party that views Obama as a monster of historic proportions who's committed to stripping citizens of their liberties and getting them addicted to government dependencies, like a drug dealer.
Is anyone surprised that Trump has the backing of Rush Limbaugh, even after the billionaire attacked McCain's war record? It's the same Limbaugh who claimed that if Obama weren't black he'd be working as a tour guide in Hawaii, not sitting in the Oval Office. The same Limbaugh who decried Obama as some sort of black Manchurian Candidate who ran for office because he resents white America and wants to garnish some payback. (Obama also thought Americans deserved to become infected with Ebola, according to Limbaugh.)
And you cannot underestimate Trump's previous birther charade and what that likely means for him today, politically. Note that a 2014 Economist/YouGov poll found that two-thirds of Republicans "disagree with the statement that the president was born in the United States."
Interviewing Trump's current supporters, the New York Times reported, "Some said they doubted whether President Obama was a citizen, a misrepresentation Mr. Trump has reinforced repeatedly."
And from the Daily Beast, which interviewed Trump donors:
I asked McNerney, who repeatedly referred to the president as "Obama Hussein," if he thought Obama was Muslim. He said, "I know he is." I asked if he thought Obama was born in America. He replied, "No, I don't. Probably Africa." Where in Africa, I wondered. "Wherever his father and his white mother were living." Kenya? "You got it," he said.
Earlier this month Trump told a CNN interviewer he wasn't sure where Obama was born.
Fueled by hateful rhetoric and right-wing media programming, Republicans and conservatives have veered towards extremism in recent years. If the press had honestly documented that trend, today's Trump phenomenon wouldn't come as such a shock.
Image via Michael Vadon via Creative Commons License
The newly-released 13 Hours: The Inside Account of What Really Happened in Benghazi documents the experience on the ground the night of the September 2012 terrorist attacks, effectively debunking a number of old media myths surrounding the tragedy.
The book, written by journalist Mitchell Zuckoff and five former CIA contractors who defended the diplomatic post and nearby CIA annex during the assault, is an interesting eyewitness portrayal of the attacks and the heroism the men displayed. But while the book has received ample media attention, outlets are largely ignoring several key points from 13 Hours' narrative that undermine false media narratives about the attacks.
On CNN's The Lead, host Jake Tapper interviewed three of the authors and specifically focused on what he called the "biggest point of contention" between the authors and administration officials, which is their description of the so-called "stand down" order. According to the contractors, though they were ready to leave the CIA annex to defend the diplomatic post almost immediately following the initial distress call, they were asked to wait for approximately 20 minutes as their CIA base chief attempted to contact local a Libyan militia for assistance and develop a plan. They disagreed with the delay and wanted to move in more quickly.
This disagreement was eventually politicized and inflated by media and political figures, who insisted that members of the Obama administration, or then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, had ordered rescue efforts to "stand down" permanently and leave Americans to die. But as the contractors explained to Tapper, though they believe they could have done more to save American lives that night had they been allowed to leave immediately, they did not view the decision as one of "malice" towards Americans, nor did they place the blame for the decision on anyone higher up than the base chief.
As the New York Times noted, their story "fits with the publicly known facts and chronology" we already knew about the non-existent "stand down" order. For example, the Associated Press reported last year on the disagreement between CIA leaders and security contractors about the delay to try to gather support from militia allies, citing Republican Rep. Lynn Westmoreland pointing to the disagreement as a possible source of the "stand down" myth.
The "stand down" order dispute has defined the majority of media coverage on the book. Fox News, which produced a special based on the book, has used the "stand down" reporting in 13 Hours to suggest they've been right all along about it. But Fox figures are moving the goalposts -- they network's obsession with a "stand down" order has revolved around the idea that the administration ordered a forces to not respond that night, which does not resemble the story laid out in the book.
While media have been focused on whether the contractors were ordered to "stand down," 13 Hours actually debunks other myths surrounding the attacks.
A Daily Beast article relying on anonymous criticism of Hillary Clinton was latched onto by conservative media, who selectively quoted the article to smear the former Secretary of State for not officially designating the Nigerian group Boko Haram a foreign terrorist organization.
As Maggie Haberman noted in Politico May 10, following the kidnapping of Nigerian school girls by Boko Haram, conservatives began hyping a report from the Daily Beast which quoted an anonymous official criticizing the former Secretary of State for previously turning down requests to designate Boko Haram as a terrorist organization, implying that such a designation could have prevented the kidnapping.
The "actual details," as Haberman explained, revealed that experts at State were concerned an official designation would negatively elevate the group and lead to an inhumane response from Nigeria (emphasis added):
Clinton found herself on the receiving end of questions about the kidnap of 300 Nigerian girls. The Daily Beast reported that Clinton's State Department declined entreaties from congressional Republicans and others to label Boko Haram, the group responsible for the kidnappings, a terrorist organization. Secretary of State John Kerry gave the group that designation last year.
During Clinton's time at State, "The FBI, the CIA, and the Justice Department really wanted Boko Haram designated, they wanted the authorities that would provide to go after them, and they voiced that repeatedly to elected officials," the Beast quoted a former senior U.S. official familiar with the discussion as saying.
Republicans have widely circulated the original Daily Beast story. The actual details of why the Clinton-run Department declined to affix the group with terrorist status are complicated- her former Assistant Secretary for African Affairs, Johnnie Carson, was reportedly concerned about elevating the group among extremist outfits, and potentially giving the Nigerian government latitude to go after them in an inhumane way.
Media Matters has explained that Clinton did put top Boko Haram leaders on the terrorist list, and academic experts on Africa confirmed the Department's fears that a designation for the whole organization could have severe negative consequences. Additionally, before Boko Haram was ultimately designated an official terrorist organization under Secretary Kerry, the group had been a part of peace talks with the Nigerian government which were reportedly "on the verge" of producing a ceasefire. As soon as the designation became official, they abandoned the talks.
Some of this relevant context was included in the original Daily Beast article, but was buried toward the end. Conservative media were able to conveniently ignore the details while promoting the out-of-context attack on Clinton's tenure.
Dylan Davies, the British security contractor at the heart of a CBS segment about the Benghazi attacks that was pulled following questions about his credibility, has "disappeared" after sending an email to his publisher detailing an alleged "threat," according to Daily Beast reporter Eli Lake, who obtained the email.
Lake previously received exclusive access to Davies, who apparently lied to the reporter in an attempt to control the damage to his credibility as his story unraveled.
The Washington Post reported on October 31 that the eyewitness account of the attack detailing his own personal bravery that Davies had provided to CBS' 60 Minutes and published in a book released by CBS-owned Simon & Schuster differed from an incident report submitted by his employer, which stated that the contractor never got near the compound on the night of the attack. In an interview for a November 2 article written by Lake and Josh Rogin, Davies said that he was being smeared by critics, that he hadn't written the report, and that his interviews with the FBI matched the story he had told to CBS and written in his book.
Days later, CBS retracted their report and Simon & Schuster withdrew the book after both The New York Times and CBS News confirmed from administration officials that the information Davies provided to the FBI was consistent with the incident report.
In his November 14 article, headlined "Exclusive: Why Dylan Davies Disappeared," Lake writes that on November 8 -- the morning after CBS had pulled their report -- an executive at the publisher received an email from Davies. That email stated that Davies had received a threat to his family five days before -- the day after his interview with Lake was published -- and that while he stands by his story, due to the threat, he "will not discuss the book with anyone under any circumstances for the foreseeable future." Hours after Simon & Schuster reportedly received the email, they announced that they had withdrawn Davies' book from publication and recommended that bookstores take it off their shelves.
Lake writes that he confirmed with the South Wales police that an investigation into the alleged threat is underway. He also details how the facts of Davies' original account have been "called into question."
In an attempt to distract from an emerging debate over how much to strengthen gun laws, Newsweek and Daily Beast special correspondent Megan McArdle called for people, even children, to be trained to "gang rush" active shooters. The Department of Homeland Security, however, recommends that people evacuate or hide in response to an active shooter, and to take direct action only as a last resort and when your life is in "imminent" danger.
McArdle's essay on how to prevent mass shootings in the wake of the tragedy in Newton, Connecticut, begins with a libertarian defense of congressional inaction on gun issues, even sneering that it is "easy and satisfying to be for 'gun control' in the abstract, but we cannot pass gun control, in the abstract." You might well have seen most of this essay after any mass shooting in recent decades.
McArdle is so resigned to any gun laws failing to prevent gun violence that she concludes that people should be encouraged to "gang rush" shooters rather than hide:
I'd also like us to encourage people to gang rush shooters, rather than following their instincts to hide; if we drilled it into young people that the correct thing to do is for everyone to instantly run at the guy with the gun, these sorts of mass shootings would be less deadly, because even a guy with a very powerful weapon can be brought down by 8-12 unarmed bodies piling on him at once. Would it work? Would people do it? I have no idea; all I can say is that both these things would be more effective than banning rifles with pistol grips.
So, in sum: the chances of achieving anything with any gun legislation are so low that in these circumstances, people should resign themselves to probable death by running at the person firing a gun in the hope that enough people will follow that their likely death will not be in vain.
As Jonathan Chait points out at NY Magazine, this is an absurd proposition:
Are you kidding me? You think gun control is impractical, so your plan is to turn the entire national population, including young children, into a standby suicide squad? Through private initiative, of course. It's way more feasible than gun control!
Unless I am missing a very subtle parody of libertarianism, McArdle's plan to teach children to launch banzai charges against mass murderers is the single worst solution to any problem I have ever seen offered in a major publication. Newsweek, I award this essay no points, and may God have mercy on your soul.
Moreover, the Department of Homeland Security has specific guidelines on how to act when one's life is threatened in a shooting situation. Objective 1 is to evacuate, and if you cannot evacuate, objective 2 is find a hiding place: "If evacuation is not possible, find a place to hide where the active shooter is less likely to find you." DHS recommends that people take action against an active shooter only as a last resort and when your life is in imminent danger.
It sure seemed that way when I first read this piece over the weekend, in which right-wing billionaire David Koch, still fuming over Jane Mayer's recent expose in The New Yorker about he and his billionaire brother are helping to fund the Tea Party movement and the larger anti-Obama insurgency, whined to the Daily Beast that Meyer's article was "hateful," ludicrous," and "plain wrong."
The sympathetic Daily Beast dispatch, written by Elaine Lafferty, did very little though, to catalog anything that was actually wrong, or inaccurate, with The New Yorker article, nor did Koch himself produce much evidence.
For instance, Koch seemed peeved that Meyer suggested the Koch brothers had been helping to bankroll the "grassroots" Tea Party movement. But note this passage [emphasis added]:
[H]e says, no one from the Tea Party movement has ever approached him for money, and when I ask him straight up if he's funding the Tea Party, all he says is, "Oh, please."
A classic non-denial denial.
Koch's whining rang a bit hollow considering that while Meyer was writing her lengthy piece, Koch repeatedly declined her interview requests. (Wonder what he was hiding.) Also, while Daily Beast allowed Koch to tee-off on Meyer's work, it provided no space for The New Yorker writer to defend her reporting.
The good news is that Daily Beast finally conceded there were problems with its Koch article, including the fact that the site failed to disclose that author Lafferty once worked as a consultant for the McCain/Palin campaign, and editors there attached a note to the end of the piece.
The bad news though, was that the article was up all weekend without any reference to the obvious flaws.