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"Woodward at war," was the headline Politico's Mike Allen and Jim VandeHei attached to their February 27 article playing up Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward's claim that a senior White House official had threatened him over email regarding Woodward's reporting on the origins of the budget sequestration. The Politico report on Woodward's "major-league brushback" caught fire in the press and prompted allegations of White House intimidation. However, the email chain -- which Politico published the following morning -- shows that the claims of threats and intimidation by the White House are, at best, wildly overblown, and that Politico helped hype a bogus allegation by Woodward absent the full context.
The original February 27 Politico piece featured a short clip of Allen and VandeHei's "hourlong interview" with Woodward "around the Georgetown dining room table where so many generations of Washington's powerful have spilled their secrets." In that clip, Woodward reads from an email he received from a top White House official, later revealed to be economic advisor Gene Sperling. As Woodward puts it, Sperling did "something that I think it is important for people to understand. He says, you know, 'I think you will regret staking out that claim,'" referring to Woodward's assertion that the president was "moving the goal posts" in negotiations to avert sequestration.
Allen and VandeHei wrote:
Woodward repeated the last sentence, making clear he saw it as a veiled threat. " 'You'll regret.' Come on," he said. "I think if Obama himself saw the way they're dealing with some of this, he would say, 'Whoa, we don't tell any reporter 'you're going to regret challenging us.'"
"They have to be willing to live in the world where they're challenged," Woodward continued in his calm, instantly recognizable voice. "I've tangled with lots of these people. But suppose there's a young reporter who's only had a couple of years -- or 10 years' -- experience and the White House is sending him an email saying, 'You're going to regret this.' You know, tremble, tremble. I don't think it's the way to operate."
It's not clear whether Allen or VandeHei had access to Woodward's full email exchange with Woodward -- as they put it, Woodward "[dug] into one of his famous folders" to read the offending excerpts to them, meaning that at the very least they had the opportunity to demand to see more from that exchange before publishing Woodward's claims. From all appearances, though, Allen and VandeHei's initial reporting on the email exchange was based solely on what Woodward told them about it. Their "exclusive" follow-up article on the email exchange indicates as much: "POLITICO's 'Behind the Curtain' column last night quoted Bob Woodward as saying that a senior White House official has told him in an email he would 'regret' questioning White House statements on the origins of sequestration."
Politico executive editor Jim VandeHei misrepresented a poll to claim that progressive Democrats are out of step with most people who voted for President Obama over how to deal with Social Security and Medicare.
VandeHei stated on the November 20 edition of MSNBC's Morning Joe that Obama voters are "at odds with the liberal base" of the Democratic Party on Social Security and Medicare:
VANDEHEI: [T]here's a lot of divisions inside the Democratic Party over what to do on entitlement reform. You're not going to get any Republican votes for an increase in taxes unless you have some changes to Medicare and to Social Security. And inside the Democratic Party, there's a big divide. Third Way, which is a group that represents centrists Democrats, they're out with a poll of Obama supporters this morning that show the vast majority of Obama supporters actually support changes to Medicare and Social Security, which puts them at odds with the liberal base of the party in the House and in the Senate."
VandeHei was echoing a Politico article that stated "a Third Way poll of 800 Obama voters set for release Tuesday found that efforts to fix Medicare and Social Security enjoy broader support than liberals suggest."
The Third Way poll asked Obama voters to rate on a scale of 1-10 (10 being the highest) how important it was for the president to take action that "fixes Social Security and Medicare" during his second term. Eighty-five percent responded with at least a six and 48% responded with a nine or 10 rating.
But the poll does not show a split between Obama voters and progressive Democrats as VandeHei claimed because progressives do not oppose proposals to strengthen Social Security and Medicare. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said she is open to reforms that "strengthen Social Security" and Medicare as long as they don't include benefit cuts, and as long as the reforms are not used as part of a deal to subsidize tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans. Similarly, the Congressional Progressive Caucus has said that "decisions to change Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security 'must be based on what is best for their beneficiaries' " provided there are no cuts to Medicare and Social Security benefits.
Progressive economist and Nobel Prize winner Paul Krugman has also embraced reforms to Medicare that do not involve benefit cuts. He also pointed out that Social Security is not a long-term drag on the nation's finances and therefore does not need major reform.
Politico's Mike Allen and Jim VandeHei have an article up this morning with a dog-bites-man headline and premise: "To GOP, blatant bias in vetting." Republicans? Alleging liberal media bias? Pardon me while I find some pearls to clutch.
The conceit behind this whole affair is that Haley Barbour and Ari Fleischer told Allen and VandeHei that "liberal bias" is real and it's devastating, and Allen and Vandehei believe them:
Republicans cry "bias" so often it feels like a campaign theme. It is, largely because it fires up conservatives and diminishes the punch of legitimate investigative or narrative journalism. But it also is because it often rings true, even to people who don't listen to Rush Limbaugh -- or Haley Barbour.
The best evidence Allen and VandeHei could muster regards the placement of stories about Mitt Romney's high-school bullying and Barack Obama's high-school drug use:
And the imbalance can do slow, low-grade but unmistakable damage to Romney: Swing voters are just getting to know him. And coverage suggesting he is mean or extravagant can soak in, even though voters who took the time to weigh the details might dismiss the storyline.
It's certainly hard to argue that the Romneys' horse-riding habits today are worse than the Maraniss revelations, which have gotten little mainstream coverage.
And the horse-riding story came a few weeks after a second story that made Republicans see red -- another front-pager, this time in the Washington Post, that hit Mitt Romney for bullying a kid who might have been gay, in high school nearly a half-century ago. The clear implication to readers: Romney was a mean, insensitive jerk.
Maraniss works for the Post and his pot-smoking scoop, which included details of Obama's college-era dope-smoking club and waste-no-weed rules for inhaling it, never made the front of his own paper.
... and we're going to continue to be part of the problem.
Politico's Jim VandeHei and Jonathan Martin write that the media cover Sarah Palin too much, and take her too seriously as an important political figure:
A new poll out Thursday should make those of us in the media take a look in the mirror and ask: Should we really be giving so much attention to somebody who faces so many hurdles to becoming president or even the GOP nominee in 2012?
According to the Washington Post/ABC survey, she is viewed favorably by 37 percent of Americans while 55 percent view her unfavorably. That's what pollsters call being "upside down" and, if she were an incumbent, would usually spell defeat.
Beyond polls, consider this: if Palin were to announce a bid for the White House, how many party officials would support her? Would a single governor or senator get behind her candidacy? More than 10 House members? And how about donors - how many of the bundlers that seeded President Bush's two campaigns would do the same for her?
VandeHei and Martin contend that the saturation coverage of someone so unpopular is simply a result of the fact that stories about her attract eyeballs. They do concede that they're part of the problem -- but they have no plans to stop:
We know we're part of the problem - and we'll surely continue to run stories about Palin. But, we're looking at your top newspaper editors and network executives, listen to your grumbling political reporters when they try to tell you why going over board on the Hockey Mom beat isn't wise. Palin is no doubt a phenomenon - she's going to draw monster crowds and be an in-demand fundraiser for GOP candidates this fall. And she may overcome her weaknesses to make a run for the White House. But to cover her as the chief alternative to Obama and the presumptive frontrunner for the GOP nomination in 2012 borders on dishonest.
Yes, she's good copy and yes she's good for business. But that doesn't mean she should be treated like a president-in-waiting.
Now, when Jim VandeHei begs "top newspaper editors" to "listen to our grumbling political reporters" when they say Palin doesn't merit such attention, it's important to keep in mind that Jim VandeHei is no mere beat reporter: He is Politico's executive editor. Who is forcing Politico reporters to cover Palin, if not Jim VandeHei himself?
And VandeHei and Martin downplay a screamingly obvious point: The problem isn't just that media outlets like Politico give Palin too much attention, it's that the coverage they give her too rarely notes her massive shortcomings, including the poor poll numbers VandeHei and Martin lay out. It's one thing to constantly cover someone who doesn't merit the attention; it's something else altogether to dishonestly constantly cover someone who doesn't merit the attention, portraying her as a popular phenomenon when she is wildly unpopular, and glossing over her stunning lack of honesty.
VandeHei and Martin seem to have some glimmer of recognition of this; they do note that it "borders on dishonest" to cover Palin as "the chief alternative to Obama." But they suggest that's about the quantity of Palin coverage. it is, in part. But it is about the quality of that coverage, too.
UPDATE: In case you were wondering how I can be so sure that Politico won't change, here's a November 18, 2009 article by Politico's Michael Calderone:
The Palin-media co-dependency
By: Michael Calderone
November 18, 2009 04:51 PM EST
Sarah Palin talked on the campaign trail about trying to get around the elite media filter, but this week she's pushed her way straight through it.
And the media - liberal and conservative, bloggers and network anchors - have responded by dedicating magazine covers, air time and online real estate to everything related to the book-promoting, media-bashing former governor of Alaska. No matter where Palin goes, the media follow - Andrea Mitchell even hosted her MSNBC show Wednesday from the Barnes & Noble in Grand Rapids, Mich., where Palin's scheduled to sign books.
For Palin's book sales, all press is good press. And for the press, Palin is all good for the bottom line.
Since then, Politico has continued to obsess over Palin. And now Politico's executive editor writes, as though it's news, that the media and Palin have "a tangled, symbiotic affair - built on mutual dependency and mutual enabling." That isn't news -- that's basically the headline of a piece Politico itself ran three months ago!
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Politico's Jeanne Cummings on MSNBC about half an hour ago, discussing Michelle Obama's popularity:
She's doing much better than what people thought. There was a time during the campaign in 2008 when lots of Republicans thought that Michelle Obama could become some sort of liability.
Hmmmm. I don't remember that sentiment being limited to Republicans; I remember a lot of reporters expressing it as well. Reporters like ... Jeanne Cummings Politico colleagues. Let's fire up The Nexis, shall we?
Jim VandeHei & John Harris, Politico, 3/17/08:
The GOP has proven skilled at questioning the patriotism of Democratic candidates. Just ask John F. Kerry, defeated presidential candidate, and Max Cleland, defeated senator, if such attacks work in the post-Sept. 11 political environment.
They will blend together Wright's fulminations with quotes of Michelle Obama saying her husband's candidacy has made her finally proud of America with pictures of Obama himself sans the American flag on his lapel (the latter a point that has thrived in conservative precincts of the Web and talk radio).
In isolation, any of these might be innocuous. But in the totality of a campaign ad or brochure, the attacks could be brutal, replete with an unmistakable racial subtext.
Glenn Thrush, Politico, 8/25/08:
Plastic bags stuffed with big M-I-C-H-E-L-L-E signs are being loaded into the Pepsi Center for a prime-time speech by would-be first lady Michelle Obama. Her tasks are twofold: to introduce herself to the convention as a strong-willed, nonthreatening surrogate who has always been proud of her country - while portraying her Barack as a messy, absent-minded, regular dad who likes playing with his daughters when he's not out inspiring the millions. How she is received could determine how much she is used on the road this fall.
Mike Allen, Politico, 8/25/08:
Michelle Obama set out to reassure voters Monday that she would leave the governing to her husband and would not be a domineering White House presence.
Nia-Malika Henderson, Politico, 3/28/09:
Traditional? Hardly. In fact, Obama's approach so far is decidedly different from the usual model of the modern first lady - pick a platform of two or three issues and stick to it, by and large, for four years.
Yet in the midst of all those themes, it isn't yet clear whether her self-described core messages - about military families, volunteerism, and helping working women balance work and family life - are truly breaking through. Some wonder if she's spreading herself too thin to emerge in the public mind as a leading voice on those topics.
[F]or some, Obama's multi-tasking approach to the job raises the specter of Rosalynn Carter, who was dogged early on by questions of whether she was taking on too much and trying to be all things to all people. Ironically, some are raising the same "too much, too fast?" question about Michelle that they're raising about her husband, the president.
As for her more official three-issue platform, branding expert Hodgkinson said that for Obama, "the broader mission is to install herself in the psyche of the country and then after that take a look at what does she then wants to advance and can reasonably advance. "
Military family issues might not be the right fit, she said.
"When you think about military families it's not a connection you first make with the first lady," she said. "Without that natural pull, it's going to be a harder campaign especially if people's ears are turned elsewhere."
But now that Mrs. Obama has proven to be quite popular, Politico's Jeanne Cummings wants you to think it was just the Republicans who thought she'd be a liability -- just forget all about what Politico wrote about her.
Here's Politico's Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen, on what they describe as a White House "campaign" to undermine ideological adversaries:
It's too early to tell if the campaign is working, but it's clearly exacerbating partisan tensions in Washington.
According to VandeHei & Allen, the campaign is the result of August planning meetings among White House staff. And what had been happening prior to the launch of this fall "campaign"? Conservatives had been accusing President Obama of secretly being Kenyan, of favoring government death panels, and assorted other atrocities.
But according to Politico, we're supposed to believe that the White House is to blame for "clearly exacerbating partisan tensions" because it began responding forcefully to the people behind those smears? Absurd.
Even if there were any evidence at all that there is greater "partisan tension" in Washington today than there was two months ago -- and there isn't -- it would be nothing short of perverse to blame people who have begun responding to overheated attacks for worsening the tensions.
The Washington Independent's David Weigel catches Politico's Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen calling Republican Rep. Brian Bilbray "a centrist Republican." Weigel explains:
Bilbray was a member of the class of 1994 who lost his old House seat in 2000, then stayed in Washington as a lobbyist for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which advocates "a temporary moratorium on all immigration except spouses and minor children of U.S. citizens and a limited number of refugees." Bilbray returned to Congress in a 2006 special election, which he won in part by accusing his Democratic opponent of soliciting votes from illegal aliens. Since then, Bilbray has maintained a 92% rating from the American Conservative Union, which makes him an "ACU Conservative" in their ranking system. He voted against increasing the minimum wage, voted to repeal the Washington, D.C. gun ban, voted against a ban on anti-gay job discrimination, and voted against expanding SCHIP.
Voting against a minimum wage increase, expanding health insurance for kids, and against banning workplace discrimination puts Bilbray far out of the mainstream of the American people. And in the last Congress, Bilbray's voting record put him far to the right of most of his colleagues, too -- he was the 79th most conservative member of the House of Representatives, out of a total of 435. That means Bilbray's voting record was more conservative than more than 80 percent of all members of Congress.
To Politico, that makes him a "centrist." Just like MSNBC's Norah O'Donnell thinks Diane Feinstein is one of the "most liberal" Senators. And Time's Jay Newton-Small thinks Lindsey Graham is a "moderate."
It's almost as though the media has no idea where the "center" really is.
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The Politico's Jim VandeHei stated that Sen. Judd Gregg is "angry" because "Democrats were able to get this thing called reconciliation inserted into" the proposed 2010 budget, but did not note that Republicans, including Gregg, repeatedly supported using reconciliation to pass several Bush initiatives.
Since initial reporting that President-elect Barack Obama was considering naming Sen. Hillary Clinton as secretary of state, many in the media have raised the specter of personal and political "drama" -- which they claim follows Hillary and Bill Clinton wherever they go -- negatively affecting the Obama administration. The Chicago Tribune's Clarence Page acknowledged that the media are hoping for "drama" resulting from a Clinton appointment; Page responded to the question of how Obama is "going to keep the drama at bay" by saying: "Well, do we want that? We're journalists."
During an appearance at Pastor Rick Warren's Saddleback Church, responding to a question about "the most gut-wrenching decision you've ever made," Sen. John McCain cited his refusal to accept an early release from a North Vietnamese prison camp. The Politico claimed that McCain's answer "shows the power of his biography, and a new willingness to publicly discuss it." In fact, McCain has repeatedly referred to his Vietnam war experiences and has specifically cited his refusal to accept an early release in a book, interviews, speeches, and campaign ads since 1999.