Conservatives are misusing a deceptive study to claim that the "liberal media" is giving the recent bridge scandal involving New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's administration more coverage than they gave allegations that the Internal Revenue Service inappropriately targeted conservative groups. In their attempt to use the Christie story for political gain, conservatives accidentally point to a real media failure: after heavily covering the initial IRS allegations, the press has largely ignored subsequent revelations undermining the "scandal."
On January 8, the media reported on documents showing that close Christie aides were involved in the closure of several lanes of the George Washington Bridge in order to create gridlock in Fort Lee, NJ as political retribution. The next day, Christie gave a press conference apologizing and saying he had fired the aides. As the events involved malfeasance by the administration of perhaps the leading contender for the 2016 Republican nomination, they received heavy media coverage.
On January 10, the conservative Media Research Center (MRC) released a report that attacked the media for that coverage by claiming that ABC, CBS, and NBC had given "a staggering 88 minutes to the story" but "over the last six months have allowed a scant two minutes for the latest on Barack Obama's Internal Revenue Service scandal." The report has been widely cited by conservatives, particularly on Fox News.
On Fox & Friends this morning, co-host Brian Kilmeade asked how the media could "justify wall to wall coverage over a traffic jam in one region of the country when they practically ignored the IRS which affects everybody in the country." Commentary Editor John Podhoretz explained that it's because the Washington press corps socializes with members of the Obama administration and "don't believe that these people could do something that untoward," but they don't know and don't like Republicans like Christie.
This is deeply dishonest. As both the MRC study and the Fox segments ignore, the IRS story broke eight months ago, not six months ago. Rather than comparing the network's coverage of the initial revelations in both stories, the MRC study carefully leaves out the initial, heavy coverage of the IRS story.
But the conservative complaint does inadvertently get at a crucial failure of the media. After trumpeting the initial, damning allegations at the heart of the IRS story, journalists have largely ignored the subsequent revelations undermining the notion that it was, as the MRC terms it, "Barack Obama's Internal Revenue Scandal."
The IRS story was launched on May 10 when Lois Lerner, then the director of the IRS division that determines whether organizations are tax exempt, admitted to and apologized for improper scrutiny of tea party groups and other organizations seeking tax exempt status. Lerner's statement was intended to pre-empt a highly critical inspector general's report that was released soon after. In the days following Lerner's revelation, President Obama called the targeting "outrageous" and "inexcusable" and fired the acting director of the IRS, while Attorney General Eric Holder announced a federal investigation. Meanwhile, Republicans began holding hearings suggesting that the White House had been involved in the targeting. All of these events received heavy coverage in the media.
But less than two months later, new documents and reporting had largely diffused the scandal, as journalist Alex Seitz-Wald detailed:
But now, almost two months later, we know that in fact the IRS targeted lots of different kinds of groups, not just conservative ones; that the only organizations whose tax-exempt statuses were actually denied were progressive ones; that many of the targeted conservative groups legitimately crossed the line; that the IG's report was limited to only Tea Party groups at congressional Republicans' request; and that the White House was in no way involved in the targeting and didn't even know about it until shortly before the public did.
Those revelations, however, did not receive nearly as much coverage as the initial allegations, as Brendan Nyhan, an assistant professor of government at Dartmouth College who studies political scandals, explained in an August 1 piece for the Columbia Journalism Review.
Nyhan examined the coverage of the story in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Politico, finding that while all three had heavily covered the initial allegations in mid-May, "as contradictory facts emerged in June and early July, they had already lost interest, publishing a fraction of the stories that ran during the initial weeks of the scandal."
Here are a few charts from his piece showing the huge drop-off in coverage:
Conservative media are selectively and deceptively quoting from an exchange between CNN's Dana Bash Senate and Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) to make it appear as if he dismissed the plight of cancer-stricken children being denied access to clinical trials due to the shutdown of the federal government. In fact, Reid said that legislators should fully fund the government, rather than force different groups to fight over funding.
Specifically, conservatives are claiming that Reid replied to a reporter's question, "If you can help one child with cancer, why wouldn't you?" by saying "why would we want to do that?" In fact, Reid was responding to Sen. Chuck Schumer, who had interjected, saying "why pit one against the other?"
On October 1, the federal government was shut down after conservative Republicans refused to pass legislation funding operations unless that funding was tied to the defunding or delay of Obamacare. As part of an effort to avoid political damage from that unpopular decision, House Republicans have called for piecemeal bills that would fund some parts of the federal government, including the National Institutes of Health and national parks.
Add Commentary's John Podhoretz to the growing list of conservative writers who, in the wake of Obama's easy re-election win, are voicing concern about the Republican Party's approach and are worried that players within the conservative movement are damaging its chances to effectively counter the Democratic president. But also add John Podhoretz to the list of conservatives who refuse to type the phrase "Fox News" when detailing who's to blame for the GOP's tarnished reputation.
This has become something of a conservative formula in recent months: Bemoan the state of the GOP, denounce its messaging failures, and urge introspection and the courage to change course.
Missing from the equation? Singling out any of the culprits, any of the national media voices, to blame for Republican woes.
Podhoretz, for instance, claims that the contradictory caricature of the president created by Obama's critics, that he's a lightweight in over his head who's also a ruthless power-hunger pol, "has done perhaps irreparable harm to the central conservative cause of the present moment." By spending the last five years falsely portraying Obama, and often doing it an outlandish manner via "excessive alarmism," his most fevered opponents have made themselves appear "foolish" and easy to dismiss, Podhoretz wrote. It's time for "serious arguments," he counseled, even though they "may not sell gold coins as quickly."
But who's guilty of selling gold coins off alarmist attacks on Obama? Podhoretz never actually says, although its obvious Fox News has been central in promulgating the bizarre, cartoonish depiction of Obama that the writer claims has diminished conservatives in recent years.
President Obama's reelection has prompted more than a few conservative pundits and journalists to look inward and contemplate the weaknesses of the right-wing media model that obsesses over partisan minutia, eagerly chases phantom scandals, nosedives down ideological rabbit holes, and excludes dissenting voices. It's an interesting discussion, but it's hampered by the fact that the same people calling for change are themselves backsliding into the behaviors they want to correct.
Commentary editor and columnist John Podhoretz offers a pure distillation of this recidivist phenomenon. "Time To Get Serious," writes Podhoretz for the April issue of Commentary, arguing that after 6 years of treating Obama as alternately a "lightweight" political incompetent and a power-mad would-be dictator, and with nothing but two electoral drubbings to show for it, conservatives have to "come to grips" with Obama's political skill:
It's not just the comforting delusion that he's a golf-mad dilettante, but also the reverse-negative image of that delusion--that Obama is a not-so-secret Marxist Kenyan with dictatorial ambitions and a nearly limitless appetite for power. That caricature makes it far too easy for Obama to laugh off the legitimate criticisms of the kind of political leader he really is: a conventional post-1960s left-liberal with limited interest in the private sector and the gut sense that government must and should do more, whatever "more" might mean at any given moment.
Podhoretz's very next paragraph, however, shows that he's not quite ready to take his own advice, as he casts the Obama presidency as a vehicle for "disaster" at home and "nihilistic chaos" globally -- precisely the sort of extremist caricature he says isn't helpful for conservatives:
The notion that Obama is a dangerous extremist helps him, because it makes him seem reasonable and his critics foolish. It also helps those who peddle it, because it makes them notorious and helps them sell their wares. But it has done perhaps irreparable harm to the central conservative cause of the present moment -- making the case that Obama's social-democratic statism is setting the United States on a course for disaster and that his anti-exceptionalist foreign policy is setting the world on a course for nihilistic chaos. Those are serious arguments, befitting a serious antagonist. They may not sell gold coins as quickly and as well as excessive alarmism, but they have the inestimable advantage of being true.
Daniel Larison of the American Conservative observes:
Of course, warning about global "nihilistic chaos" being unleashed by an "anti-exceptionalist foreign policy" is just another example of excessive alarmism that produces the same effects as the attacks Podhoretz wants conservatives to reject. No one outside the bubble of movement conservatives and hard-liners believes that Obama's foreign policy is "anti-exceptionalist" in any sense, much less in the tendentious way that it is being applied here.
Conservative media figures are taking a partial quote from President Obama out of context in order to attack him as reacting callously to the deaths of U.S. diplomatic personnel.
In an appearance taped today for The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, President Obama was asked if communication between government personnel had failed to provide "the optimal response" to the Benghazi attacks. Obama replied in part: "If four Americans get killed, it's not optimal. We're going to fix it. All of it. And what happens, during the course of a presidency, is that the government is a big operation and any given time something screws up. And you make sure that you find out what's broken and you fix it."
Conservative media figures like Matt Drudge, Monica Crowley, Hugh Hewitt, Mary Katherine Ham,John Podhoretz, Jonah Goldberg, Erick Erickson and outlets like Fox Nation all used early reports of Obama's comments to attack him, with several falsely suggesting that Obama had said the deaths of American personnel in Benghazi, and not the communications effort, was "not optimal."
Conservative media are on the attack after President Obama responded to a question about the Supreme Court's consideration of the Affordable Care Act by pointing out that conservatives criticize "unelected" judges who engage in "judicial activism" to "overturn a duly constituted and passed law." But Obama is right: for years conservatives have railed against "unelected" judges who overturn laws passed by the people's representatives.
In a July 8 New York Post op-ed, John Podhoretz advanced the false claim that Donald Berwick's recess appointment is "unprecedented," and that Obama is making the appointment "absent a controversy, ugly political battle or contentious confirmation hearing." As Media Matters has noted, the right-wing media has manufactured a controversy surrounding Berwick's confirmation by distorting comments he has made about the U.S. and U.K. health care systems. However, despite the suggestion that Berwick is a controversial, radical pick, he has support from both conservatives and health care experts. From the New York Post:
On Tuesday, the Obama administration decided to do something rather peculiar, somewhat shocking and politically fascinating: It circumvented the process by which the Senate advises and consents on executive-branch nominees.
The move, which seems unprecedented in subtle but important ways, promises increased chaos in Washington -- but also hope on health care.
President Obama wants a distinguished doctor named Donald Berwick to head up the office that administers Medicare and Medicaid -- two of the most expensive programs in the federal government. Ordinarily, the nomination would have gone through the process known as "confirmation," with a hearing before the Senate Finance Committee followed by a full vote of all 99 senators. (One seat is vacant due to the death of West Virginia's Robert Byrd.)
Instead, Obama decided to invoke his constitutional authority to appoint Berwick (and two other officials of lesser moment) to his post without having to be confirmed by the Senate. This is possible only when Congress is not in session, as is the case right now, and it's called a "recess appointment." It is designed to be temporary; it is valid only until that session of the Congress adjourns, which in this case will come at year's end.
That's what makes the administration's decision unprecedented in my nearly 30 years of closely following politics: I can't recall a preemptive decision to make a recess appointment absent a controversy, ugly political battle or contentious confirmation hearing.
And that's especially true when there's no indication there will be an effort to filibuster, which Democrats would likely have been able to override. (Berwick's credentials as a Harvard muckety-muck would have given the two Maine Republican moderate senators more than enough leeway to let him pass.)
Numerous media figures have asserted that a recent report purportedly identifying former deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage as Robert Novak's original source for Valerie Plame's identity as a CIA operative prove that Karl Rove and I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby were not involved in the leak of her identity. However, Armitage's role as Novak's first source is not inconsistent with Rove's and Libby's involvements in the leak -- both were original sources of the information for two other reporters.
New York Post columnist John Podhoretz discussed his new book, Can She Be Stopped? Hillary Clinton Will Be the Next President of the United States Unless ..., on Hannity & Colmes and acknowledged that he used the "B-word" to describe Sen. Clinton because she "has qualities that we commonly associate with being unfeminine."
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CNN's David Ensor claimed that a 2003 executive order "makes clear that the president and the vice president can order aides," such as Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, "to give any classified material they want to a reporter." Similarly, in his New York Post column, John Podhoretz, citing a 1982 executive order, claimed that President Bush "can declassify a document merely by declaring it unclassified."
New York Post columnist John Podhoretz described Democrats' use of the term "incompetent" to describe President Bush as "an act of political cowardice," adding, "voters can smell that kind of cowardice a mile off." But a poll by the Pew Research Center reported that "incompetent" was the most frequently cited one-word description for Bush, and that, overall, negative impressions of Bush -- measured by respondents' selection of words such as "incompetent," "idiot" or "liar" to describe Bush -- outweighed positive ones, 48 percent to 28 percent.