The Atlantic's Marc Ambinder gives the Sestak/Romanoff nonstory -- and the journalists responsible for it -- a sound thrashing:
[P]ractice -- and not simply underhanded practice, but open, above-board practice, since the time those laws were written suggests that the law's authors intended them as a bulwark against official corruption, not against the mixing of politics and policy. In other words, if you apply an originalist reading of these statutes, you will not end up with anything remotely resembling an indictable offense. What keeps this story alive is the media's feeding off the energy that can be generated from deliberately misconstruing the law and its intent.
It is simply not illegal for the White House to offer him an alternative to running against their preferred candidate. There is a reason why no one has ever been prosecuted for this crime.
Making this distinction is critical, because the moment these claims are treated as valid claims, rather than politically-motivated cant, is the moment that they become legitimate facts worthy of a debate, and of news coverage. See this story in USA Today: "Obama under fire for election tactics by Sestak, Romanoff." Under fire ... because USA Today has decided that the charges warrant the label.
The media ecosystem is such that the denials and fact-checking and common sense will serve to reinforce the conviction (if it, indeed, is real) by those making these allegations that there must be something to the story.
More potentially pernicious than liberal bias, than the false equivalences bias, than really just about any other bias that journalism that inject into a public discussion of a story is the power that comes from merely selecting which subjects to cover. Whatever the collection of facts about White House officials attempting to influence primary elections is, it is not a scandal. It is not the type of story that journalists with credibility and experience should be selecting to cover. It's the type of story that journalists ought to resist covering, precisely because the act of giving it attention elevates the arguments that don't correspond with the truth. If journalism is good for anything, it is to provide what Republican Bruce Bartlett calls "quality control" over the narrative. Well, a big mess just slipped by.
Although Obama never promised to abstain from politics, he invited some of this scrutiny by refusing to delineate what he found acceptable and what he did not. But this is a venial sin compared to the transgressions of organized journalism. [Emphasis added]
Oh, just go read the whole thing.
Long after many reporters insisted that if only the White House revealed whether Joe Sestak was offered a job the story would go away, reporters are getting ever-more-creative in their attempts to justify covering what is quite clearly not a scandalous act. Two excuses dominate: The Obama camp's promise to be more ethical than predecessors, and its promises of transparency.
Marc Ambinder (who, I should note, has been good about making clear that there's no legal issue here) explains the first:
This is the reason why ethics lawyers can read the text of the statutes, which seem to be clear, and conclude that no prosecutor in his or her right mind would ever bring a case against a White House for doing what the Obama White House did. However, since the Obama White House holds itself as an avatar of ethical excellence, it might have to hold itself to a higher standard than other White Houses. That is an optical problem, not a legal one.
First of all, every incoming administration promises to be more ethical than its predecessors. Remember George W. Bush's pledge to "restore honor and integrity to the Oval Office"? Despite that pledge, reporters could barely pretend to care when Bush's administration outer a covert CIA operative, or when they tried to turn U.S. attorneys into opposition researchers with the power to issue indictments. Despite that pledge, reporters had to be dragged kicking and screaming to (briefly) cover evidence that the Bush administration had lied its way into war. And despite that pledge, reporters certainly didn't care when Karl Rove reportedly offered someone a job to get him to drop out of a campaign.
But things are different now: The Obama administration may have offered someone a job to get him to drop out of a campaign! Oh. Wait…
Second: It's one thing to say the White House promised a higher level of ethical excellence and should be held to that promise, and another to invent, after the fact, ethical transgressions that have never before in the history of the republic been considered ethical transgressions. Yes, the Obama team said they'd be ethically excellent (as does every incoming administration) and yes, they should be held to that promise (as should every administration.)
But that has nothing to do with offering Joe Sestak a job, because offering Joe Sestak a job is not ethically suspect. (It may be politically suspect, but that's a different kettle of fish.) Nobody considered it ethically suspect when previous presidents did it, and nobody has explained why it should be considered ethically suspect now. It's like criticizing Obama for failing to live up to his promises of ethical behavior because he wears a blue shirt. It doesn't make any sense, because you haven't established that there's anything wrong with wearing a blue shirt.
The fact that nobody considered such job offers when previous administrations made them brings us to Matthew Dowd on ABC's This Week:
I think this issue is - it is - it is a political issue. And it does hurt his brand because he came to Washington and said I'm going to change things. I'm going to do things differently. I'm not going to be like Bush and Cheney. We're going to do a whole new politics. We're going to bring people together. We're not going to do all - we're not going to politicize things. And then all of the sudden their excuse now in this thing, everybody does it, so we do it. That's a problem for his brand.
That would be a very good point, if the Obama White House was currently saying "It's cool that we outted a covert CIA agent and lied our way into war, because the Bush administration did it, too." But that isn't what the Obama White House, or anyone else, is saying. What they're saying is that nobody complained when previous administrations of both parties did the same thing, because there's nothing wrong with it. That's quite different. It's the difference between "one person previously did it, and there was widespread outrage" and "everyone does it and nobody complains, because there's nothing wrong with it." The difference between "Yeah, I have brown hair; so does half the country" and "Yeah, I killed him and put his head in the freezer; so did Jeffrey Dahmer." Not the same. Different. Curiously, the implication of Dowd's criticism is that any time the Obama White House does something the Bush White House did, that's inappropriate. Curious, that is, coming from one of Bush's chief strategists.
Finally, there's the "they promised transparency" excuse. Yes, the Obama campaign promised transparency. No, that was not a promise to reveal every word of every conversation everyone ever has in the White House. No, nobody thought that's what it meant at the time. The tendency of some reporters to invoke the transparency pledge, and to suggest that it has been broken, every time they want to know something is dishonest and in bad faith.*
These two justifications have something in common: they're all invoked to get around the sticky little problem created by the fact that there's nothing wrong with offering Joe Sestak a job. Rather than explain why it would be unethical to do so, reporters say "well, they said they'd be more ethical, so they should be." OK, fine: How haven't they been? What is unethical about offering Joe Sestak a job? Nothing. What's wrong with refusing to discuss details of a totally legal job offer? "Well … they said they'd be transparent!" OK, fine: Did anyone ever interpret that to mean they'd disclose all details of all job offers? Of course not.
These are not substantive criticisms of the White House. They are excuses to prolong the story. Those are the kinds of things you expect from the political opposition. Why are they coming from journalists?
* I'll happily retract that statement just as soon as anyone can point me to any comment made by Dan Balz or any other reporter in 2008 indicating that Barack Obama had pledged to make public every word of every conversation anyone acting on his behalf has with anyone about any job.
Marc Ambinder makes some good points in his post "In Defense of Double Standards, Sometimes" -- and one big mistake. I'll refer you to his site for the good points rather than attempting to paraphrase them.
Here's the big mistake: Ambinder isn't really defending "double standards."
It does not follow that similar incidents should be treated similarly, particularly if the magnitude of the differences are more significant than the similarities. Double standards are often defensible.
And here's the problem: If "the magnitude of the differences are more significant than the similarities," it isn't a situation where the phrase "double standard" is appropriate.
The phrase "double standard" means that two identical (OK, nearly identical) situations are being treated differently.
It doesn't make any sense to apply the phrase "double standard" to situations that have greater differences than similarities. It's like saying we have a double standard in the way we punish murderers and jay-walkers. Well, no: We have different standards for murderers and for jay-walkers, because they have done vastly different things.
Now, I'm sure some of you are thinking "OK, but isn't this just semantic nit-picking?"
No. When we use the phrase "double standard" in discussing disparate reactions to dissimilar events, we suggest that the events are not dissimilar. We blur the differences -- and, in doing so, we advantage the perpetrator of the greater misdeed.
Take a look at the reason this discussion has come up: Republicans (and many media figures) are saying or suggesting there is a double-standard in the way Democrats and Republicans are treated when they make racially-charged comments. The basic argument is that Republican Sen. Trent Lott lost his job as Majority Leader when he made such a comment, while Democrat Harry Reid has not lost his job. (A variant of the argument: Democrats -- and the media -- were more critical of Lott than Reid, so they have a double-standard for Democrats and Republicans.)
Now, let's review the two situations: Trent Lott suggested America would be a better place had we elected a white segregationist presidential candidate. Harry Reid used archaic language in talking about the black man whose presidential candidacy he supported.
Those are not the same things. They aren't even close to the same things. One is pretty clearly much, much worse than the other. And so the phrase "double standard" does not apply. In using it, rather than describing exactly what each man said, the media blurs the difference between their comments, suggesting they are the same (or, at least, equally bad.) They confuse, rather than clarify.
Like I said: Ambinder makes some good points. But he isn't really defending double-standards. He's defending treating different situations differently. One of the lessons journalists should take from his post is that the danger in habitually describing things as "double-standards" just because one side in a given dispute wants them to.
Marc Ambinder seems to think that liberals are ignoring "real health care anxiety," as expressed by people yelling at town hall events. And he seems to think he's being criticized for pointing out that such anxiety exists.
I think what's really happening is that some liberals think the media should not behave as though a few very loud, very angry protesters are representative of the public at large. And they shouldn't report the things those protesters are yelling -- or even the "real health care anxiety" many other Americans are feeling -- without making clear whether or not the concerns are factually correct.
Basically, by endlessly reporting that town hall events are being interrupted by yelling anti-health-care-reform protesters, the media is giving disproportionate attention to what polls show to be the minority of the public that opposes reform. And by failing to point out when those complaints are factually inaccurate, the media is further amplifying their power.
Video of a handful of shouting protesters may make for better television than factual explanations of health care reform, and refutations of false claims about it, or recitations of polling data showing those protesters to be in the minority -- but it makes for worse journalism.
Ambinder says "protesters are mix of artificial and real. Point is: they're THERE." Well, sure. But that's a pretty banal point. Nobody doubts that they're there. We see the video every time we turn on cable news. But what do they mean? How significant are their numbers? Are their facts right? Those are the things reporters should focus on, not simply assuming that because they are loud, they are powerful or right. There were plenty of angry yelling people at McCain-Palin rallies last year, too -- and they didn't turn out to matter at all, because they were representative of only a small portion of the country.
(This is where Ambinder says I don't understand how things are, and I reply that I do -- but Ambinder doesn't understand they don't have to be, and shouldn't be, how they are.)
UPDATE: Ezra Klein points out that at health care events over the past several years, "one thing is perfectly predictable: The Q&A session will be dominated by single-payer activists asking about HR 676." Now, maybe you've noticed the lack of media attention paid to these public demands for single-payer health care by real Americans over the years. So, no, the media doesn't have to breathlessly report every time some obscure member of congress gets a question from someone who has been lied to about what health care reform will involve.
UPDATE 2: Ambinder elaborates -- and basically says reporters can't say weather health care reform concerns are valid:
Take, for example, the question of whether people would have to change their policies or their doctors as the result of a robust public plan. Obama says no -- and he makes a credible argument for it. Many real people -- regardless of their motives -- have legitimate and credible reasons to believe that the answer is yes.
Nonsense. We know that none of the health care bills in question would require anyone to change health care plans or doctors. None of them.
Ambinder doesn't explain what the "legitimate and credible reasons" to believe that people would have to change policies and doctors are. But whatever they are, they certainly don't preclude reporters from saying "None of the proposed reforms would require anyone to change health care plans or doctors." If Ambinder can come up with a credible argument why people would be required to do so, fine: reporters can and should mention that argument, too. (Though they needn't and shouldn't give it equal weight if it isn't equally-likely.)
That's the responsible way to cover the "anxiety" Ambinder is obsessed with: to assess how valid it is. That may not mean being able to definitively say "true" or "false" -- but the answer isn't, as Ambinder seems to think, to throw your hands up in the air, decide you can't know for sure so you won't even try to assess it, and decide that your job is simply to report that concerns exist.
And, really, I can't believe anyone would seriously think that is the correct path to take. Why would you become a reporter if you think the job simply entails announcing that concerns exist without assessing the validity of those concerns?
Time's Karen Tumulty suggested Mitt Romney for Health and Human Services secretary, citing the role he played in creating Massachusetts' universal health care system as governor, while The Atlantic's Marc Ambinder pointed to the Massachusetts plan to suggest Romney for "White House health care czar." But neither Tumulty nor Ambinder noted that Romney rejected applying the Massachusetts plan to the entire nation, saying "[a] one-size fits-all national health care system is bound to fail."
The Atlantic's Marc Ambinder reported that Judy Black, whom he identified as "a policy director (read: lead lobbyist) for Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck's DC arm" and "the wife of McCain strategist Charlie Black," forwarded a PowerPoint presentation on the "campaign contributions that Fannie and Freddie provided to leading Democratic members of Congress." But Ambinder did not point out that Charlie Black has lobbied for Freddie Mac.
While discussing an Obama campaign ad that noted Sen. John McCain's reported inability to say how many houses he and his wife, Cindy, own, MSNBC's Joe Watkins claimed, "I thought that Barack Obama was not going to attack Senator McCain's wife." The Atlantic's Marc Ambinder uncritically reported the McCain campaign's claim that "Obama's charges 'attack Cindy. She owns the homes.' " But Obama's ad neither mentions nor refers to Cindy McCain or the McCains as a couple.
Some in the media have echoed the McCain campaign's assertion that he simply "misspoke" when he said at a March 18 press conference that Iranian operatives are "taking al-Qaeda into Iran, training them and sending them back." In fact, McCain made the misstatement twice during the press conference, and also made it the day before on Hugh Hewitt's radio show.