New York Times columnist Bill Keller thinks President Obama should appoint failed Whitewater sleuth Kenneth Starr to investigate the Internal Revenue Service's improper scrutiny of conservative groups. And yes, Keller adopts the conventional wisdom that so-called scandals in recent weeks have "knocked" Obama's "second term off course." (Public polling suggests otherwise.)
But let's now marvel at the columnist's fantastic claim that if Obama appointed that special counsel the partisan clouds would magically part in Washington, D.C. and Congress and the press, would suddenly focus on the nation's pressing duties. Keller insists the "scandal circus on Capitol Hill is a terrible distraction" and that a special counsel would allow Beltway players to "turn their attention to all that unfinished business," such as immigration reform and passing a budget.
This is part of the pundit fantasy school of writing that has been persistent throughout the Obama presidency and it goes like this: If Obama would just do X (i.e. schmooze more, be less partisan, appoint a special counsel, or just lead), Republicans would cooperate with him legislatively because Republicans are honest brokers who have a deep desire to address the nation's most pressing issues. And the only real obstacle to progress is the fact that Obama can't figure out what makes Republicans tick. He just doesn't get it.
It's that mindset that leads to posts like the one from Keller, suggesting that if the president would move to further criminalize the IRS controversy, that would somehow lower the partisan temperature and would allow Republicans to get back to what they really want to do, which is work with the president to pass pressing legislation.
What Keller conveniently ignores is that Republicans have already made it obvious that they don't matter what the Obama does, it doesn't matter what personal approach he takes, they're going to oppose him across the board.
How else would Keller explain the GOP's historic opposition to emergency relief for Hurricane Sandy? The GOP's historic opposition to the nomination of Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense? The GOP's refusal to pass gun legislation that enjoyed nearly universal support among Americans? And the GOP's mindless, time-wasting obsession with trying to "repeal" Obama's health care reform?
Let's take a closer look a recent example of radical Republican tactics and place it in the context of Keller's claim that a special counsel would produce Congressional productivity.
On May 9, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee was scheduled to vote Gina McCarthy's nomination to head the Environmental Protection Agency out of committee and send it to the Senate for a full vote. But thirty minutes before the meeting was scheduled to begin, Republican notified Democrats that all eight Republican members were boycotting the vote, thereby making it impossible to move McCarthy's nomination forward. Republicans complained that the nominee hadn't sufficiently answered questions submitted by committee Republicans, even though she had already responded to more than 1,000 written queries.
In the end, McCarthy was approved by the committee, but the Republican stalling tactics represented, "an unprecedented attempt to slow down the confirmation process and undermine the agency," as former Republican Congressman Sherwood Boehlert recently lamented.
That's the backdrop for Keller's declaration that appointing a special counsel to spend months investigating the IRS would eliminate partisan wrangling and clear the way for cooperation.
It's pure Beltway pundit fantasy.
New York Times columnist Bill Keller joined Fox News' scandal machine in calling for a special prosecutor to investigate the Obama administration's role surrounding the Internal Revenue Services' (IRS) improper scrutiny of conservative groups. In an opinion piece titled, "Bring Back Ken Starr," Keller ignored the independent investigations already underway as well as the fact that Starr's last round of investigations as special counsel set records for the cost to the American taxpayer and encouraged a hyper-partisan environment that can still be felt today.
After the Fox-led GOP investigation into the attacks in Benghazi collapsed, Fox News geared up its scandal machine to focus on President Obama and the IRS and promptly called for a special prosecutor. In a May 21 op-ed, New York Times columnist Bill Keller followed their lead. Keller even suggested former Whitewater investigator Kenneth Starr, who used a real estate deal that emerged during President Clinton's first term as a platform to conduct ever-expanding investigations into the administration over the course of several years, for the role. In fact, Starr topped Keller's list of candidates:
Republicans are howling for President Obama to name a special prosecutor to investigate the Internal Revenue Service's targeting of Tea Party groups. The president should call their bluff.
The president should announce that he has told the Justice Department to appoint an independent investigator with bulldog instincts and bipartisan credibility. The list of candidates could start with Kenneth Starr, who chased down the scandals, real and imagined, of the Clinton presidency. It might include Patrick Fitzgerald, who was special counsel in the Valerie Plame affair, winning the conviction of Dick Cheney's chief of staff, and who has successfully prosecuted two corrupt governors of Illinois, one from each party.
Keller emphasized what he sees as the need for an independent special prosecutor to discover what laws may have been broken, stating, "Just to be clear, in case the Republicans have forgotten, that is the high bar a special prosecutor would be expected to get over." But he ignored the fact that the Treasury Department Inspector General, who reported on the scandal originally, is itself independent of the administration and that a criminal investigation has already begun in the wake of the IG's report.
His call for the appointment of Starr is especially concerning. According to Duquesne law professor Ken Gormley, who wrote the book on Whitewater, Starr led a team that "came together to produce a witch hunt." Gormley goes on to blame Starr's investigations for encouraging the country's current polarization. "This is the beginning of the sharp division of red and blue," he says. "It's a tragic story ... and it's essential that we do not let something like this happen again."
Keller also failed to mention that Starr managed to rack up a record bill for his efforts -- a cost of over $30 million.
A New York Times article directly refutes the claims of House Republicans, including Speaker John Boehner, that State Department officials knew immediately that the attacks on a U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya in 2012 were connected to "Islamic terrorists." Fox News willingly repeated the attack on its evening programming May 9 -- but now that the Republican distortion has been exposed, will the network clarify its reports for viewers?
Boehner called for the release of a State Department e-mail sent in the wake of the Benghazi attacks that he claimed suggested the assault was perpetrated by "Islamic terrorists." At the House hearing on Benghazi on May 8, Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-SC), purporting to be reading from the email in question, quoted a State Department official as saying, "the group that conducted the attacks...is affiliated with Islamic terrorists." The phrase "Islamic terrorists" holds significance for Republicans who have suggested the administration knew from the outset that terrorists were behind the attacks but initially attempted to cover-up this knowledge for political reasons.
The May 9 editions of Fox News' Special Report with Bret Baier and Fox Business Channel's Lou Dobbs TONIGHT hyped the Republican line. According to a Nexis transcript search, Baier played clips of Boehner calling for the release of the e-mail, to which Fox guest and Fortune columnist Nina Easton responded, "I was happy to see Speaker Boehner call for the release of those internal e-mails. Anybody who thought that this was just a Republican hazing as the opposition party in power, I think those concerns were put to rest yesterday. I mean, there's so many unanswered questions."
Lou Dobbs also played Boehner's call for release of the e-mail, noting afterward that "somewhat predictably, no response from the Obama administration at this hour." Dobbs continued, claiming that Boehner's comments and the May 8 congressional hearings into the administration's response to the Benghazi attacks "open up new questions about the accuracy of the past testimony of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton."
The New York Times, however, obtained a copy of the e-mail in question and reported that the phrase conservatives are putting in the mouth of the State Department official -- "Islamic terrorists" - is in fact not used to describe the perpetrators of the attack. Rather, the official describes the perpetrators as having ties to "Islamic extremists" -- a distinction with a difference, according to the Times report:
[A] copy of the e-mail reviewed by The New York Times indicates that A. Elizabeth Jones, the senior State Department official who wrote it, referred to "Islamic extremists," not terrorists.
The distinction is important, administration officials said, because while the White House did not initially characterize the attack as terrorism, senior officials, including Ambassador Susan E. Rice, acknowledged the possibility that extremists had been involved in the assault.
Fox News is no stranger to carrying water for the Republican Party, and the network has led the charge to push Benghazi cover-up conspiracies. But now that the latest GOP line on Benghazi has been exposed, will Fox inform its viewers?
As Midwestern states assess the damage wrought by record flooding in recent weeks, scientists tell Media Matters that the media has missed an important part of the story: the impact of climate change. A Media Matters analysis finds that less than 3 percent of television and print coverage of the flooding mentioned climate change, which has increased the frequency of large rain storms and exacerbated flood risks.
Seven out of eight scientists interviewed by Media Matters agreed that climate change is pertinent to coverage of recent flooding in the Midwest. Princeton University climate scientist Michael Oppenheimer told Media Matters it is "not only appropriate, but advisable" for the press to note that rainstorms in the Midwest are increasing in frequency and that climate models "suggest this trend will continue," which will contribute to more flooding. Aquatic ecologist Don Scavia added that this is the "new normal," and that the media is "missing an important piece of information" by ignoring this trend.
Indeed, climate change has been almost entirely absent from national and local reporting on the floods. Only one of 74 television segments mentioned climate change, on CBS News. ABC, NBC and CNN never mentioned the connection.
Meanwhile, USA TODAY was the only national print outlet to report on Midwest floods in the context of climate change. USA TODAY also created a video, featured above, explaining the connection as part of a year-long series on the impacts of climate change.
Fox News devoted significantly more airtime to the Heritage Foundation's claims that providing legal status to undocumented immigrants will have negative fiscal impact, but mostly ignored pro-immigration rallies during the same period.
The Midwest has experienced near record flooding this spring, resulting in four deaths, extensive property damage, and disruptions of agriculture and transportation. Evidence suggests that manmade climate change has increased the frequency of heavy downpours, and will continue to increase flooding risks. But in their ample coverage of Midwestern flooding, major media outlets rarely mentioned climate change.
The suicide rate among middle-aged Americans, and especially among the middle-aged men, soared from 2000 to 2010, according recent findings from the Center For Diseases Control and Prevention. There were 38,350 suicides in 2010, making it the tenth leading cause of death in America, surpassing the annual number of car fatalities. Among men ages 50 to 59 years old, there was a nearly 50 percent spike in suicides over that ten-year span. More than half of all male suicides were carried out with a firearm.
The startling findings have produced a steady stream of news coverage in recent days. But it's been coverage that has largely overlooked a central tenet of the escalating suicide crisis: Guns. And specifically, easy access to guns in America.
The oversight continues a troubling media trend of news reports routinely failing to put U.S. gun violence in context and failing to give news consumers a proper understanding of the size and scope of the deadly epidemic. Self-inflicted gun deaths remain the cornerstone of suicides in America, accounting for 56 percent of male suicides. And the gun rate is increasing. You simply cannot discuss suicide in America without addressing the pivotal role firearms play. Unfortunately, in recent days lots of news organizations have tried to do just that.
The truth is, gun suicides are rarely front-and-center in the firearms debate in this country, which instead is often focused on crime statistics and, sometimes even less rarely, the total number of people killed by guns annually. And according to researchers, there exists a clear connection between states that have high gun ownership rates and states that suffer high suicide rates.
Moreover, guns are especially lethal. Suicide attempts with a gun prove to be fatal 85 percent of the time, as compared to suicide attempts via pill overdoses, which prove fatal just two percent of the time, according to a study from the Harvard Injury Control Research Center.
In covering the CDC's latest suicide findings though, news accounts have paid little attention to guns.
NBC News made just a single reference to firearms in its report about escalating suicides, despite the fact guns are used in early 20,000 suicides every year. The Wall Street Journal's news report never referenced "guns" or "firearms" even once. The same was true of CBS' Evening News on May 2. It aired a suicide report based on the CDC's findings and never mentioned guns.
Anti-choice activists, playing on media bias toward sensationalism, have manipulated journalists into making an exceptionally rare procedure the face of abortion in America.
Lila Rose, the proprietor of the group Live Action and a veteran anti-choice crusader with a long history of mounting deceptive campaigns targeting abortion rights, released a video on April 28 of an undercover activist's experience at a New York women's health clinic that she dishonestly said illustrated "illegal and inhuman practices" that should lead to a murder investigation.
On cue, Washington Post blogger Melinda Henneberger quickly tied the video campaign to Dr. Kermit Gosnell, a Philadelphia physician facing multiple murder charges resulting from the monstrous and horrific procedures he is alleged to have carried out under the guise of women's reproductive health.
Henneberger was quickly forced to correct a central point of her post and tacitly acknowledge that she did not view the entire, unedited video before writing a blog post that drew sweeping conclusions about what this video means to the larger abortion debate. The New York Times also took the bait, noting that Live Action is tying its videos -- a second video was released Monday -- to Gosnell and adding:
The release comes as Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, a Democrat, has thrown his support behind legislation that will guarantee a woman's right to an abortion after 24 weeks of pregnancy, if her health is in danger or if the fetus is not viable. The current law permits abortion after 24 weeks only if a woman's life is in danger, although it is not enforced because federal court rulings have allowed less restrictive late-term abortions.
But the conversations documented by Live Action have absolutely nothing to do with the realities of abortion in America. Medical practitioners in both videos make clear that the situation they are ostensibly discussing -- what they do when a fetus survives a late-term abortion -- is something they have never had to deal with. So the entire conversation is now based on a hypothetical scenario cooked up by Lila Rose to demonize abortion providers.
This is a longstanding tactic of the anti-choice movement, as noted by Amanda Marcotte of RH Reality Check:
Third trimester abortions are about 1% of all abortions performed, and frankly, the anti-choice movement only focuses on them because they are especially disgusting, and therefore make a good cudgel to attack all abortion rights. And since they are so emotionally fraught, they have a great deal of appeal to the ghouls that populate the anti-choice movement, the ones who spend obscene percentages of their lives dwellling on graphic pictures of dead fetuses.
The overwhelming majority of abortions performed in the United States -- 90 percent -- occur during the first trimester, according to researchers at the Guttmacher Institute. Note that while Live Action is currently focused on late-term procedures, their stated goal is "ending abortion."
The actions Gosnell allegedly took do not fall under the framework of medical abortion and constitute murder -- murder -- under Pennsylvania law. Yet those actions, along with a hypothetical situation that the experienced practitioners in the video say they have never encountered during procedures that make up a staggeringly small fraction of abortions in this country, now form the basis of the conversation.
In recent weeks, journalists have debated whether ideological bias caused media outlets to ignore the Gosnell trial. The conventional theory in elite media circles is that journalists have downplayed that trial because they are ideologically opposed to a story that sheds a negative light on reproductive rights.
Yet, since Gosnell's arrest, pro-choice advocates have focused on the trial as an illustration of what happens when women do not have access to safe, legal reproductive health services, including legal abortions.
If any bias is at play, it is a bias in favor of sensationalism, allowing anti-choice activists to make the entire discussion of reproductive health defined by an exceptionally rare procedure in order to achieve their political ends.
Media outlets including NPR and Fox News are targeting federal disability benefits programs through a campaign deceptively portraying these programs as wasteful and unsustainable. In reality, these programs have low fraud rates and help the rising number of Americans with severe disabilities survive when they are unable to work.
Even when President Obama successful maneuvers his way through Congressional votes and wins over reluctant Republicans, the press can find a way to paint his efforts as a failure. The New York Times was guilty of that today with a critique that portrayed a recent vote-getting victory as a White House loss.
Stressing what it claimed had been Obama's futile attempt to "twist arms" in the days and weeks before last week high-profile Senate vote on a gun safety bill, the New York Times highlighted an episode involving Sen. Mark Begich (D-AK), who represented a possible swing vote on the legislation. The Times reported that Begich in March had requested that the administration send its new Interior secretary, Sally Jewell, to Alaska to "discuss a long-simmering dispute over construction of a road through a wildlife refuge."
The White House, according to the Times, granted Begich's request, "to let Mr. Begich show his constituents that he is pushing the government to approve the road." With the White House's commitment in hand though, Begich then promptly voted against the administration on guns. And the Jewell trip is still on. The lesson, the Times stressed, was that Obama "has long struggled to master his relationship with Congress."
The Times' front-page piece today joined a cavalcade of commentary in recent days as pundits and reporters seem to race to explain how Obama blew the gun vote last week. (He's no LBJ!) And as they raced to downplay, if not completely eliminate, the obstructionist role Republicans played (again) in blocking the bipartisan gun bill.
As Times columnist Maureen Dowd wrote on April 21, while blaming Obama entirely for the bill's defeat, the legislative setback stemmed from the president's failure to govern; from his "weakness in using leverage to get what he wants."
The problem with the Times' Begich anecdote that rather than illustrating a White House failure in terms of lobbying to win votes on guns, the trip in question was actually the result of a successful White House negotiation with the state's other senator to achieve a different administration goal. The fact the Times used such a thin example as its primary illustration raises doubts about the validity of the press' ongoing effort to paint the White House gun campaign as an abject failure, and its claim that Obama doesn't know how to govern.
Looking back at the Senate's failure last week to pass gun safety legislation in the wake of the school massacre in Newtown, CT., Slate's John Dickerson writes that the bill fell victim to "the structure of the Senate, its partisan makeup, and pressure from gun rights advocates."
I guess that's one way of putting it. Another way of putting it is that Republicans continued to adhere to their unprecedented, four-year campaign of obstructionism and blocked a bill, whose central proposal, expanded background checks, enjoyed a stunning 90 percent support from the American public. But that's not the story Beltway pundits and reporters want to tell.
Instead, with the political postmortems continuing to come in, it's clear the press remains committed to blaming Obama and Democrats for the failure of gun legislation. It's clear the press will not budget from its preferred storyline that as long as Republicans obstruct Obama's agenda, the president will be faulted for not changing the GOP's unprecedented behavior.
And yes, in recent days the level of purposeful obtuseness has reached astonishing heights. In the wake of the bitter gun bill defeat, the DC press wants to tell one story, and one story only: Obama blew it. And they're so committed to the crooked narrative that they're now willing to completely write Republicans out of the story.
How committed? Slate's Dickerson wrote a 1,000-word piece about the gun bill and never once typed the word "Republican." (Or "GOP.") For Dickerson, Republicans weren't players in the gun bill saga, and they certainly weren't the reason it failed to pass. Instead, it failed because of the "president's limitations as a negotiator." And why was that? Because Obama "couldn't master the art of politics," Dickerson wrote.
New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd agreed, claiming the bill's defeat represented a "glaring example" of Obama's weakness. She ridiculed the president for not having "learned how to govern."
And an April 23 front-page New York Times report offered the similar refrain:
If he cannot translate the support of 90 percent of the public for background checks into a victory on Capitol Hill, what can he expect to accomplish legislatively for his remaining three and a half years in office.
The fact is that a majority of Republicans blocked the bill, and blocked even allowing debate on the gun safety bill. But that is now deemed to be irrelevant. Obama's supposed personal and professional shortcomings last week are the real story.
Is the president fair game for criticism and second-guessing in the wake of the gun bill's failure? Of course. Is Obama the only reason the gun bill didn't pass? He is not. But boy, the pundit class and elite reporters sure like to pretend he is.
New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd's April 21 column on President Obama and the blocking of gun safety legislation is drawing no shortage of criticism for its determined obliviousness of how DC politics actually work. Per Dowd, the votes for the Manchin-Toomey expansion of the background check system were there, Obama just needed to take a page from Aaron Sorkin's "The American President" and go on an arm-twisting charm offensive with recalcitrant Republicans and Democrats. Just a few months ago, however, Dowd wrote that Republicans would spend Obama's second term blowing off the White House and reflexively opposing his policy initiatives (including gun safety measures) in order to isolate him politically. She also mocked Obama for saying he would employ the same political tactics she now decries him for not effectively using.
Here's how Dowd saw the Manchin-Toomey debate arriving at a successful conclusion:
It's unbelievable that with 90 percent of Americans on his side, he could get only 54 votes in the Senate. It was a glaring example of his weakness in using leverage to get what he wants. No one on Capitol Hill is scared of him.
Even House Republicans who had no intention of voting for the gun bill marveled privately that the president could not muster 60 votes in a Senate that his party controls.
The White House should have created a war room full of charts with the names of pols they had to capture, like they had in "The American President." Soaring speeches have their place, but this was about blocking and tackling.
Instead of the pit-bull legislative aides in Aaron Sorkin's movie, Obama has Miguel Rodriguez, an arm-twister so genteel that The Washington Post's Philip Rucker wrote recently that no one in Congress even knows who he is.
Dowd even singled out some blue-state Republican senators whom she thought might have been vulnerable to the Sorkin-esque strategy: "He should have gone out to Ohio, New Hampshire and Nevada and had big rallies to get the public riled up to put pressure on Rob Portman, Kelly Ayotte and Dean Heller, giving notice that they would pay a price if they spurned him on this." She also picked out Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) as someone who could have been swayed by a sweet-talking from Obama. But Dowd herself previously derided the idea that such tactics would be effective.
A Media Matters analysis of news coverage of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline since the 2012 election shows that the media continue to largely ignore the risk of an oil spill, while promoting the economic benefits of the project. Meanwhile, Fox News and the Wall Street Journal have dismissed Keystone XL's climate impacts, instead serving as a platform for the pipeline's champions.
With Politico announcing that even "average Americans" are consumed with the question of whether Hillary Clinton will be running for president 40 months from now, the Beltway press corps has officially slipped into Hillary Watch mode. It's a mostly lazy and pointless variety of speculation that requires very little work and produces even less insight.
In fact, perhaps the only telling trait that's been highlighted came via longtime Clinton hater Maureen Dowd, who signaled in her New York Times column on Sunday that she's committed to rewriting the history of her 2008 campaign coverage. I assume Dowd won't be alone as pundits scramble in the face of Clinton's rising popularity to whitewash the extraordinary venom they unleashed on her during her last White House run.
When not detailing Hillary's "hot pink jacket" and new hairstyle, Dowd in her weekend column wondered whether voters will see a new and improved candidate in 2012, one without the "foolery" of 2008, as the headline put it.
"Foolery," as in Clinton acting with ambition and wanting to be taken seriously as a national leader. "Foolery," as in Clinton representing an historic female figure on the campaign trail. (Dowd hated that in 2008: "Hillary often aims to use gender to her advantage, or to excuse mistakes.")
A sizable portion of the D.C. punditocracy, led by Dowd, lost its collective mind covering the Clintons five years ago. They were so far gone that the former first lady's coverage at times represented a house of mirrors featuring manufactured smears and controversies. (See here, here and here.)
And oh yeah, the sexism.
But that's not to be acknowledged now, especially as pundits pass their time "analyzing" Clinton's future. See, according to Dowd it's not the press that needs to learn from its monumental mistakes in 2008, it's Clinton.
The New York Times covered up the extremism of the fringe gun lobby organization Gun Owners of America (GOA) in an article highlighting the group's influence with Republican politicians.
Notably, the Times reported only that the group's leader, Larry Pratt, "worked briefly for Patrick J. Buchanan's 1996 presidential campaign." While it's true that he "worked briefly" for Buchanan's campaign, the Times left out the reason Pratt's role was short-lived: he stepped down as co-chair of the campaign in response to reports that he had attended meetings organized by right-wing militia leaders and white supremacists.
The article describes GOA as an "upstart group" that has a "rising profile" and is "increasingly potent" because of its "loud" advocacy tactics on positions that "tend to veer farther right than those of the" National Rifle Association. It includes praise for the group from Sens. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Dean Heller (R-NV) and reports that the organization has been successful in "freezing senators, particularly Republicans" from taking positions in support of gun violence prevention legislation.
But the Times ignored the extremism of the group's leadership and the bizarre conspiracies they have adopted. The article describes Pratt, the organization's executive director, as follows:
Mr. Pratt, 70, has long been active in Republican politics. He served in the Virginia legislature in the 1980s, and he worked briefly for Patrick J. Buchanan's 1996 presidential campaign.
That description of Pratt's service with Buchanan is inadequate, as the Times' reporting from February 18, 1996, indicates (via Nexis, emphasis added):
Last week, Larry Pratt, a co-chairman of the Buchanan campaign, took a leave of absence after the disclosure that he had spoken at rallies held by leaders of the white supremacist and militia movements.
Mr. Pratt, executive director of Gun Owners of America, said in an interview that he did not know the other speakers. He also said he did not harbor anti-Semitic or racist views, although his articles on gun ownership often appear in The Jubilee, a tabloid published in California by leaders of the Christian Identity movement, a white supremacist organization.