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
Last week, the Associated Press helped dictate campaign coverage for a news cycle when it emphasized how its latest poll showed Hillary Clinton's favorable ratings falling.
"The survey offers a series of warning signs for the leading Democratic candidate," the AP warned, suggesting its survey results were "troubling" for the Democratic frontrunner. Despite the fact that the AP's own poll found that a vast majority of Democratic voters view Clinton favorably, the article included interviews with three Democratic voters, all of whom gave Clinton negative reviews.
The excited AP dispatch set off a new round of Clinton-in-trouble coverage by news organizations that reprinted the AP's survey results:
And at the Washington Post, Chris Cillizza pounced on the AP's polling data and announced it was all very bad news for Clinton.
But notice what information was buried in the 18th and final paragraph of the AP's report on Clinton's falling favorable ratings [emphasis added]:
Clinton's bad marks weren't unique: Nearly all of the Republican candidates surveyed in the poll shared her underwater approval ratings. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, a leading GOP candidate, saw his unfavorable ratings rise to 44% from 36% in April.
Bush's favorable ratings, which have been underwater all year, lag behind Clinton's in the latest AP poll (31 percent Bush, 39 percent Clinton) and his unfavorable ratings are on the rise? Correct. But at the AP, there were no warnings about what those "troubling" numbers mean for Bush's campaign, and there were no AP interviews with Republican voters voicing their disappointment in the candidate.
For the AP, Jeb Bush and his soft poll numbers were clearly not the story. They barely even garnered a footnote.
Welcome to the often-baffling world of polling reporting for the 2016 campaign, where perceived dips by Clinton are obsessed over by the press while Bush stumbles rarely draw interest.
The famous Republican scion from a family whose supporters have raised over $100 million in campaign funds trails a buffoonish celebrity in several recent polls? The press doesn't really think that's a big story for Bush's candidacy. Imagine if Clinton were suddenly overwhelmed by a political outsider on the Democratic side, the doom-and-gloom commentary would be all-consuming.
What is a big story, apparently, is the state of Clinton's favorable ratings.
There's no real mystery why the press downplays polling results that show Clinton with a commanding lead and hypes surveys that show that gap closing, or her popularity supposedly slumping. "Coronations are boring," noted Nate Silver, as he recently highlighted deficiencies in the media's polling coverage. Journalists would "rather see a competitive Democratic primary, which means more to talk about and analyze."
The problem for the press is that, the AP survey notwithstanding, Clinton has enjoyed a nice run of polling results in recent days and weeks.
That last Iowa poll may be the most telling in terms of the very peculiar news coverage that Clinton polls produce, simply because there was essentially a news blackout surrounding the survey's results compared to polls that show a tightening race.
For instance in early July, a Quinnipiac University poll showed Clinton's Iowa lead shrinking to 19 points and the New York Times wrote up a separate news dispatch just about that poll. Just six days later, a We Ask America poll was released showing Clinton with a 40-plus point lead in Iowa. The New York Times reaction? It simply ignored it, as did virtually every news organization in America.
It didn't fit the script.
The last oddity: There's an entrenched pattern of media polls echoing Republican talking points about Clinton and her honesty.
Note this from Fox News:
But here's the possible trouble for Clinton in the general election: 70 percent of voters overall say that a candidate who is sometimes less than honest is a "deal breaker" for their vote -- and a 58-percent majority believes Clinton's natural instincts lean more toward "hiding the truth" than "telling the truth" (33 percent).
What is odd is that Fox never asked voters about Bush's trustworthiness, or any other Republican candidate's trustworthiness. Fox only asked about Clinton.
The same was true of a poll released in June by CNN: "A growing number of people say she is not honest and trustworthy." How did Clinton's "trust" score compare with Bush's? We don't know because CNN didn't ask if voters trust Bush.
And yes, the latest AP poll is guilty of the same imbalance -- it asks if Clinton is "honest," types up the results as bad news for the Democrat, but doesn't pose that query about Bush, or any of the Republican candidates.
Why the persistent double standard?
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush made news on his first official day as a GOP presidential candidate by suggesting that Pope Francis' forthcoming encyclical on climate change could inappropriately push religion "into the political realm" and declaring: "I don't get my economic policy from my bishops or my cardinals or my pope." But the media should be covering Bush's remarks in the context of a closed-door meeting he held with coal industry CEOs earlier this month -- an important piece of information that could shed some light on who Bush is actually getting his "economic policy" from when it comes to climate change.
Bush's June 1 appearance at the Coal & Investment Leadership Forum was first revealed in a May 29 report by The Guardian, based on materials the newspaper received from the Center for Media and Democracy, a non-profit watchdog group. As The Guardian reported at the time:
The former Florida governor is appearing at the invitation of six coalmining company owners and executives: Joe Craft III of Alliance Resource Partners, Kevin Crutchfield of Alpha Natural Resources, Nick DeIuliis of Consol Energy, Garry Drummond of Drummond Company, John Eaves of Arch Coal, and Jim McGlothlin of United Coal Company.
Between them, the six companies have spent more than $17.4m on campaigns and lobbying since the last presidential elections, according to the Center for Responsive Politics Open Secrets website.
The Guardian further noted that the meeting occurred "at a critical time for the energy industry and for Bush's political ambitions," with the Environmental Protection Agency "expected to finalize new rules for carbon pollution from power plants this summer" and Bush "relatively free of fundraising disclosure requirements until the official launch of his presidential campaign."
It's official: Hillary Clinton now faces two looming campaign challengers, Republicans and their allies in the press. But don't take my word for it. The anti-Clinton press campaign is now an open secret in the media, and it marks a whole new chapter in campaign journalism.
Election seasons always usher in debates about press coverage, with the assumption being coverage can affect electoral results. Which candidates are getting the most positive coverage? And which ones are being dogged by journalists?
Journalists traditionally wave off any allegations of unfair treatment for particular candidates and insist the claims are nothing more than sour grapes, or partisan plots to boost the candidate's chances. Instead, scribes claim, they always play campaigns down the middle.
But in a new twist, some members of the Beltway press corps are stepping forward to announce categorically that Hillary Clinton, despite her envious standing, is the obvious target of media derision. And that the press is actively trying to harm her campaign.
"The national media has never been more primed to take down Hillary Clinton," Politico's Dylan Byers observed late last week, as he surveyed the unfolding campaign season. The same press corps, he added, stands poised to "elevate a Republican candidate."
That's a rather astonishing revelation from inside the Beltway media bubble, right? Openly taking down a Democrat, while elevating a Republican? Wow.
The weird part was that campaign journalists didn't seem to object to the description. There was very little pushback regarding Byer's rather shocking claim; it barely caused a ripple. Journalists don't seem ashamed of that fact that Clinton faces a tougher press than her fellow candidates, or think it reflects poorly on the state of political journalism. More and more journalists are simply admitting the truth: The press is out to get Clinton. Period.
How is it the likely Democratic Party nominee for president has become a constant target of press derision and that journalists admit the media's out to get her? Whatever happened to journalism's role of reporting on what happens in a campaign, and not trying to determine the outcome?
And could you imagine the seismic revolt that would unfold if reporters openly targeted Republicans? But don't hold your breath. When was the last time you read an article, or heard a single television discussion, in which Beltway media elites opined about how their media colleagues despise Gov. Scott Walker, are out to get former Gov. Jeb Bush, or want to take down Sen. Marco Rubio?
That kind of talk could kill a journalist's career because it would ignite the right wing's Liberal Media Bias mob. But publicly admitting the press is "prime" to try to disrupt and dismantle the likely Democratic Party's presidential nominee seems to represent perfectly acceptable behavior.
Talk about the Clinton Rules.
Multiple media outlets have been forced to walk back and update initial reports scandalizing Hillary Clinton's use of a private email account during her tenure as secretary of state, after The New York Times kicked off the pseudo-scandal in an article the paper later acknowledged was "not without fault."
Since it was founded in 2007, Politico has published thousands of articles and columns. (It's published almost 50,000 mentions of Barack Obama alone.) But according to site's online archives, only recently has Politico described a public figure as a "ruthless attack dog."
That person? Gabby Giffords, the former Democratic Congresswoman from Arizona who was shot in the head in 2011 when a gunman, brandishing a 9mm Glock 19 semi-automatic pistol, opened fire at Gifford's outdoor shopping center event, shooting 19 people, six of whom died.
Why "ruthless attack dog"? Because Giffords is running tough, accurate gun safety ads through her PAC, Americans for Responsible Solutions, against Republicans in various states to highlight the fact the GOP stonewalled any efforts to pass gun legislation, even after the school massacre in Sandy Hook, Connecticut.
Talk about incongruity. The 44-year-old recovering gunshot victim was labeled "mean," tagged for having "unleashed some of the nastiest ads" of the year, and brandishing a "bare-knuckled approach" to politics. It fit into a larger pattern of Giffords "harshly attack[ing] her Republican foes," according to Politico.
The misguided Politico piece has received plenty of deserved criticism this week, especially for denouncing someone who got shot in the head as "angry" and "mean" when she's trying to pass laws to diminish the number of Americans who get shot in the head.
But additional elements in play make the piece even more distressing, and highlight continuing trends in political news coverage. It's impossible to ignore the fact that Giffords, as a woman in a predominantly male field of campaign politics, was singled out for being the poster child for disconcertingly "mean" and "angry" politics this election cycle. And that she was singled out on almost laughably thin evidence. (Politico's sole example of a "liberal leaning" critic of the ad was the Arizona Republic, a paper that endorsed GOP presidential candidates in the last four election cycles.)
A Democratic woman goes toe-to-toe against the mostly-male gun lobby in America and she's the one whistled for a foul by Politico's etiquette police? She's the one depicted as a convenient victim because the life-threatening injury she suffered represents "quite the conundrum" for those who might otherwise attack her and who now feel "helpless" to respond to her supposedly nasty ads?
As Hillary Clinton prepares for perhaps her second presidential run, it's worth reflecting on how prominent women are often treated and slighted by the Beltway press. How they're frequently held to a different standard, warned against getting too emotional, to the point where making factually accurate campaign ads in 2014 leads to wide-eyed Politico declarations of being "mean" and "angry" and "ruthless."
Politico's Roger Simon distorted President Obama's record to claim that his request for emergency funding to deal with the recent flood of unaccompanied minors crossing the border was tantamount to waking "from a deep slumber ... to fight a problem he has ignored for years." In reality, Obama has supported legislation in the past that addressed many of the underlying issues but the legislation has been blocked by the GOP.
For two years, the National Organization for Marriage (NOM) has been peddling the theory that the IRS intentionally leaked its donor list to a gay rights organization as part of an Obama administration conspiracy. Two separate investigations and a ruling by a Reagan-appointed judge have debunked that theory. But right-wing media, which have widely touted NOM's initial accusations, have largely ignored or denied the conspiracy theory's demise.
In the spring of 2012, an IRS employee inadvertently leaked an unredacted list of NOM's donors in response to a public records request. The pro-equality group Human Rights Campaign (HRC) got its hands on the list, highlighting past contributions to NOM by prominent conservatives like then-presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
Noting that key HRC officials were prominent supporters of President Obama's re-election campaign, NOM alleged a conspiracy between the organization and the Obama administration aimed at embarrassing NOM and its supporters.
In April 2012, NOM filed a formal letter of complaint to the IRS. Conservative outlets like The Daily Caller and The Weekly Standard touted the complaint, focusing particularly on the revelation that Romney was one of the group's donors. For most of the next year, however, media interest in the story was scant.
That changed in the spring of 2013. In May, U.S. Attorney General Eric holder ordered the FBI to begin a criminal probe into allegations that the agency had targeted tax-exempt conservative political groups. While the IRS actually scrutinized progressive groups more extensively than conservative ones, the IRS "scandal" became a rallying cry for right-wing media. The controversy also meant newfound interest in NOM's allegations against the agency.
Mainstream and conservative media outlets were quick to pick up on NOM's call for an investigation into the IRS's activities.
The Wall Street Journal 's James Taranto spotlighted NOM's claims in a column on the IRS controversy, asking "How pervasive is the Obama IRS scandal?":
The author of Sons of Wichita, the new biography of the Koch brothers, never got the interviews he wanted with the archconservative billionaires. But he says the family nonetheless kept a close eye on his research, deploying the "very aggressive P.R. operation" they have used for years to silence media criticism.
"I had a senior person at [Koch Industries] basically tell me, 'Yeah, that is our strategy, we hit back and over time because of doing this the mainstream press has sort of learned a lesson to be careful about what they say about us,'" said Daniel Schulman, the book's author and a senior editor at the progressive Mother Jones magazine. "I would describe it as pugilistic, [which] is often their style in general."
Despite the lack of support from its subjects, Schulman's book is a fascinating portrait of the often bitter relationships between the four brothers -- Charles, David, Bill, and Frederick -- whose sprawling political empire has become a dominant force in the right-wing movement.
Schulman said the company's efforts to find out about his research and stop some from cooperating is not unusual, noting the Koch brothers and Koch Industries, the company at the root of their vast wealth, have a history of both intimidating reporters and seeking to counter negative coverage.
"People in the media certainly have what they would call their war stories dealing with Koch Industries," Schulman said in a lengthy interview with Media Matters. "There is a range of experiences. They have a very aggressive P.R. operation." He added, "I should also say that I like a lot of people I was in communication over there, they were nice people. But they were aggressive."
Schulman, whose book was published last week, said he began his research by writing a formal inquiry letter to each of the four brothers. He said only Frederick, the least involved in the company, would meet with him -- and then said he would only discuss his family if he received veto power over any third-party source material. Schulman declined.
At Koch Industries, which is headed by David and Charles, initial reaction was curious and somewhat cooperative, Schulman said. But it never amounted to any access to the two top executives.
"At one point they flew out to even talk to the publisher," Schulman recalled about a Koch executive. "They wanted to make sure this was going to be a fair book, they saw Mother Jones and immediately thought the worst. I was speaking to people there throughout the process, but they would never give me access to David or Charles, which I think was unfortunate because I do think that they had not much to lose and a lot to gain. I think these guy are all very interesting and should have their stories told."
But Koch Industries' interest did not end there, Schulman said
"I certainly got the sense that there were ... certain people [to whom] they were probably saying, 'don't talk to him.' I definitely got that impression," Schulman said. "I definitely talked to people who said, 'yeah, I spoke to Charles and he said he would prefer that I don't speak to you.'"
The Koch concerns about the book went even further, Schulman said.
CNN anchor and New York Daily News columnist S.E. Cupp was cursed with bad timing this week as she launched attacks on Hillary Clinton's time as secretary of state. Pointing to current events surrounding Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Cupp wrote, "a new front is brewing that may bring Clinton's strategic judgment more directly into question: Russia." She added that if Clinton "thinks she's going to get off the hook for it, she's sadly mistaken." According to Cupp, the Russian troop movements demonstrate that Clinton's 2009 effort to reset U.S. relations with that nation were a failure that will damage any potential 2016 presidential run.
Why the bad timing?
The day before Cupp's column appeared detailing Clinton's would-be secretary of state "baggage," Pew Research published a poll showing a strong majority of Americans (67 percent) applaud Clinton's time as secretary of state. And when asked to identify the biggest positive of her long public career, the top response was Clinton's time as secretary. (Also, clear majorities of Americans peg her as being "tough," "honest," and "likable.")
So what Cupp sees as diplomatic "baggage," lots of Americans see it as part of Clinton's crowning accomplishment.
Cupp is hardly alone. Politico's Clinton beat writer, Maggie Haberman wrote that the Ukraine conflict "is another instance in which Clinton is tethered to the administration's decisions heading into 2016." Clinton is "tethered" to her time as secretary of state, Politico noted ominously, while a vast majority of Americans applaud Clinton's time as secretary of state. (And yes, the Pew poll was conducted after Russia invaded Ukraine.)
As the crisis in the Ukraine continues to play out, parts of the D.C. media's All News Is Bad News For Hillary brigade have rallied around the idea that even though Clinton is no longer secretary of state, the current conflict in Ukraine could damage her presidential aspiration because she used to be secretary of state.
More importantly, the Ukraine analysis is the exact opposite of the Beltway pundits' pronouncement last year as they praised current chief diplomat John Kerry after he reached an interim agreement with Iran to freeze its nuclear program. The media formula was simple: Good news that transpired after Clinton left the State Department was not her doing and she deserved no credit. Her efforts to build a sanctions regime that drove Iran to the bargaining table were ignored.
But apparently, the Ukraine crisis is her doing and she deserves the blame even though she left the administration last year. In other words, if Hillary runs for president all the things that didn't happen under her guidance at State will hurt her chances. And if she runs, all the things that happened while she wasn't at State will also hurt her. Under this rubric, all developments in international relations, whether good or bad for the United States, are bad news for Hillary Clinton.
Talk about a lose-lose for Hillary. And talk about trolling for bad news.
Hillary Clinton's recent statement that her "biggest regret is what happened in Benghazi" led to a media feeding frenzy who treated her statement as a groundbreaking revelation, while ignoring the fact that immediately following the attacks, Clinton accepted responsibility multiple times including during her testimony with the Senate and House committee.
First things first.
Here is a video from the memorial service that was held last week in South Africa to honor anti-apartheid hero Nelson Mandela. While watching the video, keep in mind the controversy that erupted in the media when President Obama was part of a selfie picture at the event. Some media commentators were furious because it was such a undignified thing to do at a somber "funeral":
Here's how South Africans experienced the same memorial.
USA Today described the event, which was not a funeral, as a "raucous and festive send-off" that at times resembled a "soccer match," one where attendees "stomped until the bleachers shook." In fact, they "chanted and sang so loudly an official begged the crowd to quiet down."
So no, President Obama, Danish Prime Minister, Helle Thorning Schmidt and British Prime Minister David Cameron were never in danger of puncturing the memorial mood by using a few fleeting seconds to playfully snap a photo of themselves.
Nonetheless, the New York Daily News, among others, pounced. Following the right-wing media's misinformation lead, the Daily News mocked Obama for posing at a "funeral," while the Washington Post's Chris Cillizza described Obama as "acting like a bored kid at a school assembly during a funeral for a world leader." And a National Public Radio headline announced "President Obama Took A Funeral Selfie."
Of course, Obama didn't attend Mandela's funeral. But it sounded better to pretend he did, so lots of journalists did just that.
The story also sounded better by pretending images of First Lady Michelle Obama that day revealed the makings of a husband/wife spat, as journalists went full-on Zapruder on a couple of harmless snapshots and eagerly divined a soap opera storyline to the day, one that starred Michelle Obama as the "angry black woman" casting a nasty stare at the Danish prime minister.
Yes, the media simultaneously attacked Barack Obama for being too gleeful at the memorial and attacked Michelle Obama for not being gleeful enough. Talk about a lose-lose. And yes, this from the same press corps that bemoans the fact presidents aren't more spontaneous and unscripted.
Keep in mind, the mindless coverage revolved entirely around false premises; Obama was being disrespectful at a "funeral," and Michelle Obama was royally peeved at her husband's behavior. False and false: Here's a photo of Michelle sharing a light moment with the Danish prime minister that day.
To produce journalism and commentary this vapid and pointless takes work. It doesn't just happen. You have to play dumb about a whole range of issues in order to join in the Beltway fun. Coming at the end of the year, the selfie charade represented a sad encapsulation of the Beltway media's shortcomings; of its painfully unserious pursuits.
What is especially maddening is it highlighted that while the press becomes increasingly fascinated with gotcha events and treats them that as news, it's failing in its primary duty to produce reliable reporting about pressing public policy issues. Specifically, the selfie nonsense played out against the backdrop of the Beltway press corps' that bungled coverage of health care reform.
National Review editor Rich Lowry criticized Senator Ted Cruz's effort to defund Obamacare as "a grass roots-pleasing slogan," adding to the conservative media divide over Republican plans to defund the health care law by threatening a government shutdown.
Republican politicians, including Cruz (TX) and Senator Mike Lee (UT), have threatened to shut down the government in order to stop funding health care reform. That approach has earned criticism from other Republicans, such as Senator Richard Burr (NC), who called it "the dumbest idea I've ever heard of."
Writing in Politico, Lowry argued against Cruz's strategy, dismissing it as "a grass roots-pleasing slogan" and unrealistic:
His push to defund Obamacare this fall is a grass roots-pleasing slogan in search of a realistic path to legislative fruition. Cruz never explains how a government shutdown fight would bring about the desired end. The strategy seems tantamount to believing that if Republican politicians clicked their wing tips together and wished it so, President Barack Obama would collapse in a heap and surrender on his party's most cherished accomplishment.
Lowry's criticism adds to an already wide split among right-wing media on GOP threats to shut down the government.
With more than a dozen Senate Republicans now pushing the truly radical plan to try to defund the federal government in order to stop the implementation of President Obama's Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010, the news media are faced with an acute challenge: Convey the unprecedented nature of the GOP's latest obstructionist strategy, or simply report the maneuvers as politics as usual in the nation's permanently gridlocked Capitol.
To the surprise of no one who has followed the press' timidity towards the GOP in recent years and its open admiration of Republican hardball tactics, the answer is the news media have done very little to explain just how extreme and completely unprecedented the latest Republican gamut is. By doing so, the press has once again allowed the GOP to move the goal posts in defining acceptable, mainstream behavior.
The new plot is so off the wall that even some GOP leaders have condemned it as "silly" and a waste of time. But their critique deals mostly with partisan politics and their concern a possible government shutdown sparked by health care protest would hurt the Republican Party in the long run.
In terms of the sheer craziness of the strategy (i.e. who brings the government to a halt in order to kill a single law that's already been passed?), the Beltway press has mostly looked away and failed to put this absurdity in its proper context.
Unfortunately, that follows the media's tradition in recent years of letting the GOP practice an unheard brand of obstructionism and pay no price, and to draw little scorn in the press. (See: Cabinet nominations, sequestration, emergency relief funds and judicial picks.) It appears there's no cockamamie strategy or political plan that Republicans can ponder that the Beltway press won't immediately legitimize and take seriously.
The press for years now has failed to provide a framework with regards to the radical ways that now define the GOP, to the point where shutting down the federal government in order to eradicate a law that Republicans were unable to stop from being passed is casually referred to as "the plan," or the "strategy."
It's much, much more than that. It's unprecedented. And pundits and reporters ought to include that crucial context.
Answering reporters' questions in the White House Rose Garden last month, President Obama vowed to address the just-uncovered IRS controversy, in which the agency inappropriately targeted conservative groups that were applying for tax-exempt status. "We will be putting in new leadership that will be able to make sure that we...hold accountable those who have taken these outrageous actions," Obama said on May 16.
Obama announced that the acting IRS director was leaving, and pledged to work with Congress and institute new safeguards, in part by implementing some of the recommendations included in the newly released inspector general's report.
"The good news is it's fixable," Obama said. "And it's in everyone's best interest to work together to fix it." At the time, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), chairman of the House Oversight Committee, said that the president "set exactly the right tone."
Less than three weeks later, Issa appeared on CNN and called White House Press Secretary Jay Carney a "paid liar." He also dangled for journalists some cherry-picked excerpts from Congressional interviews with a handful of IRS workers, stressed he was convinced the IRS targeting had been done "in all likelihood" for political purposes, and assured viewers it was just a matter of time before he uncovered enough evidence to prove his claims. ("We're getting to proving it," he said.)
In other words, what started out, briefly, as a bipartisan effort to fix a serious federal government problem, and what started out with Obama admitting that mistakes were made and committing to holding people accountable, quickly degenerated into the latest partisan pursuit inside Washington.
The focus of Issa's hearings is no longer fixing a problem. It's been shifted to affixing political blame. Rather than asking how the IRS mistake can be avoided in the future, the questions now being asked revolve around politics and the process.
And it was Issa's June 2 CNN appearance, where he uncorked wild charges about the IRS story (charges often based on his "gut" instincts), that signaled to the press that Republicans were, without question, treating the IRS story as purely a political and partisan endeavor. And it was Issa's rhetoric that helped mold the larger media narrative surrounding the story: GOP targets the White House in IRS probe. That in turn produces puts Democrats on the defensive, forced to disprove Republican charges, even though the allegations aren't grounded in fact.
Much the same way the press followed Republicans' lead and allowed the terrorist attack on U.S. diplomatic facilities in Benghazi to be turned into an almost an exclusively partisan pursuit, the same pattern has emerged with the IRS story.