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.
Veteran White House correspondents and political scribes dispute claims that a White House aide threatened Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward in a recent email exchange, calling that characterization "overblown."
A media firestorm has followed last night's Politico report that Woodward had received a "veiled threat" from White House economic adviser Gene Sperling for the journalist's reporting on the pending spending cuts known as the sequester, based on a snippet of a Sperling email Woodward provided the paper. The full context of Sperling's comment, released by Politico the next day, made it clear to even conservative observers that no threat had been intended.
"It doesn't seem threatening to me at all, it seems to me based on the email exchange that I read, that it was not threatening, it came at the tail end of a very friendly message, it seemed like it was saying 'you are making a mistake,'" said Bill Plante, CBS News White House correspondent and former president of the White House Correspondents Association. "It does not seem to me to be a threat of any kind in the sense that retaliation is promised."
In the email exchange about the sequestration issue, which followed an angry phone exchange for which Sperling apologized, the aide indicated to Woodward that if he reported the president had been "moving the goal post" related to revenue in the negotiations, Woodward would "regret staking out that claim."
In an interview posted Wednesday night, Woodward characterized the exchange as a threat, according to Politico:
Woodward repeated the last sentence, making clear he saw it as a veiled threat. " 'You'll regret.' Come on," he said. "I think if Obama himself saw the way they're dealing with some of this, he would say, 'Whoa, we don't tell any reporter 'you're going to regret challenging us.'"
But the full context of the emails, released by Politico the next day, casts doubt on the claim that Woodward had been threatened. In the email, Sperling had stated, "I do truly believe you should rethink your comment about saying that [President Obama] asking for revenues is moving the goal post. I know you may not believe this, but as a friend, I think you will regret staking out that claim." Woodward replied to that email in part, "I also welcome your personal advice. I am listening."
By the time the Washington Post's Bob Woodward appears on Sean Hannity Fox News show tonight to tell his tall tale of intimidation, is anyone even going to still care about the reporter's ominous claim that he was threatened by the White House for daring to raise questions about its ongoing sequestration battle with Republicans? Or more specifically, is anyone outside the right-wing media bubble going to care?
Woodward's hard-to-believe tale about being threatened, based on a single innocuous sounding phrase from an email sent by a senior White House aide, was cheered by Obama's conservative critics who claimed it proved their long-running theory about the administration's "thug" culture. But the shaky story of a threat quickly collapsed when the full context of Woodward's email exchange with the White House aide, Gene Sperling, was revealed. Rather than a threat, the two men had simply engaged in a vigorous, respectful debate.
Yesterday, Woodward summoned two reporters from Politico to his home and told them his tale of woe. According to the Politico article, Sperling had pushed back on Woodward's assertion that President Obama was "moving the goalposts" on the issue, telling Woodward in an email, "I think you will regret staking out that claim."
From that, Woodward insisted he'd been threatened, even though "I think you will regret staking out that claim" doesn't sound like very threatening language. Instead, it sounds like someone trying to tell Woodward he would regret publishing facts that are inaccurate. (Kind of the opposite of a threat, no?)
Indeed, when Politico published the email exchange in its entirety, the whole story fell apart. Sperling had actually written, "I know you may not believe this, but as a friend, I think you will regret staking out that claim." And Woodward's response certainly did not indicate that he felt threatened; he told Sperling, "I also welcome your personal advice. I am listening."
Why Woodward decided to stage a media tour based on a false premise of a non-existent threat remains to be seen. But we do know Woodward's now an honorary practitioner of the far right's Phony Outrage Machine.
Chuck Hagel's anticlimactic Senate confirmation to become the nation's next Secretary of Defense, passed by a vote of 58 to 41, stood in sharp contrast to the frenzied weeks of partisan fighting, and the often breathless media coverage that surrounded the unprecedented battle over President Obama's pick.
The Washington Post this week tallied up a scorecard to determine whether the furious Republican effort had been worth it. Republicans used up valuable political capital fighting a lost cause, but the Post claimed the party wouldn't suffer politically for its obstructionist ways. Indeed, for Republicans there wasn't "a whole lot of downside " in trying to derail Hagel.
Unfortunately, that's probably true. The Beltway press has made sure Republicans have routinely paid no price for their radical behavior, which means ugly stalling tactics will likely continue under Obama, as Republicans now try to grind the government to a halt on numerous fronts.
During the months-long Hagel debacle, in which the traditionally routine, bipartisan confirmation process was upended by Republicans, we learned some uncomfortable truths about the mainstream press and the right-wing media.
For instance we learned that, thanks to the Friends of Hamas debacle, conservative media sites continue to have much more in common with propaganda than they do journalism. We learned that even the piercing right-wing echo chamber, with conservative outlets working in concert with Republicans in Congress to amplify falsehoods, wasn't enough to sway the Hagel debate.
We learned that the hermetically sealed information bubble is still firmly intact. Reminiscent of the bubble that hyped the Mitt Romney "landslide" that never materialized last November, conservatives in the press assured followers for weeks that Hagel's nomination was doomed, that he'd soon be withdrawing his name, or he'd be rejected outright by angry Democrats.
We learned that non-starter crusades like the Hagel one are perfectly suited for the increasingly obsessive, phony outrage formula that so many right-wing outlets have adopted. (As blogger Charles Johnson noted on Twitter, the day Hagel was easily confirmed by the Senate, Breitbart.com's homepage featured no less than fourteen anti-Hagel headlines.)