Early in his first term, President George W. Bush addressed the nation in primetime about allowing for limited stem cell research in America and his approval for limited medical research. During the weeks leading up to the announcement, there had a been regular news coverage of the topic, as the White House let reporters know the president was deeply engaged on the issue and was meeting with an array of experts to guide him.
As Bush appeared from his ranch in Texas to make the announcement, all of the major broadcast networks joined the cable news channels in carrying his message live.
The stem cell speech didn't address breaking news and it wasn't about an imminent threat facing the nation. But at the time, network executives said they were happy to air the address. "I don't think it was a tough call because it's an issue that's received so much attention," CBS News spokeswoman Sandy Genelius told the Boston Globe. ABC News spokesman Jeffrey Schneider agreed: "It's an important issue and one that the country is following closely." He added that Bush was "going to make news" with the speech.
A decade later the rules seem to have shifted. All four networks have announced they won't carry President Obama's address to the nation tonight about his long awaited plan to take executive action to deal with the pressing issue of immigration reform. (Two Spanish language networks, Univision and Telemundo, will carry the address live in primetime.)
Keep in mind, the issue is so paramount, and Obama's strategy supposedly so controversial, that a Republican senator yesterday warned there might be violence in the streets in response to Obama's actions. Some GOP lawmakers insisted Obama could face a flurry of legal action including impeachment proceedings, while others have urged the entire federal government be shut down if Obama goes through with his plan. Yet according to executives at ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox, Obama's address isn't worth covering.
One hundred and two weeks away from the 2016 presidential elections, Fox News anchor Jon Scott this week wondered out loud if the current controversy surrounding MIT economist Jonathan Gruber and his inapt comments that the Affordable Care Act (ACA) "was written in a tortured way" to appease "the stupidity of the American voter" would still be relevant in 2016. In fact, Scott wondered if Gruber and his comments would be a "fixture" in the next presidential campaign.
Correct. Scott wanted to know whether comments Gruber made in 2013 about a law signed in 2010 for which he provided data and a microsimulation model to the Obama administration in 2009 would play a crucial role in elections held in 2016. That's how committed Fox News is to the Gruber kerfuffle: Fox is projecting (fantasizing about?) the story's implications two years down the road.
Fox News has a long history of championing stories in a purely partisan manner and pushing any news events that might cause problems for the Obama administration. Watching Fox News, of course, is to often glimpse into an alternate universe where stories deemed unimportant by most news pros are blown up to be blockbuster events, and where conversely, embarrassing stories for conservatives are quietly set aside. (See rancher Cliven Bundy's racist meltdown in April. )
After the fourth or fifth day of incessant, breathless Gruber coverage on Fox, it became increasingly clear the channel had bigger plans for the story than simply using it to embarrass President Obama, or to whip up more right-wing anger over Obamacare.
Short answer: Fox is looking for another Benghazi. It's looking for another programming tent pole that the channel can build an audience around and can return to for weeks and months, and apparently for years, to undermine the president. Fox is searching for a themed forum where it can interview a cavalcade of Republicans who will dutifully engage in deeply enraged rhetoric about what a scandalous scandal Gruber's utterances were and how they confirm every deeply held suspicion about Obamacare.
Being outraged has served as a signature for the far-right movement for nearly six years. It also fuels Fox News' entire business model: Fox News makes a pile of profits each year overreacting to imagined Obama scandals, like the Gruber one.
Just as importantly, note that the Gruber production, like Fox's long-running Benghazi production, clearly overlaps with strategies being employed by the Republican Party. From a recent report in The Hill: "Republican lawmakers are doubling down on controversial comments from ObamaCare consultant Jonathan Gruber amid an explosion of interest from conservative media."
Missouri Governor Jay Nixon on Monday issued a state of emergency and activated the National Guard in anticipation of the grand jury announcement about whether Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson will be charged with the August 9 shooting of Michael Brown.
The unarmed teen's controversial death sparked weeks worth of protests, many of which were met with overwhelming police force. The killing also inspired a national debate about police shootings and law enforcement's relationship with black Americans. (The Department of Justice is currently investigating the Ferguson police department.)
And of course since the protests prominently featured the issue of race, and since Obama's conservative media critics positioned him at the center of the story -- his administration was allegedly "orchestrating" the unrest -- the events have inspired wave after wave of attacks from Fox News and its allies in the conservative media.
Brown family advocates have been denounced as "race hustlers." Fox contributor Laura Ingraham characterized Ferguson protesters as a "lynch mob" on her radio show. And conservative author Dinesh D'Souza actually compared the Ferguson unrest to beheadings carried out by the Islamic State terrorists. "What the common thread between ISIS and what's going on in Ferguson is you have these people who basically believe that to correct a perceived injustice, it's perfectly OK to inflict all kinds of new injustices," said D'Souza.
Conservative commentators have a long history of condemning, as vile and un-American, citizens who protest on behalf of their causes, whether it's racial injustice, income equality, collective bargaining rights, raising the minimum wage, or defending public education. The spotlight on Ferguson and its supposed "lynch mob" represents just the latest example of those sweeping condemnations and attacks on civil discourse.
Keep in mind that it was Fox News, as well as the rest of the right-wing media, that championed lawless insurrectionists earlier this year in Nevada when gun-toting militia members rallied to the side of rancher Cliven Bundy, who refused for more than two decades to pay grazing fees for his cattle that fed off federal land. (Bundy's Fox-sponsored crusade imploded when he was recorded making racist comments, asking if black Americans were "better off as slaves.")
In the Fox worldview, activists are thugs and thugs are freedom fighters.
There was widespread suspicion last month that as cable news gorged on the "Ebola in America" story, feasting on overheated coverage that played off anxiety and outright panic, that the programming was driven, in part, by a cynical attempt to boost ratings. After all, fear sells. And what better way to draw millions of additional viewers to cable news than pumping up a story about an impending virus doom and wrapping it in a partisan pre-election narrative about President Obama's failure to lead?
As PBS science correspondent Miles O'Brien noted during an interview on CNN when the story first broke, and when he urged journalists to "take a breath" (many did not), "Unfortunately it's a very competitive business, the business we're in, and there is a perception that by hyping up this threat, you draw people's attention." He added, "That's a shame to even say that, and I get embarrassed for our brethren in journalism."
Longtime television observer Brian Lowry, writing at Variety, stressed that while television news has "long employed fear as a come-on to viewers," it had "truly outdone itself" with its response to the virus.
Aside from marketing fear, there's some evidence that overreacting to a news story and blowing it up into its own brand (i.e. The Ebola Crisis), can help lift cable news. Recall that back in the winter, CNN was widely mocked for its truly relentless coverage of missing Malaysian Airlines Flight 370. That story helped deliver a significant ratings increase for CNN, at least in the short term.
Yet despite the endless Ebola coverage, the virus health scare did nothing for cable news in terms of inflating ratings during October, when the story dominated the headlines. In fact, total cable news viewership dipped during the month.
For the month of October, CNN's viewership was down 5 percent compared to October 2013. (In primetime, its audience fell 18 percent last month compared to October 2013.) Fox News and MSNBC also suffered rating decreases in October. And if you compare the cable news channels' primetime ratings in October to its primetime ratings during this past summer, viewership was also down.
The ratings story was similar for the three network evening news programs, where viewership for CBS Evening News, NBC Nightly News, and ABC's World News Tonight failed to generate an audience bounce during the news media's unofficial Ebola Month. Combined, the three news programs attracted roughtly 23 million viewers each week in October. That compares to the 23 million viewers who tuned in each week during October 2013.
So if all of that overwrought television coverage didn't produce ratings gains, what was the point since, as Chris Hayes noted this week, too much of it seemed irrational:
Celebrating its sixtieth anniversary, CBS's Face The Nation this week touted sit-down interviews with President Obama and former President George W. Bush. As expected, the Obama interview featured more policy questions, as well as queries about the president and the Democratic Party's recent political failures.
By contrast, Bush, who's promoting a biography he wrote about his father, was treated to softer questions from host Bob Schieffer, with a strong emphasis on Bush's family and whether his younger brother Jeb will decide to run for president. Schieffer did raise questions about one key Bush administration decision -- Bush's defining policy of invading Iraq -- though the queries seemed rather perfunctory on the CBS host's part.
There was nothing especially scandalous about Schieffer's decision to treat the former president differently than he did the sitting president, who, by definition, continues to face pressing issues and grapple with unforeseen crises. And yet, there was something noteworthy about the way Schieffer just tossed off Bush's answers about the Iraq War and didn't ask a single obvious follow-up question. The performance nicely captured the double standard that seems to have always existed between Bush and the Beltway press.
It's the kind of casual dual standard that's been in place for so many years, and has become so normal and accepted, that it barely register a response anymore. It's to the point where most people don't think it's odd that Bush's old golfing buddy is paid to lob him softball questions on a national news program.
It's true. Bob Schieffer "struck up a golfing friendship with George W. Bush during the 1990s," according to a 2004 Mother Jones article. Schieffer attended "dozens" of baseball games with Bush and even traveled down to baseball's spring training season with the future president. In fact, the Face The Nation host once conceded that when it comes to Bush, "It's always difficult to cover someone you know personally."
Why the close Schieffer/Bush connection? Because Schieffer's brother Tom helped make George W. Bush a very rich man. Tom Schieffer and Bush were both part of the ownership group that bought the Texas Rangers baseball team in 1989, and as the team's president Schieffer played a key role in making that investment a profitable one.(Bush invested $600,000 and earned a $25 million return just nine years later.) Bush then turned around and made Tom Schieffer the U.S. ambassador to Australia and then to Japan.
But these facts haven't been discussed much in public over the years, and they certainly weren't emphasized for Schieffer's sit-down interview with Bush on Face The Nation. (Portions of the interview also aired on CBS Sunday Morning.) Instead, the CBS host allowed Bush to make nonsensical proclamations about the failed Iraq War; a conflict that continues to tax the U.S. Treasury and haunt our national security.
In the days after the midterm elections, the New York Times has been a cornucopia of campaign commentary. Lots of attention is being paid to the issue of gridlock, which has defined Washington, D.C. since President Obama was first inaugurated.
Lamenting America's "broken politics," Times columnist Nicholas Kristof opted for the both-sides-are-to-blame model, suggesting that, "Critics are right that [Obama] should try harder to schmooze with legislators." Across from Kristof on the Times opinion page, Republican pollster Frank Luntz urged Obama to find a way to create "common-sense solutions" with his Republican counterparts. (This, despite the fact that Luntz in 2009 helped Republicans craft their trademark strategy of obstructing Obama at every turn.)
And the same day, while reviewing Chuck Todd's new book on Obama, which stressed that the president "wanted to soar above partisanship" though his two terms will likely "be remembered as a nadir of partisan relations," the Times book critic stressed Obama's "reluctance to reach out to Congress and members of both parties to engage in the sort of forceful horse trading (like Lyndon B. Johnson's) and dogged retail politics (like Bill Clinton's) that might have helped forge more legislative deals and build public consensus."
So after six years of radical, blanketed reticence from the GOP, we're still repeatedly reading in the New York Times that while Republicans have put up road blocks, if Obama would just try harder, Republicans might cooperate with him. You can almost hear the frustration seeping through the pages of the Times: 'What is wrong with this guy? Bipartisanship is so simple. Republicans say they want to work with the White House, so why doesn't Obama just do it?'
Indeed, cooperation is simple if you purposefully ignore reality--if you downplay the fact the Republican Party is acting in a way that defies all historic norms. If you adopt that fantasy version of Beltway politics today (i.e. the GOP is filled with honest brokers just waiting to work with the White House), then it's easy to dissect the problems, and it's easy to file both-sides-are-to-blame columns that urge bipartisan cooperation.
What's trickier, apparently, is speaking truth to power and accurately portraying what has happened to American politics and noting without equivocation that the sabotage that has occurred is designed to ensure the federal government doesn't function as designed, and that it cannot efficiently address the problems of the nation.
And this week, it all paid off for Republicans. "Obstruction has just been rewarded, in a huge way," wrote Michael Tomasky at The Daily Beast.
Led by Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY), Republicans vowed in 2009 to oppose every political move Obama made, not matter how sweeping or how minor. "To prevent Obama from becoming the hero who fixed Washington, McConnell decided to break it. And it worked," wrote Matthew Yglesias at Vox, in the wake of the midterm election results. New York's Jonathan Chait made a similar observation about McConnell: "His single strategic insight is that voters do not blame Congress for gridlock, they blame the president, and therefore reward the opposition."
But why? Why don't voters blame Congress for gridlock?
Why would the president, who's had virtually his entire agenda categorically obstructed, be blamed and not the politicians who purposefully plot the gridlock? Because the press has given Republicans a pass. For more than five years, too many Beltway pundits and reporters have treated the spectacular stalemate as if it were everyday politics; just more "partisan combat." It's not. It's extraordinary. (See here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.)
Two recent snapshots nicely capture the commentary class and their bulwark on behalf of Republicans this campaign season.
Lamenting the "pitiful" state of the 2014 election season, New York Times columnist Frank Bruni this week denounced what he saw as the vacuous condition of political debate. Claiming America's raging problems were akin to a burning house, Bruni claimed "None of the candidates have spoken with the necessary urgency or requisite sweep."
Oh, what the columnist wouldn't have given to hear some "real substance" on the campaign trail. The beseeching seemed odd because Bruni later announced the "defining moment" of the election season came when Kentucky Democratic senatorial candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes declined to answer a question, during a newspaper editorial interview, about whether she had voted previously for Barack Obama, who is very unpopular in the Bluegrass State. The question had nothing to do with the burning issues facing America, as Bruni described them. Instead, it was an exercise in optics: How would a red-state Democrat deal with a sticky question about her White House allegiance?
Nonetheless, joining an army of pundits who expressed horror at Grimes' clumsy response, Bruni announced the Democrat had "tossed character, honesty and any kind of mature conversation with voters to the side." Left unmentioned by Bruni? Grimes' Republican opponent simply refused to answer any public policy questions posed by the same newspaper editorial board that hosted Grimes; the same board that heard the Democrat answer queries for an hour about the environment, gay marriage, campaign finance reform, the government sequester, abortion rights, and coal mining.
So much for the absence of campaign substance.
Still, Bruni's column illustrated a certain Beltway media symmetry this year: Pundits lament a lack of campaign seriousness, and then treat a trivial gotcha question as being deeply serious. Count that as a win for Republicans.
Meanwhile on CNN, during her interview with Vice President Joe Biden that aired Monday, and while discussing the midterm elections, Gloria Borger insisted Americans are "frustrated" and "fearful" and "angry" about key events, including the administration's handling of the Ebola virus' scare. Borger's point has been a favorite among Beltway pundits in recent weeks as they parrot Republicans: Ebola's just the latest Big Government failure.
But it's not true.
The news media reminders arrive almost daily now: President Obama's approval rating is low and going lower. McClatchy Newspapers highlighted the "dropping approval ratings," while the Washington Post declared "President Obama's approval ratings have plunged to record lows." The Christian Science Monitor noted the numbers have "plummeted." The Washington Examiner stressed the president's approvals were "sinking to historic lows," while an Atlantic headlined announced, ""Obama's Sinking Approval Could Drag Democrats Down With Him."
The portrait being painted by an array of media artists is unmistakable: Obama's approval ratings are not only weak but they're going down, down, down.
But it's not true.
The part about Obama's "dropping" and "sinking" polling numbers simply isn't accurate, not matter how many times it's repeated inside the Beltway echo chamber.
Does the White House wish Obama's job approval rating was higher? I'm sure his advisers do. Does polling indicate that Democrats face the possibility of deep losses next week in the midterm elections? Yes. Does that mean the press should just make up narratives about the president's approval rating simply because it fits in, again, with anti-Obama spin that Republicans are pushing?
It does not.
According to the cumulative ratings posted daily at Real Clear Politics, which averages together an array of national polls to come up with Obama's composite job approval rating, the president's approval on January 1, 2014 stood at 42.6 percent. The president's approval rating on October 30, was 42 percent. So over the course of ten months, and based on more than one hundred poll results in 2014, Obama's approval rating declined less than one point.
I can safely say Obama is only president in U.S. history whose approval rating dropped a single digit over a ten-month stretch and it was described as having "plummeted."
Newspaper editorial board meetings have always been a sort of midterm exam for candidates. Shopping for endorsements, it's where they are asked to discuss, in detail, their policy positions and to do so in a setting that isn't conducive to sound bites.
In Iowa last week, Republican Senate candidate Joni Ernst announced she wouldn't answer any questions from the Des Moines Register editorial board. After "much negotiating," according to a Register columnist, the Ernst camp pulled the plug on her scheduled Q&A with the daily, and also avoided meeting with a number of other Iowa newspapers.
Ernst wouldn't talk about the economy, healthcare, "personhood," national security, guns and the government, foreign affairs, or impeaching President Obama. Ernst wouldn't talk about anything. This was a classic dodge on Ernst's part; an aggressive stiff-arm to the mainstream press. It was an obvious refusal by a Republican candidate to sit and answer questions from local journalists on the eve of an election.
And so what was the Beltway media's reaction to Ernst's cancellation? Always on the lookout for campaign "gaffes" and relentlessly focused on the "optics" of elections, how did commentators react to Ernst's brazen evasion?
The press response was subdued and not very critical.
That low-key response stood in sharp contrast to the campaign fury that erupted in early October when when Kentucky Democratic senatorial candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes declined to answer whether she had voted for Barack Obama. That question came amidst her hour-long, October 10, interview with the Louisville Journal-Courier's editorial board, during which time the Democrat discussed the environment, gay marriage, campaign finance reform, the government sequester, abortion rights, and coal mining. (Her opponent, Republican Mitch McConnell, refused to be interviewed by the paper's editors.)
Grimes' substantive discussion was virtually ignored by the Beltway press, which turned her clumsy Obama question response into a days-long controversy. For instance, Washington Post blogs have referenced the Grimes story (i.e the "fiasco") more than 25 times; including 11 times in the first four days. (Post columnist Kathleen Parker wrote an entire column about Grimes' non-answer.) By contrast, the same Post blogs have mentioned the Ernst story only five times so far, according to Nexis, with writer Chris Cillizza actually complimenting the Ernst campaign for canceling its Register interview, suggesting the move was a "smart" one politically.
Overall, I found more than two-dozen television discussions or references to the Grimes story during a four-day span, from October 10-13, via Nexis. During a similar four-day span following news of Ernst's snub on October 23, I found no television discussions or references to that story. (Note that not every news program is archived by Nexis.)
So yes, the Democratic candidate who was accused of botching a question during an editorial board interview was pilloried in the press. But the Republican candidate who refused to sit for editorial board meetings was mostly given a pass. (Here's an exception.) Do double standards come any more tightly focused than that?
Republican Rand Paul certainly seems to be riding an extended wave of glowing press coverage, as reporters and commentators line up to dub the Kentucky senator a deeply fascinating man.
From Politico: "Rand Paul, The Most Interesting Man in Politics."
The Washington Post: "Rand Paul Is The Most Interesting Man In The (Political) World"
And now this week's cover story from Time: "The Most Interesting Man In Politics."
What the supportive Paul coverage lacks in originality, it makes up for in passion and admiration. We've learned Paul represents "the most interesting voice in the GOP right now." He boasts a "supple mind" and is a "preternaturally confident speaker." And from Time, Paul spoke to a recent crowd "with the enthusiasm of a graduate student in the early rapture of ideas."
There appears to be such a media rush to toast Paul as a Republican freethinker that the feel-good coverage sometimes confuses what he actually stands for. Note that Politico claimed the senator's "instinctive libertarianism, meanwhile, plays well with America's pro-pot, pro-gay marriage younger generation."
Fact: Paul opposes gay marriage.
Nonetheless, the glowing press clips pile up, with Time's cover story representing the most recent entry. In April 2013, the Kentucky senator graced Time's cover when he was dubbed one of the 100 Most Influential people in the World. (Paul's entry was written by Sarah Palin, who declared that his "brand of libertarian-leaning conservatism attracts young voters.")
What's especially odd about Time's most recent salute is that the magazine essentially published the same laudatory Rand Paul feature last year. It marveled at his political rise and suggested he might change the course of the GOP ("Can he reshape [the] party"), which is precisely what this week's cover story is about. ("Can he fix what ails the GOP?")
But there's something about Time's supportive Paul coverage that stands out. Indeed, the publication has morphed into something of a national cheering section for the Kentucky Republican, obediently covering his appearances, typing up as news his attacks on Bill and Hillary Clinton, and publishing his first-person essays.