New York Times columnist Bill Keller thinks President Obama should appoint failed Whitewater sleuth Kenneth Starr to investigate the Internal Revenue Service's improper scrutiny of conservative groups. And yes, Keller adopts the conventional wisdom that so-called scandals in recent weeks have "knocked" Obama's "second term off course." (Public polling suggests otherwise.)
But let's now marvel at the columnist's fantastic claim that if Obama appointed that special counsel the partisan clouds would magically part in Washington, D.C. and Congress and the press, would suddenly focus on the nation's pressing duties. Keller insists the "scandal circus on Capitol Hill is a terrible distraction" and that a special counsel would allow Beltway players to "turn their attention to all that unfinished business," such as immigration reform and passing a budget.
This is part of the pundit fantasy school of writing that has been persistent throughout the Obama presidency and it goes like this: If Obama would just do X (i.e. schmooze more, be less partisan, appoint a special counsel, or just lead), Republicans would cooperate with him legislatively because Republicans are honest brokers who have a deep desire to address the nation's most pressing issues. And the only real obstacle to progress is the fact that Obama can't figure out what makes Republicans tick. He just doesn't get it.
It's that mindset that leads to posts like the one from Keller, suggesting that if the president would move to further criminalize the IRS controversy, that would somehow lower the partisan temperature and would allow Republicans to get back to what they really want to do, which is work with the president to pass pressing legislation.
What Keller conveniently ignores is that Republicans have already made it obvious that they don't matter what the Obama does, it doesn't matter what personal approach he takes, they're going to oppose him across the board.
How else would Keller explain the GOP's historic opposition to emergency relief for Hurricane Sandy? The GOP's historic opposition to the nomination of Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense? The GOP's refusal to pass gun legislation that enjoyed nearly universal support among Americans? And the GOP's mindless, time-wasting obsession with trying to "repeal" Obama's health care reform?
Let's take a closer look a recent example of radical Republican tactics and place it in the context of Keller's claim that a special counsel would produce Congressional productivity.
On May 9, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee was scheduled to vote Gina McCarthy's nomination to head the Environmental Protection Agency out of committee and send it to the Senate for a full vote. But thirty minutes before the meeting was scheduled to begin, Republican notified Democrats that all eight Republican members were boycotting the vote, thereby making it impossible to move McCarthy's nomination forward. Republicans complained that the nominee hadn't sufficiently answered questions submitted by committee Republicans, even though she had already responded to more than 1,000 written queries.
In the end, McCarthy was approved by the committee, but the Republican stalling tactics represented, "an unprecedented attempt to slow down the confirmation process and undermine the agency," as former Republican Congressman Sherwood Boehlert recently lamented.
That's the backdrop for Keller's declaration that appointing a special counsel to spend months investigating the IRS would eliminate partisan wrangling and clear the way for cooperation.
It's pure Beltway pundit fantasy.
Appearing on Fox & Friends, Roger Ailes' biographer Zev Chafets joined host Steve Doocy in toasting Fox News' coverage of the so-called Benghazi scandal. Doocy was positively giddy about how Fox had been out way ahead of the mainstream press on the story of last September's terror attack on U.S. diplomatic facilities in Lybya. The host credited his boss, Ailes, for leading Fox's obsessive Benghazi charge for the last eight months.
"Now everybody else is catching up," Doocy crowed on May 16.
Chafets agreed ("this is Fox News at its best") and claimed that the White House had tried to stifle the controversy because "it doesn't obviously want the story to be about its incompetence in a situation in which people could have been saved and evidently nobody tried."
Did you note the dark irony there? In raising a glass to Fox's Benghazi coverage, Chafets peddled one of Fox's favorite Benghazi lies: "Nobody" had tried to save the Americans who came under deadly fire that night.
Ever since ABC News' bogus "exclusive" last week regarding administration emails about the editing and writing process of the talking points issued in the wake of the Benghazi terror strike, Fox News had been taking one long extended victory tour, claiming its eight-month campaign to demonize the president and to spread nearly nonstop misinformation about the terror attack had been fully vindicated.
"The mainstream media finally catches up to the Benghazi scandal," jabbed Chris Wallace on May 10. On America Live, host Martha MacCallum bragged, "When you look at Fox's coverage of Benghazi, we've been establishing the facts from the get-go." And right-wing blogger Jim Hoft cheered Fox's ball-spiking in the end zone with the headline, "FOX News Gloats Over Benghazi Coverage... We Told You So!"
The Fox team has also been rallied by their Benghazi enablers in Congress, with Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) insisting Ailes "deserves credit" if there's a full Benghazi investigation. "Thank God for Fox," cheered Benghazi critic Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC).
But even the most cursory review of Fox's obsessive Benghazi coverage reveals it to be a train wreck of epic proportions. In fact, it represents a textbook study in why people, and especially journalists, should use extraordinary caution whenever they're tempted to take seriously Fox's editorial content.
The controversy surrounding the editing of the administration's Benghazi talking points took an interesting turn on Monday when CNN's Jake Tapper reported that a newly obtained email from White House aide Ben Rhodes written during the editing of those talking points "differs from how sources inaccurately quoted and paraphrased it in previous accounts to different media organizations."
Tapper was referring, in part, to a May 10 report from ABC News' Jonathan Karl, who in that report claimed to be citing both administration "emails" and "summaries" of those emails, provided what appeared to be direct quotes from those emails, and said on air that he had "obtained" them. Karl reported the emails suggested the White House had been deeply involved in crafting a political response to the terror attack that occurred at the U.S. diplomatic facility in Benghazi September 11, where four Americans were killed. The ABC exclusive, accusing the administration of having "scrubbed" vital information from the talking points, ignited a controversy about the White House's handling of the attack.
Referring to the emails quoted in the ABC piece, Tapper stressed that, "Whoever provided those quotes and paraphrases did so inaccurately, seemingly inventing the notion that Rhodes wanted the concerns of the State Department specifically addressed."
(Both the Rhodes email and those of the State Department bolster testimony from then-CIA director David Petraeus noted, the talking points were changed to avoid interfering with the ongoing investigation into the perpetrators.)
As Media Matters noted, Karl responded by explaining that he had not actually reviewed the emails himself, but had been "quoting verbatim a source who reviewed the original documents and shared detailed notes." He added that the source "was not permitted to make copies of the original e-mails," indicating that Karl's original piece was based entirely on his source's summaries.
Karl insisted that the summaries represent an accurate take on the emails.
But the email obtained by CNN makes it clear that in at least one key instance Karl's source, who he quoted "verbatim," got the emails' contents wrong, leading to a misleading picture of the process by which the talking points were edited.
Was that error accidental? It's hard to imagine how simply writing down the contents of an email could lead to such a glaring discrepancy. And the administration's release yesterday of roughly 100 pages of emails detailing the exchanges between administration aides around the creation of those talking points does even more to put out the fire that Karl helped to ignite. This raises the question of whether misinformation was passed along to Karl deliberately in order to create a political firestorm.
The revelation that the source passed along inaccurate summaries of the emails raises troubling questions for Karl and ABC News: Do Karl's bosses know who the source is who misled the reporter? And do other reporters at ABC News regularly use, and trust, the same source?
Another key question is whether Karl should reveal the source who misled him. While journalists take seriously the vow to not reveal the identity of confidential sources in exchange for the information that those sources provide, it's not unheard of for journalists to reveal source identities if it's proven that that person badly misled a reporter or passed along bogus information. Some observers think that's what happened in the case of the Benghazi talking points.
Reporting on ABC News' story about how administration talking points about the September 11 terrorist attack on a U.S. diplomatic facilities had gone through an inter-agency editing process, World News Tonight anchor Diane Sawyer on May 10 introduced the program's coverage by claiming the White House had been "challenged today during a leadership crisis." Sawyer reported the latest round of Benghazi questions and allegations about the talking points revolved around "what the president did on Benghazi" eight months ago, the night four Americans were killed.
Neither claim was true. There's no indication Obama played any role in the crafting of the talking points, which had nothing to do with what the president did during the attack. But for ABC, the editing process for a sheet of talking points is now considered a "leadership crisis."
As wildly inaccurate and misleading as Sawyer's brief introduction was, it helped in terms of marking how deeply the mainstream news media have ventured into the GOP scandal culture in order to help legitimize the right-wing effort to turn Benghazi into full fledged political firestorm at home.
With Republicans working in tandem with Fox News to prop up Congressional hearings that have provided a framework for news coverage in recent weeks, the Benghazi story has taken on a nostalgic, 1990's feel recalling a time when the same Republican Party and the same conservative media noise machine hounded a Democratic president with endless allegations of wrongdoing. Punctuated by hearings, the wild allegations were excitedly churned through news cycles by reporters and pundits in hot pursuit of "scandal." (And used by conservatives to raise campaign cash.)
It's especially reminiscent of Whitewater, the octopus-like investigation that stretched on for years, cost tens of millions of dollars, and even branched out into scrutinizing President Bill Clinton's sex life. Over time, the vast majority of those endless Clinton allegations were proven to be hollow. But aidded by some regrettable journalism, the relentless scandal culture took hold and managed to damage to the Clinton administration. Now it's time for a rerun. ("Getting the band back together," is how Esquire's Charles Pierce describes the right-wing's obvious re-assembling of its `90s scandal machine.)
As the Beltway's Benghazi witch-hunt gathers momentum, and questions about relatively minor events, such as the inter-agency drafting of national security talking points, are portrayed as deeply disturbing news revelations (while previous, disproved Benghazi allegations get quietly shelved), it's uncanny how the storyline more and more resembles the early days of the Whitewater fiasco, and other ancillary Clinton pursuits.
Note how the formerly Whitewater-obsessed Wall Street Journal editorial page is calling for the creation of a Select Committee to investigate Benghazi. The paper insists it's the only way "for the U.S. political system to extricate itself from the labyrinth called Benghazi," when a Select Committee could accomplish the opposite and drag the story out for years. Indeed, the whole point of the GOP's Whitewater model is to create a political labyrinth for the White House, and to then wallow in it and hope the press does, too. That's the Whitewater model; to launch a "scandal" that can sustain itself through endless investigation for months and years on end.
Like Whitewater, look at how the Benghazi production now comes complete with dubious claims about whistleblowers (and their unreliable advocate), controversial talking points, and leaked Congressional testimony used to whip up media anticipation. But it's testimony that ultimately failed to advance the story.
Bill Clinton and his former senior advisers must be suffering severe bouts of déjà vu these days.
President Obama's most fevered critics have been waiting for a national "aha" moment since he was first inaugurated more than 50 months ago. Coming off an electoral landslide, Obama was instantly greeted by a mob-like movement on the far right that denounced him as a socialist and a communist. Excited conservatives quickly reached for Nazi rhetoric and imagery in an effort to convey the dark threat the Democrat posed to the country.
Amplified by Fox News and a well-funded right-wing media industry, the "grassroots" revolt was portrayed as a sweeping rebuke of Obama. But in truth, the raging critics occupied the loud fringes, a fact confirmed by Obama's easy re-election.
Still, professional detractors have held out hope that at some point Americans would come to see Obama as they see 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.
This week's House Oversight Committee hearing into the Sept. 11 terror attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi was supposed to trigger that "aha" event. It was supposed to be The Day Americans Turned On Obama. Indeed, Obama wouldn't be able finish out his second term because the Benghazi revelations were going to be so damaging, Fox New's Mike Huckabee told his radio listeners. And Sean Hannity warned ominously that, "This is going to be a really defining, important week in the Obama presidency, and it's not going to be a good week."
But none of that happened at the hearing. Instead of being the kind of "explosive" Watergate-style hearing that Fox talkers prayed for, Wednesday's hearing sagged under the weight of stubborn facts, and didn't even reach the level of Whitewater hearings, which under Bill Clinton established the modern day mark for pointlessly partisan "scandal" hearings.
Not that it matters to the media players who produced the Benghazi hearings, though. Conservatives continue their Groundhog Day charade, reassuring themselves that the hearing was a hit and that scandal "bombshells" exploded on Capitol Hill. (They did not.)
The larger, common sense question that lingers though is, why? Why keep pounding a story so far into the ground that most news consumers can't even make sense of the convoluted allegations anymore?
I think the explanation for the durability is that Benghazi serves as an all-purpose platform that allows the most hardened critics to project their anti-Obama madness. It allows them to spin their ugliest fantasies about the president and to depict him as a heartless traitor who chose to let Americans die at the hands of Islamic terrorists. It's a way to condemn Obama for having a "reflexive impulse to blame, rather than defend, America."
The FBI reported on May 6 that it had broken up a possibly deadly domestic "terror attack" when it arrested Buford Rogers in Western Minnesota. After raiding his mobile home in the town of Montevideo, law enforcement found Molotov cocktails, suspected pipe bombs and a Romanian AKM assault rife.
Sources on Monday described Rogers as a "militia type" who had started up Black Snake Militia, a group with strong anti-government leanings. Rogers' targets reportedly included local authorities; he "allegedly talked about wanting to bomb the Montevideo Police Department."
The Minneapolis Star-Tribune described the suspect has having "white supremacist" ties. From the Star-Tribune report:
Several postings on Rogers' Facebook page from June 15, 2011, express his apparent irritation: "The NOW [New World Order] has taken all your freedoms the right to bear arms freedom of speech freedom of the press ..." read one profanity-punctuated message.
You will likely not be surprised that none of Fox News' primetime hosts mentioned the Rogers arrest last night or the looming threat of right-wing extremist violence. That, despite the fact the shows have dedicated countless programming hours in recent weeks to ginning up fear and angst surrounding the terror attack in Boston on Patriot's Day.
Prompted by the arrest of a Muslim suspect, Fox News has spent weeks demonizing Islam by assigning collective blame, as well as targeting Muslims who travel here to study. But yet another far-right, anti-government plot to possibly kill law enforcement officials? At Fox News, that's not a story that draws much concern, especially not from its primetime talkers.
It's true Fox has included a number of on-air mentions about the Minnesota terror news during its daytime programming. But what makes Fox's ho-hum coverage noteworthy is the contrast to its interest in making sweeping generalizations about the Islamic community when terror plots have included Muslims Muslim suspects (or, as we saw with the misguided post-Boston obsession with the "Saudi national," Muslim victims).
It was a Fox talker who suggested in the wake of the Boston terror attacks that American mosques be bugged and other Constitutional rights for Muslims be eliminated. And it was on Fox that viewers were recently told, "not all Muslims are terrorists, but all terrorist are Muslims."
When it comes to allegations of another right-wing extremist terror plot, Fox News is not in a rush to affix collective blame even though the list of far-right, anti-government terror plots, as well as acts of political violence in the form of attacks on women's health clinics, has become quite long in recent years. (Think Progress: "Fifty-six percent of domestic terrorist attacks and plots in the U.S. since 1995 have been perpetrated by right-wing extremists.")
Note to Fox News: The anti-government terror arrest in Minnesota was hardly an isolated event.
The suicide rate among middle-aged Americans, and especially among the middle-aged men, soared from 2000 to 2010, according recent findings from the Center For Diseases Control and Prevention. There were 38,350 suicides in 2010, making it the tenth leading cause of death in America, surpassing the annual number of car fatalities. Among men ages 50 to 59 years old, there was a nearly 50 percent spike in suicides over that ten-year span. More than half of all male suicides were carried out with a firearm.
The startling findings have produced a steady stream of news coverage in recent days. But it's been coverage that has largely overlooked a central tenet of the escalating suicide crisis: Guns. And specifically, easy access to guns in America.
The oversight continues a troubling media trend of news reports routinely failing to put U.S. gun violence in context and failing to give news consumers a proper understanding of the size and scope of the deadly epidemic. Self-inflicted gun deaths remain the cornerstone of suicides in America, accounting for 56 percent of male suicides. And the gun rate is increasing. You simply cannot discuss suicide in America without addressing the pivotal role firearms play. Unfortunately, in recent days lots of news organizations have tried to do just that.
The truth is, gun suicides are rarely front-and-center in the firearms debate in this country, which instead is often focused on crime statistics and, sometimes even less rarely, the total number of people killed by guns annually. And according to researchers, there exists a clear connection between states that have high gun ownership rates and states that suffer high suicide rates.
Moreover, guns are especially lethal. Suicide attempts with a gun prove to be fatal 85 percent of the time, as compared to suicide attempts via pill overdoses, which prove fatal just two percent of the time, according to a study from the Harvard Injury Control Research Center.
In covering the CDC's latest suicide findings though, news accounts have paid little attention to guns.
NBC News made just a single reference to firearms in its report about escalating suicides, despite the fact guns are used in early 20,000 suicides every year. The Wall Street Journal's news report never referenced "guns" or "firearms" even once. The same was true of CBS' Evening News on May 2. It aired a suicide report based on the CDC's findings and never mentioned guns.
Glenn Beck can't keep his conspiracies straight.
It took the conservative host less than 90 seconds during his May 1 television show to produce one of the most glaring media contradictions in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing. Not surprisingly, Beck didn't seem to notice the obvious inconsistency. That's what happens when you chase hollow and reckless conspiracy theories for a living.
The mix-up occurred during one of Beck's signature, rambling monologues about what really happened in Boston and who's really to blame. (Hint: Saudi Arabia.) But Beck managed to tie together two competing conspiracy theories that draw opposite conclusions about the Saudi government's involvement.
Recall that after the April 15 attack, Beck engaged in a wild conspiracy, insisting that a Saudi national student who had been injured in the blast and who was questioned by authorities was "absolutely involved" in the Patriot's Day attack. (Law enforcement officials have repeatedly claimed he was not.) Beck called the student a "dirt bag," a "bad, bad, bad man," and "possibly the ringleader" of the bombing that killed three people and injured more than one hundred.
The White House was "trying to make this a lone wolf crime so the Saudi government will be spared embarrassment, and the U.S. will be spared explaining how a terror cell was active when we have Al-Qaeda on the run," Beck told radio listeners on April 18.
"You want to know why we have terror over and over in our streets?" he asked on April 22. "Saudi Arabia. It is time someone on network television says it." The host even called for President Obama to be impeached for what the host considered to be a sprawling government cover-up surrounding the student, Saudi Arabia and Al Qaeda.
On May 1, Beck returned to the claim insisting, "We know Saudi Arabia is involved."
Then, less than 90 seconds after implicating Saudi Arabia, Beck latched onto yesterday's conspiracy-of-the-day claim, courtesy of Britain's Daily Mail. It reported Saudi officials had delivered a "very specific" written warning to the Department of Homeland Security in 2012 about Boston bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev. Saudi officials were allegedly so concerned about Tsarnaev's radical ties that his visa request to visit Saudi Arabia had been denied. Beck's site, The Blaze, also pushed the story, as did scores right-wing blogs.
The Department of Homeland Security, the White House, and Saudi Arabia's U.S. Ambassador have all since categorically denied the Daily Mail's claim. The newspaper has produced no evidence to back up its anonymous source's dubious allegation.
That didn't matter to Beck. Because the unproven claim made the Obama administration look bad, and because it made it look like government officials had missed obvious warning signs about Tsarnaev, Beck embraced the Saudi story as truth. But that left him in the very awkward position of insisting Saudi Arabia was "involved" in the bombing (and not in a good way), while simultaneously reporting Saudi Arabia tried to warn the U.S. about the bomber.
In Beck's telling, Saudi Arabia officials were both the good guys and the bad guys in Boston. Only he would try to paper over a boulder-sized inconsistency like that in the span of 90 seconds.
Question: Was it keen programming like this that convinced executives at Cablevision to add Beck's Internet channel to Cablevision's New York City metropolitan cable system?
Fox News and other conservatives are busy attacking Attorney General Eric Holder for assuring the public that law enforcement will not tolerate any acts of violence or discrimination in the wake of the Boston Marathon terror attack. But their latest feigned outrage ignores that hate crimes against Muslims are a very real concern.
Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly covered the story on the April 30 edition of America Live, hosting Fox contributor Michelle Malkin, who mocked the "phantom threats of hate crime epidemics that have never happened." (This was the second straight day Kelly had devoted a segment to expressing outrage about Holder's common sense comments.)
Other conservatives lashed out at Holder for his vow to defend religious minorities in America.
Fox's weird attempt to push back against Holder's pledge fit nicely into Fox's frequently anti-Muslim programming. It also highlighted how little interest Fox has in the larger issue of anti-Muslim violence.
I noted last week how Fox News remains largely blind to acts of right-wing extremist terror and political violence because that storyline doesn't fit into the cable channel's preferred narrative about Muslim terrorists, or Fox's eagerness to assign collective blame onto the Muslim-American community.
And when it comes to Muslim houses of worship, Fox's main concern in recent years has been to demonize those trying to build new Islamic centers in the U.S., and also how to bug them. That lack of attention and concern may explain the network's outraged response to Holder's comments. There is clearly cause for concern, though.
On August 5, 2012, just before 10:30 in the morning, Wade Michael Page pulled up outside the Sikh temple in Oak Creek, WI., took out his semi-automatic handgun and started killing worshipers. An Army veteran and an avid bass player in a neo-Nazi rock band, Page murdered two Sikhs outside the house of worship and then made his way inside. There, he reloaded and killed four more, including the president of the temple who was shot while trying to tackle Page. Three more were critically wounded in the massacre.
When local police descended, Page opened fire and shot one officer nearly ten times. When the authorities returned fire and shot Page in the stomach, he took his 9mm pistol, pointed it at his own head, and pulled the trigger.
According to acquaintances, the 40-year-old killer hated blacks, Indians, Native Americans and Hispanics (he called non-whites "dirt people"), and was interested in joining the Klu Klux Klan. Immersed in the world of white power music, Page's band rehearsed in front of a Nazi flag.
Note that back in August 2012, Fox News didn't care very much about Wade Page and the wild gun shootout he unleashed in an act of domestic terror in the Milwaukee suburb, nor did Fox suggest the event was connected to a larger, more sinister terror trend. In fact, in the days that followed the gun massacre, there were just two passing references to Page during Fox' primetime, one from Bill O'Reilly and one from Greta Sustern. No guests were asked to discuss the temple shooting, and after one day the story was completely forgotten.
In one rare occasion when the conversation did turn to Page's motivations, Fox's opinion hosts were quick to criticize the notion that he was a far-right extremist. (He clearly was.) On The Five, after co-host Bob Beckel referred to Page as "right-wing skinhead," he was quickly shouted down by his colleagues. Co-host Andrea Tantaros stressed that the killing was an isolated event that didn't have any larger implications. "How do you stop a lunatic?" she asked. "This is not a political issue."
Fox's guarded response to an extremist's murder spree was striking, considering that in the wake of the Boston Marathon bomb attack Fox News has gone all in (again) with its war on Islam as the channel fights its latest bigoted chapter in the War on Terror. It's striking as Fox tries to blame a larger community for the act of two madmen because it's the same Fox News that often can't find time to even comment, let alone report, on what's become regular, and often deadly, right-wing extremist attacks in America.
From neo-Nazi killers like Page, to a string of abortion clinic bombings, as well as bloody assaults on law enforcement from anti-government insurrectionists, acts of right-wing extreme violence continue to terrorize victims in the U.S. ("Fifty-six percent of domestic terrorist attacks and plots in the U.S. since 1995 have been perpetrated by right-wing extremists.") But Fox News is not concerned. And Fox News does not try to affix collective blame.