Last week's depressingly predictable news from Oregon about another American gun massacre triggered what's now become a morose tradition of news coverage, not only about the mindless murders themselves, but also about the permanent stain of domestic gun violence. (This morning brought news of yet another campus shooting.) With a presidential campaign underway, the Oregon coverage inevitably crossed over into political and campaign analysis. That meant high-profile Republican candidates weighed in on the issue and often tried to wave off as unfixable the epidemic of gun violence in America, where approximately 290 people are shot every day.
Thanks to a string of truly bizarre ("stuff happens") and thoughtless comments from several GOP candidates, including one that seemed to place some blame on the Umpqua Community College victims for being shot, the so-called gun debate has managed to become even more baseless.
In other words, the Republican field is once again highlighting just how radical the party has become on key issues. And that poses a growing challenge for journalists.
"Rather than engaging in an honest effort to address gun violence and prevent more senseless carnage, practically every G.O.P. candidate has been reduced to repeating a mantra that many of them, surely, cannot fully believe," wrote The New Yorker's John Cassidy this week.
The question becomes how does the press cover the unfolding Republican gun spectacle? And when do reporters and pundits step forward and point out that one side of the gun 'debate' has not only lost touch with reality, but at times has lost touch with common decency? That query goes to the heart of informative political reporting.
Earlier this year, I posed a similar question about the campaign press: How do journalists deal with a lineup of Republican candidates who, ignoring an avalanche of scientific findings, cling to the outdated idea that humans don't contribute to climate change? Do journalists simply tell the truth and acknowledge the obvious holes in their arguments, or do they help carve out a new political space for climate deniers that allows their views to be seen as mainstream?
One example of the shameful Republican gun massacre commentary came from Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal. After the deadly campus rampage, the GOP candidate disparaged the father of the dead gunman. "He's a complete failure as a father, he should be embarrassed to even show his face in public. He's the problem here," wrote Jindal.
Meanwhile Donald Trump invented facts and claimed these sorts of public shooting sprees have "taken place forever." Trump insisted there's nothing we can do in America to stop them: "But no matter what you do you will have problems and that's the way the world goes."
But it was Ben Carson who unleashed a stunning barrage of ignorant and insensitive comments while Oregon families still grieved.
Carson on gun rights: "There is no doubt that this senseless violence is breathtaking -- but I never saw a body with bullet holes that was more devastating than taking the right to arm ourselves away."
On the victims: "I would not just stand there and let him shoot me. I would say: 'Hey, guys, everybody attack him. He may shoot me, but he can't get us all.'"
On arming teachers: "If the [kindergarten] teacher was trained in the use of that weapon and had access to it, I would be much more comfortable if they had one than if they didn't."
On traveling to Oregon as president to console the victims' families: "I mean, I would probably have so many things on my agenda that I would go to the next one."
It's true that Carson's string of baffling comments drew lots of press attention and condemnation. (Especially when he later told a story about how he had once been held at gunpoint at a Popeyes restaurant and directed the gunman to the employee behind the counter.) But I'd suggest too much of it from the political press corps was restrained in a way that would be inconceivable if, for instance, a leading Democratic candidate had callously placed blame on victims in the wake of a terror attack on American soil.
From The New York Times [emphasis added]:
Like many Republican presidential candidates who have sought to express sympathy for victims while maintaining support for gun rights, Mr. Carson has struggled to address the issue with sensitivity.
NBC News added that Carson had "made a number of eyebrow raising comments since the shooting last Thursday."
Raised eyebrows? Struggled with sensitivity? I don't think that comes close to capturing the imprudence of Carson's remarks. Fact is, I'm not sure journalists know how to deal with a presidential candidate who seemingly places some of the blame on the victims of a mass murder.
Another example of the press not yet able to come to terms with Republican dismissiveness came when scores of journalists rushed to Jeb Bush's defense last week after he suggested "stuff happens," and that the government shouldn't always respond aggressively to crises, including mass murders.
As reported by the Washington Post, Bush said:
"We're in a difficult time in our country and I don't think that more government is necessarily the answer to this," he said. "I think we need to reconnect ourselves with everybody else. It's just, it's very sad to see. But I resist the notion -- and I did, I had this, this challenge as governor, because we have, look, stuff happens, there's always a crisis and the impulse is always to do something and it's not necessarily the right thing to do."
Certain Bush had simply been "inartful" and that he'd never cavalierly dismiss a mass murder as "stuff happens," many in the press played defense and suggested the quote was taken out of context. But it wasn't. After his "stuff happens" comments, Bush was asked if he had misspoken and he emphatically denied he had: "No, it wasn't a mistake. I said exactly what I said. Why would you explain to me what I said was wrong? Things happen all the time -- things -- is that better?"
According to the Washington Post, Bush then elaborated, likening mass shooting to kids drowning in pools: "Things happen all the time. A child drowns in a pool and the impulse is to pass a law that puts fencing around a pool," he said. "The cumulative effect of this is that in some cases, you don't solve the problem by passing the law and you're imposing on large numbers of people burdens that make it harder for our economy to grow, make it harder to protect liberty." (Gawker noted that Bush did actually sign a Florida law requiring pool fences after a child in the state nearly drowned.)
"Stuff happens" meant exactly what Bush wanted it to mean: There's nothing the government can do about mass shootings because there's nothing the government can, or should do, about gun ownership. (As governor of Florida, Bush received an "A+" rating from the NRA.)
The kneejerk desire to protect Bush from his own words suggests many journalists haven't come to grips with the idea that Republicans, as a matter of policy, are unwilling to reduce the number of guns in America. And that the shoulder shrug response to the Oregon tragedy indicates they're not going to try.
Journalists should stop shying away from relaying that troubling truth.
As Republicans and their media allies scramble to contain the damage from Rep. Kevin McCarthy's (R-CA) comments on Fox News, where he admitted the allegedly non-partisan Benghazi select committee was created to sabotage Hillary Clinton's political career, note that the other key player in this story is the Beltway press. And like Republicans, reporters and pundits who have feasted off Benghazi -- and the supposedly-related Clinton email story -- now have a chance to come to terms with a new political reality.
And that reality is that the cover of legitimacy has been blown away. McCarthy's comments revealed a poorly-kept secret and now everyone has to acknowledge their unobstructed view of the crass partisanship in play.
Having handed Democrats such a blunt instrument to attack the GOP's permanent-scandal infrastructure, McCarthy's comments could represent a turning point of sort. My hunch is that many D.C. journalists liked it better when they could pretend the Benghazi and email pursuits were strictly fact-finding missions, but it is now much harder to cling to that farce.
The fact is that for years the Beltway press has had the chance to cast a critical eye on the GOP's Benghazi obsession, to ask pointed questions about the clear abuse of power and the use of taxpayer dollars to advance a political agenda, through a committee virtually subsidizing Republican opposition research for a presidential campaign.
Instead, the press mostly checked any skepticism and was happily recruited to be part of the Republican "scandal" production. The press liked the story the Benghazi committee was trying to tell. (A swirling scandal in the Obama White House. Will Clinton's campaign be doomed?) Much of the press liked being fed morsels of information, which were then nearly always related to news consumers with strong GOP flavoring.
Recall that when Republicans rolled out the select committee last year, much of the Beltway press seemed almost giddy with anticipation, busy suggesting that big troubles lay ahead for Democrats because of looming questions about the Libya terror attack. (Remember when the Benghazi select committee claimed it would actually investigate the Libya terror attack?) Of less interest to much of the political press was the fact that there had already been seven government inquiries into Benghazi and that none had uncovered any administration wrongdoing. In fact, several had completely debunked favorite Republican conspiracy theories. ("Stand down" orders were definitely not given.)
So in a way, McCarthy's comments didn't simply reveal the truth about Republican objectives, they also highlighted the press' pliant role. Going forward, journalists have a clear choice: they can finally decouple themselves from the increasingly farcical, and sprawling, Benghazi production, or become more deeply mired in the folly. (It's probably too late, though, for people like National Journal's Ron Fournier, who repeatedly backed all kind of bogus Republican claims about the White House and Benghazi.)
In the wake of McCarthy's accidental accuracy, a handful of prominent media voices have unequivocally stated the truth. At the New York Times, those voices included editorial board member Carol Giacomo: The Benghazi committee is "a partisan witch hunt targeting Hillary Rodham Clinton" and has "shed no significant new light on the Benghazi attack." And today, the New York Times' entire editorial board joined in, calling the Benghazi committee "an insult to the memory of four slain Americans," and urging Republicans to disband the partisan inquisition.
But the Times editorial board has been honest about the committee's true, absurd nature since day one. Whether other media outlets will finally follow their lead remains to be seen.
There's no question that McCarthy's blunder of accidentally telling the truth on national television has changed the political calculus in recent days. McCarthy's campaign to be next Speaker of the House is suddenly in danger of being derailed. Republican allies fear the investigation apparatus is permanently stained. And Democrats on the Benghazi committee, who have complained bitterly about Republican behavior for months, have essentially declared war on chairman Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-SC) and are now potentially moving to disband the committee all together. (They likely don't have the votes to do so, but the Benghazi storyline has clearly changed.)
And with Democrats fighting back, that means the media narrative should, and can, change in important ways. Just look at the nuggets about committee malfeasance that we're now learning: "Gowdy Cancelled All Planned Hearings Other Than Hillary Clinton's After NYT Email Story."
Meanwhile, Clinton released her first national ad of the campaign cycle featuring Benghazi: "The Republicans have spent millions attacking Hillary because she's fighting for everything they oppose." (Vox called the 30-second spot "devastating.") And while it remained unstated, the ad worked as a critique of the press and its Benghazi malpractice as well.
It's true that Democrats on the committee and on Capitol Hill have for years been complaining about the Republicans' institutionalized scandal pursuits, and the way the GOP set up a Congressional infrastructure to feed the press wild allegations and create costly distractions, just like they did during the 1990s under President Bill Clinton.
I suspect much of the press knew the Democratic claims about the Benghazi committee were accurate, but they wanted to carry on with the charade. The press was invested and wanted to maintain the deniability that Republicans provided. (i.e. These are serious endeavors!) They wanted to pretend this circular, dog-chasing-tail Benghazi/email pursuit was presidentially important and required limitless resources.
So a game-changing revelation about the Benghazi committee had to come from a prominent Republican in order to alter the conversation.
And now it has.
Within the span of just twelve hours this week, multiple Republican-sponsored political pursuits partially unraveled in plain sight.
The long-running investigations were the Benghazi select committee and the related probe into Hillary Clinton's private emails, and Republicans' crusade targeting Planned Parenthood. Journalists would be wise to take note of the pattern of plain deception and ask themselves if they want to keep sponsoring these planned distractions.
The first to crumble was the right-wing smear campaign against Planned Parenthood, which was launched this summer and sponsored by Fox News and the Republican Party. Creating a whirlwind of controversy and endless media attention, the undercover sting operation by anti-choice group Center for Medical Progress was even elevated by some to be pressing enough to shut down the federal government.
Tuesday's Congressional hearing about defunding Planned Parenthood was to be the centerpiece of the right wing's orchestrated attack campaign. The problem was that in recent weeks we've learned the gotcha videos at the center of the campaign were deceptively edited. And so far six statewide investigations have found no wrongdoing on the part of Planned Parenthood. That meant the Congressional production was likely destined for failure.
"The entire hearing was premised on a series of mischaracterizations," reported The New Yorker. Republicans were left with little but bouts of bullying in an effort to intimidate Planned Parenthood chief Cecile Richards as she testified.
It didn't work. So after ten weeks, the sustained attack against Planned Parenthood produced no tangible evidence of wrongdoing and no serious damage to the organization. (Of course, despite their failures so far, Republicans are now reportedly considering creating "a special panel to investigate Planned Parenthood.")
Then just hours after the hearing completed, Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), who's now in line to become the next Republican Speaker of the House, brazenly bragged on Sean Hannity's Fox program about how the Benghazi select committee was responsible for damaging Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign. To which Hannity responded, "That's something good, I give you credit for that."
With one brief Fox appearance, McCarthy laid bare the facts about both the never-ending Benghazi investigation and the related, still-churning email witch hunt: They're both built on politics, plain and simple. The Republicans created a Benghazi select committee in order to try to take out the Democratic frontrunner for president. Period. That's the story.
Sadly, the busted Planned Parenthood, Benghazi and email diversions simply represent the latest creations from the GOP distraction model. Conservatives have been using it, on and off, for two decades -- and the model works best when the Beltway press plays along. It works best if the Beltway press pretends virtually every other Republican-produced scandal pursuit hasn't been a bust.
Many of the same Republicans who have spearheaded the dishonest Planned Parenthood probe are the same ones leading the charge on Benghazi and the email story. And the press continues to breathlessly quote them as they try to hype these supposed scandals.
So yes, much of the press has been culpable in the latest Republican distractions since day one. In fact, the press has been playing the same lapdog role for well over twenty years when it comes to endlessly hyping and even marketing orchestrated Republican distractions. These self-contained circus productions that suggest all kinds of Democratic wrongdoing are long on conspiracy theories but short on facts, and leave pundits and reporters breathlessly chronicling the possible downside for Democrats.
One reason these Groundhog Day scenes keeping play out, again and again and again, is due to the fact too many journalists are absolutely wed to the very simple definition of what constitutes news: What are conservatives angry about?
Given that kind of carte blanche to create news cycles, Republicans and conservatives in the media have taken full advantage and have settled into a predictable pattern: Manufacture distractions designed to make life miserable for Democratic leaders; force Democrats to use up energy and resources to swat down endless unproven allegations, and spawn waves of media "gotcha" hysteria fueled by disingenuous leaks.
But here's the thing: it's exhausting. It's disheartening. And it's a colossal waste of time and energy. But this is how the right wing plays politics in America and the D.C. press has shown an unbridled enthusiasm to want to play along; to want to abandon common sense in order to chase GOP-designated shiny objects for weeks, months or sometimes years on end. And then do it all over again when the current distraction disintegrates.
The pattern began in earnest during the 1990s when Republicans became obsessed with personally pursuing the Clintons. Remember the dubious Clinton pardon distraction, the parting gifts distraction, and of course Ken Starr's $80 million Inspector Javert routine.
Charles Pierce at Esquire recently detailed that decade's signature string of orchestrated GOP obfuscations:
To use a more relevant, example, TravelGate was a distraction. FileGate was a distraction. The disgusting use of Vince Foster's suicide was a distraction. Castle Grande was a distraction. The cattle futures were a distraction. The billing records were a distraction. Webster Hubbell's billing practices were a distraction. Hell, the entire Whitewater part of the Whitewater affair was basically a distraction, as was the pursuit of Bill Clinton's extracurricular love life. Kathleen Willey was a distraction. The monkeywrenching of a settlement in the Paula Jones case was to make sure that the distraction that was that case survived. All of these were distractions created to make it difficult for a Democratic president to govern, and the reason I know that is because the people creating distractions were not shy about admitting what they were all about to each other.
Over time, the vast majority of those endless Clinton allegations were proven to be hollow. Yet aided by some regrettable journalism, the relentless scandal culture took hold and managed to damage to the Clinton administration. Indeed, the whole point of the GOP's Clinton distraction model was to create the infrastructure to hound the Democrats.
With President Obama's inauguration, the old model was unpacked, but this time with Fox News playing a much more aggressive role. The results have been an endless parade of diversions and hoaxes designed, in various shapes and sizes, to hamstring a Democratic administration and, more recently, to damage the leading Democratic candidate for 2016.
Here's just a handful of manufactured distractions:
As Media Matters can attest, virtually none of the often-hysterical allegations attached to those distractions were ever proven to be true. Instead, the pursuits imploded under their own weight. Yet too often, these supposed scandals broke out of the Fox News bubble and became mainstream "news."
So when's the press going to get the message and stop enabling these charades?
The runaway coverage of Hillary Clinton's emails has become so expansive that it's often hard for news consumers to get their hands around how vast the ocean of media attention is. It's difficult to quantify how numbing the endless questions have become, and how painfully repetitive the bouts of analysis now are.
Lately though, we're starting to get some concrete data points. For instance, thanks to the broadcast evening news analysis of Andrew Tyndall we know that ABC World News Tonight, CBS Evening News, and NBC Nightly News this year have together spent just as much time covering the email controversy as they have spent covering Clinton's entire presidential campaign.
Additionally, Media Matters detailed how, since March, Washington Post political blogger Chris Cillizza has penned more than 50 posts mentioning Hillary Clinton's emails, nearly all of them featuring dire warnings about the supposedly "massive political problem" facing the Democrat.
It turns out Cillizza isn't alone at the Post. According to a search of the Nexis database, the Post has published at least 70 articles, columns, and blog posts this month that mention Clinton and discuss her emails at least three times.
70, just this month.
In other words, the Post has roughly averaged more than two Clinton email missives every day in September. The newspaper's total word count for Clinton email coverage, in news and opinion, this month? According to Nexis word counts, approximately 60,000 words, which is about the equivalent of a 200-page hardcover book.
Just for the month of September.
Right now, the Post's relentless, breathless news and opinion coverage feels like Iran Contra-meets-Watergate, even though there's no indication any laws were broken in the Clinton saga. The ironic part is that in late August, Post columnist David Ignatius spelled out why the media fury surrounding the email story was "overstated." Most of the Post newsroom apparently ignored him for the month of September.
And keep in mind, this tsunami-type coverage comes six months after the email story first emerged.
Obviously this much saturation coverage produces almost comedic redundancies. Take for instance how the Post's news and opinion pages handled the apology Clinton offered up regarding her use of private emails:
Gee, think Post readers get the idea?
Like lots of news organizations, it seems the Post has decided to gorge itself on email coverage and use it as a permanent backdrop for the Clinton campaign. For Republicans, that's a winning model. For voters in search of 2016 insights, not so much.
If you feel like the 2016 presidential campaign, starring celebrity Donald Trump, has already produced mountainous media coverage, you're right. According to a new study of network evening news campaign coverage by broadcast news monitor Andrew Tyndall, ABC, CBS, and NBC have devoted a total of 504 minutes to covering the story in 2015. At this point in the 2007 race, 462 minutes had been dedicated to the race, compared to just 277 minutes given to the contest in 2011, according to Tyndall.
To date, Republican coverage far outweighs that of the Democratic primary, 338 minutes to 128 minutes.
But what's most telling about the number crunching is how broadcast newscasts have covered Democrats Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. The findings back up claims from supporters of both candidates who insist the press is a) utterly obsessed with the Clinton email story and b) not giving Sanders his due.
The Clinton campaign has received a good deal coverage this year, garnering 82 minutes in network news time. That's second only to Trump (a staggering 145 minutes), and well ahead of the next most-covered candidate, Jeb Bush (43 minutes). Here's what's so noteworthy, though: ABC, CBS, and NBC have dedicated almost the exact same amount of airtime to her campaign (82 minutes) as they have to covering the Republican-fed controversy surrounding Clinton's old secretary of state emails this year (83 minutes).
So for the network newscasts, the Clinton email story has proven to be just as important as the entirety of her campaign. Talk about newsrooms having skewed priorities. To date, the email story has produced no proof any kind of lawbreaking by Clinton, yet the network newscasts have absolutely devoured the story and turned it into one the year's big news events.
More from Tyndall on the Clinton coverage:
CBS has found the e-mails more newsworthy than the candidacy (31 mins vs 19); NBC has focused more on the candidacy than the e-mails (42 mins vs 26); ABC has treated them roughly equally (e-mails 25 mins vs candidacy 21).
As for Sanders, his campaign has barely even registered on the broadcast evening news this year, generating just eight minutes of coverage. By comparison, Mitt Romney's decision last winter to not run for president generated just as much coverage as Sanders' entire 2015 campaign, which has been crisscrossing the country for the last four months.
Meanwhile, Sanders' coverage is getting dwarfed by Bush's, which doesn't make a lot of sense. According to the polls, Sanders is running strong in Iowa and New Hampshire and polling at approximately 25 percent nationally. By contrast, Bush is polling very poorly in the early states of Iowa and New Hampshire and is polling nationally at around ten percent.
Obviously, with many more Republican candidates in the field it's harder to post a big national number. But still, it's hard to look at the polling data and understand why Bush has received more than five times as much network newscast coverage as Sanders.
Also, note that the Vermont Democrat's campaign has received the same amount of broadcast news time as Gov. Chris Christie, who's polling at around three percent and in seventh place among GOP candidates.
In the month since he announced his bid, Sanders' coverage seems to pale in comparison to comparable Republican candidates who face an arduous task of obtaining their party's nomination. The reluctance is ironic, since the D.C. press corps for months brayed loudly about how Hillary Clinton must face a primary challenger. Now she has one and the press can barely feign interest?
As the campaign progresses, there's plenty of time for network newscasts to shift some of their relentless focus off the Republican race and do more to cover the Clinton campaign (not the partisan controversy), and give Sanders his fair share.
Welcome to the Republican Party's bigotry primary, sponsored by Fox News.
With frontrunners Donald Trump and Ben Carson creating firestorms with their recent forays into birtherism and heavy-handed Islamophobia, the Grand Old Party once again is facing its perpetual political dilemma: How can the GOP reach mainstream voters when Fox News has completely seized control of the primary process and remains determined to serve the far-right fringe? How can the GOP succeed nationally when Fox News defends, or explains away, incursions into birtherism and Islamophobia?
It's true that the GOP primary represents a ratings gold mine for Fox News. But it's a looming political disaster for the Republican Party. Sound familiar? We're witnessing déjà vu from 2012, only this time it's worse for Republicans.
In the failed experiment three years ago, the goal was to attach a political movement with a cable TV channel in an effort to oust a sitting president. Despite the insular and illusionary claims of a pending "landslide" victory for Republican Mitt Romney, the experiment flopped -- in part, because Romney adopted so much of Fox's far-right rhetoric.
Yet rather than learn from the failed 2012 model, the GOP effectively handed over even more control to Fox News in preparation for 2016. And this time with Trump, Carson and company racing even farther to the fringes, it's a Fox News primary on steroids.
"Shrill Rhetoric In The GOP Primary Race Could Come Back to Haunt the Party," read a Washington Post headline this week.
Note that since Fox's programming regularly pushes out xenophobia to Republican viewers, you can't be surprised when Republican viewers embrace xenophobic candidates. Also note that Trump and Carson's rise come in the wake of Republican leaders, after sifting through the electoral damage of 2012, insisted the party become more inclusive of minorities if Republicans want to remain competitive in future national elections. (Note: It's not working, at all.)
Make no mistake, Donald Trump and Ben Carson are national Republican leaders today largely because of Fox News. Without Fox News' exaggerated generosity over the years, and without Fox providing endless free airtime in the form of sophisticated promotional blitzes to tout Trump and Carson as possible presidential players for years, it's unlikely either man would be leading in the Republican polls today.
Trump and Carson represent perhaps the clearest distillation of exactly how Fox News is not only running the Republican primary, but how the channel's handpicked candidates come with lots and lots of baggage.
For Trump, that baggage has been the Fox-sponsored campaign to question President Obama's American citizenship, and by extension Obama's legal right to govern the United States.
That was crystallized when an agitated questioner at a New Hampshire town hall event last week said to Trump, "We have a problem in this country. It's called Muslims. We know our current president is one. You know he's not even an American," adding, "Anyway, we have training camps growing where they want to kill us. That's my question: When can we get rid of them?" (Fox has peddled the bogus "training camps" claim in the past.)
Trump gave the guy a pass, opening himself to criticism that in 2015 he was still pushing the bogus birther charade. (Not to mention the odious attack on all Muslims laid out by the questioner.)
For Carson, his political rise has been synonymous with a never-ending string of baffling and offensive comments that seemed aimed at appeasing Fox's Obama/liberal-hating viewers:
* Marriage is "a well-established fundamental pillar of society. And no group, be they gays, be they NAMBLA, be they people who believe in bestiality -- it doesn't matter what they are. They don't get to change the definition."
His latest campaign flashpoint arrived when Meet the Press host Chuck Todd asked if Carson would be okay having a Muslim as president of the United States. "I would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation," Carson responded. "I absolutely would not agree with that."
He added later that day: "Muslims feel that their religion is very much a part of your public life and what you do as a public official, and that's inconsistent with our principles and our Constitution."
That kind of deeply paranoid and divisive rhetoric appears to be common on AM talk radio in this country. But Carson isn't running for AM Shock Jock. He's running to become leader of the free world; of all Americans.
It's hard to believe that just a few election cycles ago, Republican frontrunner George W. Bush was making these types of inclusive comments while addressing the NAACP:
Discrimination is still a reality, even when it takes different forms. Instead of Jim Crow, there's racial redlining and profiling. Instead of separate but equal, there is separate and forgotten.
Strong civil rights enforcement will be a cornerstone of my administration. And I will confront another form of bias: the soft bigotry of low expectations.
Please note Fox News wasn't running Republican primaries in 2000, which meant GOP frontrunners were given room to roam politically, like Bush actively reaching out to black voters. Not today. Fox News has stifled that kind of growth. Instead, the hallmark of the Republican primary has become rigid adherence to far-right rhetoric. It's the kind that envelops mistrust and morphs into birtherism and Islamophobia.
Again, welcome to the Republican Party's bigotry primary, sponsored by Fox News.
Fact-checkers get ready, there's a new Bill O'Reilly book arriving in stores this week. If Killing Reagan is anything like his previous forays into the historical genre, and if it's anything like the dubious memoirs the Fox News anchor has penned that helped improve his life story, the new tome will likely be rife with dubious assertions that will have scholars scratching their heads.
Killing Reagan follows the chart-topping success of O'Reilly's Killing Lincoln, Killing Kennedy, Killing Jesus, and Killing Patton, all co-written with Martin Dugard. Several of the books have been charred by historians for being off-base and weakly researched.
Of course, last winter O'Reilly's reputation as a "straight shooter" took a major hit when it was revealed that over the years he'd gone all Walter Mitty by regularly rewriting his own professional past. He did it by puffing up his pedestrian dispatches as a network news correspondent during his pre-Fox days and dressing them up as death-defying events.
In other words, O'Reilly's book-writing career to date seems to revolve around fabricating fantastic claims about himself, and getting lots of stuff wrong about well-documented historical events.
In that sense, he's the perfect Fox News penman.
In the past, the press has mostly gazed with wide wonder on O'Reilly's book sales prowess. During a puffy 60 Minutes profile at the time of the Killing Jesus release, O'Reilly actually suggested to Norah O'Donnell that God, or the "Holy Spirit," directly inspired him to write the book. (And not the $10 million advance he pocketed, apparently.)
But in light of revelations about O'Reilly's habitual, and very unsubtle, rewriting of his own history, journalists should be more wary about his publishing endeavors.
The avalanche of embarrassing O'Reilly revelations this year began when Mother Jones detailed how O'Reilly had "recounted dramatic stories about his own war reporting that don't withstand scrutiny." Specifically, O'Reilly claimed "many were killed" in a June 1982 Buenos Aires protest following the Falkland Islands war that he covered as a CBS News correspondent; a protest he compared to a "war zone." But news accounts from that time cite some street injuries and chaos in the Argentine capital, but no deaths.
O'Reilly responded with a vengeance, rushing on the air to denounce Mother Jones editor David Corn's truth-telling. But O'Reilly's hot-headed defense soon went silent when the facts began to pile up against him and when other journalists in Buenos Aires at the time flatly contradicted O'Reilly's puffed-up retelling:
But that was just the beginning.
Media Matters soon documented two more jaw-dropping O'Reilly fabrications. First, evidence contradicted his claim, recounted in Killing Kennedy, about standing on a front porch and hearing the shotgun blast that killed a key figure in the investigation into President John F. Kennedy's assassination. He also lied about witnessing the execution of four American churchwomen while reporting from war-torn El Salvador.
More? The Guardian reported that former O'Reilly colleagues from his time at Inside Edition disputed accounts he told over the years about being attacked by protesters while covering the Los Angeles riots in 1992. And as for previous claims that O'Reilly had witnessed terrorist bombings in war-torn Northern Ireland? Scratch those from his resume. O'Reilly made that up, too.
You could say he takes the same approach with his historical books, starting with 2011's Killing Lincoln.
"The narrative contains numerous errors of people, place, and events," wrote Lincoln scholar Edward Steers Jr. in North & South magazine, where he listed scores of errors. "If all of the above sounds like nitpicking, consider this. If the authors made mistakes in names, places, and events, what else did they get wrong? How can the reader rely on anything that appears in 'Killing Lincoln'?"
O'Reilly kept up the hot streak while mangling biblical history in Killing Jesus. Once again, experts were stunned at the ineptitude.
"I can't provide a serious review because it is hard for me to believe that he published it with a straight face. This book is horrible on so many levels," read a review from a professor at a seminary. "Of all the problems with this book it is his complete lack of understanding about history that is most frustrating. He claims to separate myth from history, but I don't think he knows the difference."
O'Reilly's work was so patently sloppy, even conservative outlets unloaded. "I found this popular book contains no fewer than 133 historical errors," wrote a biblical scholar at the far-right website WND, who stressed O'Reilly failed "to get a single date right in the life of Christ. Not one. It is a landmark achievement."
O'Reilly has made a handsome living misleading viewers about current events for decades now. So I suppose it's not surprising he'd make an equally handsome living making stuff up about historical figures, and about himself.
But let's be clear: he's a fabricator, not an historian.
Somewhere Al Gore is probably experiencing painful campaign flashbacks. Like if he heard NBC's Andrea Mitchell ask Hillary Clinton in a recent interview, "Does it hurt you when people say you are too lawyerly, you parse your words, you are not authentic, you're not connecting?"
Or when the Wall Street Journal published a piece suggesting so much of what Clinton does sounds "scripted and poll-tested." Or when Politico declared she's a White House hopeful "with an authenticity problem." Or when the Washington Post reported, "Her campaign has struggled to present her as authentic and relatable." Or when McClatchy Newspapers asked "Is Hillary Clinton Authentic Enough for Voters," and likened her to Richard Nixon.
"Authenticity" has clearly become the Beltway media's latest buzzword to describe what's supposedly wrong with Clinton's campaign, even as she continues to have a sizeable national lead over her Democratic competitors.
The answer: She's a phony.
Why is this all likely ringing in Gore's ears? Because the last White House campaign that the Beltway press openly waged war against (the way it's now openly waging war on the Clinton campaign) was Gore's 2000 push. The Beltway elites hated Gore and didn't try to hide it, just like so many journalists seem to openly despise Clinton today. ("Reporters liked Bush and didn't like Gore," observed Paul Krugman at the New York Times.)
In 2000, Gore was widely ridiculed in the press as the wooden, over-calculating, poll-driven phony who was running against the epitome of true authenticity: George W. Bush. Sure, Gore knew his stuff cold and Bush seemed wobbly on the facts, and forget that Bush's entire campaign turned out to be built around the staged-crafted prevarication known as "compassionate conservativism." The press loved the Bush image and couldn't stand the Gore persona -- The New York Times mocked him as "Eddie Haskell," the neighborhood brownnoser from Leave It To Beaver.
The press dutifully spent the entire campaign regurgitating the Republicans' playbook on Gore: he's a phony who can't be trusted. Fast-forward and the Republican playbook reads the same on Clinton: She's a phony who can't be trusted. So yes, the media's current authenticity chatter plays right into the GOP's hands. It perfectly coincides with conservative talking points about how to undermine the Democratic frontrunner.
But the authenticity math doesn't seem to add up.
In 2008, Clinton tallied 18 million votes during the Democratic primary season. Obviously, she lost to Barack Obama but how did she win a whopping 18 million votes if, according to the press, she can't connect with people due to her utter lack of authenticity? (Reminder: Clinton won her 2000 New York Senate race in a landslide.)
The recent "authenticity" wave began with a New York Times article that claimed "there will be new efforts to bring spontaneity to a candidacy that sometimes seems wooden and overly cautious." The piece came complete with the mocking headline, "Hillary Clinton to Show More Humor and Heart, Aides Say." (Punch line: Clinton's handlers have to instruct her be warm and funny?)
Commentators immediately mocked the Clinton camp. "You don't project [authenticity] by having your campaign tell the world you're going to project authenticity," Bloomberg News' John Heilemann said on Face the Nation. The Washington Post's Dana Milbank ridiculed Clinton aides as "moron[s]" and fired off this insult: "And now comes the latest of many warm-and-fuzzy makeovers -- perhaps the most transparent phoniness since Al Gore discovered earth tones."
I couldn't have scripted that Gore reference better myself. Convinced Clinton is a phony who isn't comfortable in her own skin, Milbank reminded readers that Gore was such a supposed phony that he started wearing "earth tones," a reference to a manufactured kerfuffle from the 2000 campaign when the press claimed author Naomi Wolf counseled Gore on what color clothes he should wear. (Why? Because Gore doesn't know who he is!)
Turns out though, Wolf denied the claim as did Gore's aides. In fact there was never any proof to substantiate the charge, first floated as speculation in the Washington Post, about Gore and an earth tone wardrobe makeover. But that didn't matter because the press loved it and repeated the claim endlessly as proof of Gore's complete lack of foundation. (It ranked right up there with the made-up story about Gore claiming to have invented the Internet.)
Recap: During the 2000 campaign, the Post, citing speculation by Dick Morris, invented a tale about someone telling Gore to wear "earth tones," which supposedly proved what a phony he is. For the 2016 campaign, a Post columnist revived that false "earth tones" story and used it as a reference for how phony Clinton is.
So yes, the symmetry is perfect.
Now we're onto the Catch-22 phase of the "authenticity" blitz, in which commentators are sure any attempt by Clinton to show humor and heart is part of a calculated plan at authenticity.
In other words, after demanding that Clinton be more authentic, the press is now deducting points from Clinton for being more authentic. So really, there is no way for her to win. If Clinton's not spontaneous enough, the chattering class complains. If she is spontaneous or shows more of her private side, the chattering class dismisses it as orchestrated.
It's true that in 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney was hounded by allegations he wasn't being real enough. But much of that was driven by his clear pattern of flip-flopping on major issues, like the fact that as governor of Massachusetts he championed health care reform that looked a lot like Obamacare. Then he campaigned to abolish Obamacare. That eye rolling was amplified when Romney, the former center-right governor, suddenly declared himself to have been a "severely conservative" overseer in Massachusetts.
The media's authenticity police rarely ticket Clinton over substantive issues or for policy flip-flops. She's written up for personality infractions. Authenticity sometimes seems to be media shorthand for, 'We don't like you.'
Al Gore can relate.
An unintended moment of clarity recently emerged on Fox News during The O'Reilly Factor, as guests unpacked their endless predictions about the supposed mounting legal woes facing Hillary Clinton. Blissfully ignoring security and legal experts who agree Clinton faces almost no legal jeopardy for using private emails while secretary of state, Fox has remained a hot bed for baseless allegations. And in the Fox tradition, the more baseless the better.
So night after night, day after day, a rotating carousel of partisans who attack Democrats for a living have been invited onto Fox to invent a laundry list of claims and excitedly predict all the awful things that await Clinton and her surely doomed campaign.
The unintended moment of clarity came on September 3 when Fox's James Rosen, who seems sure the email story is following the same track as Nixon's Watergate impeachment process, combined bogus claims about the Clinton email story with bogus claims about already-answered questions regarding the September 11, 2012 terror attack in Benghazi.
Meaning, Rosen was able to momentarily tie the discussion about the Clinton emails "scandal" back to Obama's Benghazi "scandal." In doing so, Rosen helped remind viewers, briefly, that Obama's Benghazi and Clinton's emails are joined at the hip and both scandal productions represent the right-wing's ceaseless attempt to undermine Democratic leaders through the guise of investigation, all sponsored by Fox News and often cheered by the Beltway press. (The Republican-led Benghazi select committee has effortlessly morphed into the Clinton email committee.)
Today, as we observe the third anniversary of the Benghazi terror attack let's keep in mind the links between Fox's utterly failed, dishonest, and at times painfully stupid Benghazi cover-up production, and Fox's current scandal production, the Clinton emails. Fox's relentless, fact-free hysteria about the emails is quickly catching up to the caterwauling that has marked the three-year Benghazi crusade.
One has become a mirror reflection of the other:
-Endless, Captain Ahab-like pursuit? Check.
-Wildly fantastic claims of lawbreaking? Check.
-Comically sinister portrayal of a Democratic villain? Check.
-Remaining unmoved by the facts? Check.
In other words, the same Fox News talkers who got everything wrong about Benghazi are now the ones sponsoring the Clinton email 'scandal.' And when I say "everything" about Benghazi, that's not hyperbole.
Over the last three years, Fox News claimed Obama never called the Benghazi attack an act of terror and that former CIA director David Petraeus was forced to resign because of Benghazi. They've insisted Obama watched Americans die and refused to send help. That so-called whistleblowers have been blocked from testifying before Congress, along with Benghazi survivors. Also, that Clinton faked a concussion in order to avoid testifying about the terror attack.
Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, and wrong. Seven strikes and you're out, right?
Today, "Benghazi" has both become both a morbid punch line and shorthand for a partisan waste of time. Just this week, Democratic Congressman Steve Cohen reportedly mocked an unrelated Republican inquiry as "the Benghazi of healthcare hearings."
For the most part, Benghazi has been retired as scandal bait at Fox News, which previously aired hundreds and hundreds of hours and a thousand-plus segments on the topic, promoting pointless pursuits of the Obama White House, and did so with wild and reckless allegations of wrongdoing.
Here are some wild and reckless claims talkers on Fox News have been making about the email story in recent weeks, via Nexis:
*"The e-mail evidence made public so far pretty much enough to indict her on a misdemeanor national security beef. If the FBI discovers she had her e-mail server professionally scrubbed, the former secretary of state could be looking at a felony charge." (Bill O'Reilly)
*"The idea that we're even debating whether or not she violated the law -- you'll hear her supporters say, Well, where's the evidence? And I say we're not only overwhelmed with all the evidence, I say where is the grand jury? Why isn't there a grand jury?" (Mark Levin)
*"Was this a mass criminal conspiracy? You've got co-conspirators! You've got people taking top secret off of e-mails! You've got everything the grand jury should be investigating right now!" (Jeanine Pirro)
And this what-if exchange, via Nexis transcript, between Fox legal analyst Peter Johnson Jr. and Sean Hannity nicely captures the breathless chatter being broadcast on Fox [emphasis added]:
JOHNSON: Oh, I think this is significant legal problems. I don't know whether a crime has been committed or not, but we have all of the circumstances, all of the conditions surrounding the potential that a crime has been committed...
HANNITY: A serious crime.
JOHNSON: ... apart from bad judgment, apart from this nonsense that you're going to recreate history and keep a State Department to yourself and say, I'm going to take the server with me.
I think that this is the digital analog to the Nixon Watergate tapes. It's the same kind of controlling mindset.
HANNITY: Peter, look at the possible smoking guns.
HANNITY: What if the Chinese have it? What if Putin has it? What if the FBI can recover some of the deleted e-mails that maybe refer to Benghazi or other issues...
JOHNSON: Where did they go either intentionally or unintentionally? What's the negligence? What's the...
HANNITY: ... obstruction of justice!
JOHNSON: And when the FBI comes a-calling -- we haven't even gotten to that. what about the personal interview with Secretary of State Clinton...
JOHNSON: ... and all of the people that used to work for her? We haven't even gotten to that point. That point will come. The FBI will say...
HANNITY: What are the odds -- last question. What are the odds you think she would get indicted?
In September 2012, The Five co-host Eric Bolling described the Benghazi "cover-up" as "the biggest news story since Watergate." On the night of Obama's reelection, Fox News contributor Todd Starnes announced on Twitter, "the first order of business should be a full investigation of Benghazi -- followed by impeachment proceedings." And just last year, Fox's Pirro called Benghazi the "biggest cover up since Watergate" and declared that Obama's "dereliction of duty as commander-in-chief demands [his] impeachment."
Like I said, virtually every claim Fox News made about Obama and Benghazi turned out to be utter nonsense. So now, after crassly politicizing the deaths of four Americans in a failed attempt to dislodge Obama, Fox has taken its Benghazi hoax and christened it a Clinton email crusade.
To date, it's proving to be just as dishonest.
The Republican birther brigade really is one of the most astonishing political stories in recent years. What's truly bewildering and newsworthy is that the birther ranks are apparently expanding and likely number in the millions nationwide. The fact that Republican frontrunner Donald Trump personally vouched for the baseless, anti-Obama conspiracy theory has only elevated its significance.
So why does the press continue to largely turn a blind eye to the telling spectacle?
Amidst the avalanche of news coverage and commentary about Trump's campaign, the birther strain that runs through important parts of the Republican Party (the claim that Obama's secretly a Kenya-born Muslim) has not been a focal point for Beltway reporters and pundits. The media's birther blind spot is part of the larger press failure to grasp, and accurately detail, the truly radical nature of the Republican Party under President Obama.
For instance, since June 1, the New York Times has published approximately 180 articles or columns that included the word "Trump" five or more times, according to Nexis. But just a handful of those have made any mention of Trump's previous birth certificate folly. The same goes for USA Today and the Los Angeles Times, for example: Nearly 180 detailed Trump articles and columns published since June between them, but just a few that have addressed the birther nonsense.
I'm not suggesting the topic has been completely ignored. But it is safe to say it's not a priority issue for the press, which seems otherwise consumed with all things Trump.
You can bet that if, for some very strange reason, a left-wing demagogue who previously trafficked in 9/11 Truther conspiracy theories catapulted to the front of the Democratic primary race, that incendiary fact would not be politely ignored or downplayed. But Trump's right-wing birtherism often gets a pass.
Let's face it, the press has never come to terms with the Republican Party's deep birther roots, and therefore hasn't come to terms with the radical revolution unfolding on the far right. This campaign season seems like an obvious time to do so. "We need to reckon even more urgently with what can now be called the 'Trumpists,'" Harvard professor Danielle Allen recently noted, highlighting their birther streak.
It's true Trump's candidacy has for the most part shied away from the touchy birther issue this year. But it's also true that it was his bizarre birther campaign that catapulted Trump to Republican stardom in 2011. That year, he teamed up with Fox News and the two took the dormant issue and turned it into conservative "news," with Fox News hosting more than 50 birther segments within a seven-week span.
Eventually, the White House released Obama's long-form birth certificate and most observers laughed at Trump's political pratfall. And I think most journalists thought that was the end of the issue: The dopey birthplace allegations had been unequivocally debunked, therefore the so-called controversy had been settled, right?
And that's been the press' telltale failure in covering conservatives and Republicans in recent years: Facts often don't matter to them. They occupy their own tribal space and digest the same misinformation that simply feeds their often-paranoid views of Obama and Democrats.
"They have a different sense of what is normal," Rachel Maddow observed about birthers back in 2013. "They have a different sense of what counts as reasonable politics in America -- and failing to appreciate that, means that we fail to develop reasonably accurate expectations for their behavior. And that has become really important."
That's even truer today as America's most famous birther marches towards the Republican nomination.
Trump's appealing to an often-ugly streak within the conservative movement. And he's winning over the demagoguery wing of the Republican Party. That's news.
As Mother Jones' David Corn recently noted, "Many Republicans clearly see the president as a foreign-born secret Muslim with a clandestine plan to weaken, if not ruin, the United States--remember the death panels--and they have a dark, nearly apocalyptic view of Obama's America."
To me, that assertion seems self-evident. So why the Beltway press' reluctance to drill down deep into this troubling phenomenon? What's behind the Beltway-wide decision to pretend there isn't something seismic and disturbing going on within the Republican electorate?
Rather than having the release of Obama's birth certificate dissuade those on the far right about the birther issue, since 2011 the ranks of Republican birthers have swelled to huge proportions as the GOP base clings to the dark fantasy that Obama is an African-born impostor who's ineligible to be president or to command U.S. military forces.
From Talking Points Memo [emphasis added]:
Nearly half of Iowans supporting real estate mogul Donald Trump's presidential campaign don't believe President Barack Obama was born in the United States, according to a poll released Tuesday.
The Bloomberg Politics/Des Moines Register poll found that 35 percent of likely Iowa Republican caucusgoers don't believe the President was born in the U.S. That "birther" share rose to 46 percent among Trump supporters, the poll found.
And from Public Policy Polling:
Trump is benefiting from a GOP electorate that thinks Barack Obama is a Muslim and was born in another country, and that immigrant children should be deported. 66% of Trump's supporters believe that Obama is a Muslim to just 12% that grant he's a Christian. 61% think Obama was not born in the United States to only 21% who accept that he was. And 63% want to amend the Constitution to eliminate birthright citizenship, to only 20% who want to keep things the way they are.
Has the modern political press ever had to deal with such a large portion of the partisan electorate that's actively allergic to facts the way birthers are? Probably not.
But I also don't think the current path of routinely downplaying the birther phenomenon and its extraordinary pull within the Republican Party is the right way to handle the story. By too often turning a blind eye to the birther juices fueling Trump's ascension, the press overlooks a defining trait in conservative politics today.