Offering up some advice to the political press corps as it prepares to cover the 2016 presidential campaign, New York Times columnist Frank Bruni recently stressed that reporters and pundits ought to take a deep breath when big stories broke; to not immediately promote stumbles and campaign missteps to be more urgent and damaging than they really are.
"We may wish certain snags were roadblocks and certain missteps collapses, because we think they should be or they're sexier that way," wrote Bruni.
That was in his February 28 column. Four days later Bruni abandoned his own advice.
Pouncing on the controversy surrounding which email account Hillary Clinton used while serving as secretary of state, Bruni tossed his counsel for caution to the wind and treated the email development as an instant game changer and even wondered if the revelation indicated Clinton had a political "death wish."
But that fits the long-running pattern of the D.C. media's Clinton treatment: Over-eager journalists hungry for scandal can't even abide by the advice they dispensed four days prior. Or maybe Bruni simply meant that his advice of caution was supposed to apply only to Republican candidates. Because it's certainly not being applied to Hillary and the email kerfuffle coverage.
Instead, "The media and politicos and Twitterati immediately responded with all the measured cautious skepticism we've come to expect in response to any implication of a Clinton Scandal," noted Wonkette. "That is to say, none."
Just look how the very excitable Ron Fournier at National Journal rushed in after the email story broke and announced Clinton should probably just forget about the whole running-for-president thing. Why preemptively abandon an historic run? Because she may reveal herself to be "seedy," "sanctimonious," "self-important," and "slick." This, after Fournier denounced Bill and Hillary Clinton two weeks ago for their "stupid" and "sleazy" actions.
That seems like a temperate way for a Beltway columnist to write about presidential campaigns, right? Then again, both Fournier and Bruni drew a straight line from the unfolding email story to Bill Clinton's extra-marital affair nearly 20 years ago, which strikes me as odd, if not downright bizarre.
"As long as she's a national figure--and especially when she runs for president--Hillary Clinton will get more scrutiny than anyone else in the field," wrote Jamelle Bouie at Slate this week. (The press is also slow to react when holes in the email stories appear.)
Scrutiny is certainly part of the campaign equation and no candidate should be sealed off from it. What I'm highlighting is how Clinton scrutiny is so often wrapped in an almost a high school brand of social contempt.
Always viewing conflicts through the prism of partisan warfare, conservative media have been faced with a stark choice as Bill O'Reilly's long list of confirmed fabrications pile up in public view. They can defend the Fox News host no matter what, while lashing out his "far-left" critics for daring to fact-check the host. Or, conservative media outlets can let him fend for himself. (The third, obvious option of openly criticizing O'Reilly for his duplicitous ways doesn't seem to be on the table.)
Incredibly, as the controversy marches on and neither O'Reilly nor Fox are able to provide simple answers to the questions about his truth-telling as a reporter, some conservative media allies continue to rally by his side.
On Sunday, Howard Kurtz's MediaBuzz program on Fox came to O'Reilly's aid by doing everything it could to whitewash the allegations against the host.
Over the weekend at Newsbusters--a far-right clearinghouse for endless, and often empty, attacks on the media--Jeffrey Lord denounced the O'Reilly fact-checking campaign as "wrong" and "dangerous." And Fox News contributor Allen West actually told the Washington Post that all the allegations against O'Reilly had been "debunked." (Lots of attendees at the Conservative Political Action Conference last week shared West's contention.)
What's the peril for blindly protecting O'Reilly this way? Simple: It completely undercuts the conservative cottage industry of media criticism. Because why would anyone care about media critiques leveled by conservatives who are currently tying to explain away O'Reilly's obvious laundry list of lies.
"O'Reilly's story, intended to portray him as an enterprising journalist unfazed by potential danger, is a fiction," noted Gawker. "It is precisely the sort of claim that would otherwise earn Fox's condemnation, and draw sophisticated counter-attacks to undermine the accusers' reputation."
And how do we know that to be true? Because the entire conservative media apparatus spent last month unleashing sophisticated counter-attacks to undermine NBC News anchor Brian Williams after doubts were raised about his wartime reporting. Today, the same conservative media are either playing dumb about Bill O'Reilly, or actually defending him.
Obviously, you can't have it both ways. You can't demand Brian Williams be fired and that Bill O'Reilly be left alone. Not if you want anyone to pause for more than three seconds when considering your press critiques.
As questions continue to mount surrounding Bill O'Reilly's many embellisments about his reporting career, a parallel media debate has formed over the long-term consequences of the controversy, and specifically whether being tagged as a liar even matters to Fox News hosts.
A common refrain goes like this: O'Reilly the entertainer isn't going to be fired by Fox News for his transgressions because it doesn't hold employees accountable. If O'Reilly's standing is secure and he's going to turn the allegations around and use them for political gain, do the confirmed fabrications even matter? And since Fox News relishes bare-knuckle fights, aren't Fox and O'Reilly the real winners?
"The media controversy is one that plays to his and Fox News' inherent strengths," announced the Columbia Journalism Review. Added the Daily Beast, "It doesn't matter what accusations are leveled at the veteran Fox News host, whatever the new evidence he will shout it down louder than ever." (i.e. This guy's bulletproof!)
The avalanche of revelations began last week when Mother Jones detailed how O'Reilly had "recounted dramatic stories about his own war reporting that don't withstand scrutiny."
This week, Media Matters documented two more O'Reilly fabrications. Copious evidence contradicts his previous claim over the years about hearing a shotgun blast that killed a figure in the investigation into President John F. Kennedy's assassination. And he lied about witnessing the execution of nuns while reporting on the civil war in El Salvador. Then yesterday, The Guardian reported six former O'Reilly colleagues from Inside Edition dispute accounts he has told over the years about his allegedly harrowing work covering the Los Angeles riots in 1992.
But again, lots of the media chatter has focused on how O'Reilly viewers expect a conservative-friendly version of the news so they won't hold O'Reilly accountable, especially if he portrays the controversy as nothing more than a "left-wing smear campaign." In other words, the partisan battle lines were drawn long ago and nobody's opinion about Fox News is going to be swayed by the O'Reilly uproar.
"The current flap seems unlikely to damage his reputation among his fans," reported The New York Times. "It could have the opposite effect."
Frank Rich at New York agreed: "This all looks like a win-win for O'Reilly." And Rich's colleague Gabriel Sherman wrote that the Mother Jones story had "backfired" because O'Reilly had used it to his advantage and "hit [it] out of the park."
I'm not so sure.
"The Republican Party needs to stop talking to itself."--The RNC's post-2012 election report.
Governor Scott Walker (R-WI) fumes about "gotcha" questions from "clueless" political reporters and vows not to be distracted by them on the campaign trail. Fox News host Bill O'Reilly blames the media for the swirling controversies surrounding his "combat" reporting, and even levels an on-the-record "threat" against a New York Times reporter for daring to cover the story. And now the Republican Party announces it's teaming up with partisan, conservative media partners to help host primary debates in an effort to make the forums more appealing for candidates.
The first three Republican debates will air on CNN and will be co-presented by the Salem Media Group, a major player in right-wing talk radio. (Its CEO is also politically active in conservative causes.) Salem talker Hugh Hewitt has been invited to be among those asking candidates questions at the first debate. Afterwards, Republican participants will "be invited to join Hewitt to talk candidly about the event," according to a press release. A Salem talk radio host will be included in each of the three debates.
In shifting some of the debate control away from independent journalists, RNC Chairman Reince Priebus is following through on his promise last year to make the debates more GOP-friendly and to tap media participants "who are actually interested in the Republican Party."
It's true that there's nothing inherently wrong with having a talk radio partisan like Hewitt in the mix on the night of a debate. Different perspectives should always be welcome. But the inclusion of unabashed Republican cheerleaders for this year's forums appears to be driven out of fear and distrust of the news media, not out of a GOP desire for inclusion. Indeed, the move has an undeniable whiff of paranoia about it.
As controversy surrounding Bill O'Reilly and his previous claims of harrowing "combat" journalism escalates, and as more than half-a-dozen former CBS News colleagues raise doubts about his storytelling, this would be the moment when most news organizations would step in and announce that an internal review was underway to ascertain the truth. Nervous about having its credibility diminished and committed to being accurate and fair, most major news organizations would take steps to stop the bleeding via a thorough review of the facts.
But not Fox News.
Ignoring the conscience blueprint recently set down by under-siege news outlets such as NBC News, CBS News and Rolling Stone, Fox instead has hunkered down and allowed O'Reilly to mount his own public, and increasingly erratic, defense that's built around obfuscation and name-calling. The result is that rather than containing the controversy, first sparked by David Corn's and Daniel Schulman's report in Mother Jones, Fox and its most famous host have allowed questions to multiply on a daily bases.
Now, the unanswered questions not only center around allegations that O'Reilly misled people for years by claiming he reported from the "war zone" during the Falklands War. (He did not.) New questions persist about the street protest O'Reilly covered soon after the end of the war; a street protest in Argentina's capital, 1,200 miles away from the fighting on the Falkland Islands. O'Reilly's former CBS colleague Eric Engberg, who was in Buenos Aires at the time with O'Reilly, claims virtually everything the Fox host has said about his Argentina work is erroneous.
"Bill O'Reilly's account of a 1982 riot in Argentina is being sharply contradicted by seven other journalists who were his colleagues and were also there at the time," reported CNN's Brian Stelter. One former CBS cameraman called O'Reilly's description of the events as "outrageous."
In other words, it's seven vs. one, so far. And in four days O'Reilly hasn't been able to produce one person who can corroborate his version of the Argentina story. Given those damning circumstances, most news organization in America would be anxious to get to the truth via an internal or even independent review.
But not Fox News.
The Clinton Foundation returned to the headlines this week and once again the topic was promoted with lots of media hand-wringing. The problem is, it's not always clear journalists understand what the foundation does. At least it's not clear based on the media coverage.
The news this week came from a Wall Street Journal article reporting that once Hillary Clinton left her job as secretary of state, the Clinton Foundation lifted its ban on donations from foreign governments. The ban was reportedly first put in place at the request of the Obama administration, which wanted to alleviate any possible conflicts of interest with its new secretary of state. When Clinton became a private citizen again in 2013, the foundation once again accepted money from foreign governments.
"A spokesman for the Clinton Foundation said the charity has a need to raise money for its many projects," the Journal reported.
The Journal article stressed that some ethics experts thought it was bad form for the foundation to accept foreign donations because Hillary Clinton is expected to run for president. The following day, Republican partisans piled on, insisting Hillary herself had accepted "truckloads of cash from other countries." (She had not; the foundation had.) The Beltway press largely echoed the Republican spin and lampooned the foundation's move.
Did the original Journal article raise an interesting question? It did. If and when Hillary formally announces her candidacy, will the foundation have to revisit its position on accepting foreign government donations? It likely will. But the only way the story really worked as advertised this week was to casually conflate the Clinton Foundation, a remarkably successful global charity organization, with Hillary's looming campaign coffers, and to suggest everyone who's giving to the foundation is really giving to her presidential campaign.
In order to make that allegation stick, Jennifer Rubin at the Washington Post simply suggested there's no difference between a global charity and "a PAC or campaign entity." (That kind of changes everything.)
The only way the story gained traction, and this has been true of Clinton foundation coverage for years, was for journalists to pretend the foundation isn't actually a ground-breaking charity, in order to make vague suggestions that it's one big Clinton slush fund where money gets "funneled." ("Money, Money, Money, Money, MONEY!" was the headline for Maureen Dowd's scathing New York Times attack column about the foundation in 2013.)
Traveling overseas last week, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, currently surging in Republican primary polls, stepped into trouble when he was asked if he accepts the theory of evolution. "I am going to punt on that one," said Walker, instantly creating news. "That's a question a politician shouldn't be involved in one way or another. I am going to leave that up to you."
Coming just days after likely White House hopefuls New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) stumbled badly over the issue of vaccinations, and at a time when many leading Republican leaders deny the reailty on climate change, Walker's evolution slip-up highlighted the party's penchant for getting tangled up in fights over science. And not just he latest scientific discoveries, but long-settled science.
Shifting into damage control mode in the wake of the "punt," the conservative press swooped in, established a secure perimeter around Walker and announced, 'No more evolution questions!' They're "silly," "ridiculous," "nonsense," "not serious" queries, came the angry proclamations.
"The Hazing of Scott Walker," lamented the Wall Street Journal's James Taranto.
The hand wringing sprang up overnight as partisan defenders announced that asking a possible candidate about his or her acceptance of evolution was suddenly Completely Out Of Bounds and represented a Deeply Offensive Inquiry. The goal? "Conservatives want to change what questions are acceptable and natural for reporters to ask," noted Bloomberg's David Weigel.
In other words, they're trying to work the refs at the outset of the campaign season.
But conservatives may have a tough time pushing reporters off the evolution questions simply because politicians, and specifically presidential candidates from both parties, have been asked about evolution for years and nobody seemed to mind. But suddenly it's Katie bar the door? Suddenly it's all an elaborate trap journalists have set for Republicans?
It is according to Fox News' George Will. On February 12, he conceded, "We should be able to come to terms with the fact when asked about evolution you say yes." But Will harrumphed that questions about evolution are "a standard way of trying to embarrass Republicans." (Isn't it only embarrassing if Republicans are embarrassed by their own answers?)
In truth, Walker's evolution query was actually the opposite of a trick, or gotcha, question. The governor wasn't pressed on the spot to make a tricky math calculation or to comment on an obscure scientific theory. He was simply asked to acknowledge a firmly-established scientific fact. What could be easier, when you think about it?
Naturally, President Obama's lighthearted appearance last week in a BuzzFeed video that promoted the deadline to sign up for health coverage through the Affordable Care Act triggered humorless responses from his conservative critics.
Like clockwork, conservative commentators, led by Fox News, swooped in. Assigning themselves the role of protocol police, they sternly announced that Obama had extinguished all "dignity" from the Oval Office. "I yearn for my president looking presidential and serious right now," announced Fox News host Greta Van Susteren.
Sound familiar? It should. For six years now Fox News' lineup of talkers and guests have been regurgitating the same condescending claim: Obama has "diminished" the office of the presidency and had done something unspeakable that's "beneath" his lofty position. It's part of an uglier, ongoing attack on Obama. It's the Fox News suggestion that Obama's not part of the American tradition, that he doesn't understand our history and doesn't know how conduct himself. Or, he's so arrogant that he just doesn't care.
But a review of the charges shows the alleged offenses have almost always been trivial and unimportant.
Here's a collection of at least 16 times Fox News figures claimed, or certainly insinuated, that Obama had diminished the office or done something "beneath" it. Each quote (via Nexis) is followed by the alleged etiquette slight that prompted the habitual hand wringing.
Jon Stewart collected his many media accolades this week following the announcement he's leaving as host of The Daily Show, which he's anchored for 16 years. The Comedy Central cornerstone, where comedy and politics intersect, has been rightfully toasted for its groundbreaking path and wide cultural influence. But I don't think there's a way to spin the departure as anything but discouraging news for progressives and their voice in the media.
As a viewer, I understand why Stewart is walking away. The show had started a feel a little creaky. And frankly, how can it not after sixteen years and more than 2,000 episodes intensely focused on the quickening news cycle. But as someone who's concerned about the public dialogue, and especially concerned about conservative misinformation, the news of Stewart's pending exit is troubling. It's particularly dismaying coming on the heels of Stephen Colbert's recent departure from Comedy Central.
Over the last decade, Stewart and Colbert emerged as the Mantle and Maris of political satire, revolutionizing the way viewers, especially young ones, consume news. (For years, both Stewart and Colbert drew more 18-24 year-old viewers than late-night talk shows on ABC, CBS and NBC; an impressive feat for cable programs.)
The duo's departures are disheartening because their satirical and often fearless work proved instrumental in spearheading progressive arguments and critiques. The two anchors helped spotlight issues, call out epic Republican bouts of hypocrisy, and undress Fox News in a way previous left-leaning media voices hadn't been able to. (And yes, they also called out Democrats with regularity.)
That's why I would argue that Stewart and Colbert represented two of the most influential American liberal voices in the last half-century. Why? (Aren't they just comedians!) Mostly because of their national television platform and because their shows attracted millions of viewers. But also because the hosts became cultural icons. And let's face it, liberalism hasn't always been synonymous with "funny" and "cool." But thanks to the Comedy Central dynamic duo, they provided the laugh track for national debates about the minimum wage, about health care, about pre-emptive wars, and about an endless array other hot topics.
Being funny and famous on TV in America allows you to open all kinds of doors for discussion.
Riding a hollow premise to new uncharted depths, Fox News not only tossed aside its own clearly stated position about airing violent propaganda videos distributed by terrorists, it also became, according to The Guardian, the only American news organization this week to toil in the realm of marketing an execution.
Fox not only aired graphic images of a controversial Islamic State (ISIS) clip on its signature nightly news show, it embedded the gruesome, unedited video on its website, and provided lurid, play-by-play description of Jordanian pilot Muath al-Kasaesbeh dying at the hands of his captures. (Shepard Smith: "Eventually the pilot collapses to his knees.")
This is just stunning. An American news organization hosting on its website an explicit terrorist video that captures the staged execution of an innocent hostage.
How do mainstream organizations handle newsworthy acts of barbarism touted by terrorist organizations? That debate raged last summer when ISIS beheaded American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff and hyped the executions via videos.
At the time, the New York Post was considered to have gone right up to edge of good taste with a front page that featured image of Foley just before his beheading, with the executioner's knife at his throat. (By contrast, the image Fox splashed on the screen Tuesday night showed the hostage engulfed in flames; in the process of being killed.) As USA Today media columnist Rem Rieder noted in August, "There seemed to be wide agreement that making the images available would both dishonor the memory of James Foley and play into the hands of the Islamic State radicals by doing what they wanted."
Recall the words five months ago of Michael Clemente, Fox's executive vice president of news/editorial, when the beheading videos emerged: "What we try to do is use judgment so that people are informed about what actually happened while showing as little of what took place as possible."
Now recall the words of Fox anchor Bret Baier less than 48 hours ago: "The reason we are showing you this is to bring you the reality of Islamic terrorism and to label it as such. We feel you need to see it so we will put up one of the images on your screen right now."
See, if Fox doesn't show ISIS evil in the form of a murder, people won't grasp the "reality."