Like a pair of investigative bookends, two bipartisan congressional reports arrived this year -- one from the Senate Intelligence Committee released in January, the other by the House Intelligence Committee in late November. Both came to similar conclusions about the 2012 terror attack on the United States diplomatic compound in Benghazi. And both represented bad news for conservative cheerleaders of the Benghazi cover-up saga, as the tandem reports released enormous amount of air from the scandal balloons.
The Senate report in January did little to quench the political thirst of hardcore Benghazi believers. Its findings, which categorically demolished the most closely-held beliefs of Benghazi true-believers, didn't stop House Republicans from establishing a select committee in May to launch yet another investigation. (Six congressional committees and an independent State Department panel had already investigated the attack, for those keeping score.) That select committee holds its second hearing this week.
The more recent House report however, does seem to have produced a sense of creeping panic among dedicated partisans who remain committed to keeping the story alive through the 2016 presidential campaign. The House findings run so counter to what Benghazi promoters have claimed that they threaten the viability of that strategy.
And that's why, in a truly odd turn of events, the Republican-authored House report is now under withering attack from a cadre of Republicans and their allies in the right-wing media ("a classic Washington whitewash"!), who've logged thousands of hours over the last two years propping up the shaky cover-up tale and trying to turn it into a Barack Obama scandal brand.
"The House Select Committee on Benghazi has stated that it will reconvene on Dec. 10. Its work will be as important as ever," the Heritage Foundation's Daily Signal announced this week. (i.e. questions remain!) The Weekly Standard agreed, with its writers reporting that the latest Congressional report that debunked every major Benghazi conspiracy to date, simply confirms that Congress needs all the Benghazi investigations it can get.
Why? "This new Benghazi "intelligence" report is little more than a C.Y.A. attempt designed to protect incompetent politicians and government agents at the expense of justice for the victims of September 11, 2012," according to Sen. Rand Paul.
This, of course, is the language of dead-enders. It's the language of partisans with stunted capacity for reason and who won't concede the facts on the ground. Instead, they tumble further and further down into a rabbit hole of what-ifs, spending extraordinary time (and taxpayer money) trying to undermine the facts while proclaiming the next inquiry will get it just right.
In other words, a Republican-chaired committee report that debunks Benghazi conspiracies is now being used as a rallying cry for conservatives who are convinced the report raises more pressing questions.
Do you see where this closed, hermetically sealed loop is designed to lead us?
In criticizing the report, note that since the release of the report from the House Intelligence Committee, conservative critics need to find an explanation for why its Republican chairman, Rep. Mike Rogers (R-MI), allegedly opted to tank his own committee's year-in-the-making report; why he would authorize a "messy," "bizarre and troubling" report. Did he do it protect the White House and Hillary Clinton?
Is Rogers now part of the cover-up, too?
For a "lame duck" politician who's supposed to be licking his wounds after the Democratic Party's steep midterm losses, President Obama these days probably doesn't mind scanning the headlines each morning. Instead of confirming the slow motion demise so many in the pundit class had mapped out for him, the headlines paint a picture of a president, and a country, in many ways on the rebound:
That's probably more good news for Obama in one month than he had in the previous three combined.
And that selection of headlines doesn't cover news of the most recent smooth and efficient enrollment period for the Affordable Care Act, the announcement of Obama's executive action to deal with the languishing issue of immigration, his high-profile endorsement of net neutrality, or the United States' landmark agreement with China to confront climate change.
As for Obama's approval rating, it has remained steady in recent months, just as it has for virtually all of 2014. But aren't lame ducks supposed to tumble after tough midterm defeats, the way President George W. Bush did right after the 2006 votes?
Meanwhile, the assumption that Republicans had boxed Obama in politically via their midterm momentum and would be able to bully him around (impeachment! A government shutdown!) hasn't yet come to fruition. To date, their main response to the immigration executive order that Obama issued has been for Republicans to cast a symbolic vote of disapproval. (i.e. Obama called their bluff.)
Already the bloom seems to be coming off the GOP's win. "According to the survey, 50 percent of Americans believe the GOP taking control of the House and the Senate next year will be bad for America," CNN reported this week.
None of this is to say that Obama's surging or that paramount hurdles don't remain on the horizon. But some recent developments do undercut a widely held consensus in the Beltway press that Obama's presidency effectively ended with the midterms and that his tenure might be viewed as a failed one.
Right after the election, a November Economist editorial announced, "Mr. Obama cannot escape the humiliating verdict on his presidency." Glimmers of hope after the midterms were no reason to think Obama had "somehow crawled out of the dark place that voters put him," the Washington Post assured readers. (Post columnist Dana Milbank has recently tagged Obama as a hapless "bystander" who's "turning into George W. Bush.") And a McClatchy Newspapers headline declared, "President Obama Is Now Truly A Lame Duck."
But as the facts on the ground now change, many in the press seem reluctant to drop its preferred script and adjust to the headlines that suggest Obama's second term is not shaping up to be the wreck so many pundits hinted it would be.
"Tamir Rice's father has a history of violence against women."
That was the opening sentence of a November 26 news article posted at Cleveland.com, the web portal that outlet shares with its sister company the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Together, the storied newspaper and its more recent offshoot comprise one of the largest news organizations in Ohio.
Tamir Rice was the 12-year-old African-American boy who days earlier had been shot and killed by a Cleveland police officer outside of a city recreation center. Rice had been brandishing an air gun, reportedly waving it around, when a neighbor called the cops. The caller described Rice as a "probably a juvenile," and repeatedly suggested the gun was "probably fake." But that information was never relayed to the Cleveland officers who responded to the call. One of them immediately exited his patrol car upon arriving at the park and shot Rice in the stomach from close range.
Question: What does Tamir's father's criminal record have to do with the boy's tragic killing at the hands of a police officer? And why was Tamir's father's mug shot included in a news article about Tamir being shot by the police while playing in the park? (The site's reporting was meant to "illuminate," according to one newsroom executive.)
Baffled critics, readers and even some Cleveland Plain Dealer staffers are still searching for answers to newsroom questions, such as why, in the days right after the killing, did Cleveland.com provide more critical reporting about Tamir's parents than it did about the rookie officer who killed the 12 year old?
"Depicting black/brown boys and men as violent criminals from poor upbringing is an established media narrative that Tamir didn't quite fit. But Cleveland.com, the website of the city's former paper of record, tried to make him fit into the narrow narrative anyway, by reporting on the criminal misdeeds of his parents instead," wrote former Plain Dealer reporter and columnist Afi Scruggs. "It's an old, but tired trick used by the news media, especially when it comes to a black or brown person being killed by law enforcement."
In the wake of the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and the subsequent grand jury decision to not indict the white police officer who shot the unarmed teen, Tamir Rice's death has taken on national interest. And Cleveland.com's reporting has come under intense national scrutiny.
The outrage arrived just a few weeks after the news outlet became embroiled in controversy when the site suddenly yanked the video of an unflattering interview the state's Republican governor, John Kasich, gave to Plain Dealer editors in the final days of his re-election campaign. Not only was the video of the Q&A taken down without explanation, but the news site threatened to sue anyone who posted it for voters to see online. (You can watch portions of it here.)
So yes, it's been a troubling month for people concerned about newsgathering in Cleveland.
The calling cards of anger and denial have been on display since Friday afternoon when the House Intelligence Committee, led by Republican Rep. Mike Rogers, released the findings of its two-year investigation into the 2012 terror attack in Benghazi. Becoming the sixth government inquiry to come to a similar conclusion, the report found nothing to support the allegations behind Fox News' ongoing Benghazi witch-hunt. And that's where the anger and denial came in.
Appearing on CNN, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who has staked his professional reputation on the endless claim of an elaborate White House cover-up, flashed irritation when he denounced the House report as being "full of crap."
Meanwhile, Fox News contributor Stephen Hayes did his best to deflate the supposedly "deeply flawed" Republican report:
I'd caution against reaching firm conclusions based on the #Benghazi report issued by the House Intel cmte. It's deeply flawed.-- Stephen Hayes (@stephenfhayes) November 22, 2014
For Benghazi conspiracy disciples, unanswered questions always remain as long as devotees say so, and as long as the answers provided by government (and Republican-led investigations) don't match up their conspiracy narrative. But apparently if the seventh investigation finds wrongdoing on the part of the administration, that's the one that will really matter?
Sorry Fox News, but six strikes and you're out.
Still, Benghazi Truthers, like Joel Pollak at Breitbart, soldiered on, claiming the exhaustive House report was no big deal [emphasis added]:
The House committee, chaired by Republican Mike Rogers (R-MI), found that there was no intelligence failure leading up to the attack, and that the CIA and military personnel present did the best they could. The crucial new finding is that there was no "stand down" order, as some there have claimed, and that no further military resources were available.
The three points Pollack mentioned that were debunked by the House report represented almost the entire basis of the "scandal" crusade. They were easily the inspiration for hundreds of Fox News programming hours over the last two years, and likely thousands of hours of talk radio attacks on Obama, Hillary Clinton and anyone connected to the administration. (Note that Fox aired 100 segments on the "stand down" allegation alone during its evening programs in the 20 months following the attack.)
While Breitbart and other right-wing media players gallantly tried to play defense (it's just a flesh wound), Fox News simply went into denial as the cable news channel essentially turned a blind eye to the story: Fox News Sunday completely ignored the topic. But it wasn't just Fox News Sunday. CBS' Face The Nation and ABC's This Week also ignored news about the latest Benghazi debunking; a Republican debunking no less.
There was something fitting about those two omissions, considering CBS and ABC likely suffered the two worst Benghazi-related black eyes within the mainstream media when their reporters, Lara Logan and Jonathan Karl respectively, flew too close to the far-right flame and got very badly burned. (Note to reporters: When your sources have to make stuff up about Benghazi, it's a pretty good indication the 'scandal' is lacking.)
And don't forget how Logan played ball with at least one vociferous Benghazi critic behind the scenes while putting her fatally flawed 60 Minutes report together. According to a May report in New York magazine, Logan met with Sen. Graham, who helped shape the Benghazi story. Then when the 60 Minutes segment aired he immediately cheered it on, calling it a "death blow" to the White House and announced he'd block every White House appointee until he got more answers about Benghazi.
In other words, the Benghazi lessons to be learned here aren't only for Fox News. Media Matters has spent the better part of two years detailing how Beltway reporters, producers and pundits who should've known better have played along with the contrived conspiracy talking points about the Democratic president and a far-reaching cover-up. (Is Benghazi to Obama what Whitewater was to Bill Clinton?)
Early in his first term, President George W. Bush addressed the nation in primetime about allowing for limited stem cell research in America and his approval for limited medical research. During the weeks leading up to the announcement, there had a been regular news coverage of the topic, as the White House let reporters know the president was deeply engaged on the issue and was meeting with an array of experts to guide him.
As Bush appeared from his ranch in Texas to make the announcement, all of the major broadcast networks joined the cable news channels in carrying his message live.
The stem cell speech didn't address breaking news and it wasn't about an imminent threat facing the nation. But at the time, network executives said they were happy to air the address. "I don't think it was a tough call because it's an issue that's received so much attention," CBS News spokeswoman Sandy Genelius told the Boston Globe. ABC News spokesman Jeffrey Schneider agreed: "It's an important issue and one that the country is following closely." He added that Bush was "going to make news" with the speech.
A decade later the rules seem to have shifted. All four networks have announced they won't carry President Obama's address to the nation tonight about his long awaited plan to take executive action to deal with the pressing issue of immigration reform. (Two Spanish language networks, Univision and Telemundo, will carry the address live in primetime.)
Keep in mind, the issue is so paramount, and Obama's strategy supposedly so controversial, that a Republican senator yesterday warned there might be violence in the streets in response to Obama's actions. Some GOP lawmakers insisted Obama could face a flurry of legal action including impeachment proceedings, while others have urged the entire federal government be shut down if Obama goes through with his plan. Yet according to executives at ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox, Obama's address isn't worth covering.
One hundred and two weeks away from the 2016 presidential elections, Fox News anchor Jon Scott this week wondered out loud if the current controversy surrounding MIT economist Jonathan Gruber and his inapt comments that the Affordable Care Act (ACA) "was written in a tortured way" to appease "the stupidity of the American voter" would still be relevant in 2016. In fact, Scott wondered if Gruber and his comments would be a "fixture" in the next presidential campaign.
Correct. Scott wanted to know whether comments Gruber made in 2013 about a law signed in 2010 for which he provided data and a microsimulation model to the Obama administration in 2009 would play a crucial role in elections held in 2016. That's how committed Fox News is to the Gruber kerfuffle: Fox is projecting (fantasizing about?) the story's implications two years down the road.
Fox News has a long history of championing stories in a purely partisan manner and pushing any news events that might cause problems for the Obama administration. Watching Fox News, of course, is to often glimpse into an alternate universe where stories deemed unimportant by most news pros are blown up to be blockbuster events, and where conversely, embarrassing stories for conservatives are quietly set aside. (See rancher Cliven Bundy's racist meltdown in April. )
After the fourth or fifth day of incessant, breathless Gruber coverage on Fox, it became increasingly clear the channel had bigger plans for the story than simply using it to embarrass President Obama, or to whip up more right-wing anger over Obamacare.
Short answer: Fox is looking for another Benghazi. It's looking for another programming tent pole that the channel can build an audience around and can return to for weeks and months, and apparently for years, to undermine the president. Fox is searching for a themed forum where it can interview a cavalcade of Republicans who will dutifully engage in deeply enraged rhetoric about what a scandalous scandal Gruber's utterances were and how they confirm every deeply held suspicion about Obamacare.
Being outraged has served as a signature for the far-right movement for nearly six years. It also fuels Fox News' entire business model: Fox News makes a pile of profits each year overreacting to imagined Obama scandals, like the Gruber one.
Just as importantly, note that the Gruber production, like Fox's long-running Benghazi production, clearly overlaps with strategies being employed by the Republican Party. From a recent report in The Hill: "Republican lawmakers are doubling down on controversial comments from ObamaCare consultant Jonathan Gruber amid an explosion of interest from conservative media."
Missouri Governor Jay Nixon on Monday issued a state of emergency and activated the National Guard in anticipation of the grand jury announcement about whether Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson will be charged with the August 9 shooting of Michael Brown.
The unarmed teen's controversial death sparked weeks worth of protests, many of which were met with overwhelming police force. The killing also inspired a national debate about police shootings and law enforcement's relationship with black Americans. (The Department of Justice is currently investigating the Ferguson police department.)
And of course since the protests prominently featured the issue of race, and since Obama's conservative media critics positioned him at the center of the story -- his administration was allegedly "orchestrating" the unrest -- the events have inspired wave after wave of attacks from Fox News and its allies in the conservative media.
Brown family advocates have been denounced as "race hustlers." Fox contributor Laura Ingraham characterized Ferguson protesters as a "lynch mob" on her radio show. And conservative author Dinesh D'Souza actually compared the Ferguson unrest to beheadings carried out by the Islamic State terrorists. "What the common thread between ISIS and what's going on in Ferguson is you have these people who basically believe that to correct a perceived injustice, it's perfectly OK to inflict all kinds of new injustices," said D'Souza.
Conservative commentators have a long history of condemning, as vile and un-American, citizens who protest on behalf of their causes, whether it's racial injustice, income equality, collective bargaining rights, raising the minimum wage, or defending public education. The spotlight on Ferguson and its supposed "lynch mob" represents just the latest example of those sweeping condemnations and attacks on civil discourse.
Keep in mind that it was Fox News, as well as the rest of the right-wing media, that championed lawless insurrectionists earlier this year in Nevada when gun-toting militia members rallied to the side of rancher Cliven Bundy, who refused for more than two decades to pay grazing fees for his cattle that fed off federal land. (Bundy's Fox-sponsored crusade imploded when he was recorded making racist comments, asking if black Americans were "better off as slaves.")
In the Fox worldview, activists are thugs and thugs are freedom fighters.
There was widespread suspicion last month that as cable news gorged on the "Ebola in America" story, feasting on overheated coverage that played off anxiety and outright panic, that the programming was driven, in part, by a cynical attempt to boost ratings. After all, fear sells. And what better way to draw millions of additional viewers to cable news than pumping up a story about an impending virus doom and wrapping it in a partisan pre-election narrative about President Obama's failure to lead?
As PBS science correspondent Miles O'Brien noted during an interview on CNN when the story first broke, and when he urged journalists to "take a breath" (many did not), "Unfortunately it's a very competitive business, the business we're in, and there is a perception that by hyping up this threat, you draw people's attention." He added, "That's a shame to even say that, and I get embarrassed for our brethren in journalism."
Longtime television observer Brian Lowry, writing at Variety, stressed that while television news has "long employed fear as a come-on to viewers," it had "truly outdone itself" with its response to the virus.
Aside from marketing fear, there's some evidence that overreacting to a news story and blowing it up into its own brand (i.e. The Ebola Crisis), can help lift cable news. Recall that back in the winter, CNN was widely mocked for its truly relentless coverage of missing Malaysian Airlines Flight 370. That story helped deliver a significant ratings increase for CNN, at least in the short term.
Yet despite the endless Ebola coverage, the virus health scare did nothing for cable news in terms of inflating ratings during October, when the story dominated the headlines. In fact, total cable news viewership dipped during the month.
For the month of October, CNN's viewership was down 5 percent compared to October 2013. (In primetime, its audience fell 18 percent last month compared to October 2013.) Fox News and MSNBC also suffered rating decreases in October. And if you compare the cable news channels' primetime ratings in October to its primetime ratings during this past summer, viewership was also down.
The ratings story was similar for the three network evening news programs, where viewership for CBS Evening News, NBC Nightly News, and ABC's World News Tonight failed to generate an audience bounce during the news media's unofficial Ebola Month. Combined, the three news programs attracted roughtly 23 million viewers each week in October. That compares to the 23 million viewers who tuned in each week during October 2013.
So if all of that overwrought television coverage didn't produce ratings gains, what was the point since, as Chris Hayes noted this week, too much of it seemed irrational:
Celebrating its sixtieth anniversary, CBS's Face The Nation this week touted sit-down interviews with President Obama and former President George W. Bush. As expected, the Obama interview featured more policy questions, as well as queries about the president and the Democratic Party's recent political failures.
By contrast, Bush, who's promoting a biography he wrote about his father, was treated to softer questions from host Bob Schieffer, with a strong emphasis on Bush's family and whether his younger brother Jeb will decide to run for president. Schieffer did raise questions about one key Bush administration decision -- Bush's defining policy of invading Iraq -- though the queries seemed rather perfunctory on the CBS host's part.
There was nothing especially scandalous about Schieffer's decision to treat the former president differently than he did the sitting president, who, by definition, continues to face pressing issues and grapple with unforeseen crises. And yet, there was something noteworthy about the way Schieffer just tossed off Bush's answers about the Iraq War and didn't ask a single obvious follow-up question. The performance nicely captured the double standard that seems to have always existed between Bush and the Beltway press.
It's the kind of casual dual standard that's been in place for so many years, and has become so normal and accepted, that it barely register a response anymore. It's to the point where most people don't think it's odd that Bush's old golfing buddy is paid to lob him softball questions on a national news program.
It's true. Bob Schieffer "struck up a golfing friendship with George W. Bush during the 1990s," according to a 2004 Mother Jones article. Schieffer attended "dozens" of baseball games with Bush and even traveled down to baseball's spring training season with the future president. In fact, the Face The Nation host once conceded that when it comes to Bush, "It's always difficult to cover someone you know personally."
Why the close Schieffer/Bush connection? Because Schieffer's brother Tom helped make George W. Bush a very rich man. Tom Schieffer and Bush were both part of the ownership group that bought the Texas Rangers baseball team in 1989, and as the team's president Schieffer played a key role in making that investment a profitable one.(Bush invested $600,000 and earned a $25 million return just nine years later.) Bush then turned around and made Tom Schieffer the U.S. ambassador to Australia and then to Japan.
But these facts haven't been discussed much in public over the years, and they certainly weren't emphasized for Schieffer's sit-down interview with Bush on Face The Nation. (Portions of the interview also aired on CBS Sunday Morning.) Instead, the CBS host allowed Bush to make nonsensical proclamations about the failed Iraq War; a conflict that continues to tax the U.S. Treasury and haunt our national security.
In the days after the midterm elections, the New York Times has been a cornucopia of campaign commentary. Lots of attention is being paid to the issue of gridlock, which has defined Washington, D.C. since President Obama was first inaugurated.
Lamenting America's "broken politics," Times columnist Nicholas Kristof opted for the both-sides-are-to-blame model, suggesting that, "Critics are right that [Obama] should try harder to schmooze with legislators." Across from Kristof on the Times opinion page, Republican pollster Frank Luntz urged Obama to find a way to create "common-sense solutions" with his Republican counterparts. (This, despite the fact that Luntz in 2009 helped Republicans craft their trademark strategy of obstructing Obama at every turn.)
And the same day, while reviewing Chuck Todd's new book on Obama, which stressed that the president "wanted to soar above partisanship" though his two terms will likely "be remembered as a nadir of partisan relations," the Times book critic stressed Obama's "reluctance to reach out to Congress and members of both parties to engage in the sort of forceful horse trading (like Lyndon B. Johnson's) and dogged retail politics (like Bill Clinton's) that might have helped forge more legislative deals and build public consensus."
So after six years of radical, blanketed reticence from the GOP, we're still repeatedly reading in the New York Times that while Republicans have put up road blocks, if Obama would just try harder, Republicans might cooperate with him. You can almost hear the frustration seeping through the pages of the Times: 'What is wrong with this guy? Bipartisanship is so simple. Republicans say they want to work with the White House, so why doesn't Obama just do it?'
Indeed, cooperation is simple if you purposefully ignore reality--if you downplay the fact the Republican Party is acting in a way that defies all historic norms. If you adopt that fantasy version of Beltway politics today (i.e. the GOP is filled with honest brokers just waiting to work with the White House), then it's easy to dissect the problems, and it's easy to file both-sides-are-to-blame columns that urge bipartisan cooperation.
What's trickier, apparently, is speaking truth to power and accurately portraying what has happened to American politics and noting without equivocation that the sabotage that has occurred is designed to ensure the federal government doesn't function as designed, and that it cannot efficiently address the problems of the nation.
And this week, it all paid off for Republicans. "Obstruction has just been rewarded, in a huge way," wrote Michael Tomasky at The Daily Beast.
Led by Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY), Republicans vowed in 2009 to oppose every political move Obama made, not matter how sweeping or how minor. "To prevent Obama from becoming the hero who fixed Washington, McConnell decided to break it. And it worked," wrote Matthew Yglesias at Vox, in the wake of the midterm election results. New York's Jonathan Chait made a similar observation about McConnell: "His single strategic insight is that voters do not blame Congress for gridlock, they blame the president, and therefore reward the opposition."
But why? Why don't voters blame Congress for gridlock?
Why would the president, who's had virtually his entire agenda categorically obstructed, be blamed and not the politicians who purposefully plot the gridlock? Because the press has given Republicans a pass. For more than five years, too many Beltway pundits and reporters have treated the spectacular stalemate as if it were everyday politics; just more "partisan combat." It's not. It's extraordinary. (See here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.)