Hillary Clinton's race for the White House might be historic in more than ways than one. Not only would a successful presidential campaign usher in a new era of a female president, but if Clinton ends up running unopposed during the Democratic primary season it would represent a modern-day first for a non-incumbent or a non-sitting vice president.
That prospect has generated endless hand-wringing among journalists who seem nervous about covering a Democratic primary season where there are no serious Clinton challengers. But instead of acknowledging their professional desire for a story to cover ("The media wants a fight, they love a fight," notes Democratic strategist Joe Trippi), some journalists have presented their agita as concern for Clinton's political well-being. They stress that an uncontested primary would hurt her chances in 2016. And specifically, commentators suggest Clinton's press coverage would improve if she had a Democratic opponent.
The argument goes like this: If a primary challenger steps forward, the media's harsh focus would move off Clinton and onto her opponent who'd be the target of equally vigorous scrutiny.
"She needs someone else in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination -- someone to divert the news media," wrote Richard Cohen at the Washington Post. He stressed that currently, "Clinton's chief opponent is the press. It covers her like the proverbial cheap suit, if only because it has no one else to cover." The New York Times cited a Republican strategist who suggested "an absence of top-tier Democratic campaign rivals would hurt Mrs. Clinton because the glare of the news media spotlight intensifies when a single person is in it."
In other words, the current campaign dynamic of the press squaring off against Clinton and essentially acting as her opponent in the absence of a challenger is bad news for her, which is why she'd benefit from a capable opponent.
Bonus: Having a challenger would supposedly force the press to cover substantive issues as two or more candidates battled over ideas.
That all sounds logical, in theory. But somebody might want to ask Al Gore if that's what happened during the 2000 campaign when he was the prohibitive Democratic favorite and faced a single challenger, former Sen. Bill Bradley.
Ask Al Gore if the emergence of Bradley's campaign meant the former vice president's caustic press coverage suddenly lightened up as reporters scrambled to dissect Bradley with equal vigor; if Bradley's presence meant the press obediently focused on the issues instead of obsessing over trivial campaign gotcha and claims of character flaws.
They did not.
Reading the New York Times' front-page dispatches about the emerging Republican field of candidates this year, voters have learned Sen. Marco Rubio is "a charismatic young Republican senator from Miami," Sen. Ted Cruz was viewed by colleagues as "a brilliant and unusually ambitious upstart" who was "driven to advance and savvy in his tactics," and that former Florida Governor Jeb Bush is "deeply religious," delivers a "a powerful message," "reads footnotes, emails frenetically and talks in full, wonky paragraphs" and is able to "showcase his social media savvy."
Times readers now also know that New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is "is a gifted performer on many stages," and that Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker is "small-town minister's son who met his wife, a Milwaukee native, at a Wisconsin barbecue joint."
Just this week the Times front-page, still the most influential real estate in the news business, announced Walker really, really admires Ronald Reagan.
Republicans are already bashing the Times and complaining about how it covers candidates via the supposedly biased prism of the "liberal media," a catcall game conservatives have played for decades. But the opposite seems to have taken place this year: Republican White House hopefuls have received better, more sympathetic press coverage than Hillary Clinton, whose page-one coverage to date is been almost devoid of positive Times treatments.
That's not to say the Times hasn't produced a handful of page-one pieces that raised doubts or uncomfortable questions about Republican players and their record, or that many of the pieces cited above don't include negative caveats. The newspaper, for instance, pointed out that a charter school in Miami that Bush championed was forced to close its doors in 2008, that some Republicans critics think Christie and his aides operate in a "bubble," and that the Wisconsin State Supreme Court is currently considering whether to continue an investigation into alleged improper coordination from Walker's old recall campaign.
Nevertheless, since the beginning of the year, Republicans are routinely given positive characterizations and compliments, while presumptive Democratic favorite Clinton is often not -- and more often depicted on the Times' front page as either mired in setbacks, or certain to face daunting political challenges. (See here, here, and here.)
Clearly the controversy surrounding the email account Clinton used as secretary of state helped tilt the Times' coverage towards the negative recently. But that media-fueled firestorm alone doesn't fully explain the difference in tone and content.
The oddity? Recent polling suggests Clinton enjoys a sizable lead over all her possible Republican opponents, yet she's the one saddled with the bad press.
Typing up her latest scornful, fill-in-the-blank sermon about Hillary Clinton -- the kind Maureen Dowd has been churning out robotically for two decades (only the "scandal" topic changes) -- the New York Times columnist actually began her latest missive by likening the Clintons to the Iranian regime. A few paragraphs later, Dowd had managed to segue to perhaps her favorite topic: Bill Clinton's distant sex life. In fact, the March 14 column became Dowd's 100th that contained a "Lewinsky" reference, according to a review of Dowd's columns in the Nexis database.
Dowd's fixation may be something of an outlier at the Times. Who else would reference an extramarital affair in one hundred different columns? But Dowd clearly does represent the Times' larger, institutional and never-ending personal antagonism toward Bill and Hillary Clinton. It's been a Times-sponsored grudge match that goes back more than two decades. (Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. once told Clinton the paper had adopted a "tough love" policy towards his presidency. "I've seen the tough," Clinton quipped. "Where's the love?") And now that enmity has been awakened for the recent Hillary Clinton email saga.
Has that contempt fueled the Times' often sloppy coverage lately? "The real controversy isn't about politics or regulations," wrote Kurt Eichenwald in Newsweek, offering up a detailed critique of the Times' email reporting. "It's about journalism and the weak standards employed to manufacture the scandal du jour."
For instance, note that in its March 2 report about Clinton's emails, the one that ignited the so-called scandal, The New York Times suggested Clinton "may have violated federal requirements" through her use of a non-government email address while serving as secretary of state." It was that hint of criminality that first gave the story so much pop in the press.
But it turns out that hint of criminality was invented by the Times newsroom, as several news outlets have since confirmed that Clinton did nothing illegal with her email account. (Ten days later, the Times got around to making that point itself.)
And that's the pattern we've seen unfold for twenty-plus years at the Times. With the bogus pursuits of Whitewater, the Loral spy satellites story, would-be spy Wen Ho Lee, and now Hillary Clinton's emails, the Times uncorks supposedly blockbuster allegations against a Clinton that are based on vague reporting that later turns out to be flimsy, but not before the rest of the Beltway media erupts in a guttural roar (led by sanctimonious Times columnists), and not before Republicans launch investigations intended to destroy the Clintons politically.
Last week, the Times' Patrick Healy wrote that the news media is emerging as Hillary Clinton's toughest political opponent. Indeed, the Times, once again, remains at the front of the charge.
By omitting important information and context from the Hillary Clinton email story, are reporters and pundits guilty of trying to make the episode more interesting and more nefarious than it actually is?
As the press demands answers regarding which private emails Clinton handed over to the State Department and which ones she withheld because she deemed them to be personal in nature, many journalists fail to include relevant information about prominent Republicans who have engaged in similar use of private email accounts while in office, specifically former Secretary of State Colin Powell and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.
By omitting references to Powell and Bush and how they handled private emails while in office, the press robs news consumers of key information. It's also material that deflates the overheated suspicions of a wide-ranging Clinton cover-up.
Appearing on ABCs This Week on Sunday, Powell was asked how he responded to the State Department request last year that all former secretaries hand over emails from their time in office. Powell confirmed that he had used private email while secretary but that he didn't hand over any emails to the State Department because his private emails were all gone.
"I don't have any to turn over," he explained. "I did not keep a cache of them. I did not print them off. I do not have thousands of pages somewhere in my personal files." Powell's revelation is important because it puts into perspective the email protocol of a former secretary of state. By his own account, Powell's emails, unlike Clinton's, include his regular communications with foreign dignitaries. What was he emailing them in the lead-up to the war in Iraq? We'll never know.
To date however, both the New York Times and the Washington Post have largely downplayed references to the fact that Powell's private, secretary of state emails are all gone.
Why is Powell relevant to Clinton? Because after she took questions from the reporters yesterday about the email saga, the press focused in on the fact in reviewing her private emails, Clinton found roughly 60,000 messages. She handed over 30,000 to the State Department and determined the other 30,000 were personal in nature and disgarded them.
Those 30,000 emails have now become the key storyline, which goes like this: How can people be assured that Clinton turned over all the pertinent emails when she was the one (or her attorney) who decided which ones were personal, and would be withheld, and which ones were government-related, and would be turned over. Doesn't there need to be an "independent arbiter" to look over all 60,000 emails to decide which ones the State Department gets to keep?
"They were personal and private about matters I believed were in the scope of my personal privacy," Clinton said. "They have nothing to do with work. I didn't see any reason to keep them." That's what the so-called scandal revolves around: Hillary's team decided which emails to turn over and which ones to toss. And that's a deeply troubling development. The press is insistent on that fact.
Even for a Republican White House that was badly stumbling through George W. Bush's sixth year in office, the revelation on April 12, 2007 was shocking. Responding to congressional demands for emails in connection with its investigation into the partisan firing of eight U.S. attorneys, the White House announced that as many as five million emails, covering a two-year span, had been lost.
The emails had been run through private accounts controlled by the Republican National Committee and were only supposed to be used for dealing with non-administration political campaign work to avoid violating ethics laws. Yet congressional investigators already had evidence private emails had been used for government business, including to discuss the firing of one of the U.S. attorneys. The RNC accounts were used by 22 White House staffers, including then-Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove, who reportedly used his RNC email for 95 percent of his communications.
As the Washington Post reported, "Under federal law, the White House is required to maintain records, including e-mails, involving presidential decision- making and deliberations." But suddenly millions of the private RNC emails had gone missing; emails that were seen as potentially crucial evidence by Congressional investigators.
The White House email story broke on a Wednesday. Yet on that Sunday's Meet The Press, Face The Nation, and Fox News Sunday, the topic of millions of missing White House emails did not come up. At all. (The story did get covered on ABC's This Week.)
By comparison, not only did every network Sunday news show this week cover the story about former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton emails, but they were drowning in commentary. Between Meet the Press, Face The Nation, This Week, and Fox News Sunday, Clinton's "email" or "emails" were referenced more than 100 times on the programs, according to Nexis transcripts. Talk about saturation coverage.
Indeed, the commentary for the last week truly has been relentless, with the Beltway press barely pausing to catch its breath before unloading yet another round of "analysis," most of which provides little insight but does allow journalists to vent about the Clintons.
What has become clear over the last eight days however is that the Clinton email story isn't about lawbreaking. "Experts have said it doesn't appear Clinton violated federal laws," CNN conceded. "But that hasn't stemmed the issue that has become more about bad optics and politics than any actual wrongdoing." The National Law Journal agreed, noting that while the story has created a political furor, "any legal consequences are likely to prove negligible."
Still, the scandal machine churns on determined to the treat the story as a political blockbuster, even though early polling indicates the kerfuffle will not damage Clinton's standing.
Looking back, it's curious how the D.C. scandal machine could barely get out of first gear when the Bush email story broke in 2007. I'm not suggesting the press ignored the Rove email debacle, because the story was clearly covered at the time. But triggering a firestorm (a guttural roar) that raged for days and consumed the Beltway chattering class the way the D.C. media has become obsessed with the Clinton email story? Absolutely not. Not even close.
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.