After largely avoiding the topic during the Republican Party's first two nationally televised debate, GOP candidates and the right-wing media erupted in a spasm of outrage last night over supposedly liberal media bias, and how the CNBC moderators Wednesday night were so mean to Republican players on the stage.
Donald Trump even launched a preemptive attack, labeling the debate as "unfair" before it began.
The debate was certainly a raucous one, and at times was marked by disjointed questions and regular interruptions. (Some mainstream observers praised moments from the moderators, but most others belittled them.) But seeing darker forces at work, conservatives not only called out the business news channel moderators for losing control of the event, but went further, critiquing supposed liberal bias and a fanciful collaboration with Democratic forces to spoil the GOP night.
"The CNBC moderators acted less like journalists and more like Clinton campaign operatives," bellowed liberal media bias cop Brent Bozell. "They clearly war-gamed this thinking that a relentless series of personal attacks on the candidates would somehow drive their ratings and help Hillary Clinton."
The layers of irony surrounding the eruption are many. Let's count them.
First, CNBC, which chronicles and celebrates the exploits of Wall Street tycoons, is hardly a bastion of liberalism. Among the six total CNBC questioners last night were Jim Cramer, who once famously announced President Obama was destroying wealth in America, and Rick Santelli, whose anti-Obama screed in 2009 was credited with sparking the Tea Party movement. (Santelli then paraded around talk radio claiming the White House had targeted him.)
That's who Brent Bozell and company are claiming conspired with their fellow questioners and liberals to quash the GOP last night.
Third, the one person who would have a completely legitimate beef with the press this campaign season, and the one person who has been the target of an unprecedented barrage of negatives attacks is, of course, Hillary Clinton. Yet Marco Rubio last night complained that the press is doing her bidding.
Also, too many "snide" and "hostile" questions at the debate last night, according to Fox's Howard Kurtz? Did conservatives not watch Clinton's marathon appearance before the Benghazi Select Committee, where she endured hour after hour of gotcha questions? Afterwards, I didn't hear Fox News bemoan the tone.
Fourth, lots and lots of Republican candidates have been on the receiving end of fawning press coverage for a very, very long time. Over the years, Republicans such as Marco Rubio and, until his bridge troubles, Chris Christie, banked on glowing, free press coverage to build their brands.
Does this sound like a D.C. press corps trying to do damage to GOP hopefuls?
* "Marco Rubio, the charismatic senator-elect from Florida" (Nov. 26, 2010, New York Times]
* "Mr. Rubio, a charismatic Latino senator from a crucial swing state" (March 29, 2012. New York Times)
* "[A] charismatic young Republican senator from Miami, Marco Rubio" (March 22, 2015. New York Times)
* "Marco Rubio, the charismatic young Cuban American who has captured the hearts of conservatives around the country" (April 10, 2010. Washington Post)
* "The charismatic Cuban American lawmaker from Florida," (Oct. 26, 2011. Washington Post)
* "The 43-year-old senator from Florida and charismatic son of immigrants" (April 6, 2015. Washington Post)
Or this, pre-BridgeGate?
In the last month alone, TIME magazine has declared that Christie governed with "kind of bipartisan dealmaking that no one seems to do anymore." MSNBC's Morning Joe called the governor "different," "fresh," and "sort of a change from public people that you see coming out of Washington." In a GQ profile, Christie was deemed "that most unlikely of pols: a happy warrior," while National Journal described him as "the Republican governor with a can-do attitude" who "made it through 2013 largely unscathed. No scandals, no embarrassments or gaffes." ABC's Barbara Walters crowned Christie as one of her 10 Most Fascinating People, casting him as a "passionate and compassionate" politician who cannot lie.
Meanwhile, when was the last time we witnessed a post-debate, all-consuming conservative movement roar like this aimed at a moderator? It came in October 2012, when the conservative press declared war on CNN's Candy Crowley after she had the audacity to publically acknowledge during the debate that yes, President Obama had called the Benghazi attack an act of terror.
Daily Caller editor Tucker Carlson immediately compared Crowley to John Wilkes Booth assassinating Abraham Lincoln, while Rush Limbaugh announced, "What she did last night would have been the equivalent of blowing up her career like a suicide bomber."
That spasm seemed to be triggered by flashes of fear; fear that Obama had defeated Mitt Romney during the debate and fear that Obama was poised for re-election.
So what sparked this recent eruption? My hunch is the real reasons for the self-pity party were off-stage. I think it's because of Hillary Clinton's sudden surge in the polls and her widely-applauded appearance before the Republican's misguided Benghazi Select Committee. I think it's because there's growing anxiety and panic over the idea that Donald Trump might be the party's nominee and because of the creeping prospect for four (eight?) more years of a Democratic president that ignited the return to the right-wing roots.
For conservatives, 'liberal media bias' represents the ultimate comfort blanket.
Talk about a wild pendulum swing.
After relentlessly attacking and mocking presidential candidate Hillary Clinton for much 2015, often depicting her as a hapless and phony pol, the Beltway press wrecking ball dramatically reversed direction last week when pundits and reporters announced the Democratic frontrunner had performed valiantly in front the Benghazi Select Committee.
I've been watching Clinton press coverage, on and off, for close to two decades, and I honestly cannot remember a time when the Beltway press corps -- so often suspicious and openly critical of Hillary Clinton -- was so united in its praise for her and so contemptuous of her partisan pursuers:
The Benghazi Hearings Sham [Slate]
The Benghazi Hearing Farce [Time]
Hillary Had A Lovely Benghazi Day [Daily Beast]
Benghazi Bust [Washington Examiner]
The GOP's Unfortunate Benghazi Hearing [Washington Post]
Trey Gowdy Just Elected Hillary Clinton President [Rolling Stone]
On and on and on it went, as the rave reviews for Clinton poured in and the Republican catcalls mounted. (Committee chairman Trey Gowdy must be seeing those headlines in his sleep by now.)
I'm in heated agreement with virtually all of the analysis that found fault with the Benghazi witch hunt. ("What, exactly, is the point of this committee?") Indeed, much of the biting commentary echoes Benghazi points Media Matters has been making for three years. But my question now is this: What took the press so long, and when will the press pause and reflect on the central role it played in producing the GOP witch hunt?
I don't want to punish good behavior by criticizing the press for now accurately portraying the Benghazi pursuit as a fraud. (That's why I recently urged the media to break up with the Benghazi committee.) But it might be nice amidst the avalanche of Benghazi Is Bogus pronouncements if folks in the press took time to admit the media's part in the unfortunate charade.
To hear many pundits and observers describe the Benghazi collapse, Republicans -- and Republicans only -- are to blame, and they're the ones who overplayed the pseudoscandal and tried to hype it as a blockbuster.
Much of the press is presenting a view from above: Here's what Republicans did and here's why it failed. Missing from the analysis is, 'Here's how the press helped facilitate the Republican failure for many, many years.' The media want to pretend they haven't been players in this drama.
Sorry, that's not quite right. For years, Republicans often found willing partners in the Beltway press who were also eager and willing to overplay Benghazi and play it as a blockbuster scandal. The press cannot, and should not, simply whitewash the very important role it played, even though that muddles the media's preferred storyline of How Republicans Botched Benghazi.
I realize that immediately examining the media's role in this story might not be a priority for editors and producers. But I also realize what's likely to happen is this window of opportunity for self-reflection will soon close and the press will once again fail to hold itself accountable for its often reckless behavior in marketing a bogus Republican-fueled "scandal."
Here's a concrete example: Lara Logan and her completely flawed Benghazi report that aired on 60 Minutes in 2013. Preparing the unsound report, Logan reportedly met behind the scenes with one of the GOP's most vociferous Benghazi crusaders, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) According to a report in New York magazine, Graham helped shape the CBS Benghazi story. 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.
Then when huge holes began to appear in the story, as one of Logan sources was revealed as a fraud, "Logan called Graham and asked for help," New York reported. (Note to reporters: When your sources have to make stuff up about Benghazi, it's a pretty good indication the 'scandal' is lacking.)
It's true that Logan's example was an extreme one. But the press is kidding itself if it's going to pretend Republicans didn't recruit lots and lots of journalists to help tell the GOP's preferred Benghazi 'scandal' story over the last three years.
Thankfully, some prominent journalists have recently shone a spotlighting on the press' Benghazi failings. "The real losers here are the reporters and centrist pundits who let themselves be played, month after month, by Trey Gowdy and company," wrote The New York Times' Paul Krugman.
Today, there's broad media consensus that the Benghazi Select Committee is wasteful and unnecessary. But that was utterly predictable last year when the eighth investigation was formed. At the time, many in the press brushed aside Democratic objections. (Try to imagine the media response if Democrats had demanded eight separate 9/11 commissions under President George W. Bush.)
Why the nonchalance? Because the press, I'm guessing, liked the idea of a standing Congressional committee to chase Clinton, to possibly wreak havoc on her campaign, and to leak gotcha stories to eager reporters.
By raising so few doubts about the absurdity of creating yet another Benghazi inquisition last year, the press helped fuel the charade that unfolded last week. It's time to own up to the unpleasant truth.
Today, Hillary Clinton will once again testify about the 2012 Benghazi attacks, 33 months after she first did so in January 2013. In terms of Congressional "scandal" investigations, 33 months represents an amazingly large window of inquiry.
The staying power of the Republican-fueled controversy, which has roots all the way back to the 2012 presidential campaign, is rather remarkable. The staying power is also unjustified because it has been repeatedly proven that there's no there there with regards to allegations of an administration cover-up or nefarious government actions surrounding the Libyan terror attack. And yes, seven previous Benghazi investigations have all examined the facts.
So the fact that the national press, at the behest of Republicans, remains focused on Benghazi this week is somewhat amazing. But as the GOP's Benghazi production winds down, having had its reputation severely damaged in recent days, it's important to understand the central role the press has played over the last three years in keeping the partisan pursuit afloat.
The truth is there were obvious points over the last three years when the press could have, and should have, gotten on the Benghazi exit ramp:
*May 19, 2013: ABC News' Jonathan Karl was burned when his exclusive report regarding White House emails in the wake of the Benghazi attack turned out to be inaccurate. Karl, relying on a likely Republican source on Capitol Hill who relayed the emails' contents, accused the administration of having "scrubbed" vital information from the Benghazi talking points used in the wake of the attack. Karl's report quickly ignited a new round of Republican outrage over the administration's handling of the attack. But a full reading of the emails showed Karl's claims were clearly misleading.
*October 27, 2013: CBS' 60 Minutes aired a Benghazi exclusive, featuring Dylan Davies, a private security guard who claimed to have scaled a 12-foot wall at the U.S. diplomatic facilities in Benghazi the night of the attack, and who claimed the Obama administration had failed to properly protect Americans. But it turned out the story was fabricated by Davies, who had earlier given the FBI a completely different account of his whereabouts the night of the Benghazi attack. Widely criticized for being duped by a story that Republican operatives cheered, CBS was forced to air an apology for the botched report, and 60 Minutes correspondent Lara Logan left the show for seven months.
*November 22, 2014: The House Intelligence Committee released its comprehensive Benghazi findings and concluded "The CIA and the military acted properly in responding to the 2012 attack on a U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya," according to the Associated Press. "Among other findings, the report concluded that the administration did not delay in dispatching a CIA rescue team to the attack site, that there was no missed opportunity to stage a military rescue, and that nobody in the government issued a 'stand down' order to halt a planned rescue," CBS reported. The inquiry produced so little bad news for the administration that Benghazi dead-ender Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) denounced the House findings as being "full of crap."
Looking back, I'd add another key moment when the press could have rightfully concluded that the Republicans' Benghazi inquisition wasn't going to produce much of substance, and that was January 23, 2013, when Clinton first testified about the events.
At the time, the State Department's Accountability Review Board had already issued its report on the attack. It detailed agency shortcomings and made recommendations, which Clinton accepted. There were no major revelations during Clinton's 2013 testimony that suggested Republicans would be able to actually substantiate any scandalous claims against her or the administration.
And sure enough, 33 months later that remains the case. Yet the press has spent way too much of that time wallowing in Benghazi.
According to a Nexis search, here's how many times, since January 23, 2013, that each of the following news organizations have published content that mentioned "Benghazi" at least three times (note: Nexis results for some outlets include things like editorials and letters to the editor):
Washington Times: 501
Washington Post: 380
New York Times: 306
Chicago Tribune: 210
New York Post: 132
USA Today: 107
It's true that some of the mentions cited in the media snapshot above may have criticized the run-away partisan pursuit. But the fact remains that the national media continued to shower Benghazi with attention long after the topic was actually newsworthy. And the press mostly did so at the request of Republicans and the conservative media, which offered up an endless litany of hollow, scandalous revelations while lobbing wildly bogus allegations.
Let's hope that with Clinton's second Benghazi testimony, the press will finally shelve the phony story.
Returning to Congress this week to testify about Benghazi more than 30 months after she first testified about the Libyan terror attack, Hillary Clinton is being summoned to answer yet more Republican queries, many of which seem to revolve around wild conspiracies.
As the Benghazi Select Committee's reputation continues to take on water for incompetence and run-away partisanship, new jousting among Republican candidates is also denting the entire Benghazi pursuit; a chase that's been sponsored by Fox News for years.
The latest sparring features Donald Trump and Jeb Bush arguing over President George W. Bush's responsibility for the terror attack of 9/11. "When you talk about George Bush, I mean, say what you want, the World Trade Center came down during his time," Trump said last week.
Bush's brother lashed back out at Trump, calling his claim "pathetic," while other Republicans rushed to Bush's side. "I think Donald Trump is totally wrong there," Rep. Peter King (R-NY) said on Fox Radio. "That sounds like a Michael Moore talking point" said King, referencing the liberal filmmaker who documented George W. Bush's failings. (Fox News did its best to help Jeb, too.)
"Blaming 9/11 on Mr. Bush is taboo for Republicans and has largely been off-limits for Democrats," noted The New York Times. But by ignoring those Beltway protocols, Trump threw a spotlight onto the questions of accountability, George Bush's inability to protect Americans from terror attacks on U.S. soil, and why Jeb Bush today routinely stresses that his brother kept America safe after thousands were killed on 9/11.
Trump's attack has also inadvertently drawn back the curtain on the sweeping double standard conservatives use for holding Republican presidents accountable for terrorist attacks, and the much higher standard they use for holding President Obama and Hillary Clinton accountable for Benghazi.
CNN's Jake Tapper raised the issue of hypocrisy with Jeb Bush on Sunday's State of the Union, pressing the candidate to explain why if his brother wasn't responsible for the 3,000 American deaths on 9/11, somehow Obama and Clinton are to blame for the four U.S. casualties from Benghazi.
But the issue is larger than Benghazi vs. 9/11. It also extends back to President Ronald Reagan and the series of terror attacks in Beirut on American outposts that killed more 300 people over 18 months.
By raising questions about President Bush and 9/11, Trump has effectively demolished Fox News' long-running Benghazi storyline.
Why? Because listening to Fox News for the last three years viewers have been led to believe the Benghazi tragedy stands as the biggest failure in American foreign policy and easily represents the darkest day in U.S. history, even though scores of attacks have claimed more Americans lives. It's worse than Watergate, a bigger story than Hurricane Sandy. And most of all, Obama and Clinton must be held accountable for not doing more to combat Islamic terrorism in the region.
According to Republicans, Benghazi remains a burning issue because they claim there are unanswered questions about accountability, and Clinton sits at the center of those questions. Never mind that Clinton has already accepted responsibility for the attack and report after report has found no evidence of administration malpractice. Conservatives insist there's more territory to mine because Democrats must be held accountable for the deaths of four Americans -- over and over again.
Obviously, many of the same, far-right forces chasing Clinton today were much less interested in holding Jeb Bush's brother accountable for the security failings of 9/11. (In fact, they tried to blame Bill Clinton.)
Following that historic attack, there weren't years worth of partisan blame games played like with Benghazi today. Instead, a single joint Congressional inquiry into the intelligence failures was formed. In addition, a bipartisan 9/11 commission was created over the objections of the Bush White House. The commission was routinely stonewalled by the White House and denounced by conservative commentators who remained unfazed by unanswered questions. In April 2004, Sean Hannity, currently obsessed with Benghazi, claimed the 9/11 commission had "been politicized." Days later he doubled down: "I don't have any faith in this commission. I think it's become politicized. I think it's a farce."
And then there was Reagan and Beirut. Here's how that American nightmare played out.
On April 18, 1983, Islamic terrorists attacked the U.S. Embassy in Beirut. As PBS explains, "Sixty-three people were killed, including 17 Americans, eight of whom were employees of the Central Intelligence Agency, including chief Middle East analyst Robert C. Ames and station chief Kenneth Haas."
Five months later local terrorists struck again. During a lengthy air assault from nearby artillerymen, two Marines stationed at the Beirut airport were killed.
Then on October 23, the Marines' Beirut barracks cratered after a 5-ton truck driven by a suicide bomber and carrying the equivalent of 12,000 pounds of TNT exploded killing 241 Americans, marking the deadliest single attack on U.S. citizens overseas since the Battle of Iwo Jima in World War II. (Fifty-eight French paratroopers were also killed in the Beirut blast.)
One year later on September 20, 1984, came the bombing of a U.S. Embassy annex. Located in Aukar, northeast of Beirut, a truck bomb exploded killing 24 people, two of whom were U.S. military personnel.
So, in less than 18 months under Reagan, several hundred Americans were killed by four separate terrorist attacks in and around Beirut targeting American outposts. And note that after the fourth attack, which killed two Americans, Reagan refused to curtail his re-election campaign for even one day, even though he enjoyed an insurmountable lead in the polls.
What was the Congressional response after the terror attack that killed 241 U.S. servicemen? With the House controlled by Democrats, did they demand years and years of redundant, finger-pointing investigations?
Congress created a single fact-finding commission. Two months after the barracks attack, the commission finished its work and concluded there had been "serious command and intelligence failures and said that the mission was not prepared to deal with the terrorist threat at the time due to a lack of training, staff, organization, and support."
Recommendations were made and then implemented. "Rather than trying to blame the Reagan administration, the Democrats in both houses worked with their Republican colleagues to fix the problem," wrote Lawrence Korb, who served as assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration.
Yet today, Fox News and Republicans demand three years of endless investigations into the deaths of four Americans killed during in Libya, while Jeb insists his brother is blameless for 9/11.
After being courted by Republican Benghazi investigators for nearly three years, all the time benefiting from endless committee leaks on Capitol Hill, the Beltway press now faces the prospect of a messy break-up. With Benghazi Select Committee chairman Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-SC) under increasing outside fire from Democrats, who claim his inquiry has jumped several sets of rails, and under internal fire from a whistleblower who alleges the committee's investigative work is overwhelmingly partisan, the committee stands poised to lose its remaining credibility.
That flashpoint might come next week when Hillary Clinton returns to Capitol Hill more than 30 months after testifying about Benghazi -- in order to once again testify about Benghazi. Or more specifically, to testify about her private emails, which have become the all-consuming focus of Gowdy's inquisition.
By any commonsense standard Gowdy's inquiry has been a Congressional bust. ($4.6 million spent to hold just a handful of public hearings?) If that's effectively highlighted during Clinton's nationally televised testimony, and if Democrats continue to press forward with their procedural attempts to dismantle the costly committee, Gowdy's time in the spotlight might be quickly ending.
And that's where the messy break-up looms. The Benghazi committee has been very good to a Beltway press corps anxious to pursue storylines about Clinton's supposed incompetence and crooked ways. This year, the Benghazi committee has helped pundits produce months' worth of baseless speculation about looming email indictments and the potential for a Clinton campaign "collapse." The Benghazi committee has provided institutional cover for the press to game out wild, what-if scenarios in which Clinton inevitably plays the villain, or a bumbling bureaucrat in over her head.
In other words, Gowdy provided the contours for the media's beloved "scandal" narrative. And Gowdy's committee has been generous with leaks that always make Clinton and her team look bad, even when upon closer examination the leaks don't hold up to scrutiny.
So think of Trey Gowdy as this decade's Ken Starr. He's an obsessive Clinton chaser who teamed up with a grateful press corps to produced endless "scandal" coverage. But like Starr, the facts are finally running out on Gowdy.
I mean, have you seen Gowdy's growing list of woes?
Describe it however you want, but Gowdy's Select Committee, which has been in session longer than Congress' Watergate investigation, is done. And it's done because its cover has been blown and because the scandal plots won't line up the way he wants. And the sooner the press admits that and moves on, the better because journalists have allowed themselves to be played for too long.
"The reality is that the Republican staff and majority of the committee have made it function as an oppo-research arm of the Republican National Committee, far more interested in whatever it might dig up about or against Hillary Clinton than any remaining mysteries on the four Americans killed in Benghazi," wrote James Fallows at The Atlantic.
Yes, Gowdy's sudden laundry list of bad news is long, but as the New York Times' Paul Krugman noted, "We shouldn't have needed McCarthy blurting out the obvious for the press to acknowledge that the Benghazi investigations have utterly failed to find any wrongdoing."
And we shouldn't have needed Bernie Sanders declaring, "the American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails!" at the Democratic debate this week for the press to acknowledge that its never-ending flood of coverage has been wildly out of proportion for the plodding process story.
Gowdy's blind, partisan pursuit has been hiding in plain sight for years. Just like Ken Starr's blind, partisan pursuit of the Clintons was easily detectable. Yet the press played along because the Clinton gotcha game generates buzz and it's good for journalists' careers.
And since there's a collective Beltway mindset, being wrong when chasing Clinton inquisitions means rarely being held accountable, or being forced to defend wildly erroneous charges.
So most often, the fling is win-win for Republicans and press. And it has been for years. But there comes a time when the Republican pursuer loses all creditably and threatens to tarnish journalists who don't break things off.
For Gowdy and the press, that time is now.
Sitting for a rare one-on-one network television interview with President Obama that aired on 60 Minutes this week, CBS' Steve Kroft repeatedly pressed Obama about Hillary Clinton's use of private email when she was secretary of state. But CBS was apparently far less interested in the pressing public policy issue of gun violence, which has dominated the news in recent weeks. It's also a topic Obama has been speaking out on publicly.
The interview seemed to be the latest example of the press giving the seven-month-old email story a disproportionate amount of time and attention.
The bulk of the 60 Minutes interview centered on the unfolding foreign policy challenges in Syria. In the second part of the lengthy 24-minute interview that aired, Kroft repeatedly pressed Obama about Clinton using a private email account years ago. In response, Obama said he agreed with Clinton's assessment that using a private email account was a mistake, and emphasized that it posed no national security risk and that the allegations against her were being "ginned up" by her political foes.
Still, Kroft again and again raised the topic with the president:
STEVE KROFT: Did you know about Hillary Clinton's use of private email server?
STEVE KROFT: Do you think it posed a national security problem?
STEVE KROFT: What was your reaction when you found out about it?
During the interview that aired Sunday night, Kroft pressed Obama six times about Clinton's emails.
No questions about gun violence made it into the portions of the interview CBS aired. But it turns out Kroft actually did actually raise the topic of gun violence with Obama during the Q&A, but 60 Minutes editors cut that portion out of the final TV interview. (Viewers can only see Obama and Kroft's exchange about gun violence online.)
In other words, the portion of the Q&A that focused on the well-worn process story of Clinton's emails was deemed by CBS to be far more newsworthy than Obama's discussion of gun violence, even though the interview came in the wake of several campus shootings this month.
And at no time when addressing the email issue did Kroft mention that Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) recently made headlines when he seemed to acknowledge that the Benghazi select committee, which is now focused almost exclusively on the email issue, was created in order to sabotage Clinton's White House run.
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.