With the passing of legendary New York Times newsman Anthony Lewis this week, observers have noted that his lasting legacy will likely be his clarion insights and logical, lucid writing style that helped make the courts and the law more accessible for everyday news consumers. From his two Pulitzer Prizes for reporting, to his opinion column which he wrote for more than three decades, Lewis' imprint on the Times was vast.
What may be getting overlooked in the remembrances though, and what the Times itself neglected to mention in its otherwise thorough Lewis obituary, was the pivotal role Lewis played during the 1990s when he stood up to his own newspaper, as well as to an army of Republican partisans waging war against President Bill Clinton. Lewis wrote passionately about the mindless pursuit of the Whitewater story and the Clinton impeachment saga. As a legal scholar, Lewis was utterly appalled by the conduct of Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr and his office of "thuggish deputies."
Today, pointing out the gaping holes in the Whitewater tale and the impeachment media circus might seem like common sense punditry. But at the time, and especially inside the Times, where a fever-swamp disdain for Clinton ran wild, Lewis' level-headed truth telling stood out.
"For a while there, he seemed the only sane and dispassionate person at the New York Times," author Gene Lyons told Media Matters this week. Lyons detailed the Times' journalism shortcomings in his 1996 book, Fools For Scandal: How The Media Invented Whitewater, and co-wrote with Joe Conason The Hunting of the President: The Ten Year Campaign To Destroy Bill and Hillary Clinton.
Lewis wasn't shy about listing Clinton's policy faults and failures. (He despised the "cruel" Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act passed in 1996.) But he refused to stand by while the law was so transparently used, and misused, as a political weapon, first in an attempt to destroy Clinton's presidency via the Whitewater investigations, and then in an attempt to drive Clinton from office with impeachment.
Additionally, Lewis served as an important counter-balance on the Op-Ed page to the Times' William Safire. Whereas his conservative colleague Safire got almost everything wrong for eight years about the Clinton scandals, Lewis, following the facts and common sense, got it right. (Safire didn't fare much better during the Bush years, hyping "the "undisputed fact connecting Iraq's Saddam Hussein to the Sept. 11 attacks.")
A liberal who wasn't known as a partisan brawler, Lewis' gaze more often seemed fixed on matters that transcended the typical right/left warfare. Yet he remained a steward of justice and fair play and refused to remain silent when he saw the young Democratic president being hounded by his political opponents and by the Beltway press in a way the writer had never seen before.
A question for Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, who this week unveiled a nearly 100-page "autopsy" report on the GOP's recent electoral failings that urged the party to soften its image and become more inclusive: Do you think Roger Ailes is more concerned with his new biography hitting the top ten on the best-seller list, or with the Republican Party successfully appealing to more minority voters?
The answer to that question might go a long way in determining whether the GOP has any luck rebranding itself in the coming years. Early indications are Ailes and Fox News have no interest in moderating their form of attack programming, the bare-knuckle brand celebrated in Zev Chafets' new bio of the Fox News president, Roger Ailes: Off Camera.
Dubbed the "Growth & Opportunity Project," the RNC's laundry list of campaign failures urges the party to become more inclusive, tolerant and able to engage and persuade non-believers. Or to at least be able to not turn them off entirely with angry, absolutist rhetoric. "On messaging, we must change our tone," the report concluded.
Right now though, the Republican Party, riding a White House losing streak (2-4 since 1992), has a massive messaging problem, thanks to Roger Ailes.
As Variety confirmed last year, "the voice of Republican opposition throughout the Obama administration has been Fox News Channel, and the de facto leader of the GOP its chairman-CEO Roger Ailes."
It's fitting that the RNC report, which represents a concerted effort by the GOP to turn the page on its losing ways, arrived the same week Ailes was busy taking his book-release star turn and presenting himself as a clarion voice of the conservative movement. Via the book we learned Ailes, when not making weird media references to Hitler and Stalin and comparing Islamic charities to terrorist organizations, dismissed America's first black president is "lazy" liar who's "never worked a day in his life." (Ailes was clumsily misrepresenting comments Obama had made about himself in a 2011 interview with Barbara Walters.) Then in an interview with the Daily Beast, Ailes lashed out at another prominent African American, Van Jones, calling him a "communist infiltrator" who " has one job, to stir up racism whether he can find it or not."
So yes, thanks to a curious bit of timing, this week nicely captures the two paths, or the two options, that lay before Republicans. There's the "Growth & Opportunity" path of tolerance vs. the Roger Ailes path of divisiveness.
Insisting there are "growing questions about a possible government cover-up," Fox News' Megyn Kelly this week assured viewers that new information about the Benghazi terrorist attack suggests the White House is trying to silence several dozen Americans who survived the assault on the United States consulate in Libya. They're "being told by the feds to keep quiet," Kelly reported.
Fox's ongoing cover-up allegation is built around Sen. Lindsey Graham's (R-S.C.) claim that he recently met with Benghazi survivors who said they're being "told to be quiet" about the affair. He's urging they be subpoenaed and forced to testify in public.
In hyping the story though, Fox ignores the fact the survivors have already spoken to investigators, and that there are reasons to keep people with sensitive positions in the intelligence community from speaking publicly that don't involve government conspiracies. That, and the fact they're witnesses in an ongoing FBI investigation.
The survivor claim is part of the recent right-wing media effort to build a controversy surrounding the men and women who lived through the terror attack last year in Libya and turn them into pawns in the never-ending Benghazi 'scandal.'
Two weeks ago on Fox, Greta Van Susteren was urging that the survivors be hounded into testifying in public and relive the bloody events of the terror attack. "You keep bringing these people and putting them under oath," Van Susteren demanded. The new Fox angle is that the Obama administration, for political purposes, is denying the victims the chance to tell their tale. The White House is "trying to cover it up," Graham told Fox.
The unsubstantiated claim of a cover-up, which the White House has denied to Fox, represents a strategic shift for the far-right press as it heads towards their seventh month of trying to politicize the terror attack. Just recently, Republicans in Congress complained they had no idea who the survivors were; they didn't know their names or how to contact them, and demanded the White House provide the information.
But now Graham insists he's met with some of the survivors and talked to them. So which is it, are the survivors being hidden by the White House, or are they sitting down and talking to senators such as Graham? Fox can't have it both ways.
More importantly though, is what Fox leaves out of its telling of the alleged Benghazi cover-up. What facts do Fox hosts often omit when detailing how the government is supposedly silencing the survivors?
They're leaving out the fact that the survivors have already spoken. They have already told their stories of the terror attack. And they have done it on the record. In fact, they've done it twice. Within days of the attack, survivors were interviewed by FBI investigators who are currently conducting an on-going criminal investigation into the assault. Transcripts of those interviews have reportedly been made available to the Senate Intelligence Committee (with some redactions). Later, survivors spoke to investigators working for an independent review conducted on behalf of the State Department.
Responding to a barrage of criticism he received for a factually inaccurate and flawed column he wrote this month about the sequestration battle, New York Times columnist Bill Keller wrote a follow-up blog post to detail how critics had hounded him online, especially via Twitter.
Denouncing the social media tool's tendency to produce what he called mean and shallow commentary, Keller lamented Twitter's suddenly pervasive power. "It is always on, and it gets inside your head," he wrote, adding, "there is no escape." Indeed, within days of writing his column, Keller felt compelled to pen a lengthy piece about his Twitter encounter.
The columnist painted an unpleasant picture of being hounded and "bull[ied]" on Twitter for merely expressing "an unpopular view." But as the tenth anniversary of the United States-led invasion of Iraq approaches, I couldn't help thinking back to when columnists like Keller, and newspapers like the New York Times, where Keller became executive editor in July 2003, helped cheer the nation to war. To date, that conflict has claimed the lives of nearly 8,000 U.S. service members and contractors and more than 130,000 Iraqi citizens, and is projected to cost the U.S. Treasury more than two trillion dollars. (The Times' public editor later called the paper's prewar coverage "flawed journalism.")
Thinking about the historic failure of the Times and others in the media a decade ago, I couldn't help wish that Twitter had been around during the winter of 2002-2003 to provide a forum for critics to badger writers like Keller and the legion of Beltway media insiders who abdicated their role as journalists and fell in line behind the Bush White House's march to war. I wouldn't have cared that recipients might have been insulted by the Twitter critiques or seen them as mean and shallow, the way Keller does today. Sorry, but the stakes in 2003 were too high to worry about bruised feelings.
Looking back, I wish Keller and other pro-war columnists had been "bullied" (rhetorically) as they got almost everything wrong about the pending war. I think the revolutionary peer connection tool would have been invaluable in shaming journalists into doing their jobs when so many failed to. (Keller later admitted the invasion was a "monumental blunder.")
Twitter could have helped puncture the Beltway media bubble by providing news consumers with direct access to confront journalists during the run-up to the war. And the pass-around nature of Twitter could have rescued forgotten or buried news stories and commentaries that ran against the let's-go-to-war narrative that engulfed so much of the mainstream press.
Considering the central role the lapdog media played in helping to sell President Bush's pre-emptive invasion, I wonder if Twitter could have stopped the Iraq War.
The problem with so much of the Beltway media's ongoing commentary regarding the sequestration showdown between Republicans and President Obama is that it reflects the central failing of the press throughout Obama's presidency: It blames the president for the GOP's ingrained, signature obstinacy.
Earlier this week, I noted that the bulk of the commentary class was berating Obama for failing to "lead" on the budget issue. They faulted him for not fashioning a deal despite the fact that Republicans made it plain they did not want to make a deal, which wasn't surprising since they've been emphatically saying no to Obama for nearly 50 months. Nonetheless, Obama's to blame because he failed to change the GOP's ways.
As an update, it's now worth noting that the media's blame-Obama approach is additionally misguided because we're learning more and more Republican members of Congress don't understand, or haven't bothered to find out, what the president is offering in terms of his deficit reduction plan. So not only does the press fault Obama for Republicans' (obstructionist) behavior, it also penalizes him for the fact that Republicans don't know what the White House proposed to avoid sequestration.
That doesn't seem fair.
Here's what NBC News' Chuck Todd reported on the president's dinner with Republican senators Wednesday night [emphasis added]:
In fact, one senator told us that he learned, for the first time, the actual cuts that the president has put on the table. Leadership hadn't shared that list with them before.
But the Republicans' astonishing lack of knowledge about Obama's detailed deficit reduction proposal, the same proposal they've rejected, appears to be widespread. The Washington Post's Ezra Klein reported that at an off-the-record session with Republican lawmakers, one Congressman didn't know about a key cost-cutting concession Obama had made regarding Social Security benefits.
From Paul Waldman, writing at The American Prospect:
The Republican position is that this negotiation is of vital importance to the future of the country, indeed, so important that they may be willing to shut the government down and let the full faith and credit of the United States be destroyed if they don't get what they want; but they also can't be bothered to understand what it is the other side wants.
But remember, Beltway pundits agree: The partisan impasse that led to sequestration was Obama's fault.
Here's the latest claim: The survivors of the deadly terror attack last September represent the key to the whole story, and only when Republican members of Congress are able to interview them, and possibly even subpoena them, will the truth come tumbling out.
Never mind that the survivors were interviewed by the FBI within days of the deadly assault and that the FBI's investigation remains ongoing. Never mind they were later interviewed by investigators working for retired Ambassador Thomas Pickering and a former Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, Adm. Mike Mullen, who led an independent review of the State Department's handling of the attack. Never mind that even the conservative press has reported on why, for legal reasons, it might not be permissible for the survivors, many of whom are likely intelligence officers, to testify at this time before Congress.
And never mind that when then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in January and answered Benghazi-related questions for hours, not a single senator pressed her about the survivors.
But that was then. Now, or at least this week, the Fox-fueled Benghazi talking point is all about the survivors and the increasingly loud demands that they come forward and tell their stories; that they be dragged into the right-wing production in hopes their presence will gin up interest in a story that was long ago politicized beyond recognition.
Alternately insisting the survivors are potential "whistleblowers" who've been put under a "gag" by President Obama, Benghazi conspiracy theorists seem determined to turn the victims into pawns. Fox's misguided Benghazi crusade has often been unfair, but the idea of the right-wing media turning their klieg lights on the Benghazi victims and demanding they become the story seems especially exploitative.
In what appears to be a coordinated campaign this week, Republicans have been working with Fox News to push the survivor angle, as Obama's critics now enter their sixth month touting wild conspiracy theories about the Benghazi attack. Thwarted at nearly ever turn in their attempt to manufacture a massive Watergate-style cover-up that would cripple the Obama administration, partisans now think parading victims of a terror attack in front of a Congressional hearing is the best way to keep the (nonexistent) cover-up story alive.
Reading what has now become a cavalcade of Beltway pundits, led by New York Times writers, denouncing President Obama for failing to avoid the drastic budget sequestration, and berating him for not "leading" by getting Republicans to abandon their chronic intransigence, I keep thinking back to the earliest days of Obama's presidency when the press concocted new rules regarding bipartisanship.
Specifically, I recall a question NBC's Chuck Todd asked at a February 2009 press briefing as the president's emergency stimulus bill was being crafted in Congress. With the country still reeling from the 2008 financial collapse, and the economy in desperate need of an immediate stimulus shot in the arm, Todd asked if Obama would consider vetoing his own party's stimulus bill if it passed Congress without Republican support.
Todd wanted to know if Obama would hold off implementing urgent stimulus spending in order to a pass different piece of legislation, one that more Republicans liked and would vote for, because that way it would be considered more bipartisan.
I mention that curious Todd query because only when you understand the warped prism through which so much of the Washington D.C. press corps now views the issue of bipartisanship does the current blame-Obama punditry regarding sequestration begins to make sense, even remotely.
And remember, most of the pundits currently taking misguided aim at Obama on sequestration are part of the supposedly "liberal media" cabal, the one that conservatives insist protect Obama at any cost.
Some conservatives who initially cheered Bob Woodward's claim of being threatened by a senior White House aide expressed amazement that media commentators who weren't buying Woodward's story were attacking such a famously "liberal" journalist. Possibly confused by their own rhetoric about how all Beltway reporters lean left -- or by the suggestion that if Woodward helped bring down a Republican president, he must be a Democratic sympathizer -- the talk of liberal journalists and the White House turning on a supposed Obama supporter like Woodward has been steady.
But it's just not true. If Woodward were a liberal icon, it's unlikely operatives close to Mitt Romney would've shown up at the reporter's home just weeks before the election, urging him to meet with their secret source to discuss the Benghazi terrorist attack.
Woodward has certainly shown in recent years that he doesn't have his finger on the pulse on Democratic politics. Three years ago he claimed Hillary Clinton might replace Vice President Joe Biden on the Democratic ticket in 2012. (Then again he once predicted Dick Cheney would be the Republican nominee in 2008.)
In truth, Woodward at key junctures has been a willing conduit for Republicans and has proven instrumental in distributing their talking points. Recently, Woodward suggested, without any proof, that angry Democrats were pressuring the White House to pull Chuck Hagel's nomination to become Secretary of Defense. And that Hagel was "twisting in the wind."
During the Clinton years, "liberal" Woodward often took direct aim at the Democratic president, as well as Vice President Al Gore, labeling him 'Solicitor-in-Chief,' a move which conservatives cheered. Years later, when news broke that newly elected president Barack Obama had selected Hillary Clinton to be his Secretary of State, Woodward lamented that "She never goes away, she and her husband."
But it's Woodward's reporting during the Bush administration that best debunks the farcical the notion that he is a "liberal" ally. He did that both through his fawning coverage of the Bush White House, especially in the early years, and by becoming a major player in the scandal surrounding CIA operative Valerie Plame.
By the time the Washington Post's Bob Woodward appears on Sean Hannity Fox News show tonight to tell his tall tale of intimidation, is anyone even going to still care about the reporter's ominous claim that he was threatened by the White House for daring to raise questions about its ongoing sequestration battle with Republicans? Or more specifically, is anyone outside the right-wing media bubble going to care?
Woodward's hard-to-believe tale about being threatened, based on a single innocuous sounding phrase from an email sent by a senior White House aide, was cheered by Obama's conservative critics who claimed it proved their long-running theory about the administration's "thug" culture. But the shaky story of a threat quickly collapsed when the full context of Woodward's email exchange with the White House aide, Gene Sperling, was revealed. Rather than a threat, the two men had simply engaged in a vigorous, respectful debate.
Yesterday, Woodward summoned two reporters from Politico to his home and told them his tale of woe. According to the Politico article, Sperling had pushed back on Woodward's assertion that President Obama was "moving the goalposts" on the issue, telling Woodward in an email, "I think you will regret staking out that claim."
From that, Woodward insisted he'd been threatened, even though "I think you will regret staking out that claim" doesn't sound like very threatening language. Instead, it sounds like someone trying to tell Woodward he would regret publishing facts that are inaccurate. (Kind of the opposite of a threat, no?)
Indeed, when Politico published the email exchange in its entirety, the whole story fell apart. Sperling had actually written, "I know you may not believe this, but as a friend, I think you will regret staking out that claim." And Woodward's response certainly did not indicate that he felt threatened; he told Sperling, "I also welcome your personal advice. I am listening."
Why Woodward decided to stage a media tour based on a false premise of a non-existent threat remains to be seen. But we do know Woodward's now an honorary practitioner of the far right's Phony Outrage Machine.
Chuck Hagel's anticlimactic Senate confirmation to become the nation's next Secretary of Defense, passed by a vote of 58 to 41, stood in sharp contrast to the frenzied weeks of partisan fighting, and the often breathless media coverage that surrounded the unprecedented battle over President Obama's pick.
The Washington Post this week tallied up a scorecard to determine whether the furious Republican effort had been worth it. Republicans used up valuable political capital fighting a lost cause, but the Post claimed the party wouldn't suffer politically for its obstructionist ways. Indeed, for Republicans there wasn't "a whole lot of downside " in trying to derail Hagel.
Unfortunately, that's probably true. The Beltway press has made sure Republicans have routinely paid no price for their radical behavior, which means ugly stalling tactics will likely continue under Obama, as Republicans now try to grind the government to a halt on numerous fronts.
During the months-long Hagel debacle, in which the traditionally routine, bipartisan confirmation process was upended by Republicans, we learned some uncomfortable truths about the mainstream press and the right-wing media.
For instance we learned that, thanks to the Friends of Hamas debacle, conservative media sites continue to have much more in common with propaganda than they do journalism. We learned that even the piercing right-wing echo chamber, with conservative outlets working in concert with Republicans in Congress to amplify falsehoods, wasn't enough to sway the Hagel debate.
We learned that the hermetically sealed information bubble is still firmly intact. Reminiscent of the bubble that hyped the Mitt Romney "landslide" that never materialized last November, conservatives in the press assured followers for weeks that Hagel's nomination was doomed, that he'd soon be withdrawing his name, or he'd be rejected outright by angry Democrats.
We learned that non-starter crusades like the Hagel one are perfectly suited for the increasingly obsessive, phony outrage formula that so many right-wing outlets have adopted. (As blogger Charles Johnson noted on Twitter, the day Hagel was easily confirmed by the Senate, Breitbart.com's homepage featured no less than fourteen anti-Hagel headlines.)