It was déjà vu all over again recently when some in the press rushed to announce that current events suddenly threatened to derail Donald Trump's unorthodox campaign.
The first supposed hurdle came in the form of Trump's bizarre, 95-minute rant in Iowa where he belittled and insulted one of his opponents, Ben Carson. The New York Times reported, "some Republicans believe that his scathing attacks on Mr. Carson -- and voters who support him -- will backfire." The Boston Globe highlighted "some observers" who argued that "Trump may have finally gone too far, hurting his standing at the top of most polls and also adding to worries among Republicans about their field this season."
Then in the wake of the Paris terror attack, The Wall Street Journal suggested the killings, "could shake up the 2016 presidential race, reminding voters of the high stakes and potentially boosting candidates who put their governing experience front and center."
The Times twice last week stressed that GOP voters might turn away from Trump in favor of "more sober-minded candidates"; that they'll take "a more sober measure of who is prepared to serve as commander in chief."
Sober-minded candidates? Have these people been watching the spectacle that is the Republican campaign season for the last six months?
There was no backlash -- quite the opposite. Trump and his xenophobic campaign continue to soar in the GOP polls as he unfurls an endless stream of outrageous proposals. (Bring back U.S.-sanctioned torture! The government needs to close down some American mosques!)
Fact: Trump really has emerged as the perfect Fox News era candidate. He's a bigoted nativist. And he's a bullying, congenital liar who wallows in misinformation. In the process, he's winning over the demagoguery wing of the Republican Party that's been feasting off far-right media hate rhetoric for years.
Now, by successfully neutralizing enough members of the press, Trump's created space for himself to maneuver while espousing jaw-dropping rhetoric that in the past would have been considered disqualifying for any candidate.
After months and months of predicting the "beginning of the end" of Trump's run, the press ought to forthrightly concede he could represent the GOP next November, while at the same time aggressively chronicle the unprecedented extremism that's propelling his run.
Instead, the campaign press today seems poorly equipped to handle what's happening to the Republican Party, and especially over the last ten days since the Paris attack. That signature press timidity seems to spring from a larger reluctance to face the reality of today's GOP.
Desperate to keep alive a long-outdated, asymmetrical model that suggests partisan battles in Washington, D.C., are fought between center-left Democrats and center-right Republicans, the press simply doesn't want to acknowledge the GOP's radical right turn. But it's that defining lurch that's opened the door for a possible Trump win.
Meaning, you can't understand Trump's surge without understanding that the GOP has dismantled the guardrails; that it's now anything goes.
"There is a party center that two decades ago would have been considered the bedrock right, and a new right that is off the old charts," wrote Norm Ornstein, one of the few mainstream media observers who for years has been forcefully clear about the Titanic shifts within the Republican Party in response to Barack Obama's presidency.
To be fair, some of the he's-peaked coverage and commentary has been driven by so-called Republican "elites" who continue to cling to the dream that a "moderate" Prince Charming will magically emerge and save the party from Trump's possible electoral ruin.
Still, there appears to be large overlap between the GOP establishment and the Beltway media in terms of a deeply held belief that Trump doesn't really represent today's Republican Party, and that someone as garish and ill-informed as him could never been selected as the party's nominee.
"For months, the GOP professional class assumed Trump and [Ben] Carson would fizzle with time," reported the Washington Post. In truth, you could replace the phrase "GOP professional class" with "Beltway journalists" from that sentence and it would still be just as accurate.
And it's not just Trump who's wallowing in outrageous rhetoric or radical initiatives. After the Paris terror attack, Ted Cruz claimed Obama "does not wish to defend this country." Ben Carson suggested refugees should be screened as they might be "rabid dogs." Gov. Christie warned against the looming dangers of orphaned toddlers. And Jeb Bush proposed a religious test for refugees from Syria.
Meanwhile, Marco Rubio suggested it's about more than closing down some mosques in America (Trump's idea): "It's about closing down any place, whether it's a cafe, a diner, an internet site, any place where radicals are being inspired."
Collectively, and covering the span of just a few days, the GOP's post-Paris outburst represented some of the most extreme campaign rhetoric heard in many, many years. But you wouldn't necessarily know it from the often-unsure coverage.
That faulty coverage extends beyond the hot-button refugee coverage. At a Saturday Trump rally in Birmingham, Alabama, a Black Lives Matter protester interrupted the Republican's speech and was quickly attacked by Trump supporters who pushed the man to the ground and pummeled him.
Look at how CBS News reported on the event:
Really, a "fight" broke out? Like a back-and-forth physical confrontation between two sides? Not quite. All available evidence suggests a black protester who interrupted Trump's speech was quickly jumped and then beaten, kicked, and choked by a crowd of white Trump supporters. (Though his campaign originally said they did not "condone this behavior," the next day, Trump suggested the protester deserved to get "roughed up.")
We've never seen a campaign like Trump's in modern American history. We've never seen a candidate soar to the front of the pack for months on end while espousing such divisive and often bigoted rhetoric. That's why it's long past time for the press to take off any lingering blinders: Fox favorite Trump is a truly radical candidate and he represents today's truly radical Republican Party.
"What's going to happen when those Syrian refugees open fire in a Chick-fil-A"? Fox News' Todd Starnes, November 17.
The bile is coming in over the transom so quickly it's getting hard to keep up, as the conservative media signal their latest xenophobic and Islamophobic outburst, this time targeting refugees fleeing war-torn Syria.
Not interested in having a serious debate about how or when to accept mostly Muslim refugees in the wake of the Paris terrorist massacre, Fox News is sponsoring a far-right hate brigade that not only targets refugees, but President Obama, too.
It's a bigoted bank shot for conservative commentators: Accuse Obama of coddling would-be terrorists (including widows and orphans) who are viewed as encroaching on our borders. Or so goes the battle cry, which accuses the president of abdicating America's national security -- and allegedly doing so on purpose.
*Fox's Jesse Watters: Obama is inviting in "the barbarians at the gate."
*Fox's Andrea Tantaros: "Everything that the president is doing seems to benefit what ISIS is doing."
In other words, there's a dark, invading force that Obama won't stop. In fact, he seems intent on welcoming it across the border so it can wreak havoc here at home.
Indeed, watching the Fox meltdown over refugees you might think, 'This is unique brand of rhetorical manure.' I mean, Obama putting Muslim refugees above the safety of Americans? Opting for a "forced infiltration"? But if you hit the rewind button to October and November 2014, then you remember, 'Oh yeah, they did pretty much the exact same thing twelve months ago with their full-scale meltdown over a domestic Ebola outbreak that never happened.'
Is this now becoming an annual autumn tradition? Some Fox talkers are even connecting the refugee/Ebola dots, although they fail to see it as problematic. "He's imported illegal aliens," said Watters of Obama. "Remember he brought all of the Ebola victims into this country?"
Remember Ebola, indeed.
In terms of sheer fearmongering, Fox News led the wild, right-wing pack. There was Elisabeth Hasselbeck suggesting America be put on lockdown, and her Fox & Friends co-host Steve Doocy absurdly claiming the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention was lying about Ebola because it's "part of the administration." (Naturally, Fox also promoted a conspiracy theorist who claimed the CDC was lying when it cautioned people not to panic.)
Andrea Tantaros fretted that people who traveled and showed symptoms of Ebola will "seek treatment from a witch doctor" instead of going to the hospital, while Rush Limbaugh implied Obama wanted Ebola to spread in America.
That last point is key to understanding the levels to which Fox talkers and their allies sink in their Obama Derangement Syndrome, both in 2014 and in 2015: The Obama administration didn't supposedly bungle the Ebola scare because it was incompetent. It bungled Ebola because Obama wanted Americans infected.
*Laura Ingraham: Obama's willing to expose the U.S. military to "the Ebola virus to carry out this redistribution of the privileged's wealth."
*Michael Savage: Obama "wants to infect the nation with Ebola" in order "to make things fair and equitable" in the world.
*Fox's Keith Ablow: Obama won't protect America from Ebola because his "affinities, his affiliations are with" Africa and "not us ... He's their leader." Ablow added, "We don't have a president who has the American people as his primary interest."
It's just ugly, rancid stuff; the kind of hate speech that has rarely passed for 'mainstream' conservative rhetoric in modern American politics. (For the record, the Obama administration was "vindicated" for the way it handled the Ebola scare, NBC News recently noted.)
Twelve months later we're witnessing the same kind of toxic sewage (what else should we call it?), as Fox leads the campaign to condemn the president of the United States a terrorist-sympathizer who can't be trusted to deal with Syrian refugees.
It's important to note that during the media's Ebola scare last year, lots of mainstream press outlets produced egregiously bad reporting that not only failed to illuminate the public, but it played into the fear the GOP was trying to whip up during the midterm election season. (Sen. Rand Paul: Ebola is "incredibly contagious.")
"Here's What Should Scare You About Ebola" read one overexcited New Republic headline, while CNN's Ashleigh Banfield speculated that "All ISIS would need to do is send a few of its suicide killers into an Ebola-affected zone and then get them on some mass transit, somewhere where they would need to be to affect the most damage."
To date, we haven't seen the press regularly duplicate that kind of recklessness with the refugee story, although there have been some notable stumbles.
Let's hope the press resists Fox News' siren call for more bigotry.
"If al Qaeda attacks here, President Bush is re-elected in a heartbeat." Bill O'Reilly, March 19, 2004.
On the morning of March 11, 2004, one year after American-led forces invaded Iraq, ten bombs located on four different commuter trains exploded in Spain's capital of Madrid, killing more than 190 people and wounding nearly 2,000.
An al-Qaeda terror cell claimed credit for the coordinated attack against Spain, an American ally in the Iraq War. The assault marked the deadliest terror blast in Europe since the 1980s.
The event was quickly labeled "Spain's 9/11," just like the Paris massacre last week is being referred to as "France's 9/11." The similarities extend beyond the death tolls and the European locations.
Both countries were seen as key American allies in the war on terror. And both deadly attacks took place against the backdrop of an American election season. In March 2004, President George W. Bush was readying his re-election campaign against Democrat John Kerry. Today, Republicans and Democrats are approaching the presidential primary season.
What's completely different, however, about the similar attacks is how Fox News and the conservative media covered the grisly events, and the blame games they did and did not try to play.
Looking back at the Fox coverage from 2004, President Bush seemed to be a minor player in the story and his name wasn't often invoked. For Fox viewers, Bush certainly wasn't targeted for much blame following the Madrid attack; he wasn't denounced for providing vacuous leadership.
What's even more startling was the contention among Fox talkers in 2004 that, politically, a terror attack on America in 2004 would be good news for Bush; that it would seal his re-election bid because voters would overwhelmingly rally around the president.
For anyone who's been watching the Fox News coverage since Friday and seen the almost non-stop smear campaign against Obama (it's been part of the larger, right-wing media freakout), it's almost unimaginable what the Fox commentary would sound like if ISIS killed hundreds in America during next year's campaign. (Calls for impeachment would come quickly, I assume.)
Fox and other right-wing outlets are already busy condemning Obama for a terror attack that happened overseas.
Fox contributor Michael Goodwin insisted Obama resign "for the good of humanity" if he "cannot rise to the challenge of leadership" after the Paris killings. Fox's Ralph Peters claimed the "only president on the American continent who has done more damage" to America than Obama, "was actually Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederate States of America." And Bill Hemmer suggested terror victims "pay the price for the lack of security" fostered by Obama's anti-ISIS strategy.
Obviously, none of that caterwauling was prevalent following the historic Madrid attack when Bush was overseeing the war on terror. When Fox did cover the breaking story, there was little attention paid to Bush.
For instance, on the night of Madrid attack, Sean Hannity hosted former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and there was no finger-pointing about the bombing. But when Hannity recently hosted Giuliani to address the Paris attack, the former mayor not only denounced Obama's leadership, he claimed, "ISIS is an Obama creation." (It is not.)
Later that month Sean Hannity announced he was fed up with the "shrill rhetoric" from liberals, especially ones who suggested Bush "was responsible for the attacks in Madrid." This is the same Sean Hannity who in recent days has emptied the tank in terms of shrill rhetoric and has unequivocally claimed Obama is responsible for the Paris attack.
By the way, in March 2004, the New York Times detailed how Democrats, including primary frontrunner John Kerry, were specifically not politicizing the Madrid attack or criticizing the Bush administration:
''We're all sick to our stomachs that Al Qaeda seems to have scored a victory,'' said Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York. ''After a real tragedy happens, you don't want to talk about it right away.''
Meanwhile, what else is the right-wing media phony-outraging about today? Obama (and Hillary Clinton) won't use the phrase "radical Islam" when condemning the acts of terror. It's become a cardinal sin on Fox News.
Of course, following the Madrid massacre, Bush also did not condemn "radical Islam," a move that was met with mostly silence from the conservative media. So in 2004, Bush did not do what conservatives now demand Obama must do, and in 2004 Fox News led the way in not caring.
And then there was the strange 2004 conservative spin that if America were hit by another jihadist assault, Bush would be the political benefactor. "If a terrorist group attacked the U.S. three days before an election, does anyone doubt that the American electorate would rally behind the president or at least the most aggressively antiterror party?" asked the New York Times' David Brooks in March 2004.
Eight days later, Bill O'Reilly weighed in, while interviewing historian Andrew Apostolou: [emphasis added]:
O'REILLY: If al Qaeda attacks here, President Bush is re-elected in a heartbeat, because Americans aren't...
APOSTOLOU: I agree, but they...
O'REILLY: ...won't surrender, they'll get angry.
APOSTOLOU: Yes, yes.
O'REILLLY: Unlike the Spanish. It's a different population.
APOSTOLOU: Exactly. Exactly.
O'REILLY: Yes. So if they're counting on that, Americans will come together...
O'REILLY: ...in any kind of attack on us. And we saw that after 9- 11. And I think they saw it, too, because now we're going to go to Pakistan right after Mr. Apostolou.
O'Reilly was certain: Americans will come together "in any kind of attack." The exception being when there's a Democrat in the White House and you work for Fox News.
Contrasting Friday night's Parisian scenes of horror with last week's previous big campaign news about Donald Trump and his weird, rambling address in Iowa, the Washington Post's Chris Cillizza recently bemoaned "the remarkable smallness of our politics."
Pointing to the volume of trivial pursuits that pass as campaign news, Cillizza argued the press (including himself) "bear some blame" for not being substantive enough, and for focusing on trivialities and not covering "the various ways that the candidates for president would deal with the threat posed by ISIS." (News consumers prefer trivial pursuits, he argued.)
So is it possible that the Paris massacre will change the press coverage and refocus much-needed attention on substance and public policy?
Not likely, because there was Cillizza and the Post right after the Democrats' debate in Iowa Saturday night doing exactly what he claimed the press did too much of -- leaning heavily on optics at the expense of substance.
The Post is hardly alone in being guilty of the optics transgression or being overly fascinated with how campaign events look and play in the press. But the Post may have been alone in so neatly contradicting its own plea for post-Paris substance on the campaign trail and then immediately following that up with optics-heavy insights.
And all these think pieces following her lunchtime stop at a Chipotle restaurant in Ohio?
*"Hillary Clinton Goes Unnoticed at Chipotle In Botched Retail Politicking Bid" (Washington Times)
*"Clinton Bypassed Centrist Taco Bell for Liberal Favorite Chipotle" (Wall Street Journal)
*"What Hillary Clinton's Chipotle Stop Says About Her Campaign" (Christian Science Monitor)
Who can forget the absurdist scene in April when a herd of campaign reporters broke into a sprint while trying to track down Clinton's "Scooby Van" as it swung behind a community college in Iowa for a campaign visit? And this was while the press deducted points from Clinton for not offering enough campaign substance.
Fast-forward to the horrific killings in Paris, and it appears that even that grave event can't alter the tone and tenor of U.S. campaign coverage.
Because even before the Iowa debate began, on its list of "the top 13 issues," the Post was trumpeting as number two (after terrorism) the relatively pointless news burp about how Hillary Clinton recalled walking into a Marines recruiting office in 1975 and trying to join. Following the controversy surrounding stories from Ben Carson's biography, the Marines story caught the attention of the press mostly because it just didn't seem right; the optics were off.
Note that in terms of the debate, the Post listed the Marines non-story as being more important than clean energy, immigration reform and veterans care, among other pressing issues.
Then following the debate, the Post swooped in and announced Clinton's performance had been badly off kilter. (She was one of the night's "losers.") According to Cillizza, despite the fact that Clinton "was quite good for much of the debate," she nonetheless "made a few verbal and/or policy mistakes that will likely haunt her in the days to come."
For instance, Cillizza stressed that Clinton had "refused a chance to say the words 'radical Islam' when asked about the threat posed by the Islamic State -- a decision that Republicans jumped on in the moment and will keep bringing up if and when Clinton is the Democratic nominee."
The Post announced that by not labeling the Paris massacre a "radical Islam" attack, Clinton had opened herself up to Republican attack. And by not adopting a GOP talking point she had committed a "misstep" and a "gaffe."
Question: Doesn't that mean the entire Democratic debate represented a two-hour "gaffe"?
Elsewhere, the Post was sure Clinton had messed up by reminding voters she grew up in the 1960s during an age of student protest. "The TV ad, particularly if Republicans nominate someone like Marco Rubio, who is 45 years old (Clinton is 68), practically writes itself," wrote Cillizza.
Note how the Post seamlessly adopted the GOP spin that of course voters prefer a candidate in their forties compared to a candidate in their sixties. The Post didn't bother with any independent evidence to back that up claim, it simply quoted Republican pollster Frank Luntz: "Nobody, Republican or Democrat, wants to vote for a candidate from the 1960s when we're well into the 21st century." But if Democrats don't want to vote for a candidate from the 1960s, why does Clinton enjoy a large lead in the primary polls?
Any time there's a call for increased substance in campaign coverage, that's a good thing. Making it stick proves much harder.
As President Obama approaches his final year in office, there's mounting frustration among Republicans and members of the conservative media that the elusive "truth" still hasn't been told about Obama, and that the mainstream media continues to hide scandalous revelations from public view.
Using the allegation as a shield to protect himself from claims he may have fabricated parts of his own biography, Ben Carson took the lead last week when he admonished the press for allegedly giving Obama a pass. "This was the same media that time and again declared it off-limits to dig into then-candidate Barack Obama's background," claimed Carson in a recent fundraising pitch.
Again, Obama's entering his eighth year in office, but somehow he hasn't been vetted? Somehow all kinds of embarrassing and scandalous parts of his background remain under wraps? It's hard to believe. And as Media Matters detailed, not many journalists are buying the claim that Carson's being held to a unique standard.
"The suggestion that others have not gone through this [scrutiny] ignores history," noted Washington Post reporter Ed O'Keefe.
The not-vetted complaint works side-by-side with the revived 'liberal media bias' allegation that's been at the center of the Republican campaign season in recent weeks. Together, the two claims represent the Mantle and Maris of conservative whining. The conspiratorial bookends are often used to try to explain away Obama's two electoral landslide victories. Conservatives seem to think that if only the truth were revealed, "Then the scales will fall from the voters' eyes and they'll boot him from the office he never deserved to occupy in the first place," wrote Paul Waldman at American Prospect.
The vetting claim reflects life inside the Fox News-generated bubble. It reflects a conservative movement that's increasingly allergic to bouts of reality and common sense. It goes to a core belief that they've been right all along about Obama and his dastardly ways, it's just that the press won't inform the public.
But here's the thing: conservative commentators, and especially conservative bloggers, are ignoring the fact that Obama was vetted -- by them. For more than two presidential election cycles.
And it was priceless.
All of those claims, and much more, were forwarded by right-wing media outlets (including Fox News) that have been thrashing around in cesspools over the years, all in the name of vetting the elusive Obama. (The late blogger and satirist Al Weisel, known as Jon Swift, masterfully detailed the attempted vetting.)
Some of the lowlights from conservative bloggers' 2008 crusade that I previously highlighted when they started complaining in 2012 that the president hadn't been properly investigated:
Then in 2012, the same frantic, clueless sleuths vowed to redouble their efforts. Under the headline, "Re-Vetting Wars: Obama's Girlfriends Speak," American Thinker editor Thomas Lifson noted "One of the foremost concerns of the Obama re-election effort is the promised re-vetting of Obama, playing off the widespread perception that the media utterly failed to investigate the reality beneath the highly manufactured identity peddled in 2008."
At Breitbart.com, founder Andrew Breitbart vowed to pull back the dark curtain on Obama's troubling past; to do what the supposed lapdog press refused to do in 2008.
Breitbart's first supposed smoking gun centered around the revelation that in 1998, then-state senator Obama attended a Chicago play about activist Saul Alinsky and then took part in a panel discussion afterwards.
Shocking stuff, indeed.
Meanwhile, despite the fact that the White House released the president's long-form birth certificate in 2011 to debunk all the birther nonsense, right-wing columnist Jerome Corsi delved deeper down the black hole, publishing a series of reports trying to prove Obama's birth certificate was a forgery. He also promoted the claim that Obama "hid" his gay life and that, of course, he's secretly a Muslim.
In 2012, conservative filmmaker Joel Gilbert unveiled his documentary film, Dreams From My Real Father, which claimed Obama is the son of communist writer Frank Marshall Davis. The loopy DVD movie was touted by Fox News' Monica Crowley, among others.
So c'mon, conservative commentators, don't sell yourselves short. You did vet Obama, and it was genius. I can't wait to see what their vetting of Hillary Clinton looks like.
Can Marco Rubio chase the press away from lingering questions that surround his personal finances? Can the Florida Republican cordon off the story as a partisan "gotcha" endeavor even though the Beltway press corps recently spent an extraordinary amount of time and energy raising questions about Hillary Clinton's finances and insisting that story posed dire consequences for her?
That certainly seems to be the Rubio strategy, and there are some early signs it may be working.
At the CNBC Republican primary debate late last month, Rubio snapped at a moderator who brought up his personal "bookkeeping skills" as evidence that he might not be qualified to manage the nation's money: "You just listed a litany of discredited attacks from Democrats and my political opponents, and I'm not gonna waste 60 seconds detailing them all."
Rubio's rebuttal was part of the evening's larger war-on-the media strategy, as Republicans announced they were offended by the "tone" of the debate questions and the Republican Party subsequently "suspended" NBC from hosting further debates.
But asking Rubio about his finances hardly represented a "gotcha" questions -- he's been facing a litany of queries for five years now. Florida journalists in particular have been raising the issue for much of Rubio's career.
"Rubio has a string of financial messes, personal and political. And anyone who watched his record in Florida knows it. He was mired in debt, even while living a life of limo rides and travel and telling others to live within their means," Scott Maxwell at the Orlando Sentinel noted last week. "Don't take it from me. Take it from court documents. And investigative reports."
Why do questions of finances matters? First, it's been a common campaign topic of media inquiry for a very long time. Reporters frequently ask the questions -- how did candidates accumulate their wealth, did they do so honestly, and are they beholden to any special interests? And secondly, how politicians handle their personal finances might offer insights into how they would handle America's finances if elected became president. (On that front, Rubio's proposed economic plan simply does not add up.)
Some of the lingering questions -- none of which have been "discredited" -- revolve around Rubio's use of a Republican Party-issued credit card between 2005 and 2008 when he was a rising star in Florida politics. (According to GOP policy, the card should only have been used for official party business.) In 2010, news leaked that Rubio used the credit card to charge all kinds of personal expenses, including stone pavers at his house and a four-day, $10,000 family reunion at Melhana Plantation, an historic resort in Georgia. (Rubio's extended family booked 20 rooms.)
Rubio has insisted the hefty charges were a mistake. "I pulled the wrong card from my wallet to pay for pavers," he wrote in his book, while insisting his travel agent "mistakenly used the card to pay for a family reunion in Georgia." Rubio eventually covered the costs himself. At times, the story Rubio has told about his use of the card has wandered from the verifiable facts or shifted as new information came out.
To date, Rubio's team seems to have convinced some journalists that the story about the candidate's finances centers entirely around the use of his Republican credit card, and if and when questions about the credit card are answered, that means all the finance questions have been resolved.
That's simply not true. "GOP Credit Card Only Part of Marco Rubio's Story," read a Florida headline last week.
Some examples from the archives:
In 2008, he abruptly amended his financial disclosure forms after reporters asked why he had not listed a $135,000 home-equity loan he secured on his current home, purchased in December 2005 for $550,000. [Tampa Bay Tribune]
By the time he left office in 2008, Rubio had $903,000 in home, car and student loans. His net worth was a mere $8,332. [Tampa Bay Tribune]
Rubio and his family have benefited both personally and politically from [billionaire Florida car auto dealer Norman] Braman since the start of the senator's political career. Braman donated money to Rubio's campaigns and would likely be a major backer for the super PAC that's been formed to help support Rubio's presidential ru. Braman also employed Rubio as a lawyer during the latter's 2010 campaign for the Senate -- and now employs his wife, Jeannette Rubio, an arrangement that began shortly after her husband was elected. [MSNBC.com]
A few weeks ago, he disclosed that he had liquidated a $68,000 retirement account, a move that is widely discouraged by financial experts and that probably cost him about $24,000 in taxes and penalties. [New York Times]
Yet there's some indication the press is going along with Rubio's current campaign spin. Most prominently, Politico and the Washington Post in recent days both moved to squelch the story, suggesting Rubio's dubious bookkeeping "isn't really a scandal," and that Rubio's campaign had "set a trap," waiting for critics to raise questions so they could pounce with all the answers.
That kind of nothing-to-see-here-coverage stands in stark contrast to the fevered, and at-times even hysterical, coverage that outlets such as Politico and the Washington Post produced while delving into Hillary Clinton's finances and emphatically suggesting that that story resembled a make-or-break problem for the Democrat.
What was the hovering disaster for Clinton that threatened to doom her chances? She made too much money (i.e. she's no longer "authentic"), and she was talking about her wealth all wrong. Pundits agreed that meant she risked being viewed by voters as "greedy," "defensive," "whiny," and "out of touch."
On and on the story has churned. The Clinton finance coverage became so fevered that CNN even altered a Hillary Clinton quote about money to make it more incriminating and newsworthy than it actually was.
And then there was the media eruption over Clinton's paid speeches. Again, there was absolutely nothing wrong or unethical with the money she earned. The press just didn't like the way it looked; journalists thought the optics were bad. The Washington Post in particular became obsessed with the paid speeches storyline, publishing a steady stream of articles and columns on the topic since last summer.
Bottom line: Clinton's finances represented a huge campaign story. And it was one that journalists insisted was both deeply damaging to the candidate (it wasn't) and revealed all kinds of troubling truths about her (it did not).
Meanwhile, what are the optics of Rubio paying for a family reunion with a Republican Party credit card? Do most Americans have a billionaire patron that both invests in their political future and employs their spouse? Does Rubio's financial situation make him seem "out of touch"? The press doesn't seem to care. Most of the coverage to date has centered on the specifics of his credit cards and finances, and very little of it has suggested the story is playing poorly for him or turning off voters.
Question: If Hillary Clinton had used a Democratic Party-issued credit card to pay for a $10,000 family reunion, do you think the press would treat that revelation as a very big deal?
Like lawn signs and pep rallies, the return of conservative cries about liberal media bias in recent days represents something of a campaign tradition. Sparked by outrage over CNBC's handling of the Republican primary debate, the condemnations came raining down.
The latest caterwauling has certainly been more pronounced and better organized than the typical bouts of complaining about how journalists are supposedly working in conjunction with the Democratic Party to torpedo the GOP. All of which comes as news to Hillary Clinton, I'm sure.
Republicans have been using the liberal bias claim as a battering ram for 50 years. (Sen. Barry Goldwater in April, 1964: "Republicans generally do not get good press.") And mainstream journalists often echo the allegation, the way Bloomberg's Mark Halperin did this week: "There's huge liberal media bias."
But do you notice how the liberal media allegation is usually wrapped in hazy ambiguity, and the way conservatives have such a hard time pointing to concrete evidence of media malice? Even in the wake of the CNBC debate, an event allegedly so lopsided and unfair that it ignited a movement meltdown, most conservative critics were reduced to complaining that the "tone" of the debate questions were too mean, and that moderators didn't show enough respect.
In truth, the CNBC debate questions were quite substantive and I didn't see any individual queries that clearly reeked of bias. On the flip side, proving it's a conservative fantasy that the Beltway press adheres to a liberal agenda remains a very simple task.
Three words: The Iraq War. Or eight words: The Iraq War and The New York Times. The recent passing of Iraqi power broker Ahmed Chalabi only throws that contrast into a sharper light.
The Iraq War and the media's lapdog, obedient performance during the run-up to America's pre-emptive invasion effectively demolishes claims of liberal media bias simply because so many journalists teamed up with the Republican White House to help sponsor the disastrous war. At a time of heightened patriotic fervor, the national press played a central role in helping to sell a war to the public.
The performance represented a collective fiasco and should have been the spike through the heart of the liberal bias claim.
As Washington Post ombudsman Michael Getler wrote, the Beltway media performance in 2002 and 2003 likely represented an historic failure. "How did a country on the leading edge of the information age get this so wrong and express so little skepticism and challenge?" asked Getler. "How did an entire system of government and a free press set out on a search for something and fail to notice, or even warn us in a timely or prominent way, that it wasn't or might not be there?"
And just last year the Times' public editor, Margaret Sullivan, reminded readers, "The lead-up to the war in Iraq in 2003 was not The Times's finest hour."
At first, the correlation might have been difficult to see: Bush leading America into a costly war in 2003 and Republican complaining about the "liberal media" in 2015. Then on Monday came the news of Chalabi's death and suddenly a connection became easier to recognize.
Who was Ahmed Chalabi? The influential Iraqi politician reportedly served as the main source of bogus information that former Times reporter Judith Miller used in her thoroughly discredited work about Iraq's supposedly brimming stockpile of weapons of mass destruction. It was Chalabi who wove Saddam Hussein fiction and it was Miller who gave it the Times stamp approval as the paper did its part to lead the nation to war. (Miller is now a Fox News contributor.)
Here's how a former CIA analyst described the closed loop that existed between Miller, Chalabi and the Bush White House:
Chalabi is providing the Bush people with the information they need to support their political objectives with Iraq, and he is supplying the same material to Judy Miller. Chalabi tips her on something and then she goes to the White House, which has already heard the same thing from Chalabi, and she gets it corroborated by some insider she always describes as a 'senior administration official.' She also got the Pentagon to confirm things for her, which made sense, since they were working so closely with Chalabi.
Chalabi was spinning wild tales about Iraq's WMD's and the New York Times couldn't wait to publish them. Then-executive editor Howell Raines reportedly wanted to prove the paper's conservative critics wrong.
"According to half a dozen sources within the Times, Raines wanted to prove once and for all that he wasn't editing the paper in a way that betrayed his liberal beliefs," wrote Seth Mnookin in his 2004 Times exposé, Hard News. Mnookin quoted Doug Frantz, the former investigative editor of the Times, who recalled how "Howell Raines was eager to have articles that supported the warmongering out of Washington. He discouraged pieces that were at odds with the administration's position on Iraq's supposed weapons of mass destruction and alleged links of al-Qaeda."
Asking debate questions that aren't sufficiently polite in tone, or helping to sell a disastrous, $3 trillion war. You tell me which media offense is more egregious.
Republicans now have a list of demands.
Still reeling from what Republican Party chief Reince Priebus called "gotcha" questions last week in the CNBC primary debate that were "petty and mean-spirited in tone," campaign operatives huddled over the weekend to address the Great Debate crisis of 2015.
Indeed, by suspending a Feb. 26 debate scheduled to be hosted by NBC News and the NBC-owned, Spanish-language network Telemundo, Republicans signaled that the latest bout of media catcalls from the right -- catcalls that have been part of working the refs for decades -- have attained almost mythical status.
Republicans, in mid-game, are now trying to dictate the terms of the debates. Donald Trump is even negotiating directly with television executives in an effort to alter the content and format. The unprecedented blitz sends a clear message that if moderators aren't nice to candidates and if there are any objections over "tone," future debates might get yanked.
"What happened in this debate wasn't an attack by the press on the candidates. It was an attack by the candidates on the press," wrote William Saletan at Slate. "Presented with facts and figures that didn't fit their story, the leading Republican candidates accused the moderators of malice and deceit."
But will Republicans get away with it? Early signs look promising for the GOP, less promising for journalism.
Look at how NBC responded to the Republican National Committee's suspension notice: "This is a disappointing development. However, along with our debate broadcast partners at Telemundo we will work in good faith to resolve this matter with the Republican Party."
Doesn't "work in good faith to resolve this matter" sound a bit like NBC conceding there was something wrong with the CNBC debate and that the network's determined to fix it?
Or look at it this way, does "work in good faith to resolve this matter" sound like a news organization staunchly standing up for its editorial team facing bogus charges of bias? Or does it sound like a network desperate to make nice with the GOP?
Obviously news organizations are wading into treacherous territory if they're willing to let politicians dictate the tone and content after the debate season is already underway; if they're willing to "play nicely" with political parties. As Washington Post associate editor David Maraniss tweeted, "If networks had integrity they would refuse to host or air any debate in which candidates dictated terms. Period."
But this year it's not just about standing up to Republican bullies, it's also about money. Lots and lots of money.
Debates used to be mostly prestige events that news outlets pointed to with pride as symbols of their power and influence. Today, they've ballooned into huge moneymakers for the host cable channels thanks to record-breaking viewership. CNBC normally sells primetime, 30-second ads for $5,000. During last week's debate, CNBC was fetching 50 times that for the same ad time.
Also note that CNBC remains the chief rival of the Fox Business Network, which is hosting the next Republican debate. It seems clear that Fox News had additional motivation to trash CNBC's performance, while touting Fox Business.
Here's the transcript from a commercial that ran on Fox last week:
VOICEOVER: CNBC never asked the real questions, never covered the real issues. That's why on November 10, the real debate about our economy and our future is only on Fox Business Network.
With that allure of debate millions likely comes additional pressure to make sure Republicans are happy; to make sure they don't pick up their ball and go home. One simple solution is to eliminate the commercials all together and air the debates on proudly non-partisan C-SPAN.
Perhaps another solution is to allow Republicans to venture deeper into their information bubble and have debates moderated only by conservatives; only by people who have voted in Republican primaries, as Ted Cruz demanded. (i.e. Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, etc.)
I see at least two drawbacks from that blueprint. First, there's little evidence those type of partisan moderators, who are deeply invested in the failure of Democrats, would provide much insight. During the earlier GOP debate hosted by CNN, conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt was invited to ask questions and, as Joan Walsh at The Nation noted, prefaced one of his queries by declaring, "I think all of you are more qualified than former secretary of state Clinton."
Secondly, if Republicans opt for the bubble approach, what are they going to do when it comes time for general election debates? Aren't we going to see the same whiny charade all over again, complete with more hollow allegations of liberal media bias, when non-conservative moderators pose questions that Republicans don't like or can't answer truthfully in October 2016?
From the Washington Post's Catherine Rampell:
Donald Trump denied ever taking a dig at Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg, even though the dig in question was on Trump's Web site.
Chris Christie claimed Social Security money was "stolen" and that the system will be "insolvent" in seven to eight years, even though both claims are wrong. Fiorina recycled a statistic about women's job losses that Mitt Romney used in 2012 and subsequently abandoned when it, too, was proved wrong.
And so on.
Over and over Republicans prevaricated while CNBC moderators mostly tried to wade through the misinformation and obfuscations. But after this historic GOP hissy fit, will debate moderators risk their reputations, and possibly their careers, by holding candidates accountable?
When newly-elected Speaker of the House Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) was picked by Mitt Romney to be his running mate in 2012, right-wing media were ecstatic. Cheered by Ryan's sterling conservative credentials, far right commentators celebrated that one of their own has been added to the ticket.
Rush Limbaugh: "I don't remember a vice presidential pick that has so energized a campaign as this choice of Paul Ryan."
Glenn Beck: "Mitt Romney has picked a solid, smart conservative for his vice-presidential running mate."
Laura Ingraham: "More than anything today, we need a man with courage and clear-thinking. Ryan has both."
Mark Levin: "Paul Ryan is an excellent VP choice."
Fast forward just three years and those same commentators are now raising doubts about Ryan, when not outright trashing him in public. Ryan's sudden sin? Not being sufficiently conservative; not passing the purity test.
Limbaugh: "This whole Ryan thing hasn't made any sense to me from the first moment I heard about it."
Beck: "The 'fix' the republic needs is Paul Ryan? The man who never met a bailout he didn't like? A man who asked to be made king? 100% support and you can't vote him out? Your solution is MORE POWER FOR THE SPEAKER?!?!?!?"
Levin: "NOT SO FAST! Paul Ryan an amnesty advocate"
Ingraham: "From misrepresenting the outrageous Fast Track &TPP to amnesty & foreign workers, list of demands, Ryan's possibly the worst Spkr choice."
Ryan's amazing free-fall from grace seems to be part of a larger race to the radical right, not only among powerful forces with the Republican Party, which now seem to be fundamentally opposed to governing and legislating, but also within key portions of the right-wing media. There seems to be a mini-stampede underway towards an extremist destination rarely seen in mainstream American politics. And for parts of the conservative media that means now demonizing former heroes like Paul Ryan.
"Conservative talk show hosts, including Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, have already denounced him as a dangerous moderate," according to Doyle McManus at the Los Angeles Times. "Tea party organizations are already raising money from supporters with appeals to stop any more Ryanesque budget deals."
One of the many layers of irony here is that in 2012, the right-wing media defended Ryan from Democratic claims that he was too far to the right and outside of the mainstream. Today, many conservative commentators are attacking Ryan for not being far enough to the right.
Yet "Ryan hasn't undergone any sort of David Brockian-type worldview change that would warrant labeling him an apostate," wrote conservative Matt Lewis at The Daily Beast. He added that while "Ryan's voting record has its blemishes," Ryan would "certainly be the most conservative Speaker of the House in modern history."
He still believes in privatizing social security and Medicare. He still believes that social programs are a "hammock." He still believes that the Social Security survivor benefits that he and his family received throughout his adolescence cause dependency on other people and their families.
A portion of the conservative press, of course, has never been in love with an establishment-type players like Jeb Bush, so his lack of support this year hasn't been surprising. But Paul Ryan? He's "the Republican party's intellectual leader" as The Weekly Standard once touted. The conservative press could barely contain its universal glee when Ryan got the VP nod just three years ago. 'He's one of us,' seemed to be the collective cheer.
Today, the insults pile high:
-"He is the wrong man at the wrong time." [American Thinker]
-"Paul Ryan represents one of the absolute worst outcomes for conservatives. " [Conservative Review]
-"Despite his portrayal by the media as being conservative, most actual conservatives in the House know that Ryan isn't a conservative." [Breitbart]
Breitbart, in particular, has become a clearinghouse of often-inaccurate analysis regarding Ryan, such as claiming the Republican's bid for the speakership had recently collapsed. Breitbart even warned readers that Media Matters "has Paul Ryan's back," as proof the Republican cannot be trusted.
In a sign of how fractured and radical the conservative movement has become, it appears fewer and fewer media players have Ryan's back. Even though they cheered him as a savior in 2012.
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.