As likely Republican candidates for president continue to struggle with the legacy of the Iraq War, and specifically with the question of whether they would have authorized a similar invasion if they had been president at the time, it's important to remember the media's role in the foreign policy failure. At a time of heightened patriotic fervor, the national press played a crucial role in helping to sell President George W. Bush's war to the public in 2003.
There were some key, praiseworthy exceptions, but in general the Beltway press failed badly during the run-up to the war. It's a fact that shouldn't be forgotten as politicians today grapple with the past.
Below is an excerpt from my book, Lapdogs: How The Press Rolled Over For Bush. (Note: "MSM" is shorthand for mainstream media.)
Battered by accusations of a liberal bias and determined to prove their conservative critics wrong, the press during the run-up to the war -- timid, deferential, unsure, cautious, and often intentionally unthinking -- came as close as possible to abdicating its reason for existing in the first place, which is to accurately inform citizens, particularly during times of great national interest. Indeed, the MSM's failings were all the more important because of the unusually influential role they played in advance of the war-of-choice with Iraq.
"When America has been attacked -- at Pearl Harbor, or as on September 11 -- the government needed merely to tell the people that it was our duty to respond, and the people rightly conferred their authority," noted Harold Meyerson in the American Prospect magazine. "But a war of choice is a different matter entirely. In that circumstance, the people will ask why. The people will need to be convinced that their sons and daughters and husbands and wives should go halfway around the world to fight a nemesis that they didn't really know was a nemesis."
It's not fair to suggest the MSM alone convinced Americans to send some sons and daughter to fight. But the press went out of its way to tell a pleasing, administration-friendly tale about the pending war. In truth, Bush never could have ordered the invasion of Iraq -- never could have sold the idea at home -- if it weren't for the help he received from the MSM, and particularly the stamp of approval he received from so-called liberal media institutions such as the Washington Post, which in February of 2003 alone, editorialized in favor of war nine times. (Between September 2002 and February 2003, the paper editorialized twenty-six times in favor of the war.)
The Post had plenty of company from the liberal East Coast media cabal, with high-profile columnists and editors -- the newfound liberal hawks -- at the New Yorker, Newsweek, Time, the New York Times, the New Republic and elsewhere all signing on for a war of preemption. By the time the invasion began, the de facto position among the Beltway chattering class was clearly one that backed Bush and favored war.
Years later the New York Times Magazine wrote that most "journalists in Washington found it almost inconceivable, even during the period before a fiercely contested midterm election [in 2002], that the intelligence used to justify the war might simply be invented." Hollywood peace activists could conceive it, but serious Beltway journalists could not? That's hard to believe. More likely journalists could conceive it but, understanding the MSM unspoken guidelines -- both social and political -- were too timid to express it at the time of war.
To oppose the invasion vocally was to be outside the media mainstream and to invite scorn. Like some nervous Democratic members of Congress right before the war, MSM journalists and pundits seemed to scramble for political cover so as to not subject themselves to conservative catcalls.
Suddenly under scrutiny for her $250 donation to the Clinton Haiti Relief Fund in 2010, Judy Woodruff, the co-anchor and managing editor of PBS NewsHour, issued a statement late last week defending her modest giving. "I made the gift in response to an urgent joint appeal from former President Clinton and then-President George W. Bush for aid to the victims of the Haiti earthquake," Woodruff explained in an email to the Wall Street Journal. "Seeing the massive loss of human life and the terrible conditions for survivors, I wanted to make a contribution and saw this as a way to do that."
So it's come to this: A member of the media forced to defend her decision to give $250 to a bipartisan earthquake relief fund five years ago, to help an impoverished island nation.
Woodruff faced questions, of course, because amidst the current frenzied atmosphere, anything connected with the Clinton Foundation has officially been deemed tainted by the Beltway press. The media have teamed up with the GOP to cast every possible aspersion on the $2 billion global charity that helps people with AIDS/HIV around the world get cheaper, better medicine, battles economic inequality, childhood obesity, climate change, and fights for health and wellness. (No, the Clinton Foundation doesn't spend 85 percent of its budget on "overhead." Good grief.)
In recent days, the churning foundation storyline made an odd jump. It moved from the unproven allegations that the Clintons used the foundation to cash in government favors, and shifted to focus on the mere act of giving. Sparked by the revelation that ABC News' George Stephanopoulos had previously given generously to the foundation and hadn't disclosed that fact while reporting on foundation activities, the press began to circle donations and viewed them as potentially problematic.
It's clear Stephanopoulos should have disclosed his donations when the foundation became news and the target of endless Republican and media attacks.
But the overheated narrative now stretches beyond the issue of disclosure. Stephanopoulos was not only criticized for failing to reveal his donation, he was widely condemned for making the donation at all. Media watchdogs were swift: It was completely out of bounds for Stephanopoulos to donate to the Clinton Foundation. Why? Because it's run by the Clintons, which means it's obviously stained, right?
Mission accomplished for Republicans.
"The outbreak of Ebola virus disease in Liberia is over," announced the World Health Organization on May 9, declaring a cautious end to the deadly wave that claimed 4,700 Liberian lives since last summer. That outbreak, of course, eventually sparked panic in the United States last September and October when a handful of Ebola cases were confirmed domestically. Ebola mania raged in the media for weeks and became one of the biggest news stories of 2014.
So how did the American media cover the latest, good-news Ebola story in the days following the WHO announcement? Very, very quietly.
By my count, ABC News devoted just brief mentions of the story on Good Morning America and its Sunday talk show, This Week. On NBC, only the Today show noted the development, while CBS This Morning and the CBS Evening News set aside brief mentions. None of the network newscasts have given this Ebola story full segments, according to a transcript search via Nexis.
A scattering of mentions on cable news and a handful of stories including in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal, among others, rounded out the remaining coverage in the past week.*
Pretty amazing, considering that late last year the U.S. news media were in the grips of self-induced Ebola hysteria. During one peak week, cable news channels mentioned "Ebola" over 4,000 times, while the Washington Post homepage one night featured at least 15 Ebola-related articles and columns, many of which focused on both the international crisis and the political dynamic, and the problems Ebola was supposedly causing President Obama.
That's not to say the tragic outbreak was not a big story worthy of any news coverage. It was, but American media went into overdrive hyping concerns that a deadly domestic outbreak was imminent -- only to rapidly forget.
The recent look-away coverage from Ebola shouldn't come as a surprise. The American media lost complete interest in the story right after Republicans lost interest in the story, which is to say right after last November's midterm elections, when they brandished Ebola as a partisan weapon.
That's no exaggeration. From Media Matters' research:
It's official: Hillary Clinton now faces two looming campaign challengers, Republicans and their allies in the press. But don't take my word for it. The anti-Clinton press campaign is now an open secret in the media, and it marks a whole new chapter in campaign journalism.
Election seasons always usher in debates about press coverage, with the assumption being coverage can affect electoral results. Which candidates are getting the most positive coverage? And which ones are being dogged by journalists?
Journalists traditionally wave off any allegations of unfair treatment for particular candidates and insist the claims are nothing more than sour grapes, or partisan plots to boost the candidate's chances. Instead, scribes claim, they always play campaigns down the middle.
But in a new twist, some members of the Beltway press corps are stepping forward to announce categorically that Hillary Clinton, despite her envious standing, is the obvious target of media derision. And that the press is actively trying to harm her campaign.
"The national media has never been more primed to take down Hillary Clinton," Politico's Dylan Byers observed late last week, as he surveyed the unfolding campaign season. The same press corps, he added, stands poised to "elevate a Republican candidate."
That's a rather astonishing revelation from inside the Beltway media bubble, right? Openly taking down a Democrat, while elevating a Republican? Wow.
The weird part was that campaign journalists didn't seem to object to the description. There was very little pushback regarding Byer's rather shocking claim; it barely caused a ripple. Journalists don't seem ashamed of that fact that Clinton faces a tougher press than her fellow candidates, or think it reflects poorly on the state of political journalism. More and more journalists are simply admitting the truth: The press is out to get Clinton. Period.
How is it the likely Democratic Party nominee for president has become a constant target of press derision and that journalists admit the media's out to get her? Whatever happened to journalism's role of reporting on what happens in a campaign, and not trying to determine the outcome?
And could you imagine the seismic revolt that would unfold if reporters openly targeted Republicans? But don't hold your breath. When was the last time you read an article, or heard a single television discussion, in which Beltway media elites opined about how their media colleagues despise Gov. Scott Walker, are out to get former Gov. Jeb Bush, or want to take down Sen. Marco Rubio?
That kind of talk could kill a journalist's career because it would ignite the right wing's Liberal Media Bias mob. But publicly admitting the press is "prime" to try to disrupt and dismantle the likely Democratic Party's presidential nominee seems to represent perfectly acceptable behavior.
Talk about the Clinton Rules.
Hoping to create permanent criminal investigations into Bill and Hillary Clinton's dealings -- reminiscent of the ones that hounded them in the 1990s -- conservative commentators employed by Rupert Murdoch have been demanding that the FBI or the Department of Justice open inquiries to determine if the Clintons are guilty of criminal wrongdoing. Their hook is the new Murdoch-published Clinton Cash book, which alleges wide-ranging misconduct by the Clintons and their global charity, the Clinton Foundation.
Hoping to take author Peter Schweizer's fantastic claims of foreign donors buying influence, Murdoch media voices at Fox News, Wall Street Journal, New York Post and elsewhere want to create a churning culture of subpoenas, testimonies, and legal briefings, likely all in the hopes of catching somebody in a misstatement while under oath. Recall that the 1990's impeachment crusade surrounding president Bill Clinton's sex life grew out of special prosecutor Ken Starr's completely unrelated investigation into the Clintons' money-losing Whitewater land transaction.
A criminal probe sparked by Clinton Cash would be a dream come true for partisan media outlets.
"When you have a presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton, who is going get the nomination of her party, the FBI has a duty to, we the people, to investigate any appearance of impropriety. Does it not?" asked Bill O'Reilly this week. "The FBI has got to go in and look. They have to go in and look. If they don't, that's corrupt."
The only problem for Murdoch's minions is they can't point to any evidence that even remotely indicates the Clintons broke the law via their foundation or foreign donations to it. The claims of bribery or quid pro quo deals are entirely flimsy, drowning in innuendo. Instead, the Fox News-led posse is essentially demanding criminal investigations be launched in order to find the evidence first, and then proceed to political prosecutions. It's a bold attempt to criminalize politics.
That blueprint worked while Bill Clinton was president, so it's not surprising conservative media, working alongside Republicans, are trying to resurrect the strategy, hoping to create enough "foreign donation" hysteria to prompt some sort of inquiry.
"I think this warrants investigation," Clinton Cash author Peter Schweizer recently stressed to Fox News.
Ever since Peter Schweizer's new attack book Clinton Cash was touted as the must-read tome of the campaign season, a growing number of media organizations, including Politico, BuzzFeed, ABC News, FactCheck.org, and Time, have detailed factual shortcomings in the book. (Media Matters has, too.) Noticeably absent from that fact-checking procession has been The New York Times and the Washington Post, the two newspapers that entered into exclusive editorial agreements with Clinton Cash's publisher.
The Times' and Post's seeming lack of interest in detailing the book's long list of misstatements certainly raises questions about whether the papers' exclusive pacts made the dailies reluctant to highlight Clinton Cash's obvious shortcomings.
After all, if those other media organizations can find the Clinton Cash errors, why can't the Times and the Post? And even if Times and Post reporters can't spot the misinformation, why aren't they at least writing about the key revelations that others are uncovering? Recall that it was the Times that trumpeted Clinton Cash as the "the most anticipated and feared book" of the campaign season. If it's so important, why isn't the Times documenting the crucial errors found between the Clinton Cash covers?
Hyped by its publisher -- the Rupert Murdoch-owned HarperCollins -- as being "meticulously researched and scrupulously sourced," Clinton Cash has instead turned out to be a mishmash of allegations glued together by innuendo and falsehoods. That, according to an array of news outlets that have documented the book's shortcomings.
For a press corps that's often been critical of Hillary Clinton for not detailing her White House campaign "rationale" -- for lacking a compelling "message"-- the media's response to Clinton's first major speech since officially announcing her candidacy seemed very strange: Most journalists simply ignored it or buried it under co-called 'scandal' coverage.
The event took place late last week at the Women in the World Summit in New York City where Clinton delivered a 25-minute, campaign-style speech in which she detailed America's priorities and castigated her Republican opponents.
It was by far her most specific recitation of her still-early campaign priorities, which certainly made the event newsworthy. The Associated Press, one of the few outlets that covered the event, noted that it "wasn't supposed to be a campaign event. But it might as well have been."
But if you didn't hear about the speech you weren't alone. Most news consumers were left in the dark, which raises the question, If pundits are going to insist that candidates deliver substance, what's the media's excuse when that substance is buried? Or are journalists completely committed to documenting only campaign process and optics? And, is there a media double standard on this for Clinton?
The oddity about the Summit omission is that the political press has at times treated Clinton more like a celebrity than a politician campaigning for the future. The press seems obsessed with covering trivial pursuits that surround her. For instance, who can forget the absurdist scene from Iowa on April 14, when a herd of campaign reporters nearly trampled themselves trying to track down Clinton's "Scooby Van" as it swung behind a community college in Iowa for a campaign visit?
Indeed, it's certainly a campaign oddity that Clinton's mundane visit to a Chipotle restaurant in Ohio earlier this month triggered an avalanche of news coverage, while her first 25-minute campaign-like speech mostly prompted media shrugs. There were actual 'think pieces' written about the political significance of Clinton's lunchtime stop at Chipotle. As for extended analysis of what Clinton's Women in the World Summit speech meant to her campaign and to her possible presidency? Those pieces were hard to find.
Was Clintons' speech last week newsworthy? Absolutely.
Just one month after Fox News' Bill O'Reilly brazenly threatened a New York Times reporter, warning her he'd go after her "with everything" he had if he didn't like the article she was writing about him, Times reporter Jo Becker happily cooperated with Fox News for its 60-minute special, The Tangled Clinton Web, which aired April 24.
Based on the pending book Clinton Cash, which is being published by Rupert Murdoch's HarperCollins and heavily promoted by Murdoch's Fox News, Murdoch's Wall Street Journal and Murdoch's New York Post, The Tangled Clinton Web represented a mishmash of half-baked Clinton conspiracies that had Hillary and Bill Clinton at the center of a supposed vast web of international bribes and payoffs.
And yet there, featured amidst the waves of misinformation, was a New York Times reporter. Becker's Fox News' appearance was noteworthy, not only because of O'Reilly's stated contempt for the newspaper. But because Times journalists don't make a habit of regularly appearing on openly partisan Fox News, a cable channel that has embraced claims of Obama birtherism and has depicted the president of the United States as a racist, communist sympathizer who apologizes for America. (According to the Times' newsroom guidelines, when appearing on television programs staffers are supposed to avoid forums "that emphasize punditry and reckless opinion-mongering.")
Why the Becker appearance? In part, because she wrote a controversial piece last week that was inspired by Clinton Cash. Part of the Times' unusual "exclusive" arrangement with the book's author, Becker's article tried, and failed, to show how donations to the Clinton Foundation influenced Clinton's State Department when it signed off on the sale of Uranium One, a Canadian company with uranium mining claims in the U.S., to the Russian atomic energy agency, Rosatom.
By cooperating with the Fox News Clinton special, a program that was drowning in misinformation, Becker and the Times lent the Fox effort a desperately needed sheen of legitimacy. (i.e. 'Even the liberal New York Times....') And that's likely why prior to The Tangled Clinton Web airing, when Fox released to the media a clip of the special, the clip featured Becker's interview--Fox was proudly brandishing its Times alliance.
What would be the only topic that could create such a strange partnership where The New York Times, the world's most famous news organization, was working hand-in-a-hand with a media outlet that during the last presidential campaign abandoned all pretense of independent journalism and produced and aired its own four-minute political attack ad?
The endless pursuit of the Clintons, of course.
Less than one week into Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign and it's a blurry image from a fast-food restaurant security video that's emerged as the defining media image. After "news" broke that Clinton, en route to Iowa to meet with voters, stopped in at an Ohio Chipotle for lunch and that the order was captured on film, the press corps basically went bonkers, treating it like a Tupac sighting and going all-in with fevered reporting.
The New York Times first got hold of the security cam video and reported that Clinton's order "included a Blackberry Izze drink, a soda and a chicken salad, and was filled just after 1 p.m." (1:20 p.m., to be exact, according to the New York Daily News.) Who carried the tray after payment? Clinton herself, the Times explained to readers.
Stories like the original Times report are not entirely out of the ordinary for campaign coverage. But the way the rest of the press went completely overboard in its wake suggests we could be in for a long and painful 19 months before the 2016 election.
More tick-tock details followed. "The newly-minted presidential candidate ordered a chicken bowl with guacamole, a chicken salad and fruit juice," according to ABC News, which interviewed the restaurant's manager. (The guacamole and fruit juice information was considered a mini-scoop; Business Insider noted guacamole "costs extra.")
For days, Clinton's Chipotle stop served as a treasure trove of information: Who made Clinton's burrito bowl? Politico sent a reporter to Maumee and determined, "The 25-year-old who cooked the chicken that went into the burrito bowl Hillary Clinton ordered at the Chipotle here on Monday makes $8.20 an hour and splits rent with two roommates." And assistant general manager Jef Chiet got Clinton her drink, Politico confirmed, "first a blackberry Izze, which she decided she didn't want after she read the ingredients, so he replaced it with an iced tea."
But campaign sleuths weren't finished. Bloomberg confirmed that, "The change from the meal totaled less than a dollar, but it was pocketed rather than deposited in the tip jar as many customers at the restaurant do."
Could any political analysis be gleaned from the mundane lunchtime stop? Of course:
"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)
Is it possible that maybe she was just hungry?
The Chipotle nonsense reached such heights (or depths), that even starstruck E! called out the political press for its ridiculous overreaction to the story, and the fact that "ChipotleGate 2015" triggered "all sorts of in-depth analysis, from what her choice in burrito bowl means for America, to whether her decision to don sunglasses means she's unfit to be president."
During her first week on the campaign trail, Clinton has avoided any defining, self-inflicted gaffes. The same cannot be said of the press.
News organizations have gone on a "staffing binge" in preparation for the 2016 campaign, according to the Washington Post. That means political units have to produce content, no matter how trivial and innocuous. The machine must be fed (clicks must be harvested). And right now, that machine is spitting out some dreadful, breathless, and gossipy campaign dispatches that are divorced from anything remotely connected to a public discourse.
Just think about the Chipotle story. Was Clinton in hiding at the time? Had she dared the press to find her out? Was there any reason to think her highway pit stop for food was newsworthy? No, no and no. Maybe -maybe -- if it were the final weeks of an historically close White House campaign, that kind of myopic attention paid to a lunch order would be warranted. But 70-plus weeks before voters go to the polls? It's unfathomable.
Chipotle Week was so bad it produced a sense of dismay among some media observers and practitioners, as expressed on Twitter.
Daily Beast executive editor Noah Shachtman:
Hillary's campaign is only three days old and it has already been the subject of some of the worst political "journalism" of all time.-- Noah Shachtman (@NoahShachtman) April 15, 2015
New York Times writer Nate Cohn:
A lot of the analysis of the nascent Clinton campaign is unusually vacuous--and that says something-- Nate Cohn (@Nate_Cohn) April 15, 2015
New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen:
Detecting a sense of dread coming over watchers of campaign coverage after the first few weeks... Plotting how to write criticism into that.-- Jay Rosen (@jayrosen_nyu) April 15, 2015
The irony was that while the campaign press freaked out over the trivia surrounding Clinton's lunch order, some pundits were simultaneously castigating the candidate for not rolling out a sweeping campaign agenda.
Politico assigned no fewer than eight reporters for an article about how, just 72 hours into her likely 18-month campaign, Clinton "has been slow" to articulate detailed positions on issues such as fast-track trade agreements and the need for reform at the National Security Agency.
The team at NBC's First Read agreed: "That lack of a message was on display at her Iowa event yesterday." Well, actually that wasn't true. NBC conceded that Clinton had already detailed four fights she wants to wage: "1) building an economy for tomorrow, 2) strengthening families and communities, 3) fixing America's political system by getting rid of "unaccountable" money, and 4) protecting the country."
Additionally, NBC reported Clinton had struck a "populist tone" and condemned income equality in America. But NBC didn't think any of that counted as much of a "message" from Clinton because she was just saying "what you hear from 90% of Democratic candidates running for downballot office."
Clinton didn't say anything entertaining and newsy! "She didn't say anything unique, which was always going to be the shortcoming of a rollout emphasizing theater over substance/message," according to NBC.
And there's the media's inadvertent punch line: It's Clinton who's guilty of emphasizing "theater over substance."
The staff at the Maumee, Ohio, Chipotle might disagree.
When it comes to Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), who announced his presidential campaign this week, over and over the press' to-go description is "charismatic." That adjective has been making the rounds in the Financial Times, Vox, NPR, and the Los Angeles Times, among others. There's been heated agreement among reporters and pundits that Rubio is unquestionably magnetic and alluring.
For candidates, of course, "charismatic" represents a coveted label that elevates a politician above the ordinary. It signals that he or she is a bold communicator who can tap into voters' emotions; who can inspire and motivate in a way most mundane practitioners cannot.
There's certainly nothing wrong with dispensing compliments to politicians. But as the campaign season unfolds and media memes are formed around candidates (Al Gore never shook the press' "exaggerator" tag), it seems worth noting, as New York magazine highlighted, how the Beltway press years ago concluded that the much sought-after "charismatic" tag would be applied to Rubio, and it would be applied to him no matter what trajectory his career was on.
The "charismatic" term is clearly subjective and is used by journalists who seem to consider Rubio to be a transcendent speaker and politician. What's curious though, is that journalists often don't point to speeches or events in Rubio's past that confirm his "charismatic" status. Instead, the compliment has been doled out for years matter-of-factly. For instance, from the New York Times and Washington Post:
* "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)
Note that there are no caveats. The Times and Post usually don't suggest that it's supporters who see Rubio as "charismatic." And they don't use the adjective to describe a Rubio speech. Instead, for the Times and Post (and many, many other news outlets), Rubio's "charismatic" nature is simply presented as fact, like his age or hometown.