For someone who expresses concern about partisans who take the "low road" and wallow in "reckless rhetoric," Karl Rove did a pretty good public impersonation of both this week with his "bizarre" attacks on Hillary Clinton.
Rove, of course, is no stranger to smear campaigns. Just ask associates of Anne Richards, John McCain, John Kerry and Valerie Plame, to name a few. Which is why it was always preposterous for Rove to launch a years-long etiquette campaign lecturing President Obama on the "politics of civility" in his Wall Street Journal columns. I mean, Rove draws a generous paycheck from Fox News, which has nearly run out of corrosive insults to hurl at Obama after six years.
So yes, Rove's glass house is visible to everyone.
But there was something especially hypocritical about Rove taking a break from his "civility" sermons to launch one of the most classless attacks of the political year, reportedly suggesting Hillary Clinton was physically and mentally incapacitated, indelicately portraying the former secretary of state of a feeble senior citizen who had fallen and sustained "traumatic brain injury"; a possibly life-changing wound that had been concealed from the public.
From Sally Kohn at The Daily Beast:
What America needs to know is what's up with your conspiracy theory-based fear mongering that is obviously intended to simultaneously highlight Clinton's age (old people slip and fall) and undermine her credibility as a female candidate (playing to sexist stereotypes that women are mentally unstable or simply less intelligent). Mr. Rove, you make these claims purely as conjecture without any facts, fanned by the emotions of your partisanship.
Speaking at a Los Angeles event last Thursday, Rove presented Hillary's alleged health problem in such stark terms that the New York Post concluded Rove had suggested Clinton suffered from "brain damage." (Rove insists he never said that.) Rove also lied about Clinton having spent "30 days" in the hospital recovering. (It was four days.)
The slander continued during Rove's damage control tour after his comments were published. On Fox, he engaged in further, wild speculation: "We don't know what the doctors said about what does she have to be concerned about. Don't know about -- I mean she's hidden a lot of this." (Cover up!)
Hidden from whom? She's currently a private citizen. Prior to her possible presidential candidacy, Clinton's supposed to send out regular updates about her health to the general public?
Right on cue as Republicans roll out the House select committee on Benghazi, much of the Beltway media chatter centers on what a looming problem the new investigation poses for Hillary Clinton and her possible presidential run in 2016. The commentary follows more than on year of similar proclamations that ongoing Benghazi pursuits would do damage to President Obama's second term, which in turn could doom Democrats in the next two election cycles.
That conventional wisdom, of course, closely mirrors GOP talking points about a "scandal" whose central questions were long ago answered. And whose blockbuster claims were long ago debunked. ("Stand down" orders were definitely not given.) By playing along, the press is just furthering Republican goals of portraying Benghazi as a pending Democratic doomsday.
But is there any evidence journalists can point to support the conservative assumption that additional hearings and endless churning for Benghazi headlines by Republicans pose a political problem for Obama and Clinton? Or that the issue will still loom large on Election Day 2016, which is approximately 900 days away? (Note that when Americans vote in 2016, the Benghazi attack will have taken place more than 1,500 days earlier.)
Reporters like to quote Republican operatives, such as Tim Miller, executive director of the GOP opposition-research group America Rising, who claim Benghazi could cripple Clinton's campaign. But he's paid to say that. Where's the independent proof to back up that claim? Journalists rarely offer much. Instead they seem to rely on the assumption that the mere existence of hearings about an email about a memo about Sunday morning TV appearances is damaging. (ABC News: "Scandal City.")
But Clinton's large and unprecedented polling advantage with regards to the 2016 Democratic primary season represent proof Benghazi that hasn't damaged her electoral chances within the party. And polls pitting her in hypothetical match-ups with possible Republican contenders continue to show her with an overwhelming advantage. While her overall approval ratings have dipped as expected from their high as she's pivoted from secretary of state to a potential presidential candidate, she remains an incredibly popular political figure.
If you're looking for an actual example of a potential White House candidate whose standing completely crumbled in the wake of a legitimate scandal, look no further than New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. Following the revelations this winter of the New Jersey lane-closing controversy, Christie lost one-third of his national favorable rating, according to NBC News/Wall Street Journal polling. And he's gone from the leading candidate in the GOP primary to the middle of the pack.
Some journalists point to a Pew Research poll this year, which showed 15 percent of respondents selected "Benghazi" when asked to name the most negative thing about Hillary's Clinton's career. That's proof, scribes suggest, that the terror attack and the controversy surrounding it has done damage to her reputation. Yet the same Pew poll found an overwhelming 67 percent of people approved of Clinton's performance as secretary of state; the position she held when the Benghazi attack took place.
Nonetheless, the GOP-fed narrative remains strong. "As much as she would like to escape the attack's long shadow, it will continue to dog Hillary Clinton," National Journal recently claimed, insisting the Benghazi controversy represents perhaps "the biggest thing" Clinton will have to deal with if she runs for president.
As the latest wave of Benghazi Fever grips the willing Republican Party, and as the far-right media apparatus stokes the fervor, it's impossible to ignore the similarities between the all-scandal strategy that's being adopted by critics of Barack Obama, and the same all-scandal wedge that was used, unsuccessfully, against Bill Clinton, the previous two-term Democratic president.
The Benghazi blueprint matches up right down to the fact that there's no there there, in terms of a criminal White House cover up. It "doesn't add up to much of a scandal," wrote Michael Hirsh at Politico this week, reviewing the facts of Benghazi to date. "But it's already too late for the truth. Benghazi has taken on a cultural life of its own on the right." He added, "Benghazi has become to the 2010s what Vince Foster" was in the 1990s.
Foster was the then-deputy White House counsel who committed suicide in Northern Virginia's Fort Marcy Park on July 20, 1993, not far from Washington, D.C. His suicide, which sparked controversy when the so-called Clinton Crazies accused the president and his wife of being part of a plot to murder their friend (he knew too much!), quickly become shorthand for the type of despicable claims that were so casually lobbed in the 1990s.
Looking ahead to Hillary Clinton's possible 2016 presidential run, Hirsh wrote that the "Benghazi-Industrial Complex is going to be as toxic as anything Hillary has faced since ... Vince Foster."
The analogy is a strong and a factual one. But in trying to understand what's happening today with the ceaseless, two-year Benghazi propaganda campaign, a blitz that's utterly lacking in factual support, it's important to understand how the media game has changed between the Vince Foster era and today. Specifically, it's important to understand what's different and more dangerous about the elaborate and irresponsible gotcha games that Republicans now play in concert with the right-wing media. (Hint: The games today get way more coverage.)
Here's what's key: Twenty years ago the far-right Foster tale was told mostly from the fringes. Word was spread via emerging online bulletin boards, snail mail pamphlets, faxed newsletters, self-published exposes, and VCR tapes, like The Clinton Chronicles, which portrayed the president as a one-man crime syndicate involved in drug-running, prostitution, murder, adultery, money laundering, and obstruction of justice, just to name a few.
While the walls were collapsing around Lara Logan at CBS News last year in the wake of her bungled Benghazi report on 60 Minutes, and as more and more holes appeared in her poorly-sourced report about the terror attack, the foreign correspondent reached out to a Republican senator and fierce White House critic for advice and counsel.
The partisan move, in which Logan solicited help from Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) -- who's been professionally committed to pushing the tale of a White House cover-up surrounding the September 11, 2012 terror attacks -- suggests Logan viewed both Benghazi and her spin control mission through a political prism.
Indeed, Logan even met several times with Graham while preparing the initial Benghazi story, according to a new report in New York magazine. The senator did not appear in the 60 Minutes report but when the report aired he immediately took to the television airwaves to tout it as a "death blow" to the Obama administration's telling of the Benghazi attacks and their response to it. In retrospect, this looks suspiciously like coordination: Graham helped shape the Benghazi story with an anti-White House angle and then forcefully cheerled it, even announcing he'd block every White House appointee until he got answers about Benghazi. Once trouble erupted, the senator was naturally there for Logan when she called for help.
"The story fit broadly into the narrative the right had been trying for months to build of a White House and State Department oblivious to the dangers of Al Qaeda, feckless in their treatment of their soldiers and diplomats, then covering up their incompetence," notes New York's Joe Hagan. The article casts doubt that Logan, who took a leave of absence from CBS in the wake of the Benghazi debacle last November, will ever return to the network.
New York reports that veteran 60 Minutes correspondent Morley Safer demanded that Logan be fired in 2013, and portrays CBS News as being still bruised from the trauma. ("The atmosphere at CBS has been toxic in recent months.") The article also includes unflattering, albeit anonymous, critiques of Logan's work from CBS colleagues: "It's not an accident that Lara Logan fucked up. It was inevitable. Everybody saw this coming."
What the feature also does is remind us that, despite these internal critiques, CBS still refuses to be fully transparent about the controversy and the malpractice that was in play. The network still won't detail how a breakdown occurred that allowed such an obviously flawed report to air not only on network television, but on CBS's highly-rated crown jewel 60 Minutes, or how the show's producers can prevent a colossal embarrassment like this from transpiring again.
As it stonewalls, CBS cannot avoid the fact that in 2004 when 60 Minutes II was caught in a crossfire of conservative outrage after airing a disputed report about President Bush's Vietnam War record, the network responded in an entirely different fashion: It appointed a former Republican attorney general, Richard Thornburgh, to investigate what went wrong. The review panel was given "full access and complete cooperation from CBS News and CBS, as well as all of the resources necessary to complete the task." Those resources included reporters' notes, e-mails, and draft scripts. The panel worked for three months, interviewed 66 people, and issued an-often scathing 224-page report.
There's only one radio station in America that takes its name from Rush Limbaugh's radio empire and that's KEIB in Los Angeles -- the EIB mirrors Limbaugh's "Excellence in Broadcasting" motto. Clear Channel, which syndicates Limbaugh's program nationally, owns the station and flipped the call letters to KEIB in honor of him when the company announced he was leaving his longtime Los Angeles radio home, KFI, and moving to KEIB in January. There, according to Clear Channel, he would anchor a new, all-conservative lineup of Republican-friendly talkers, including Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity.
Three months later, Limbaugh's KEIB is a ratings disaster, coming in 37th place in the second largest radio market in America with a .5 rating share in March, the most recent month available, according to Nielsen ratings. (A ratings share represents the percent of those listening to radio in the market who are dialed into a particular station.)
How small is KEIB's audience? So small that eleven non-English radio stations have larger audiences in Los Angeles. And so small that KEIB actually trails four college-run, non-commercial stations in the market. This, for a man who makes $40 million a year to attract big radio audiences? As for KFI, the station Limbaugh left and which switched to an all-local news and talk format, its ratings remain healthy in the talker's absence. A top ten station, KFI boasts an audience six times larger than KEIB's.
The ratings news is almost as bad up the California coast in San Francisco. There, as in Los Angeles, Clear Channel moved Limbaugh on the AM dial, from KKSF to KNEW, and dubbed the station "The Patriot."
"Rush Limbaugh has built the ratings and revenue of hundreds of America's most successful radio stations and is looking forward to doing the same at these new Clear Channel homes," Brian Glicklich, a Limbaugh spokesman crowed last December.
So far however, Limbaugh's arrival at KNEW hasn't budged the minuscule ratings, according to Nielsen: January: .8, February: .8, and March: .7. (Those ratings are flat compared to last year, prior to Limbaugh's arrival.)
The big-city woes aren't confined to the West Coast. In New York, the nation's largest radio market and where Rush once reigned supreme, the talker recently exited his longtime AM home, WABC, and moved to Clear Channel's WOR. With Limbaugh as the main draw, the station now ranks 22nd in the market and trails four non-English stations as well as a commercial-free classical music outlet.
Arriving on the scene of the wreckage days late, a number of conservative voices, including some Fox News employees, announced that it had been an "appalling" error in judgment for movement activists, media players, and Republican leaders to embrace and elevate the cause of rogue Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy and his law-breaking crusade against the federal government. The commonsense warnings were dated, of course, because by then Bundy had already uncorked his racist rant and had thoroughly embarrassed backers who had portrayed him as a folk hero, a "patriotic, heroic American," and a symbol of mighty resistance.
At the peak of the Fox-hyped Bundy frenzy (i.e. when irresponsible Sean Hannity wondered on-air if the federal government would kill the Bundy) those voices of dissent about the rancher were hard to hear. Back when The Drudge Report recklessly hyped the fear of a violent standoff between federal forces and anti-government militia members who had rallied to Bundy's side and uncorked insurrectionist rhetoric, cool-headed conservative observations about not cheering a rancher who refused for decades to pay his grazing fees were mostly muted. (Here's an exception.)
Why? Because at the time, the overblown Bundy controversy nicely fit the right wing's beloved Phony Outrage programming slot. Because the story provided Fox and others with easy, free content to obsess over for days and to stoke far-right paranoia about "government overreach" during the Age of Obama.
Only after Bundy revealed his ugly beliefs ("I want to tell you one more thing I know about the Negro") did many conservatives concede that cheering him represented a political and public relations debacle. That it was a "net-negative." (The Republican National Committee certainly thinks so.)
In the wake of that mess, recall that just this month Rupert Murdoch announced that his Fox News channel had "absolutely saved" the GOP by giving a "voice and hope to people who didn't like all that liberal championing thrown at them on CNN." Yet it's hard to see any Republican positives following the Bundy debacle, which is now widely seen as having been another botched Fox News presentation.
These kinds of flops have become a bruising routine for conservatives. Instead of scoring points on its behalf, Fox News seems to be in the business of delivering black eyes to the GOP and its most devoted followers.
When Sharyl Attkisson ended her two-decade association with CBS News earlier this year, she warmed the hearts of conservatives by implying her work had been curtailed by progressive forces inside the network. It was Liberal Media Bias 101: CBS erected roadblocks that made it impossible for Attkisson to tell the truth about the Democratic administration. Previously toasted by right-wing activists and praised for her anti-Obama reporting, the reporter's public farewell was filled with finger-pointing: "Sharyl Attkisson Paints CBS News As A Bunch of Cowards," announced one Washington Post headline.
Recently, Attkisson returned to the friendly confines of Fox News to pump up the claim that she had been waging "war" with her "own management team," as Fox host Howard Kurtz described it. In a series of interviews described by media observers as an "audition," the former network reporter alleged there was a "political aspect" to her troubles at CBS and that her supervisors gave in to "well organized" outside campaigns that complained about coverage.
She bemoaned the fact that "The press in general seems to be very shy about challenging the administration as if it is making some sort of political statement rather than just doing our jobs as watch dogs."
Whistleblowers should always be listened to. The problem is she refuses to back up any of her conspiratorial claims.
While making her allegations, Attkisson continues to break a cardinal rule of journalism: show, don't tell. Attkisson constantly tells interviewers about how her work was curtailed at CBS. But she never shows examples of it being done; she never cites specifics. The network manager she mentions by name is CBS News chairman Jeff Fager, who she describes as sharing her views "as to what the news should be about."
Any competent journalist should be able to back up their assertion with evidence. In this case, Attkisson doesn't even bother to try.
For commentators who claim to despise lawlessness and who have attacked the Obama administration for allegedly feeding disorder and politicizing it, conservatives were quick to embrace a lawless Nevada rancher who for two decades has refused to pay federal grazing fees on public land and is now promoting his cattle crusade as a war against the federal government.
According to the right wing media, paying the obvious penalty for openly refusing to obey the law for decades suddenly translates into victimhood for rancher Cliven Bundy and "harassment" by the government, as conservative commentator Dana Loesch tried to spin away Bundy's contempt for law and order.
Aside from ignoring the law, Bundy and his armed, anti-government supporters have repeatedly threatened violence and fanned the flames of confrontation with revolutionary, insurrectionist rhetoric, like declaring a "Range War." ("Serious bloodshed was narrowly avoided," the Las Vegas Review-Journal reported last week from the site of the flash point.)
All of the incendiary rhetoric and the loaded allegations about a tyrannical government has been marketed and promoted by Fox News and the rest of the conservative media, which claims to revere America as a nation of laws; the same Fox News that declared war on Occupy Wall Street protesters in 2011 and condemned them for being lawless. ("Domestic terrorists"!)
But now, suddenly the rules of engagement have shifted. Bundy is a right-wing hero and a massive Fox News flip-flop has taken place.
Back during the not-so-distant glory days of New Jersey's Star-Ledger reign as a regional newspaper powerhouse, the Newark, New Jersey newsroom in the 2000's was bursting with 350 journalists who covered the entire state and pocketed Pulitzers for their coverage of local politicians. Back when Tony Soprano made Jersey mob cool, each week during the show's opening the fictional wise guy paid homage to the daily by sauntering down his driveway to retrieve the Star-Ledger.
That's now all a memory. Last week, the Star-Ledger's owner announced massive layoffs at the newspaper as part of a larger effort at consolidation. Today, entire sections of the Newark newsroom sit empty; a newsroom that has shed an astonishing 240 jobs since 2008, or two-thirds of its former staff.
All this, at a time when the Star-Ledger's detailed, hometown coverage of the unraveling scandals involving Gov. Chris Christie had become must-reads for journalists and news junkies alike.
Philadelphia columnist Will Bunch called last week's Star-Ledger pink slips for reporters the "best news" of Christie's career. Why? "With fewer of them on the beat, Christie -- and all the other corrupt politicians of the Garden State -- will be able to keep more of their secrets from the public than ever before."
Even before the scandalous lane-closings at the George Washington Bridge, the Star-Ledger, as Bunch highlighted, had ferreted out all sorts of unseemly transactions embedded in the boss-style politics that still dominates the Garden State.
But the sad news regarding the Star-Ledger isn't just about the challenges New Jersey's largest newspaper faces trying to cover the eleventh most populous state with a newsroom one-third its previous size. After all, the slow-motion decline of American newspapers has been on morbid display for years now.
The larger, disturbing question is what happens to newsgathering, and what happen to a democracy, when the cutbacks show no signs of abating while at the same time new, super-donor forces in American politics, led by people like the Koch brothers, exert unprecedented influence via staggering sums of money, misinformation, and faux news on the state level. And what happens when those players remain committed to operating behind a cloak of secrecy?
"We are going to consolidate ourselves right out of a democracy," quipped one New Jersey journalist last week.
It's true that there's currently a mini-boom in digitally-based data journalism, with several promising sites launching or planning to so so soon. But that brand of explanatory, often wonkish storytelling is separate from the traditional, day-to-day digging that dailies have done; the kind of reporting that sheds light on public officials and the intersection of money and politics.
Note that the Star-Ledger "purge" unfolded the same week the United States Supreme Court, in a party-line 5-4 decision, eliminated further restrictions on campaign donations made by America's super-rich. The Court also signaled it might be ready to do away with campaign finance regulations all together, a radical position now endorsed by the Republican Party. ("The Court's decisions have empowered a new class of American political oligarchs," warned campaign reformer Fred Wertheimer.)
Also note the Star-Ledger wipe-out arrived the same week that secretive super-donor and billionaire industrialist Charles Koch took to the pages of the Wall Street Journal to pen a self-pitying essay about the nasty attacks he allegedly suffers as he and his brother pump massive amounts of cash into conservative coffers and wage a relentless war against President Obama. It's the same Koch brothers who shroud their political activities in secrecy and who often attack journalists who try to uncover the truth about them.
Libel and slander cases are increasingly viewed as long-shot legal propositions that aren't worth the effort required to see the cases to completion only to suffer defeat. But three high-profile libel suits against media organizations are bucking that trend and making their way through the legal system. Two of them have already cleared steep judicial hurdles, opening the way for the discovery phase and possible jury trials. All involve well-know conservative media defendants: National Review, the New York Post and Glenn Beck's The Blaze.
As Media Matters has documented for years, newsroom standards for conservative journalists leave much to be desired and outlets routinely trample over established norms of responsible behavior. But has the recklessness reached such heights, and have the attacks become so slanderous, that courts will rule against the offending media outlets? And if so, how high could the penalties run?
"Damages for every case come down to whatever the jury wants them to be," former New York Times general counsel George Freeman tells Media Matters.
Responding to speculation that a pricey courtroom loss could drive National Review out of business, publisher Jack Fowler assured readers in January that the magazine has libel insurance to cover damages, although he conceded "our insurance does not cover all the costs related to the suit." But even if the three outlets avoid a big jury loss, simply paying the legal fees becomes tantamount. "The costs can be absolutely staggering," says Robert Drechsel, professor at the University of Wisconsin who specializes in media law.
Not surprisingly, the three headline-making suits revolve around hot-button issues for the right-wing media: last year's Boston Marathon terror bombing case, which led to the suits against the New York Post and Beck, and the political jousting over climate change, which pits National Review versus Penn State meteorology professor Michael Mann.
"All three are plausible libels suits," says Drechsel.