Welcome to the Republican Party's bigotry primary, sponsored by Fox News.
With frontrunners Donald Trump and Ben Carson creating firestorms with their recent forays into birtherism and heavy-handed Islamophobia, the Grand Old Party once again is facing its perpetual political dilemma: How can the GOP reach mainstream voters when Fox News has completely seized control of the primary process and remains determined to serve the far-right fringe? How can the GOP succeed nationally when Fox News defends, or explains away, incursions into birtherism and Islamophobia?
It's true that the GOP primary represents a ratings gold mine for Fox News. But it's a looming political disaster for the Republican Party. Sound familiar? We're witnessing déjà vu from 2012, only this time it's worse for Republicans.
In the failed experiment three years ago, the goal was to attach a political movement with a cable TV channel in an effort to oust a sitting president. Despite the insular and illusionary claims of a pending "landslide" victory for Republican Mitt Romney, the experiment flopped -- in part, because Romney adopted so much of Fox's far-right rhetoric.
Yet rather than learn from the failed 2012 model, the GOP effectively handed over even more control to Fox News in preparation for 2016. And this time with Trump, Carson and company racing even farther to the fringes, it's a Fox News primary on steroids.
"Shrill Rhetoric In The GOP Primary Race Could Come Back to Haunt the Party," read a Washington Post headline this week.
Note that since Fox's programming regularly pushes out xenophobia to Republican viewers, you can't be surprised when Republican viewers embrace xenophobic candidates. Also note that Trump and Carson's rise come in the wake of Republican leaders, after sifting through the electoral damage of 2012, insisted the party become more inclusive of minorities if Republicans want to remain competitive in future national elections. (Note: It's not working, at all.)
Make no mistake, Donald Trump and Ben Carson are national Republican leaders today largely because of Fox News. Without Fox News' exaggerated generosity over the years, and without Fox providing endless free airtime in the form of sophisticated promotional blitzes to tout Trump and Carson as possible presidential players for years, it's unlikely either man would be leading in the Republican polls today.
Trump and Carson represent perhaps the clearest distillation of exactly how Fox News is not only running the Republican primary, but how the channel's handpicked candidates come with lots and lots of baggage.
For Trump, that baggage has been the Fox-sponsored campaign to question President Obama's American citizenship, and by extension Obama's legal right to govern the United States.
That was crystallized when an agitated questioner at a New Hampshire town hall event last week said to Trump, "We have a problem in this country. It's called Muslims. We know our current president is one. You know he's not even an American," adding, "Anyway, we have training camps growing where they want to kill us. That's my question: When can we get rid of them?" (Fox has peddled the bogus "training camps" claim in the past.)
Trump gave the guy a pass, opening himself to criticism that in 2015 he was still pushing the bogus birther charade. (Not to mention the odious attack on all Muslims laid out by the questioner.)
For Carson, his political rise has been synonymous with a never-ending string of baffling and offensive comments that seemed aimed at appeasing Fox's Obama/liberal-hating viewers:
* Marriage is "a well-established fundamental pillar of society. And no group, be they gays, be they NAMBLA, be they people who believe in bestiality -- it doesn't matter what they are. They don't get to change the definition."
His latest campaign flashpoint arrived when Meet the Press host Chuck Todd asked if Carson would be okay having a Muslim as president of the United States. "I would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation," Carson responded. "I absolutely would not agree with that."
He added later that day: "Muslims feel that their religion is very much a part of your public life and what you do as a public official, and that's inconsistent with our principles and our Constitution."
That kind of deeply paranoid and divisive rhetoric appears to be common on AM talk radio in this country. But Carson isn't running for AM Shock Jock. He's running to become leader of the free world; of all Americans.
It's hard to believe that just a few election cycles ago, Republican frontrunner George W. Bush was making these types of inclusive comments while addressing the NAACP:
Discrimination is still a reality, even when it takes different forms. Instead of Jim Crow, there's racial redlining and profiling. Instead of separate but equal, there is separate and forgotten.
Strong civil rights enforcement will be a cornerstone of my administration. And I will confront another form of bias: the soft bigotry of low expectations.
Please note Fox News wasn't running Republican primaries in 2000, which meant GOP frontrunners were given room to roam politically, like Bush actively reaching out to black voters. Not today. Fox News has stifled that kind of growth. Instead, the hallmark of the Republican primary has become rigid adherence to far-right rhetoric. It's the kind that envelops mistrust and morphs into birtherism and Islamophobia.
Again, welcome to the Republican Party's bigotry primary, sponsored by Fox News.
Fact-checkers get ready, there's a new Bill O'Reilly book arriving in stores this week. If Killing Reagan is anything like his previous forays into the historical genre, and if it's anything like the dubious memoirs the Fox News anchor has penned that helped improve his life story, the new tome will likely be rife with dubious assertions that will have scholars scratching their heads.
Killing Reagan follows the chart-topping success of O'Reilly's Killing Lincoln, Killing Kennedy, Killing Jesus, and Killing Patton, all co-written with Martin Dugard. Several of the books have been charred by historians for being off-base and weakly researched.
Of course, last winter O'Reilly's reputation as a "straight shooter" took a major hit when it was revealed that over the years he'd gone all Walter Mitty by regularly rewriting his own professional past. He did it by puffing up his pedestrian dispatches as a network news correspondent during his pre-Fox days and dressing them up as death-defying events.
In other words, O'Reilly's book-writing career to date seems to revolve around fabricating fantastic claims about himself, and getting lots of stuff wrong about well-documented historical events.
In that sense, he's the perfect Fox News penman.
In the past, the press has mostly gazed with wide wonder on O'Reilly's book sales prowess. During a puffy 60 Minutes profile at the time of the Killing Jesus release, O'Reilly actually suggested to Norah O'Donnell that God, or the "Holy Spirit," directly inspired him to write the book. (And not the $10 million advance he pocketed, apparently.)
But in light of revelations about O'Reilly's habitual, and very unsubtle, rewriting of his own history, journalists should be more wary about his publishing endeavors.
The avalanche of embarrassing O'Reilly revelations this year began when Mother Jones detailed how O'Reilly had "recounted dramatic stories about his own war reporting that don't withstand scrutiny." Specifically, O'Reilly claimed "many were killed" in a June 1982 Buenos Aires protest following the Falkland Islands war that he covered as a CBS News correspondent; a protest he compared to a "war zone." But news accounts from that time cite some street injuries and chaos in the Argentine capital, but no deaths.
O'Reilly responded with a vengeance, rushing on the air to denounce Mother Jones editor David Corn's truth-telling. But O'Reilly's hot-headed defense soon went silent when the facts began to pile up against him and when other journalists in Buenos Aires at the time flatly contradicted O'Reilly's puffed-up retelling:
But that was just the beginning.
Media Matters soon documented two more jaw-dropping O'Reilly fabrications. First, evidence contradicted his claim, recounted in Killing Kennedy, about standing on a front porch and hearing the shotgun blast that killed a key figure in the investigation into President John F. Kennedy's assassination. He also lied about witnessing the execution of four American churchwomen while reporting from war-torn El Salvador.
More? The Guardian reported that former O'Reilly colleagues from his time at Inside Edition disputed accounts he told over the years about being attacked by protesters while covering the Los Angeles riots in 1992. And as for previous claims that O'Reilly had witnessed terrorist bombings in war-torn Northern Ireland? Scratch those from his resume. O'Reilly made that up, too.
You could say he takes the same approach with his historical books, starting with 2011's Killing Lincoln.
"The narrative contains numerous errors of people, place, and events," wrote Lincoln scholar Edward Steers Jr. in North & South magazine, where he listed scores of errors. "If all of the above sounds like nitpicking, consider this. If the authors made mistakes in names, places, and events, what else did they get wrong? How can the reader rely on anything that appears in 'Killing Lincoln'?"
O'Reilly kept up the hot streak while mangling biblical history in Killing Jesus. Once again, experts were stunned at the ineptitude.
"I can't provide a serious review because it is hard for me to believe that he published it with a straight face. This book is horrible on so many levels," read a review from a professor at a seminary. "Of all the problems with this book it is his complete lack of understanding about history that is most frustrating. He claims to separate myth from history, but I don't think he knows the difference."
O'Reilly's work was so patently sloppy, even conservative outlets unloaded. "I found this popular book contains no fewer than 133 historical errors," wrote a biblical scholar at the far-right website WND, who stressed O'Reilly failed "to get a single date right in the life of Christ. Not one. It is a landmark achievement."
O'Reilly has made a handsome living misleading viewers about current events for decades now. So I suppose it's not surprising he'd make an equally handsome living making stuff up about historical figures, and about himself.
But let's be clear: he's a fabricator, not an historian.
Somewhere Al Gore is probably experiencing painful campaign flashbacks. Like if he heard NBC's Andrea Mitchell ask Hillary Clinton in a recent interview, "Does it hurt you when people say you are too lawyerly, you parse your words, you are not authentic, you're not connecting?"
Or when the Wall Street Journal published a piece suggesting so much of what Clinton does sounds "scripted and poll-tested." Or when Politico declared she's a White House hopeful "with an authenticity problem." Or when the Washington Post reported, "Her campaign has struggled to present her as authentic and relatable." Or when McClatchy Newspapers asked "Is Hillary Clinton Authentic Enough for Voters," and likened her to Richard Nixon.
"Authenticity" has clearly become the Beltway media's latest buzzword to describe what's supposedly wrong with Clinton's campaign, even as she continues to have a sizeable national lead over her Democratic competitors.
The answer: She's a phony.
Why is this all likely ringing in Gore's ears? Because the last White House campaign that the Beltway press openly waged war against (the way it's now openly waging war on the Clinton campaign) was Gore's 2000 push. The Beltway elites hated Gore and didn't try to hide it, just like so many journalists seem to openly despise Clinton today. ("Reporters liked Bush and didn't like Gore," observed Paul Krugman at the New York Times.)
In 2000, Gore was widely ridiculed in the press as the wooden, over-calculating, poll-driven phony who was running against the epitome of true authenticity: George W. Bush. Sure, Gore knew his stuff cold and Bush seemed wobbly on the facts, and forget that Bush's entire campaign turned out to be built around the staged-crafted prevarication known as "compassionate conservativism." The press loved the Bush image and couldn't stand the Gore persona -- The New York Times mocked him as "Eddie Haskell," the neighborhood brownnoser from Leave It To Beaver.
The press dutifully spent the entire campaign regurgitating the Republicans' playbook on Gore: he's a phony who can't be trusted. Fast-forward and the Republican playbook reads the same on Clinton: She's a phony who can't be trusted. So yes, the media's current authenticity chatter plays right into the GOP's hands. It perfectly coincides with conservative talking points about how to undermine the Democratic frontrunner.
But the authenticity math doesn't seem to add up.
In 2008, Clinton tallied 18 million votes during the Democratic primary season. Obviously, she lost to Barack Obama but how did she win a whopping 18 million votes if, according to the press, she can't connect with people due to her utter lack of authenticity? (Reminder: Clinton won her 2000 New York Senate race in a landslide.)
The recent "authenticity" wave began with a New York Times article that claimed "there will be new efforts to bring spontaneity to a candidacy that sometimes seems wooden and overly cautious." The piece came complete with the mocking headline, "Hillary Clinton to Show More Humor and Heart, Aides Say." (Punch line: Clinton's handlers have to instruct her be warm and funny?)
Commentators immediately mocked the Clinton camp. "You don't project [authenticity] by having your campaign tell the world you're going to project authenticity," Bloomberg News' John Heilemann said on Face the Nation. The Washington Post's Dana Milbank ridiculed Clinton aides as "moron[s]" and fired off this insult: "And now comes the latest of many warm-and-fuzzy makeovers -- perhaps the most transparent phoniness since Al Gore discovered earth tones."
I couldn't have scripted that Gore reference better myself. Convinced Clinton is a phony who isn't comfortable in her own skin, Milbank reminded readers that Gore was such a supposed phony that he started wearing "earth tones," a reference to a manufactured kerfuffle from the 2000 campaign when the press claimed author Naomi Wolf counseled Gore on what color clothes he should wear. (Why? Because Gore doesn't know who he is!)
Turns out though, Wolf denied the claim as did Gore's aides. In fact there was never any proof to substantiate the charge, first floated as speculation in the Washington Post, about Gore and an earth tone wardrobe makeover. But that didn't matter because the press loved it and repeated the claim endlessly as proof of Gore's complete lack of foundation. (It ranked right up there with the made-up story about Gore claiming to have invented the Internet.)
Recap: During the 2000 campaign, the Post, citing speculation by Dick Morris, invented a tale about someone telling Gore to wear "earth tones," which supposedly proved what a phony he is. For the 2016 campaign, a Post columnist revived that false "earth tones" story and used it as a reference for how phony Clinton is.
So yes, the symmetry is perfect.
Now we're onto the Catch-22 phase of the "authenticity" blitz, in which commentators are sure any attempt by Clinton to show humor and heart is part of a calculated plan at authenticity.
In other words, after demanding that Clinton be more authentic, the press is now deducting points from Clinton for being more authentic. So really, there is no way for her to win. If Clinton's not spontaneous enough, the chattering class complains. If she is spontaneous or shows more of her private side, the chattering class dismisses it as orchestrated.
It's true that in 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney was hounded by allegations he wasn't being real enough. But much of that was driven by his clear pattern of flip-flopping on major issues, like the fact that as governor of Massachusetts he championed health care reform that looked a lot like Obamacare. Then he campaigned to abolish Obamacare. That eye rolling was amplified when Romney, the former center-right governor, suddenly declared himself to have been a "severely conservative" overseer in Massachusetts.
The media's authenticity police rarely ticket Clinton over substantive issues or for policy flip-flops. She's written up for personality infractions. Authenticity sometimes seems to be media shorthand for, 'We don't like you.'
Al Gore can relate.
An unintended moment of clarity recently emerged on Fox News during The O'Reilly Factor, as guests unpacked their endless predictions about the supposed mounting legal woes facing Hillary Clinton. Blissfully ignoring security and legal experts who agree Clinton faces almost no legal jeopardy for using private emails while secretary of state, Fox has remained a hot bed for baseless allegations. And in the Fox tradition, the more baseless the better.
So night after night, day after day, a rotating carousel of partisans who attack Democrats for a living have been invited onto Fox to invent a laundry list of claims and excitedly predict all the awful things that await Clinton and her surely doomed campaign.
The unintended moment of clarity came on September 3 when Fox's James Rosen, who seems sure the email story is following the same track as Nixon's Watergate impeachment process, combined bogus claims about the Clinton email story with bogus claims about already-answered questions regarding the September 11, 2012 terror attack in Benghazi.
Meaning, Rosen was able to momentarily tie the discussion about the Clinton emails "scandal" back to Obama's Benghazi "scandal." In doing so, Rosen helped remind viewers, briefly, that Obama's Benghazi and Clinton's emails are joined at the hip and both scandal productions represent the right-wing's ceaseless attempt to undermine Democratic leaders through the guise of investigation, all sponsored by Fox News and often cheered by the Beltway press. (The Republican-led Benghazi select committee has effortlessly morphed into the Clinton email committee.)
Today, as we observe the third anniversary of the Benghazi terror attack let's keep in mind the links between Fox's utterly failed, dishonest, and at times painfully stupid Benghazi cover-up production, and Fox's current scandal production, the Clinton emails. Fox's relentless, fact-free hysteria about the emails is quickly catching up to the caterwauling that has marked the three-year Benghazi crusade.
One has become a mirror reflection of the other:
-Endless, Captain Ahab-like pursuit? Check.
-Wildly fantastic claims of lawbreaking? Check.
-Comically sinister portrayal of a Democratic villain? Check.
-Remaining unmoved by the facts? Check.
In other words, the same Fox News talkers who got everything wrong about Benghazi are now the ones sponsoring the Clinton email 'scandal.' And when I say "everything" about Benghazi, that's not hyperbole.
Over the last three years, Fox News claimed Obama never called the Benghazi attack an act of terror and that former CIA director David Petraeus was forced to resign because of Benghazi. They've insisted Obama watched Americans die and refused to send help. That so-called whistleblowers have been blocked from testifying before Congress, along with Benghazi survivors. Also, that Clinton faked a concussion in order to avoid testifying about the terror attack.
Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, and wrong. Seven strikes and you're out, right?
Today, "Benghazi" has both become both a morbid punch line and shorthand for a partisan waste of time. Just this week, Democratic Congressman Steve Cohen reportedly mocked an unrelated Republican inquiry as "the Benghazi of healthcare hearings."
For the most part, Benghazi has been retired as scandal bait at Fox News, which previously aired hundreds and hundreds of hours and a thousand-plus segments on the topic, promoting pointless pursuits of the Obama White House, and did so with wild and reckless allegations of wrongdoing.
Here are some wild and reckless claims talkers on Fox News have been making about the email story in recent weeks, via Nexis:
*"The e-mail evidence made public so far pretty much enough to indict her on a misdemeanor national security beef. If the FBI discovers she had her e-mail server professionally scrubbed, the former secretary of state could be looking at a felony charge." (Bill O'Reilly)
*"The idea that we're even debating whether or not she violated the law -- you'll hear her supporters say, Well, where's the evidence? And I say we're not only overwhelmed with all the evidence, I say where is the grand jury? Why isn't there a grand jury?" (Mark Levin)
*"Was this a mass criminal conspiracy? You've got co-conspirators! You've got people taking top secret off of e-mails! You've got everything the grand jury should be investigating right now!" (Jeanine Pirro)
And this what-if exchange, via Nexis transcript, between Fox legal analyst Peter Johnson Jr. and Sean Hannity nicely captures the breathless chatter being broadcast on Fox [emphasis added]:
JOHNSON: Oh, I think this is significant legal problems. I don't know whether a crime has been committed or not, but we have all of the circumstances, all of the conditions surrounding the potential that a crime has been committed...
HANNITY: A serious crime.
JOHNSON: ... apart from bad judgment, apart from this nonsense that you're going to recreate history and keep a State Department to yourself and say, I'm going to take the server with me.
I think that this is the digital analog to the Nixon Watergate tapes. It's the same kind of controlling mindset.
HANNITY: Peter, look at the possible smoking guns.
HANNITY: What if the Chinese have it? What if Putin has it? What if the FBI can recover some of the deleted e-mails that maybe refer to Benghazi or other issues...
JOHNSON: Where did they go either intentionally or unintentionally? What's the negligence? What's the...
HANNITY: ... obstruction of justice!
JOHNSON: And when the FBI comes a-calling -- we haven't even gotten to that. what about the personal interview with Secretary of State Clinton...
JOHNSON: ... and all of the people that used to work for her? We haven't even gotten to that point. That point will come. The FBI will say...
HANNITY: What are the odds -- last question. What are the odds you think she would get indicted?
In September 2012, The Five co-host Eric Bolling described the Benghazi "cover-up" as "the biggest news story since Watergate." On the night of Obama's reelection, Fox News contributor Todd Starnes announced on Twitter, "the first order of business should be a full investigation of Benghazi -- followed by impeachment proceedings." And just last year, Fox's Pirro called Benghazi the "biggest cover up since Watergate" and declared that Obama's "dereliction of duty as commander-in-chief demands [his] impeachment."
Like I said, virtually every claim Fox News made about Obama and Benghazi turned out to be utter nonsense. So now, after crassly politicizing the deaths of four Americans in a failed attempt to dislodge Obama, Fox has taken its Benghazi hoax and christened it a Clinton email crusade.
To date, it's proving to be just as dishonest.
The Republican birther brigade really is one of the most astonishing political stories in recent years. What's truly bewildering and newsworthy is that the birther ranks are apparently expanding and likely number in the millions nationwide. The fact that Republican frontrunner Donald Trump personally vouched for the baseless, anti-Obama conspiracy theory has only elevated its significance.
So why does the press continue to largely turn a blind eye to the telling spectacle?
Amidst the avalanche of news coverage and commentary about Trump's campaign, the birther strain that runs through important parts of the Republican Party (the claim that Obama's secretly a Kenya-born Muslim) has not been a focal point for Beltway reporters and pundits. The media's birther blind spot is part of the larger press failure to grasp, and accurately detail, the truly radical nature of the Republican Party under President Obama.
For instance, since June 1, the New York Times has published approximately 180 articles or columns that included the word "Trump" five or more times, according to Nexis. But just a handful of those have made any mention of Trump's previous birth certificate folly. The same goes for USA Today and the Los Angeles Times, for example: Nearly 180 detailed Trump articles and columns published since June between them, but just a few that have addressed the birther nonsense.
I'm not suggesting the topic has been completely ignored. But it is safe to say it's not a priority issue for the press, which seems otherwise consumed with all things Trump.
You can bet that if, for some very strange reason, a left-wing demagogue who previously trafficked in 9/11 Truther conspiracy theories catapulted to the front of the Democratic primary race, that incendiary fact would not be politely ignored or downplayed. But Trump's right-wing birtherism often gets a pass.
Let's face it, the press has never come to terms with the Republican Party's deep birther roots, and therefore hasn't come to terms with the radical revolution unfolding on the far right. This campaign season seems like an obvious time to do so. "We need to reckon even more urgently with what can now be called the 'Trumpists,'" Harvard professor Danielle Allen recently noted, highlighting their birther streak.
It's true Trump's candidacy has for the most part shied away from the touchy birther issue this year. But it's also true that it was his bizarre birther campaign that catapulted Trump to Republican stardom in 2011. That year, he teamed up with Fox News and the two took the dormant issue and turned it into conservative "news," with Fox News hosting more than 50 birther segments within a seven-week span.
Eventually, the White House released Obama's long-form birth certificate and most observers laughed at Trump's political pratfall. And I think most journalists thought that was the end of the issue: The dopey birthplace allegations had been unequivocally debunked, therefore the so-called controversy had been settled, right?
And that's been the press' telltale failure in covering conservatives and Republicans in recent years: Facts often don't matter to them. They occupy their own tribal space and digest the same misinformation that simply feeds their often-paranoid views of Obama and Democrats.
"They have a different sense of what is normal," Rachel Maddow observed about birthers back in 2013. "They have a different sense of what counts as reasonable politics in America -- and failing to appreciate that, means that we fail to develop reasonably accurate expectations for their behavior. And that has become really important."
That's even truer today as America's most famous birther marches towards the Republican nomination.
Trump's appealing to an often-ugly streak within the conservative movement. And he's winning over the demagoguery wing of the Republican Party. That's news.
As Mother Jones' David Corn recently noted, "Many Republicans clearly see the president as a foreign-born secret Muslim with a clandestine plan to weaken, if not ruin, the United States--remember the death panels--and they have a dark, nearly apocalyptic view of Obama's America."
To me, that assertion seems self-evident. So why the Beltway press' reluctance to drill down deep into this troubling phenomenon? What's behind the Beltway-wide decision to pretend there isn't something seismic and disturbing going on within the Republican electorate?
Rather than having the release of Obama's birth certificate dissuade those on the far right about the birther issue, since 2011 the ranks of Republican birthers have swelled to huge proportions as the GOP base clings to the dark fantasy that Obama is an African-born impostor who's ineligible to be president or to command U.S. military forces.
From Talking Points Memo [emphasis added]:
Nearly half of Iowans supporting real estate mogul Donald Trump's presidential campaign don't believe President Barack Obama was born in the United States, according to a poll released Tuesday.
The Bloomberg Politics/Des Moines Register poll found that 35 percent of likely Iowa Republican caucusgoers don't believe the President was born in the U.S. That "birther" share rose to 46 percent among Trump supporters, the poll found.
And from Public Policy Polling:
Trump is benefiting from a GOP electorate that thinks Barack Obama is a Muslim and was born in another country, and that immigrant children should be deported. 66% of Trump's supporters believe that Obama is a Muslim to just 12% that grant he's a Christian. 61% think Obama was not born in the United States to only 21% who accept that he was. And 63% want to amend the Constitution to eliminate birthright citizenship, to only 20% who want to keep things the way they are.
Has the modern political press ever had to deal with such a large portion of the partisan electorate that's actively allergic to facts the way birthers are? Probably not.
But I also don't think the current path of routinely downplaying the birther phenomenon and its extraordinary pull within the Republican Party is the right way to handle the story. By too often turning a blind eye to the birther juices fueling Trump's ascension, the press overlooks a defining trait in conservative politics today.
Hillary Clinton likes to watch Parks and Recreation.
That's what the Clinton email kerfuffle seemed to amount to this week. News organization excitedly dove into the latest trove of emails released from Clinton's time as secretary of state, only to have to settle for vacuous nuggets about her TV viewing habits.
We seem to be at the stage where the mere existence of publicly-available Clinton emails prompts journalists to hype each additional set as big news, even when the contents of the emails are non-descript. Hard-wired into the Republican way of thinking, the Beltway press often automatically treats Clinton's electronic communications as damning and suspect.
But they're not.
We've seen this pattern repeated numerous times in recent days, and not just with the latest, monthly release of Clinton's State Department emails. Last week, news outlets including CNN, Washington Post, and ABC News dutifully typed up reports about emails obtained by the Clinton-bashing group Citizens United, which filed lawsuits for the release of Hillary Clinton's communications. Presented as containing some damning revelations, upon closer examination the emails simply produced more yawns. They contained nothing proving any kind of wrongdoing on the part of Clinton. (Unless Clinton aide Huma Abedin using emails to organize a small dinner for the former secretary of state now qualifies as wrongdoing.)
Ordinarily, I might chalk up this oddly breathless coverage about ho-hum emails to the summer doldrums, as journalists are hard-pressed to create compelling content during the traditionally slow news month of August. But the Beltway press did the exact same thing with the previous email release. And I suspect we'll see this pattern continue for months to come, in part because a U.S. District court has decreed that the email dumps are going to be monthly events through January.
There have now been three enormous batches of State Department emails released, totaling more than 10,000 pages, and none of them have produced blockbuster revelations or truly fueled the so-called Clinton email scandal.
So why hasn't the press treated the release of boring, "mundane" emails as proof that widespread partisan claims of malfeasance are simply not supported? Why doesn't the press openly concede that the email disclosures that show the former secretary of state to be funny and hardworking represent good news for Clinton, instead of perpetually presenting them as bad news? (i.e. A "fresh headache," according to Yahoo News.)
As I previously noted, the out-of-context coverage likely stems from the fact there's a standing army of Clinton-assigned journalists who are responsible for producing endless content for the next year. Additionally, many in the press have invested a huge amount of capital in the email story since it broke in March, and now seem reluctant to acknowledge there might not be any there there.
Today in fact, The New York Times published a column from a Republican operative who announced the email story had "crippled" Clinton's campaign, and claimed she may have committed a crime worse than former CIA director David Petraeus, who pleaded guilty to unauthorized removal and retention of classified information. The Times published this claim days after Petraeus' prosecutor, former U.S. Attorney Anne Tompkins, explained there's no connection between the two cases and that unlike Petraeus, "Clinton committed no crime."
Elsewhere, the press forged ahead on the email dump in search of news. This was Politico's news lede for the email release:
A new batch of Hillary Clinton's emails made public by the State Department on Monday night show her expressing interest in the presidential aspirations of Gen. David Petraeus, who ultimately took a job as CIA director in the Obama administration rather than run for president in 2012 and was then driven out of government by scandal.
According to Politico, the most newsworthy "insight" from the thousands of Clinton emails released this month was that the former secretary of state expressed "interest" that a famous U.S. general was possibly eyeing a White House run. How did Politico gage Clinton's "interest"? How did Politico conclude she "sounded intrigued"? A friend emailed Clinton some information in 2010 and she typed back a five-word response.
Meanwhile, after being given Clinton emails from Citizen United regarding foreign speech offers Bill Clinton had received, and his insistence on getting guidance from the State Department on whether he should accept the offers (he did not), ABC News's Jonathan Karl announced:
ABC News has obtained State Department e-mails that shed light on Bill Clinton's lucrative speaking engagements and show he and the Clinton Foundation tried to get approval for invitations related to two of the most repressive countries in the world -- North Korea and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
In fact, the emails did not show Clinton and the Foundation "tried to get approval." The emails showed that Clinton and the Foundation sought advice on the matter. At no point did Clinton or the Foundation try to overrule the State Department. And in the end neither invitation was accepted.
In other words, Bill Clinton's office routinely ran speech requests past the State Department to "review for any real or apparent conflict of interest with the duties of Secretary of State." So when ABC News obtained emails that confirmed that fact, rather that presenting the emails as proof the Clintons did in private exactly what they said they were doing in public, ABC News presented the emails as somehow troubling and controversial -- they showed "show just how far Bill Clinton was willing to go to earn those lucrative fees."
This is what's called heads you lose/tails you lose.
Without any discernible news value found in the emails themselves, the press instead clings to the "glimpse" and "window" crutch. From ABC News: "The emails also provide a glimpse into the person behind the office." And The New York Times stressed the emails "offered a rare window into" the Clintons.
But again, how does a "glimpse" into routine communications pass as news? It doesn't.
The truth is, the wind continues to go out of the email "scandal" sails. As the Associated Press reported this week, experts agree there's currently virtually no chance Clinton faces any criminal jeopardy over the handling of her emails.
Indeed, after speaking with "half-dozen knowledgeable lawyers," longtime Washington Post foreign affairs columnist David Ignatius recently broke from the D.C. pack and concluded the email "'scandal' is overstated."
So with the criminal element of the so-called scandal evaporating, the press is left to dwell on the perception and the optics of the controversy. And the press remains mostly in heated agreement that it's all very bad news for Clinton, insisting this summer that her polling has gone "under water" because of it. (Note that a national survey released Tuesday showed Clinton maintaining a 35-point lead in the Democratic primary race, the same large advantage she enjoyed the previous month.)
"Clinton" + "email" has become media shorthand for big, big news. But with each new batch of emails released, it's becoming impossible to defend that formula.
The media's frantic coverage of the ongoing controversy surrounding Hillary Clinton's secretary of state emails -- and whether some of them contained classified information -- regularly presents the allegations as being precise and unambiguous.
But are they?
The latest media uproar swirls around the fact that the inspectors general for the 17 spy agencies, which make up what's known as the U.S. Intelligence Community, disclosed that some emails which had been routed through a private server Clinton used during her tenure as secretary of state contained classified information, "including two emails whose content is now deemed to be 'Top Secret,'" according to McClatchy.
A key fact, via the Associated Press, is that, "Clinton didn't transmit the sensitive information herself, they said, and nothing in the emails she received makes direct reference to communications intercepts, confidential intelligence methods or any other form of sensitive sourcing."
To date, the straightforward media narrative goes like this: Because officials within the intelligence community have determined that Clinton received emails that contained classified information, that means Clinton was at fault and an investigation is underway to determine how she could have been so reckless and wrong. (The New York Times badly muddied the waters on the email story when it erroneously reported intelligence officials requested a criminal investigation into Clinton's handling of her emails. They did no such thing.)
But the story isn't that simple because the process of classifying information can be subjective and one not everyone inside the government agrees with. The process is especially open to second-guessing when it's being done after the fact; when intelligence community officials are looking back in time and deciding emails that Clinton received should have been marked classified even though they were not at the time.
"Classification decisions are matters of judgment, not calculation," Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists told Politico. "It is entirely possible for two senior officials to disagree about the need for classifying a particular item of information." In comments to The Hill he added, "There is so much classified information being generated and circulated, there are so many people with the authority to classify, inevitably there is friction and confusion in the system."
Matt Miller, former Department of Justice Director of Public Affairs, went further, recently insisting, "the entire classification system is a mess: overly complex, riddled with ambiguity, and used at times for inappropriate reasons. And because of that you get perverse outcomes."
Here's an example of why classifications can lead to debate. The Associated Press reported that one of the emails now identified as classified by the inspectors general centered on a U.S. drone operation [emphasis added]:
The drone exchange, the officials said, begins with a copy of a news article about the CIA drone program that targets terrorists in Pakistan and elsewhere. While that program is technically top secret, it is well-known and often reported on. Former CIA director Leon Panetta and Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, have openly discussed it.
The copy makes reference to classified information, and a Clinton adviser follows up by dancing around a top secret in a way that could possibly be inferred as confirmation, the officials said.
But as the AP itself added, "Several people, however, described this claim as tenuous."
The fact is there's a cultural divide between State and the intelligence agencies. As The Hill explained, "intelligence agencies tend to lean toward classification more than an agency like State would, several former employees on both sides agreed." The result? Clinton has "found herself caught in a murky dispute between State Department and intelligence officials over whether emails on her server were classified," reported McClatchy.
Added Jonathan Allen at Vox during the fiasco over the NY Times' botched "criminal" email story, "Ultimately -- at least for now -- this is a bureaucratic fight about how the State Department has handled the emails, not about Hillary Clinton."
That turf battle helps explain the current standoff. "John Kirby, a spokesman for the State Department, said it remained unclear 'whether, in fact, this material is actually classified,'" NBC News reported. And this from Politico: "State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Friday his agency remained unconvinced that any of Clinton's emails should have been considered classified when they were sent. 'To our knowledge, none of them needed to be classified at the time,' Toner told reporters at a daily briefing."
Last week Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), who serves as Vice Chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, insisted it has yet to be determined "whether information in those emails should have been classified in the first place."
And note this fact: Senior State Department official Patrick Kennedy revealed that one of the emails the inspectors general deemed to be classified related to the Department of Defense, "but the Pentagon decided not to pursue it," according to Politico, suggesting perhaps that Defense officials did not share the assessment from the inspector general review.
So who's right? "Both sides can be correct," The Hill reported. "Not only is each side entitled to different standards of classification, but information can become classified almost retroactively, as situations and guidelines change over the years."
But that's certainly not how much of the frantic Clinton campaign coverage portrays the story.
Much of the press, and especially the political press, continues to misstate the story, emphasizing how it's all about how Clinton handled her emails on a private server while secretary of state. But much of the recent scandal-mongering actually revolves around the process by which Clinton's years-old emails are being released to the public. "It is about current bureaucratic processes, probably the biggest snooze-fest in all of journalism," wrote Kurt Eichenwald at Newsweek during the Times mess last month.
Some background, via Vox [emphasis added]:
The State Department has been ordered by a federal judge to make public the 55,000 pages of emails Clinton turned over to the agency. So the State Department has Freedom of Information Act experts sifting through the documents to make sure that no information will be released that is either classified or sensitive (meaning not technically classified but also not covering material that the government doesn't want in the public domain).
This has caused a bureaucratic turf war between the department and the intelligence community, which believes at least one email that's already been released contains classified information and that hundreds of others in the full set may also have material that's not ready for public consumption.
As the New York Times' John Harwood noted on Twitter -- and he's been among the few journalists to do so -- the issue of whether classified info was in Clinton's emails "has nothing whatsoever" to do with Clinton's use of a private email server:
OVERLOOKED: both R & D Hill staff say legal issue re: classified info in HRC emails has NOTHING WHATSOEVER to do w/use of private server 1/2-- John Harwood (@JohnJHarwood) August 15, 2015
had HRC used non-classified http://t.co/QOREwvsvyT account & gotten those emails, same legal issue of info "spillage." It's not uncommon 2/2-- John Harwood (@JohnJHarwood) August 15, 2015
Keep in mind that if former Secretary of State Colin Powell, who used private emails exclusively during his term, had turned over any of his emails to the State Department, they also would have been subject to a classification review. But unlike Clinton, Powell kept no records of his secretary of state emails and handed over none to the State Department.
The Beltway press seems adamant about simplifying the Clinton email story; about flattening it out so the ambiguities are ironed away. In truth, uncertainties about classifications remain at the heart of the email review controversy.
We've raced past so many memorable markers already during the circus-like Summer of Trump, there's no indication this one will stand out upon reflection weeks or months from now. Nonetheless, when Fox & Friends co-host Steve Doocy tweeted out the news that Donald Trump would appear on the program this week, the announcement seemed worth remembering, if only to document the absurdity of the Republican primary:
FOX NEWS ALERT: watch
@foxandfriends Tuesday at 7am ET as GOP frontrunner @realDonaldTrump talks about his relationship with @FoxNews
Yes, Donald Trump, a Fox News political creation, was set to appear on Fox News to discuss his "relationship" with Fox News. But in the end, Fox hosts didn't even ask Trump about his suddenly newsworthy relationship with Fox. Despite Doocy opening the interview by telling Trump, "glad we're friends again" -- to which Trump responded by assuring him, "we've always been friends" -- there was no attempt to discuss Trump's recent feud with Megyn Kelly and the network. Huh? Were they under orders from Fox chief Roger Ailes to ignore the friction?
The day before the interview Trump tweeted:
Roger Ailes just called. He is a great guy & assures me that "Trump" will be treated fairly on
@FoxNews. His word is always good!
During an appearance on Hannity last night, Hannity kicked off the interview by saying, "Let's start with the elephant in the room. The Fox issue is resolved -- and how did that come about?" Trump explained he has a "great relationship with Roger Ailes" and that "Roger called me the other day and it's absolutely fine."
The head of a "news" organization was phoning up a presidential candidate in order to clear the air; to assure the Republican he'd get fair coverage. Welcome to the house of mirrors created by Ailes, and welcome to the Republican Party's Lost Summer of Trump, sponsored, of course, by Rupert Murdoch's cable channel.
Fox News has not only eaten the Republican primary season -- consumed it whole in recent weeks with the help of Donald Trump -- it's now burping it up all over cable television. That's how bad it's gotten. And indications are that the slow-motion fiasco is only going to get much, much worse for Republicans.
Who benefits from this unfolding media spectacle? Fox News' ratings and Donald Trump's campaign. (And yes, Democrats.) The unequivocal losers are the remaining Republican candidates, as well as the GOP as a whole, which can forget about its planned outreach to Hispanic voters.
Watching this weird public bromance play out between Ailes and Trump, you get the feeling the two are in on some elaborate inside joke as they create the most unlikely piece of performance art imaginable.
Remember two months ago when some Republicans aired concerns that Trump's run would serve as a "distraction" and take attention away from deserving Republican candidates? That limited apprehension seems quaint in retrospect. We are obviously so far beyond the point of Trump being a "distraction." Instead, he's virtually hijacked the entire Republican primary season, to the point where the other candidates have become nearly invisible, and some former frontrunners such as Jeb Bush have suffered sizeable declines in the polls.
Today, Republicans likely long for the days when Trump was going to be a mere "distraction." Instead, given his current popularity, there's little reason to believe he won't be featured in some way at the GOP convention next summer. That is if he doesn't splinter off and run a third-party candidacy, which would likely prove disastrous for Republicans.
"The Tasmanian Devil candidate," as Daily Beast's Michael Tomasky calls Trump, has upended not only the entire Republican campaign season, but also Fox News itself, which appears to be torn over the bullying candidate's name calling, even when his targets are on the Fox News payroll.
What's so astonishing about the freak show now unfolding, and how Fox has manufactured the growing Trump crisis for Republicans, is that everyone saw the preview coming in 2012. In that grand experiment, the goal was to marry a political movement with a cable TV channel in an effort to oust a sitting president. Despite loud predictions about a "landslide" Republican victory, Fox News and Mitt Romney came up well short on Election Day. In fact, Romney failed in large part precisely because he adopted so much of Fox News' loopy rhetoric and its groundless allegations about President Obama.
But rather than learn from that failed experiment, the GOP handed over even more clout to Fox News in preparation of 2016. To be fair, on the surface it looked like a great deal for Republicans:
Those are astonishing numbers, as Fox News essentially handed over huge chunks of its programming to Republican hopefuls who were in search of voters (and donors).
But Ailes' Fox wasn't content with turning its studio into a revolving door for the Republican National Committee. Ailes wanted much more. So there in his second-floor conference room last week, Ailes and his lieutenants met in private to decide which candidates to invite to the GOP's first prime-time debate of the campaign season, and who to relegate to the "JV" debate. This, after nervous super PACs poured millions of dollars into advertising on Fox News in an effort to boost the polling position of their favorite candidate and to make sure they made it onto Fox's main debate stage.
In other words, Fox's control continues to expand. And it's by design. Fox and Ailes have grabbed whatever they wanted as their own and the party has been powerless to stop them. Although there has been little indication the GOP ever wanted to interfere with Fox.
Perhaps until now.
Until Republicans realized Ailes wasn't creating a campaign masterpiece, he was creating a monster.
The curious revelation that reporters from nine news organizations recently attended Charles and David Koch's political summit and voluntarily agreed not to identify key donors in attendance provided a helpful look into the double standard that the media often use when covering conservatives vs. covering the Clintons.
Willing to temporarily look away from the donor news behind the Koch brothers push to remake American politics in their billionaire image (and to bankroll the GOP's 2016 nominee), several of the same outlets have spent months this year needling Bill and Hillary Clinton for not being transparent enough about donors to the charitable Clinton Foundation.
To hear much of the press' often fevered coverage of the Clinton Foundation, it's simply unacceptable and downright deceitful to hide the names of wealthy people who give. Yet many of the same class of reporters volunteered not to disclose Koch donors who mingled among journalists all weekend at the five-star GOP summit?
Given that willingness to look the other way, it's difficult to take seriously the media's incessant demands that the Clintons be more transparent about their donors; donors who give to a charity devoted to help poor people around the world, not devoted to electing U.S. politicians, which is what Koch donors are all about. (The Koch brothers, and affiliated groups, are expected to spend $889 million on the 2016 race, after having raised $400 million on the 2012 contests.)
Moreover, the Clinton Foundation has actually done more than most charities do to disclose their donors. Though a few of their affiliates have not revealed some donors (in part because of differing laws in other countries), the charity has gone to great lengths ever since Clinton first became secretary of state: "In posting its donor data, the foundation goes beyond legal requirements, and experts say its transparency level exceeds that of most philanthropies," the Post previously reported.
Yet try to image the universal, all-encompassing, hour-after-hour pundit outrage that would be unleashed if the Clinton Foundation held a political summit this year and demanded journalists hide the identity of key donors who attended. The same Beltway media have no problem with the Kochs hiding 450 of their big, dark-money donors -- and hiding them in plain sight.
The Huffington Post's Michael Calderone spelled out the obvious ethical troubles raised by stipulations attached to the formerly closed-to-the-press Koch summit, where key Republican politicians were invited to address conservative billionaires:
The problem is that the ground rules could restrict journalists from reporting what's right in front of their eyes. If, say, Rupert Murdoch, or even a lesser-known billionaire, walked by, they couldn't report the person's attendance without permission. So it's possible journalists end up reporting largely what the event sponsors want, such as fiery speeches and candidate remarks criticizing Democrats, but less on the power brokers attending who play key behind-the-scenes roles in the 2016 election.
By playing by the Koch's rules, the press left itself open to some sizeable bouts of hypocrisy.
Recall that in April, Rupert Murdoch's HarperCollins published partisan author Peter Schweizer's Clinton Cash, a sloppy, book-length attack on Clinton Foundation donors. The book purported (and failed) to show how foundation donations corrupted Clinton's decisions during her time as secretary of state. Media Matters documented nearly two dozen errors and distortions in the book.
But that didn't stop key outlets such as the New York Times and the Washington Post from teaming up with Schweizer and helping to push his lines of attack. At the time, here's how the Washington Post's Chris Cillizza's defended the immediate embrace of Clinton Cash:
The most foundational principle of covering a presidential campaign (or anything, really) is trying your damnedest to give people the fullest possible picture of the candidates running to represent them. The more information you have at your disposal then, the better.
Added Cillizza, "We are information-gatherers at heart."
So when the issue at hand was donors to the Clinton Foundation, the Washington Post sounded a clarion call, urging reporters to look at the all the information in order to give readers the "fullest possible picture of the candidates running." (And who might be trying to buy their influence.)
But last weekend, when the issue at hand was Koch summit donors, the Washington Post quietly demurred and apparently concluded not all information needed to be shared with voters.
It seems clear that the Clinton Foundation feeding frenzy sprang from the media assumption that the Clintons are hiding something, they aren't truthful, and they cannot be trusted. As Vox's Jonathan Allen asserted, detailing the press corps' "unspoken rules" to covering Hillary, "the media assumes that Clinton is acting in bad faith until there's hard evidence otherwise."
By contrast, what explained the pass given to the Kochs? Was it fueled by an inverse press assumption that the Kochs are forthright, they're honorable men, and of course they play by the rules?
If donors are deemed the targets of intense media scrutiny, the press should apply the rules fairly to both sides
"I was wrong because my sources were wrong." -- Former New York Times reporter Judith Miller, 2005.
"We got it wrong because our very good sources had it wrong." New York Times Deputy Executive Editor Matt Purdy, 2015.
One of the most baffling elements to The New York Times botched story about a fictional "criminal" investigation bearing down on Hillary Clinton over her use of a private email account is the seemingly shrug-of-the-shoulders response from the Times editors who are ultimately responsible for the newsroom's black eye.
Rather than signaling that they're drilling down to find out exactly what went wrong and how such a painfully inaccurate story landed on the Times' front page (there is no criminal investigation), to date editors seem content to simply blame sources for giving Times reporters bad information.
"This story demands more than a promise to do better the next time, and more than a shrug," wrote Norm Ornstein in The Atlantic. "Someone should be held accountable here, with suspension or other action that fits the gravity of the offense."
But there's no indication that's going to happen, largely because there's no indication editors blame the reporters or themselves for the embarrassing failure. Instead, they mostly fault sources who gave the Times bogus information about an alleged "criminal" probe of Clinton sought by two inspectors general.
Answering questions put to them by the Times' public editor Margaret Sullivan, who labeled the email story a "mess," senior editors worked hard to absolve their reporters. "We got it wrong because our very good sources had it wrong," said deputy executive editor Matt Purdy, who also stressed the newspaper takes seriously its obligation to be factually accurate. Added executive editor Dean Baquet: "You had the government confirming that it was a criminal referral. I'm not sure what they could have done differently on that."
If this sounds familiar, it ought to. During the previous decade, the Times' reputation took a major hit when, during the run-up to the Iraq War, reporters cozied up to Bush administration sources and helped the White House tell a tale about Saddam Hussein's looming stockpile of chemical weapons and the pressing demand that Iraq be preemptively invaded. As the war effort quickly unraveled and no weapons of mass destruction were found, it became evident that lots of people at the Times had gotten the Iraq War story very, very wrong.
Leading the Times' misinformation pack was Judith Miller, now a Fox News contributor.
From New York [emphasis added]:
During the winter of 2001 and throughout 2002, Miller produced a series of stunning stories about Saddam Hussein's ambition and capacity to produce weapons of mass destruction, based largely on information provided by [Ahmed] Chalabi and his allies--almost all of which have turned out to be stunningly inaccurate.
Miller's response to critics who called out her mountain of erroneous reporting? "I was wrong because my sources were wrong," she told The New Yorker in 2005. And that's the script she's stuck to for the last decade. Like Times editors today, Miller brags that she had great sources -- they just happened to get virtually everything wrong about Iraq.
No, I'm not comparing the gravity of the current Times dust-up with the deadly and far more serious war in Iraq. But I am saying the newsroom similarities deserve attention.
For instance, did the Times learn anything from the Miller fiasco?
In 2004 the daily belatedly addressed the paper's faulty WMD reporting. In its "From The Editors" note, the paper conceded the reporting was "not as rigorous as it should have been." Specifically, the review determined, "Editors at several levels who should have been challenging reporters and pressing for more skepticism were perhaps too intent on rushing scoops into the paper."
Compare that to the nearly identical point Sullivan raised this week while critiquing the failed email story: "Competitive pressure and the desire for a scoop led to too much speed and not enough caution."
As media critic Jack Shafer has asserted, journalists have the right to be wrong. Making mistakes is part of the open and public process of newsmaking in America. But making mistakes, avoiding blame, and then throwing up your hands and saying, 'Oh well, there was nothing we could do,' should not be part of that equation. "The right to be wrong functions best when paired with a willingness to set things right instead of making excuses," wrote Shafer.
Today, Times editors lean towards the making excuses option.
Meanwhile, there's deep irony in the fact that the Times routinely demands accountability, transparency and quick, thorough responses from public officials (including Hillary Clinton), yet the Times has largely discarded all three with regards to its botched email story.
And lots of questions still remain. As Norm Ornstein noted at The Atlantic, if the Times' Purdy is claiming reporters Michael Schmidt and Matt Apuzzo had "reliable" and "very good sources" just days after those sources got the email story completely wrong, what does that say about Purdy's perspective? (Purdy once served as Miller's editor.) If the Times were serious, the sources that burned Schmidt and Apuzzo would be banned from every Times reporters contact list. If nothing else, reporters should be forbidden from ever granting those sources anonymity again.
They simply cannot be trusted.
Meanwhile, Newsweek's Kurt Eichenwald makes a persuasive case that not only did the Times reporters get burned by bad sources, but they misstated the premise of the non-criminal referral that the inspector general sought regarding the State Department's handling of Clinton's emails. (The Times was also wrong in saying the referral was sought by two inspectors general, for the record). According to Eichenwald, the referral is part of a bureaucratic back-and-forth over how to classify information from Freedom of Information Act requests, and has little to do with Clinton.
When are Times editors going to address the fact that reporters acted as stenographers for unreliable, and possibly partisan, sources and failed the grasp what the referral story was even about? "In terms of journalism, this is terrible," wrote Eichenwald.
Which brings us back to Judith Miller.
Last night, MSNBC's Rachel Maddow highlighted the similarities between Times editors today blaming sources and Miller doing the same a decade ago: