Twisting itself in partisan knots, Fox News can't keep track of when denying health benefits to Americans is a good thing and when it's a bad thing. Here's a helpful crib sheet: Denying health care by expanding Medicaid is cheered by Fox News. Denying health care through Veterans Affairs backlogs is not.
The current VA controversy has unleashed waves of right-wing media attacks on the organization, which conservative commentators now depict as a failed government-run health care agency. (It's not.)
Fueling their five-year obsession with trying to undermine and obstruct The Affordable Care Act at every turn, right-wing pundits have denounced the backlog that veterans face, the allegations of secret waiting lists at a Veterans Administration hospital in Phoenix, and claims that dozens of vets reportedly died while on a waiting list to see a VA doctor. Looking to score points politically, Fox News talkers have proclaimed the VA mess to be a preview of some sort of Obamacare debacle for the general public.
Fox's Kimberly Guilfoyle recently labeled Obamacare "one big fat VA system." (False.) Colleague Ben Carson tactlessly called the veterans health care failure "a God send" because it highlighted how awful Obamacare is going to be. And Fox's Eric Bolling claimed delays that took place at the VA in Phoenix would repeat themselves nationwide under Obamacare, and 500 people "are going to die waiting" every year for treatment because of the president's health care reform law.
The larger Fox message machine has been focused: There's nothing worse, nothing more callous and unimaginable, than vets being denied the government health care they're entitled to, and some dying as a consequence.
Left unmentioned from Fox and friends? In the case of the recent implementation of Obamacare and the federal government's effort to expand Medicaid benefits, Republican governors and lawmakers in 24 states have refused, for partisan reasons, to accept the federal funds to insure more of their citizens. The result? Citizens are being denied government health care they're entitled to, and thousands may die as a consequence.
CNN president Jeff Zucker raised some eyebrows this week when, asked about the news channel's increasingly slim coverage of climate change, he commented the network hasn't "figured out how to engage the audience in that story in a meaningful way." He added: "When we do do those stories, there does tend to be a tremendous amount of lack of interest on the audience's part."
Zucker acknowledged that climate change "deserves more attention," but suggested that the issue isn't receiving that attention on his network because CNN needs the topic to generate ratings, or "interest," in order to receive more airtime.
I'm not sure I've ever heard an executive at a news organization speak so openly about what appears to be a company-wide decision to pay less attention to a completely legitimate news story because it doesn't generate ratings; because it's not good for business. For Zucker to suggest CNN doesn't cover a pressing public issue because it doesn't grab eyeballs goes against the basic tenet of journalism, which is, of course, to inform. CNN should be less concerned about engaging viewers and more concerned abut informing them.
Zucker's climate coverage comments seem especially odd given that he said in the same interview that his network's coverage of the Benghazi select committee would be driven by whether it is of "real news value"; he did not address whether such coverage would need to meet an "interest" threshold from the audience.
I'm not a purist when it comes to cable news. I understand CNN is a business and that increasingly it falls within ever-expanding sphere of the entertainment business. Cable news has changed dramatically over the last two decades, the scramble for the limited audience of viewers is fierce, and passive programming is not an option for commercial success. I get that the diet of cable news today includes large dollops of fatty foods buffeted by smaller servings of vegetables.
But suggesting you're not covering an extraordinarily important and possibly life-changing topic because viewers don't "engage"? That's wandering into dangerous ethical territory. What other dire topics is CNN shying away from for fear of boring its news consumers? Do CNN editorial meetings revolve around gauging which news topic will generate minutes-long spikes in the channel's ratings?
The Obama outrage engines are revving up at Fox News and across the conservative media landscape as conservatives shift, temporarily at least, from Obamacare and Benghazi and set their sights on the unfolding scandal involving backlog waiting lists at Veterans Affairs (VA) hospitals. The serious allegations that dozens of veterans died while awaiting treatment from Phoenix Veterans Affairs Health Care system, and that VA managers there created a secret waiting list to hide how long men and women had to wait to see a doctor, sparked a resignation and Congressional hearings.
The Fox condemnations have been especially loud, and sweeping. And yes, they've been mostly directed at the president.
"If only Barack Obama's team treated our veterans as well as they treat the mega-donors to the Democrat [sic] party," lamented Laura Ingraham on Fox & Friends. For days, a parade of Fox talkers have condemned Obama for the story. One even accused the administration of "criminally negligent homicide."
The heated right-wing response stands in stark contrast to the muted coverage Fox News provided for the last major controversy involving failed medical care for returning soldiers. In February 2007, the Washington Post, following up on original reporting done by Salon, exposed shockingly poor conditions inside the Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Those revelations also sparked resignations and Congressional hearings.
But back then, of course, George W. Bush was president and back then Fox News wasn't as interested in the story. (It took Bill O'Reilly six weeks following the publication of the first Post expose to conclude that the Bush administration had badly bungled care at Walter Reed.) And Fox worried journalists were paying too much attention to the scandal.
Numbers highlight the striking disparity in coverage.
How low can Rush Limbaugh go in Los Angeles?
The syndicated talker, who for two decades has been universally regarded as the most popular and powerful AM talker in the country, continues to wallow in obscurity in the nation's second largest radio market. According to recently released ratings from Nielsen Audio, Limbaugh's California flagship station, KEIB, now ranks 39th in the Los Angeles market, attracting an anemic .5 ratings share. (A ratings share represents the percent of those listening to radio in the market who are tuned into a particular station.)
The tumble to 39th place represents yet another downward lurch -- in March the station logged in at 37th place. Note that there are a total of 45 rated stations in the Los Angeles market, which means Limbaugh's KEIB station (the call letters mirror Limbaugh's motto, "Excellence in Broadcasting") has nearly reached the ratings basement.
And yes, Limbaugh's syndicator, Clear Channel-owned Premier Networks, pays the talker $50 million a year.
The April ratings come in the wake of a disastrous winter for Limbaugh in key California markets. As Media Matters recently noted, Clear Channel moved Limbaugh off his longtime Los Angeles home, KFI, and made him the centerpiece of an all-conservative talk radio lineup on KEIB, where Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck are also heard.
As of April, KEIB not only ranks 39th in the Los Angeles market, but it trails 12 non-English stations and four college outlets. Meanwhile, 10th-rated KFI's ratings remain strong in the wake of Limbaugh's departure from the station. In the past, stations that lost Rush from their lineup often saw steep declines in listenership. He served as the programming tent pole. No more.
The ratings news continues to be nearly as bad up the California coast in San Francisco, the nation's fourth largest radio market. There, as in Los Angeles, Clear Channel moved Limbaugh on the AM dial, from KKSF to KNEW, and dubbed the station "The Patriot." After four months of Limbaugh's show anchoring KNEW, the station's minuscule ratings have actually gone down in 2014, from .8 in January to .6 in April.
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.