The Clinton Foundation returned to the headlines this week and once again the topic was promoted with lots of media hand-wringing. The problem is, it's not always clear journalists understand what the foundation does. At least it's not clear based on the media coverage.
The news this week came from a Wall Street Journal article reporting that once Hillary Clinton left her job as secretary of state, the Clinton Foundation lifted its ban on donations from foreign governments. The ban was reportedly first put in place at the request of the Obama administration, which wanted to alleviate any possible conflicts of interest with its new secretary of state. When Clinton became a private citizen again in 2013, the foundation once again accepted money from foreign governments.
"A spokesman for the Clinton Foundation said the charity has a need to raise money for its many projects," the Journal reported.
The Journal article stressed that some ethics experts thought it was bad form for the foundation to accept foreign donations because Hillary Clinton is expected to run for president. The following day, Republican partisans piled on, insisting Hillary herself had accepted "truckloads of cash from other countries." (She had not; the foundation had.) The Beltway press largely echoed the Republican spin and lampooned the foundation's move.
Did the original Journal article raise an interesting question? It did. If and when Hillary formally announces her candidacy, will the foundation have to revisit its position on accepting foreign government donations? It likely will. But the only way the story really worked as advertised this week was to casually conflate the Clinton Foundation, a remarkably successful global charity organization, with Hillary's looming campaign coffers, and to suggest everyone who's giving to the foundation is really giving to her presidential campaign.
In order to make that allegation stick, Jennifer Rubin at the Washington Post simply suggested there's no difference between a global charity and "a PAC or campaign entity." (That kind of changes everything.)
The only way the story gained traction, and this has been true of Clinton foundation coverage for years, was for journalists to pretend the foundation isn't actually a ground-breaking charity, in order to make vague suggestions that it's one big Clinton slush fund where money gets "funneled." ("Money, Money, Money, Money, MONEY!" was the headline for Maureen Dowd's scathing New York Times attack column about the foundation in 2013.)
Traveling overseas last week, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, currently surging in Republican primary polls, stepped into trouble when he was asked if he accepts the theory of evolution. "I am going to punt on that one," said Walker, instantly creating news. "That's a question a politician shouldn't be involved in one way or another. I am going to leave that up to you."
Coming just days after likely White House hopefuls New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) stumbled badly over the issue of vaccinations, and at a time when many leading Republican leaders deny the reailty on climate change, Walker's evolution slip-up highlighted the party's penchant for getting tangled up in fights over science. And not just he latest scientific discoveries, but long-settled science.
Shifting into damage control mode in the wake of the "punt," the conservative press swooped in, established a secure perimeter around Walker and announced, 'No more evolution questions!' They're "silly," "ridiculous," "nonsense," "not serious" queries, came the angry proclamations.
"The Hazing of Scott Walker," lamented the Wall Street Journal's James Taranto.
The hand wringing sprang up overnight as partisan defenders announced that asking a possible candidate about his or her acceptance of evolution was suddenly Completely Out Of Bounds and represented a Deeply Offensive Inquiry. The goal? "Conservatives want to change what questions are acceptable and natural for reporters to ask," noted Bloomberg's David Weigel.
In other words, they're trying to work the refs at the outset of the campaign season.
But conservatives may have a tough time pushing reporters off the evolution questions simply because politicians, and specifically presidential candidates from both parties, have been asked about evolution for years and nobody seemed to mind. But suddenly it's Katie bar the door? Suddenly it's all an elaborate trap journalists have set for Republicans?
It is according to Fox News' George Will. On February 12, he conceded, "We should be able to come to terms with the fact when asked about evolution you say yes." But Will harrumphed that questions about evolution are "a standard way of trying to embarrass Republicans." (Isn't it only embarrassing if Republicans are embarrassed by their own answers?)
In truth, Walker's evolution query was actually the opposite of a trick, or gotcha, question. The governor wasn't pressed on the spot to make a tricky math calculation or to comment on an obscure scientific theory. He was simply asked to acknowledge a firmly-established scientific fact. What could be easier, when you think about it?
Naturally, President Obama's lighthearted appearance last week in a BuzzFeed video that promoted the deadline to sign up for health coverage through the Affordable Care Act triggered humorless responses from his conservative critics.
Like clockwork, conservative commentators, led by Fox News, swooped in. Assigning themselves the role of protocol police, they sternly announced that Obama had extinguished all "dignity" from the Oval Office. "I yearn for my president looking presidential and serious right now," announced Fox News host Greta Van Susteren.
Sound familiar? It should. For six years now Fox News' lineup of talkers and guests have been regurgitating the same condescending claim: Obama has "diminished" the office of the presidency and had done something unspeakable that's "beneath" his lofty position. It's part of an uglier, ongoing attack on Obama. It's the Fox News suggestion that Obama's not part of the American tradition, that he doesn't understand our history and doesn't know how conduct himself. Or, he's so arrogant that he just doesn't care.
But a review of the charges shows the alleged offenses have almost always been trivial and unimportant.
Here's a collection of at least 16 times Fox News figures claimed, or certainly insinuated, that Obama had diminished the office or done something "beneath" it. Each quote (via Nexis) is followed by the alleged etiquette slight that prompted the habitual hand wringing.
Jon Stewart collected his many media accolades this week following the announcement he's leaving as host of The Daily Show, which he's anchored for 16 years. The Comedy Central cornerstone, where comedy and politics intersect, has been rightfully toasted for its groundbreaking path and wide cultural influence. But I don't think there's a way to spin the departure as anything but discouraging news for progressives and their voice in the media.
As a viewer, I understand why Stewart is walking away. The show had started a feel a little creaky. And frankly, how can it not after sixteen years and more than 2,000 episodes intensely focused on the quickening news cycle. But as someone who's concerned about the public dialogue, and especially concerned about conservative misinformation, the news of Stewart's pending exit is troubling. It's particularly dismaying coming on the heels of Stephen Colbert's recent departure from Comedy Central.
Over the last decade, Stewart and Colbert emerged as the Mantle and Maris of political satire, revolutionizing the way viewers, especially young ones, consume news. (For years, both Stewart and Colbert drew more 18-24 year-old viewers than late-night talk shows on ABC, CBS and NBC; an impressive feat for cable programs.)
The duo's departures are disheartening because their satirical and often fearless work proved instrumental in spearheading progressive arguments and critiques. The two anchors helped spotlight issues, call out epic Republican bouts of hypocrisy, and undress Fox News in a way previous left-leaning media voices hadn't been able to. (And yes, they also called out Democrats with regularity.)
That's why I would argue that Stewart and Colbert represented two of the most influential American liberal voices in the last half-century. Why? (Aren't they just comedians!) Mostly because of their national television platform and because their shows attracted millions of viewers. But also because the hosts became cultural icons. And let's face it, liberalism hasn't always been synonymous with "funny" and "cool." But thanks to the Comedy Central dynamic duo, they provided the laugh track for national debates about the minimum wage, about health care, about pre-emptive wars, and about an endless array other hot topics.
Being funny and famous on TV in America allows you to open all kinds of doors for discussion.
Riding a hollow premise to new uncharted depths, Fox News not only tossed aside its own clearly stated position about airing violent propaganda videos distributed by terrorists, it also became, according to The Guardian, the only American news organization this week to toil in the realm of marketing an execution.
Fox not only aired graphic images of a controversial Islamic State (ISIS) clip on its signature nightly news show, it embedded the gruesome, unedited video on its website, and provided lurid, play-by-play description of Jordanian pilot Muath al-Kasaesbeh dying at the hands of his captures. (Shepard Smith: "Eventually the pilot collapses to his knees.")
This is just stunning. An American news organization hosting on its website an explicit terrorist video that captures the staged execution of an innocent hostage.
How do mainstream organizations handle newsworthy acts of barbarism touted by terrorist organizations? That debate raged last summer when ISIS beheaded American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff and hyped the executions via videos.
At the time, the New York Post was considered to have gone right up to edge of good taste with a front page that featured image of Foley just before his beheading, with the executioner's knife at his throat. (By contrast, the image Fox splashed on the screen Tuesday night showed the hostage engulfed in flames; in the process of being killed.) As USA Today media columnist Rem Rieder noted in August, "There seemed to be wide agreement that making the images available would both dishonor the memory of James Foley and play into the hands of the Islamic State radicals by doing what they wanted."
Recall the words five months ago of Michael Clemente, Fox's executive vice president of news/editorial, when the beheading videos emerged: "What we try to do is use judgment so that people are informed about what actually happened while showing as little of what took place as possible."
Now recall the words of Fox anchor Bret Baier less than 48 hours ago: "The reason we are showing you this is to bring you the reality of Islamic terrorism and to label it as such. We feel you need to see it so we will put up one of the images on your screen right now."
See, if Fox doesn't show ISIS evil in the form of a murder, people won't grasp the "reality."
Mitt Romney's decision to not seek the Republican Party's presidential nomination set off a cavalcade of commentary regarding the political repercussion. One popular angle was that Jeb Bush would benefit because of his appeal as a moderate. At least what he is according to the Beltway press.
The day Romney dropped out of consideration CNN's Wolf Blitzer explained Bush's positioning as a "right of center, moderate Republican." The next day, NPR's Ron Elving suggested Bush had more room to run on the "the center-right moderate establishment side." This week, The Christian Science Monitor labeled Bush "the moderate former Florida governor," while the New York Times suggested he was "out of touch" with the Republican Party because of his moderate ways, and that Bush would fit a pattern of Republicans selecting "relatively moderate presidential nominees."
Note that for years, "moderate" has been media shorthand for candidates who enjoy national appeal; the ones with enough fortitude to stand up to elements of their own party and forge a path to the middle.
The Bush narrative had been in the works for months. "Jeb Bush Charts Moderate Path to the White House," read a December headline at MarketWatch, the same month the Times announced Bush would seek the coveted "middle ground" with his possible candidacy. Yahoo News columnist Matt Bai tagged Bush as a "moderate Republican" last month, while NBC stressed his "centrist" path to the nomination.
The narrative for the former Florida governor is easy to follow: Eager to run as his own man, Jeb Bush the candidate won't abandon his core, common sense beliefs (i.e. he won't "bow down"). Instead, he stands ready to battle far-right cranks within his party.
It's true that on a vast array of issues, including taxes, climate change, abortion, repealing Obamacare (it's "clearly a job killer"), civil rights, right-to-die, gun control, relations with Cuba, legalizing marijuana, and crime, among others, Bush remains a far-right politician. (He once bragged he was "probably the most pro-life governor in modern times.")
And that's why veteran Bush watchers in Florida remain confused by the "moderate" chatter. "A lot of the politicos and lobbyists and long-term reporters are kind of baffled by this idea that he is a centrist or a moderate," Matt Dixon, a reporter in the Scripps-Tribune capital bureau and former statehouse reporter for the Florida Times Union of Jacksonville, told Media Matters' Joe Strupp. "His record as governor reflects some conservative and really Republican philosophies."
Yet according to D.C. media elites crafting the 2016 storyline, Bush yearns for the "middle ground" of American politics. If this heavy-handed Bush branding sounds familiar -- complete with the softened edges -- it should. Think back to 2000.
This week's messy, public breakup between conservatives and Sarah Palin was executed with brutal swiftness. After years of alternately worshiping and defending her from all comers while gleefully echoing her falsehoods about the Obama administration (death panels!), lots of conservatives -- and especially conservative pundits -- decided enough, and collectively tossed her overboard.
Palin's speech last weekend at a conservative confab in Iowa, odd and vacuous even by her standards, served as the trigger for the media mutiny. Morning Joe's Joe Scarborough tagged it "a tragedy," the Daily Beast's Matt Lewis apologized for his previous Palin support, and the Washington Examiner rounded up reactions from the GOP faithful: "Long and disjointed." "A weird speech." "Terrible. Didn't make any sense." (See video of the speech below.)
After six years conservatives have essentially conceded what Palin's critics on the Left have said all along: She's not a serious person and she serves no serious political purpose. Palin, who symbolized an uber-aggressive anti-intellectual conservative push that coincided with Obama's election, seemed more interested in self-promotion -- via reality shows and habitually flirting with running for office that never materialized -- than in building a lasting political legacy.
Note that Palin's accelerated descent this week represents a larger trend within the conservative media. It represents the decline of the tea party wing of the right-wing press and how a once-flourishing enterprise of outside upstarts, with their eyes on disrupting the GOP hierarchy, have in recent years faded in terms of importance and prestige within that sphere.
For instance, five years ago players like Palin, tea party guru Glenn Beck, and tea party "godfather" Rick Santelli from CNBC were on the cusp of powering of grassroots movement to retake the Republican Party and the country. Beck drew huge cable audiences on Fox News while weaving dark tales of Obama deception, Santelli helped inspire patriot rallies across the country, and Fox favorite Palin surfed political celebritydom and eyed a possible White House run. They represented a new and different brand of media agitators who didn't take the traditional paths to the masses.
But today they stand deflated. In fact, as the next campaign season looms, all three appear to be vanishing in the media's rear-view mirror.
Interviewing Environmental Protection Agency administrator Gina McCarthy late last year about the Obama administration's historic climate change agreement with China, MSNBC's Andrea Mitchell asked how the administration would handle Republican critics of the deal. Mitchell wondered what the White House plan was to deal with GOP "climate deniers" firmly entrenched against the carbon emissions agreement.
On the eve of the 2016 presidential season, Mitchell and the rest of the Beltway press face a similar query: How will journalists deal with Republican climate deniers on the campaign trail? The question goes to the heart of informative political reporting and the importance of holding candidates accountable.
Political jockeying over climate change was elevated last week when the U.S. Senate, for the first time in eight years, cast votes on the topic. On January 21, the Senate voted 98-1 to approve a resolution stating, "climate change is real and not a hoax." Then the Senate rejected a second amendment that stated climate change is real and is significantly caused by humans.
"Man can't change the climate," Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK), announced. "The hoax is there are some people so arrogant to think they are so powerful they can change the climate." Republicans, including possible White House candidates Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), voted overwhelmingly against the second resolution, even though the scientific evidence is nearly unanimous that human activity is the dominant cause of climate change.
Meanwhile, the flood of scientific warnings continue and the issue gains urgency. (Tuesday's New England blizzard was the latest example of severe weather that may have been exacerbated by warming seas.) In 2012, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney did not address climate change one time during their three televised debates. But just two years later during the midterm cycle the topic came up "in at least 10 debates in Senate and governor's races" across the country, according to the New York Times. If that trend continues, climate change could well be a cornerstone topic of the next general election campaign season.
For years though, the political press' handling of Republican and conservative climate deniers has been troubling, as journalists politely make room in the debate for fact-free claims about the lack of human involvement. The pending campaign season raises the stakes in terms of holding politicians accountable. But is the press up to the challenge?
New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen Tweeted last week, "This train -- climate change denialism -- is coming directly at the campaign press and they have no clue how to deal."
How long will the press remain allergic to Hillary Clinton polling data?
It's weird, right? For decades, pundits and reporters have worshiped at the altar of public polling, using results as tangible proof that certain political trends are underway, as well as to keep track of campaign season fluctuations. And that's even truer in recent years with the rise of data journalism. Crunching the political numbers has been elevated to a new and respected art form.
But that newsroom trend seems to be losing out to another, more powerful force as the 2016 cycle gears up. No longer viewing their job as reporting the lay of the campaign land, more and more journalists seem to have embraced the idea that their role is to help tell a compelling story, even if that means making the narrative more interesting, or competitive, than it really is.
The press "desperately wants to cover some Democratic story other than the Clinton Coronation," Bloomberg's David Weigel reported last year. NBC's Chuck Todd conceded it's the Beltway "press corps" that's suffers from so-called Clinton fatigue. The Atlantic's Molly Ball was among those suggesting that Clinton's candidacy is boring and that the American people are already "tired" of the former Secretary of State.
A Washington Post/ABC News poll this week provided little in terms of narrative excitement, but it was newsworthy nonetheless. It showed Clinton with a commanding 15-point lead over former Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and a 13-point lead over former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, two of the best-known Republicans considering White House runs.
Nobody should think that polling results 20-plus months before an election signals certainty. But in terms of context, when the Washington Post and ABC began hypothetical polling in 2011 for Obama's re-election run, its survey showed the president enjoyed a four point lead of Romney at the time. (Obama went on to win by four points.) Today at a similar juncture, Clinton's lead over Romney stands at an astounding 15 points.
And so what kind of media response did the Clinton poll produce this week? Mostly shrugs; the press didn't seem to care. The morning the poll was published, NBC's daily political tip sheet, First Read's Morning Clips, omitted any reference to Clinton's enormous advantage in their laundry list of must-read articles for the day. On cable news, the coverage was minimal. Or put it this way, CNN mentioned the Clinton poll once yesterday, while CNN mentioned "Tom Brady" nearly 100 times, according to TVeyes.com.
"Clinton Enjoys Enormous Lead" is just not a headline the press wants to dwell on. So polling data is often tossed in the dustbin, clearing the way for pundits and reporters to form whatever storyline they want about Clinton and her possible 2016 run. (Hint: She's in trouble! Her book tour was a "disaster"!)
What happened to the extended victory lap?
Convinced that last year's midterm losses for Democrats signaled the effective end of Barack Obama's presidency and a resounding victory for all-things conservative and Republican ("On Fox News, there were smiles all around"), just three weeks into the new year Fox News is left wondering what happened to the "lamest" of the lame duck presidents. The one Fox News was going to mock for two more years while trying to tarnish his legacy.
Rebounding to approval ratings not seen since 2013, Obama, instead of floundering, is riding a crest of post-midterm successes, while Americans reward him for the country's rebounding economy. The result: Obama's the one quietly circling the victory track.
"You can hardly tell from our NBC/WSJ poll that the Republican Party was the big winner from the midterm elections just two months ago," noted NBC's Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, and Carrie Dann this week. "Somehow, Obama and the Democrats stole the Republicans' post-election honeymoon."
If that didn't sting badly enough, Fox at the same time continues to wrestle with the unfolding crisis over the network's demonstrably false and stunning claim that some parts of Europe, including in France as well as Britain's second largest city, Birmingham, have become Islamic and are "no-go zones" for non-Muslims, including for British law enforcement.
The misstep became an international punch line, with observers in Europe guffawing at Fox News' trademark ignorance. "When I heard this, frankly, I choked on my porridge and I thought it must be April Fool's Day," British Prime Minister David Cameron told ITV News. "This guy is clearly a complete idiot," he said, referring to Steve Emerson, who Fox had hosted to discuss recent terror attacks in Paris.
In a rare move for Fox, it apologized repeatedly for its colossal "no-go zone" blunder. Yet the story continues to haunt the network: Paris' mayor, Anne Hidalgo, announced on Tuesday that the city might sue Fox News over the bogus claim that portions of Paris remain cordoned off from non-Muslims. "The image of Paris has been prejudiced, and the honor of Paris has been prejudiced," Hidalgo told CNN.
Bottom line: It's not even February and Fox News is already having a really bad year.