Right-wing media are disingenuously claiming Democratic incumbent Sen. Jeanne Shaheen's (NH) widely-publicized support of basic campaign finance rules is "bombshell" evidence that she urged the "targeting" of conservatives.
Just hours before election day, the Daily Caller released a report alleging that Shaheen was "principally involved in a plot with Lois Lerner and President Barack Obama's political appointee at the IRS to lead a program of harassment against conservative nonprofit groups during the 2012 election." As evidence, it pointed to the fact that Shaheen had corresponded with the IRS lawyer William J. Wilkins about decades-old campaign finance regulations.
The Daily Caller added that a "major conservative super PAC" included Shaheen's name in a Freedom of Information Act request pertaining to the IRS. "If YOUR NAME is the search term that the conservative super PAC uses in its bid to get public information," writes Patrick Howley, "then you just might be involved in something."
Other right-wing media sources rapidly seized on the opportunity to attack Shaheen. Fox News, which has relentlessly promoted the campaign of her challenger, former Fox News employee Scott Brown, trumpeted the claim as "a death sentence" for Shaheen's Senate hopes.
But the Daily Caller's piece does not demonstrate a scandal of any kind and appears only to be repackaging already-reported information about a benign exchange of letters between several Democratic senators and IRS attorneys.
It's no secret that Senate Democrats asked the IRS to clearly define how much money 501(c)4 nonprofits, which gain tax exemption as "social welfare" organizations, are allowed to spend on election-related activities. In 2012, Democratic Senators, including Shaheen, released a letter publicly requesting that the IRS offer more specific "administrative guidance" on campaign finance restrictions for nonprofit groups. The request received media attention at the time, and IRS lawyer William J. Wilkins responded to Shaheen and others with a letter describing existing campaign finance rules:
"These regulations have been in place since 1959," Wilkins wrote. "We will consider proposed changes in this area as we work with Tax-Exempt and Government Entities and the Treasury Department's Office of Tax Policy to identify tax issues that should be addressed" in designing new regulations and "guidance."
"I hope this information is helpful," Wilkins wrote. "I am sending a similar response to your colleagues. If you have questions, please contact me or have your staff contact Cathy Barre at (202) 622-3720."
Right-wing media have repeatedly used unfounded conspiracy theories to prop up the IRS "scandal" after the allegations that the IRS solely investigated conservative groups' campaign spending began to crumble. Meanwhile, the political influence of money spent by outside groups has soared to record levels in the 2014 election cycle.
Radio host Laura Ingraham dismissed the sometimes insurmountable barriers voter ID laws can create to disenfranchise eligible voters to argue that voters deterred by ID requirements must not care enough about the country to vote.
On the November 4 edition ofher radio show, Ingraham suggested that "if it's too difficult for you to get a government issued ID in the states that require IDs," then "I don't really want you voting":
If you just sit it out election after election then -- well frankly if you make that decision not to vote, then I don't really want you voting. I'm kind of glad you didn't vote. Right? If you can't be bothered to get to the polls every few years, or if you can't be bothered to fill in an absentee ballot, or it's too difficult for you to get a government issued ID in the states that require IDs [...] I get this feeling that if you can't be bothered to go to the polls, then good. You can't care that much about the country, or you must be so uninformed that you think it's all going fine.
But the difficulty of obtaining an ID has been well-documented, and voter ID laws disproportionately burden low-income voters. A report from The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University's School of Law explained that, for the "11 percent of eligible voters who lack the required photo ID," transportation issues and limited operating hours can be roadblocks. It found that almost 500,00 eligible voters both "do not have access to a vehicle and live more than 10 miles from the nearest state ID-issuing office open more than two days a week," and many of them live in areas with limited public transportation options. It also reported that many offices that issue IDs have severely limited hours:
- For example, the office in Sauk City, Wisconsin is open only on the fifth Wednesday of any month. But only four months in 2012 -- February, May, August, and October -- have five Wednesdays. In other states -- Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, and Texas -- many part-time ID-issuing offices are in the rural regions with the highest concentrations of people of color and people in poverty.
The report also pointed to the costs of obtaining IDs, which can be higher than the discriminatory "poll taxes" that were banned during the civil rights era:
More than 1 million eligible voters in these states fall below the federal poverty line and live more than 10 miles from their nearest ID-issuing office open more than two days a week. These voters may be particularly affected by the significant costs of the documentation required to obtain a photo ID. Birth certificates can cost between $8 and $25. Marriage licenses, required for married women whose birth certificates include a maiden name, can cost between $8 and $20. By comparison, the notorious poll tax -- outlawed during the civil rights era -- cost $10.64 in current dollars.
And voters have spoken out about the difficulties they faced in attempting to obtain ID. The Guardian detailed the story of a Texas man, Eric Kennie, who will be unable to vote in the midterm elections because of the state's strict voter ID law:
To get an EIC, Kennie needs to be able to show the Texas department of public safety (DPS) other forms of documentation that satisfy them as to his identity. He presented them with his old personal ID card - issued by the DPS itself and with his photo on it - but because it is more than 60 days expired (it ran out in 2000) they didn't accept it. Next he showed them an electricity bill, and after that a cable TV bill, but on each occasion they said it didn't cut muster and turned him away.
Two recent snapshots nicely capture the commentary class and their bulwark on behalf of Republicans this campaign season.
Lamenting the "pitiful" state of the 2014 election season, New York Times columnist Frank Bruni this week denounced what he saw as the vacuous condition of political debate. Claiming America's raging problems were akin to a burning house, Bruni claimed "None of the candidates have spoken with the necessary urgency or requisite sweep."
Oh, what the columnist wouldn't have given to hear some "real substance" on the campaign trail. The beseeching seemed odd because Bruni later announced the "defining moment" of the election season came when Kentucky Democratic senatorial candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes declined to answer a question, during a newspaper editorial interview, about whether she had voted previously for Barack Obama, who is very unpopular in the Bluegrass State. The question had nothing to do with the burning issues facing America, as Bruni described them. Instead, it was an exercise in optics: How would a red-state Democrat deal with a sticky question about her White House allegiance?
Nonetheless, joining an army of pundits who expressed horror at Grimes' clumsy response, Bruni announced the Democrat had "tossed character, honesty and any kind of mature conversation with voters to the side." Left unmentioned by Bruni? Grimes' Republican opponent simply refused to answer any public policy questions posed by the same newspaper editorial board that hosted Grimes; the same board that heard the Democrat answer queries for an hour about the environment, gay marriage, campaign finance reform, the government sequester, abortion rights, and coal mining.
So much for the absence of campaign substance.
Still, Bruni's column illustrated a certain Beltway media symmetry this year: Pundits lament a lack of campaign seriousness, and then treat a trivial gotcha question as being deeply serious. Count that as a win for Republicans.
Meanwhile on CNN, during her interview with Vice President Joe Biden that aired Monday, and while discussing the midterm elections, Gloria Borger insisted Americans are "frustrated" and "fearful" and "angry" about key events, including the administration's handling of the Ebola virus' scare. Borger's point has been a favorite among Beltway pundits in recent weeks as they parrot Republicans: Ebola's just the latest Big Government failure.
But it's not true.
From the November 3 edition of Fox News' The Kelly File:
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From the November 3 edition of MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show:
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From the November 3 edition of CNN's The Lead with Jake Tapper:
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Fox News' Gretchen Carlson criticized Cosmopolitan magazine for writing about politics and endorsing candidates on the same day Fox's Megyn Kelly teamed up with the magazine for a Facebook Q&A.
Cosmopolitan expanded its coverage to include politics in August, launching its "#CosmoVotes" campaign which focuses on candidate endorsements, coverage of "women-centric issues," and a "social media effort" to encourage readers to vote, particularly in the upcoming midterm elections.
On the November 3 edition of The Real Story, host Gretchen Carlson criticized Cosmopolitan's foray into politics, suggesting the magazine is "taking it a step too far," because "they basically say some kind of snarky words about any Republican candidate, calling them 'troubling,' 'an extremist who rails against the poor,' 'an anti-choice radical.'" Carlson noted that other women's magazines have covered the 2014 midterm elections highlighting both Republicans and Democrats, but questioned Cosmopolitan's decision to endorse certain candidates, saying, "A lot of people are probably wondering why fashion magazines are getting into politics and actually endorsing candidates but that is the world that we live in now":
Forget the issues. Let's talk about fear and anger.
That message, coming out of a CNN interview with Vice President Joe Biden, perfectly captures the media's role in the 2014 midterm elections.
Biden and Gloria Borger, CNN's chief political analyst, discussed the VP's future political ambitions and his take on whether the 2014 midterms will shift the balance of power in Washington in an interview that aired this morning.
"If you look at every single major issue in this campaign, the American public agree with our position," Biden said, "from federal support for infrastructure to minimum wage to marriage equality."
Biden is right, and the numbers are staggering. Seventy percent of Americans support increasing the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour, according to the results of a CBS News/New York Times poll from September. When Gallup asked whether voters would be more likely to support candidates who want to spend federal government money on infrastructure repairs, 72 percent said they would. Polling from ABCNews/Washington Post, The New York Times/CBS News, and McClatchy-Marist all shows majority support for marriage equality. Add universal background checks and federal action to combat climate change to the growing list of progressive issues backed by large majorities of the electorate.
"But wait a minute," Borger injected:
Our polls show voters are angry, they're fearful, they're frustrated. Not only about domestic policy, like the roll out of the president's health care reform, but also on the handling of Ebola and ISIS. So the question is how do you fix that?
It's true that a recent CNN poll found that voters are scared and angry -- when they are asked by pollsters how scared and angry they are. That poll, incidentally, didn't ask what issues matter most to voters.
All of this feeds right into the GOP electoral strategy of using fear-based appeals to sway voters.
"With four weeks to go before the midterm elections, Republicans have made questions of how safe we are -- from disease, terrorism or something unspoken and perhaps more ominous -- central in their attacks against Democrats," The New York Times reported in October.
Since that time, CNN discussed the minimum wage on 35 broadcasts and mentioned unemployment or economic growth during 52 broadcasts, according to a Nexis search. Ebola appears in 565 news transcripts during that time. Even factoring in CNN's international broadcasting, it would hard to find an hour of news programming that didn't feed into Ebola panic in the past 4 weeks.
And it's not just CNN. Throughout the closing weeks of the election, news media have gone into overdrive helping Republican sow the seeds of Ebola panic.
Voters, meanwhile, are 11 times more likely to say that jobs and the economy are one of the most important issues heading into the economy than they are to cite Ebola.
Nevertheless, Borger was congratulated by her CNN colleagues for forcing Biden off a discussion of issues like raising the minimum wage.
"He had listed that laundry list, that grocery list of items and you pushed him off that, you were right to," New Day host Chris Cuomo said. "Because it's all about the perception of whether or not there's been leadership on the key issues, not the positions."
By defining the problem as one of perception, CNN lets Republicans off the hook for blocking massively popular policies like raising the minimum wage or establishing universal background checks on firearms sales.
Discussing her interview with Biden, Borger warned that Democrats would need to reconsider whether they spent enough time talking about the economy this election cycle. That would be a reasonable critique had Borger not just made sure the conversation was centered around fear and anger:
They're going to have to have the discussion about whether they had a campaign with a bunch of themes, which I would argue they didn't, and what they can talk about. Should they have been talking about the economy, as Joe Biden was trying to talk about, or did they let the message get out of control on other items? Lots of Republicans are running on fear.
And lots of media outlets are lending them a helping hand.
Fox News misleadingly claimed that a Republican Senate majority could be a "big plus" for the stock market and generate economic growth of 3 percent to 4 percent, but hid the reality that growth has already topped those levels.
On the November 3 edition of Fox News' America's Newsroom, co-host Martha MacCallum warned that the midterm elections could have a "big impact on your money" and argued that despite recent stock market growth, "we could be seeing an even bigger rally if the GOP takes the Senate." Fox Business host Stuart Varney agreed, attributing the stock market rally of the past two weeks to the fact that "Republicans look more and more likely to take the Senate," and predicting that policies produced by a Republican-led Senate could set the economy on a path toward "3 to 4 percent" growth "instead of 2 percent." MacCallum and Varney claimed that 4 percent growth is something the economy has not seen in "a long time":
In reality, the American economy has grown by an average of 4.1 percent in the last six months -- while the Senate remained under Democratic control. The second and third quarters of 2014 had the strongest back-to-back growth rates the U.S. has seen since 2003, with respective growth rates of 4.6 percent and 3.5 percent. In fact, growth rates have topped Varney's arbitrary "3 to 4 percent" threshold during four of the past five quarters.
As Bloomberg News' Dave Weigel noted, Varney's speculation also ignores the Dow Jones industrial average's gain of more than 4,000 points since the 2012 election. The Dow is up more than 9,000 points since President Obama was first inaugurated in January 2009.
From the October 31 edition of PBS' Moyers & Company:
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From the November 3 edition of Courtside Entertainment Group's The Laura Ingraham Show:
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Fox News' coverage of the 2014 midterm elections devoted significant time to fawning over GOP congressional and gubernatorial contenders. The mere discussion of Republican candidates often morphed into free campaign ads, and when those candidates appeared on the network, Fox figures doled out flattery and softball questions.
New Hampshire Senate candidate Scott Brown, for instance, a former network employee, appeared on Fox to hear how he is "one of the finest politicians [people have] seen." In his interview on the network, Florida Gov. Rick Scott listened to Sean Hannity rattle off a list of glowing statistics about his record as governor that seemed more suited for a campaign ad.
Media Matters has compiled the best of the worst examples of Fox's unabashed flattery:
From the November 2 edition of Fox News' America's News HQ:
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From the November 1 edition of Fox News' Fox & Friends Saturday:
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Colorado's two largest newspapers, The Denver Post and The Gazette, have rarely mentioned Hispanic voters and the issues that matter to this key electoral bloc in their coverage of the state's U.S. Senate race.