A "terrible" performance
The dominant political story of the past week and a half has been Hillary Clinton's performance in the October 30 Democratic presidential debate. During and immediately after the debate, the general consensus was certainly not that Clinton had fallen on her face. As Eric Boehlert explained this week:
What was interesting about the debate was that commentators who later described the night as a train wreck for Clinton were surprisingly subdued as the debate unfolded in real time. It was only later, as the pundits fed off each other and whipped themselves into a frenzy, that the reviews become increasingly harsh, to the point where it was written in Beltway stone that Clinton had absolutely bombed during the debate; a "debacle."
But again, as it unfolded live, that's not how it was reported. For instance, live-blogging the debate at abcnews.com, Rick Klein, who later hyped the dire debate consequences for Clinton at ABC's The Note, wrote at 9:33 p.m.: "Clinton is strong, concise, and sharp tonight. She is finding ways to contrast herself with the Bush administration even while defending herself."
By 10:35 p.m., Klein wished the two-hour debate was over already: "The last few minutes remind me of why debates should end at 90 minutes. Less energy on the stage, and fewer interesting things to be said."
Time's Ana Marie Cox also wrote about the debate in real time. At 10:53 p.m., Cox wrote that Clinton had made her "first mistake of the night" -- an hour and 53 minutes into the debate, and about nine minutes before the end.
But as the media feeding frenzy continued, the pundit class convinced themselves that Clinton had turned in the worst debate performance in years. It was "terrible," the New York Post announced more than a week later.
Time's Mark Halperin declared it "disastrous" and a "failure." According to Halperin, Clinton was "shrill" and "too hot tempered." The Politico's Roger Simon agreed that Clinton "really" had a "bad night" -- but Simon insisted that Clinton "seemed largely emotionless and detached." Given that two such esteemed journalists agreed that Clinton had a horrible night, but did so based on directly contradictory reasons, it's easy to suspect that no matter what Clinton had done during the debate, the pundits would have criticized her.
So constant were the negative reviews of her performance, Clinton ultimately said in an interview that she hadn't been at her best during the debate.
Perhaps the best indication that the "disastrous performance" story line is overblown is that Slate's Mickey Kaus has been promoting it. Kaus is in full-on Clinton Campaign Death Watch mode, endlessly hyping the latest sign that Clinton is just days away from falling behind Dick Cheney in the Democratic primary campaign. In recent days, he has declared Clinton's campaign to be "flailing," announced that "Hillary has now used two of what she must have considered the most powerful weapons in her arsenal ... and they both backfired," and speculated that further discussion of immigration policy would "just about do it for her" -- meaning, end her campaign. Kaus has compared Clinton to Mike Dukakis and made what even he acknowledges is the "cheapest" reference to right-wing smears about Clinton having an affair with a female staffer.
None of this, however, is a sign that Clinton is actually in trouble. It is, instead, a reminder that Kaus says a lot of silly things, particularly about the impending doom facing Democrats. Kaus spent the months leading up to the 2004 Democratic primaries declaring Sen. John Kerry to be a dead man walking. In one memorably foolish missive, Kaus announced a "Kerry Withdrawal Contest," explaining "help him drop out now and avoid humiliation." Kerry, Kaus wrote at the time, "faces not just defeat but utter humiliation in the New Hampshire primary. Is he really going to soldier on to finish in the single digits and get clobbered by both Howard Dean and Wesley Clark, if not one or more other candidates?"
Less than two months later, Kerry won New Hampshire comfortably. He then went on to win the Democratic nomination, losing only four states along the way. When Mickey Kaus declares you dead in the water, it's time to start working on your acceptance speech.
If the media's rush to declare Clinton's performance a disaster sounds familiar, it's because there are striking similarities to the last debate performance to be so universally and harshly condemned by the media: Al Gore's during the 2000 general election.
Then, as now, the initial reviews weren't at all bad. In fact, the public and pundits alike initially judged Gore to have been the winner; the chattering class -- which couldn't stand Gore -- then talked itself into believing (or at least saying) that he had performed badly.
Then, as now, the real story of the debate was ignored by the media. In 2000, George W. Bush's misstatements and outright lies about serious policy matters were shoved aside in favor of relentless media criticism of Gore's mannerisms and utterly inconsequential mistake about which natural disasters he had visited with James Lee Witt and which he had visited with Witt's staff. This time around, the pundit class ridicules Clinton for allegedly evasive answers, while ignoring the larger story: the questions she was supposedly evading contained misleading claims and factually incorrect statements.
In her live-blogging of the debate, the very first comment Time's Cox made about the debate itself, two minutes in, mocked Brian Williams for an opening question that was transparently hostile to Clinton: "Bri-Bri, right in with the 'tell us how Hillary will eat our babies.' " Forty-three minutes later, she noted the resemblance of a question from Russert to Republican National Committee talking points: "The RNC has been emailing Tim. (See: Question about opening the Clinton archives.)" At 10:09, she mocked another Williams comment, this one about Obama: "Obama is totally a Muslim. Brian Williams just told me so."
In real time, Russert's question about the "Clinton archives" seemed to Cox to have been the result of RNC emails to NBC's star reporter. Later, President Clinton blasted Russert for his "breathtakingly misleading" question. The Annenberg Public Policy Center's FactCheck.org agreed, concluding that Russert "misled" with his question by "misquot[ing]" a letter from President Clinton. Correcting its earlier claim that Hillary Clinton's answer to Russert's question was "doubly misleading," FactCheck concluded, "Russert was wrong, and so were we. Bill Clinton ... called Russert's question 'breathtakingly misleading,' and we now agree. Russert did not respond to requests for comment."
Despite the fact that Russert's question sounded to at least one national reporter like it had come straight from the Republican National Committee, and despite the fact that it was "breathtakingly misleading," countless news reports have taken Clinton to task for her response, rather than indicating that Russert's question was false.
And -- what a coincidence! -- that's just what the RNC wanted the media to do. The Hill reported this week:
RNC officials acknowledged they've been encouraged to tap into the "stockpile" of opposition research they have amassed on Clinton more and more in recent days because of the senator's debate showing last Tuesday, combined with the upcoming Iowa caucuses and Clinton's continued leads in most polls.
Since last Tuesday, there has been a steady drumbeat of less than flattering stories promulgated by the RNC about the Clintons' role in releasing documents to the public.
Like many pundits, the RNC has seen Clinton as the presumptive nominee for much of the year, and one official in the RNC's research department said they have sought throughout the year to portray Clinton as "calculating."
Her trouble in last week's debate, quickly seized upon by her Democratic rivals, is helping paint that picture, the official said.
"She's really fallen into the framework that we've been using on her," the official said. "It's just been great for us."
After putting a strategic framework in place to define Clinton as both calculating and evasive, [Communications Director Danny] Diaz and the rest of the RNC communications team are trying to capitalize on what many saw as Clinton's first significant stumble.
The archives question wasn't the only question asked of Clinton during the debate that contained false or misleading assertions.
One of Russert's most over-the-top questions of the evening was about Social Security. Here is the complete question Russert asked Clinton:
RUSSERT: Senator Clinton, I want to clear something up which goes to the issue of credibility. You were asked at the AARP debate whether or not you would consider taxing, lifting the cap from $97,500, taxing that, raising more money for Social Security. You said, quote, "It's a no." I asked you the same question in New Hampshire, and you said "no." Then you went to Iowa and you went up to Tod Bowman, a teacher, and had a conversation with him saying, "I would consider lifting the cap perhaps above $200,000." You were overheard by an Associated Press reporter saying that. Why do you have one public position and one private position?
Even if everything Russert said was true, that would be a remarkable question: he began it by suggesting there is something wrong with Clinton's "credibility" and ended it by directly asserting that she is a liar.
But not everything Russert said was true. Very little of it was, in fact.
At the AARP debate, Clinton hadn't been asked specifically about "lifting the cap from $97,500"; she had been asked a far more general question. And she didn't say, "It's a no"; the moderator did. (Note that Russert went out of his way to make sure the audience understood that he was quoting Clinton directly: "You said, quote, 'It's a no.' " But he wasn't telling the truth. She hadn't said those words that he was so careful to make clear she had said.)
Russert then falsely characterized his own question to Clinton at an earlier debate. Russert did not ask, as he claimed during the October 30 debate, whether Clinton would "consider" lifting the cap. He asked whether she would lift the cap. And she did not say "no" in response. She said that she would first "move toward fiscal responsibility" before making any such decision.
Oh, and that quote Russert attributed to Clinton's conversation with Bowman? It appears to be made up. The Associated Press did, in fact, report about the conversation, but did not directly quote Clinton saying anything even remotely like "I would consider lifting the cap perhaps above $200,000." Indeed, the AP directly quoted Clinton saying only one word: "gap." That word, "gap," is key: not only did the Associated Press not quote Clinton saying what Russert claims it quoted her saying, it characterized her as having said she would consider payroll taxes on income above $200,000, but not income between $97,500 and $200,000. Russert not only made up a quote, he made up a quote that is contradicted by the very news organization from which he claims to have gotten the quote in the first place.
In other words, Russert's entire question was false. He misrepresented the questions Clinton had been asked -- even misrepresenting his own words. He misrepresented her answers and quoted her saying things she did not say. At the end of it all, he called her a liar. In fact, there is no contradiction between what Clinton actually said in the two debates and what she reportedly told Tod Bowman. And Bowman himself told the Associated Press -- in that same article that didn't quote Clinton saying what Russert claimed she said -- "I don't blame her" for wanting to discuss Social Security with him privately instead of publicly "because no matter what she says, she'll be attacked."
Russert was right about one thing: his question did, indeed, go "to the issue of credibility." And it left his own credibility in tatters.
Yet the rest of the media have politely looked away, ignoring -- or, worse, defending -- Russert's dishonest performance.
On CNN's Reliable Sources last weekend, for example, host Howard Kurtz -- whose entire job is to report about the media, for both CNN and The Washington Post -- led a discussion with the Politco's Roger Simon, Townhall.com's Amanda Carpenter, and columnist Clarence Page in which not one of the four so much as hinted that any of Russert's questions might have been the tiniest bit misleading.
Kurtz, to his (small) credit, did raise the issue of whether Russert and co-moderator Brian Williams focused excessively on Clinton or on encouraging conflict among the candidates. But that is a benign question, especially compared to the much more serious matter of whether Russert had lied during his questioning of Clinton, or merely unintentionally made false claims. Instead, the journalists defended their powerful peer. Page declared that "everybody up there got hard questions." Carpenter dismissed complaints about Russert's "gotcha" questions as an "excuse" and an effort to "evade and not answer the hard questions." But the problem isn't that Clinton got "hard" questions, it's that she got false questions.
Simon went further, praising Russert for having done "an excellent job." Again: Russert made false claims about Hillary Clinton in the middle of a question in which he challenged her credibility. That is not only dishonest and hypocritical behavior, it is deeply damaging to the public's ability to make informed decisions about the candidates. It is doing serious damage to American democracy. But to Roger Simon, Russert deserves praise for this shameful performance.
In print, Kurtz wondered if it was "wise for Hillary strategists to gripe, on background, about Russert's questions" -- but he hasn't written a single word about whether those questions contained inaccuracies. He did praise Russert's question about illegal immigrants as "entirely fair." Three days before Kurtz offered that praise, The Telegraph in Nashua, New Hampshire, had editorialized that Russert's question -- which was based on Clinton's comments to that newspaper -- was "weak" and "was based on either an incomplete viewing of The Telegraph's editorial board video or an unfortunate reliance on secondary sources." The Telegraph gave Russert "low marks" for the question, which was "based on an incorrect interpretation of what she said to begin with" and took Clinton's comments "out of context."
So, why does Kurtz think the question was "entirely fair"? Did he even look into the facts before offering his praise for Russert?
Who's really "playing the gender card"?
Instead of examining Russert's handling of the debate, the political media quickly followed his mugging of Clinton by ridiculing her campaign's postdebate response.
In the wake of a debate in which the NBC moderators had bombarded her with a steady stream of abusive, false, and misleading questions, and in which her opponents had also taken a few shots at her, Clinton's campaign responded with a web video about the "Politics of Pile On." The video concluded with a clip of Clinton saying, during the debate, "I seem to be the topic of great conversation and great consternation, and that's for a reason."
It was, in many ways, an unremarkable response, reflecting one of the oldest tactics in the book: Front-runners deflect criticism by suggesting the criticism is merely a result of their success, or of opponents' desperation. This isn't even Politics 101; it's more basic than that. The merits of the message -- in this or any other case -- aside, it's something that every political reporter in the country has seen countless candidates employ countless times.
But this time, those reporters pretended it was something else. They pretended Clinton was "playing the gender card." Worse, they derided her as a "little girl" and mocked her for "whining."
Mickey Kaus went so far as to say Clinton should "stop acting like a whiny daughter who's hade [sic] her Barbie taken away!"
Here's that "Politics of Pile On" video again. Does Clinton look like a "whiny daughter who's had her Barbie taken away"? She's smiling at the beginning of her comments, and speaking confidently as she moves on to explaining what she sees as the "reason" for the focus on her. How about her speech at Wellesley, the all-women's college where she first drew national attention as an undergraduate? That's the other piece of "evidence" of Clinton "whining" and playing the "gender card" the media has pointed to. Here's video of the line in question. Does she look like she's whining about having a Barbie taken away? Clinton didn't play the gender card, she played the desperation card, employing the time-honored strategy of suggesting that criticism is the result of your opponents' desperation or of your own success.
The absurdity of a bunch of journalists (many, if not most, of them male) mocking a United States senator as a whiny little girl, all while accusing her of playing the gender card, couldn't be more clear.
Kaus insisted: "Hillary could resort to the standard damage-control techniques available to all public figures: Restating her position, changing the subject, waiting for what was a minor bad episode to blow over, etc." But Kaus and his peers in the media are, in effect, saying that Clinton cannot resort to one standard technique available to all other leading candidates: suggesting that one faces criticism solely because one's opponents are getting desperate. When Clinton does so, the media declares her to be "whining." They're insisting that Clinton not use the tactics available to every male candidate since the dawn of time. That things must be more difficult for her; that she must run this campaign backward and in high heels. There is a gender card being played, all right, but it is being played by the media, and it is being played against Hillary Clinton.
And, to be clear, the "gender card" gets played all the time, usually by male candidates and journalists. When the media attempt to feminize John Edwards by calling him the "Breck Girl" and obsessing over his haircuts, they are playing a particularly nasty "gender card." When they describe Clinton as "Miss Perfect" and go on about "poodle skirts" and "cooties" and cleavage the like, they are "playing the gender card." When they refer to Barack Obama as "Obambi" and compare him to Scarlett O'Hara, they are "playing the gender card."
Bill Clinton's own reaction to the debate has also been distorted by the media. Several news organizations have falsely reported that Clinton accused his wife's Democratic opponents of "swift-boating" her. In fact, Clinton was referring to Republican attacks and to the media's role in promoting those attacks.
And both Clintons have been mocked for suggesting that Senator Clinton was swift-boated, regardless of who was doing the swift-boating. Countless journalists have dismissed the suggestion out of hand. But was it really a bad comparison?
Used as a verb, "swift-boating" suggests making false claims about someone in order to challenge their character or integrity. That is exactly what Tim Russert did during last week's debate. His Social Security question to Clinton contained false claims, he explicitly set it up as going "to the issue of credibility," and he concluded the question by explicitly (and falsely) asserting that Clinton has been dishonest.
"You people are really nuts"
By the end of the week, some of the nation's most respected news outlets -- ABC, NPR, The New York Times, and Time magazine among them -- had begun to shift their attention toward things that really matter: whether Hillary Clinton left a tip at an Iowa diner she recently visited. Clinton did, in fact, leave a generous tip for restaurant staff, though initial news reports indicated that she had not done so.
Time's Cox explained why stories like this one matter:
The most interesting thing about the Clinton did-she-leave-a-tip-or-not bruhaha yesterday was the ferocity and speed with which the Clinton campaign pushed back -- with reporters at least. One can assume that's because they know this is the kind of story, true or not, that sticks to a candidate like, uhm, an expensive hair cut.
Set aside for a moment the simple fact that this kind of story "sticks to a candidate" because reporters endlessly repeat it. Let's assume that this kind of story, "true or not" (and Cox does not seem aware of the restaurant manager's reported confirmation that the campaign did leave a tip) does stick to a candidate, and that reporters really are powerless to avoid repeating it. That no matter how hard they try, they simply cannot write substantive articles about policy; they must write instead about haircuts and tips. The fact that they stick to candidates whether or not they are true is precisely the reason it is so irresponsible of reporters to report and repeat them when they aren't true.
Meanwhile, Anita Esterday -- the waitress at that Iowa diner who Clinton supposedly failed to tip -- understands what America's media elite do not: Stories like this are a colossal waste of time and distract from things that are actually important. As Esterday told one reporter, "You people are really nuts. ... There's kids dying in the war, the price of oil right now -- there's better things in this world to be thinking about than who served Hillary Clinton at Maid-Rite and who got a tip and who didn't get a tip."
On MSNBC, Chris Matthews has been doing his best to prove Anita Esterday right. While kids are dying in the war, Matthews obsesses over Hillary Clinton's "Chinese" clapping. For three straight days, Matthews wasted viewers' time with discussions about ... clapping. Thursday night, he discussed it in two separate segments. Finally, Chrystia Freeland of the Financial Times urged Matthews to get over his fixation with Clinton's mannerisms and focus on issues:
FREELAND: I do think that we have to be a little bit careful also about not picking on Hillary's mannerisms a little bit too much. So --
MATTHEWS: Ah, those secondary characteristics are off-base. Am I being told that?
FREELAND: Just a little bit. I mean, there's the clapping, there was the laugh. I think there are things to pick on Hillary about, but probably the clapping wouldn't be what I'd choose.
PATRICK HEALY (New York Times reporter): Well, there's one thing, Chris --
MATTHEWS: Well, give me a list -- Chrystia, give me a list some day on email of whom -- what I'm allowed to criticize about Hillary. And how --
FREELAND: Any policy matters; dynasty I think is OK, too.
MATTHEWS: Oh, OK. Yeah, I'll be sure to keep that in mind. Jim Warren, what do you make of this as a cultural phenomenon? If you're watching us from overseas, you say, "Is this what Americans do at political rallies? Oh, it's interesting."
JAMES WARREN (Chicago Tribune managing editor): Well, I mean, she can't copy me and stick her hands into her pants pockets. So, there's not much left to her. And given the repetity of her life, 10,000 different appearances a day -- oh, my gosh, it looks like she's at Sea World in San Diego. Here comes the seal! Yikes.
MATTHEWS: You're worse than I've ever been.
MATTHEWS: Throw me a fish.
Watch the video. Matthews' "I'll be sure to keep that in mind" was just dripping with sarcasm.
Imagine how much better off we'd all be if Anita Esterday had a television show on MSNBC, and Chris Matthews worked in a diner in Iowa.