Offering up some advice to the political press corps as it prepares to cover the 2016 presidential campaign, New York Times columnist Frank Bruni recently stressed that reporters and pundits ought to take a deep breath when big stories broke; to not immediately promote stumbles and campaign missteps to be more urgent and damaging than they really are.
"We may wish certain snags were roadblocks and certain missteps collapses, because we think they should be or they're sexier that way," wrote Bruni.
That was in his February 28 column. Four days later Bruni abandoned his own advice.
Pouncing on the controversy surrounding which email account Hillary Clinton used while serving as secretary of state, Bruni tossed his counsel for caution to the wind and treated the email development as an instant game changer and even wondered if the revelation indicated Clinton had a political "death wish."
But that fits the long-running pattern of the D.C. media's Clinton treatment: Over-eager journalists hungry for scandal can't even abide by the advice they dispensed four days prior. Or maybe Bruni simply meant that his advice of caution was supposed to apply only to Republican candidates. Because it's certainly not being applied to Hillary and the email kerfuffle coverage.
Instead, "The media and politicos and Twitterati immediately responded with all the measured cautious skepticism we've come to expect in response to any implication of a Clinton Scandal," noted Wonkette. "That is to say, none."
Just look how the very excitable Ron Fournier at National Journal rushed in after the email story broke and announced Clinton should probably just forget about the whole running-for-president thing. Why preemptively abandon an historic run? Because she may reveal herself to be "seedy," "sanctimonious," "self-important," and "slick." This, after Fournier denounced Bill and Hillary Clinton two weeks ago for their "stupid" and "sleazy" actions.
That seems like a temperate way for a Beltway columnist to write about presidential campaigns, right? Then again, both Fournier and Bruni drew a straight line from the unfolding email story to Bill Clinton's extra-marital affair nearly 20 years ago, which strikes me as odd, if not downright bizarre.
"As long as she's a national figure--and especially when she runs for president--Hillary Clinton will get more scrutiny than anyone else in the field," wrote Jamelle Bouie at Slate this week. (The press is also slow to react when holes in the email stories appear.)
Scrutiny is certainly part of the campaign equation and no candidate should be sealed off from it. What I'm highlighting is how Clinton scrutiny is so often wrapped in an almost a high school brand of social contempt.
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.
Media figures including New York Times columnist Frank Bruni and MSNBC host Joe Scarborough are distorting President Obama's proposals to claim that the president has said he will rely solely on taxes to cut the deficit. In fact, Obama has proposed a balanced approach of spending cuts combined with tax increases on the wealthy to reduce deficits.
On September 9, CBS News reported Obama's "plan for reducing the deficit would cut $2.50 in spending allowances for every $1 of increased tax revenue." Obama has advocated a balanced approach to deficit-cutting for years and continues to advocate it to this day. Indeed, some progressives have criticized Obama's budget proposals for cutting spending too much.
But in a column for the latest Sunday edition of the Times, Bruni claimed that Obama is suggesting that "extra taxation on the rich alone can solve many of our budget problems." Bruni wrote:
President Obama admits that he'd like taxes raised on households making more than $250,000. But he casts those increases as an insurance policy against any significant hikes on everyone else, and puts an emphasis on them far out of bounds with their potential impact. The implication is that extra taxation on the rich alone can solve many of our budget problems. That's savvy marketing, smart politics and utter bunk.
Scarborough similarly said that "we can't raise taxes to solvency," but "Obama's answer to everything" is "we're going to raise taxes on the rich."
The right-wing media have repeatedly pushed this falsehood that Obama wants to increase taxes to reduce the deficit while opposing spending cuts of any kind. They have also erected and knocked down the straw-man argument that taxing the wealthiest Americans at 100 percent would eliminate the deficit.
And Scarborough took this particular straw man even further. During the segment, he claimed that even if the government used tanks to seize all the assets of the top 1 percent, it would not close the deficit:
SCARBOROUGH: We could seize the assets of the top 1 percent. Take everything. Take 100 percent, go in with tanks, take their homes, sell them. Do all of that. That still wouldn't make us solvent -- not more than for eight, nine, 10 months.