Media Matters looks back at the best of the worst of right-wing media's treatment of women in 2013.
Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen dismissed the real-life rape of a minor as "manhandl[ing]" and refused to acknowledge the realities of the sexual misconduct, a longstanding and common practice for Cohen.
In a Post op-ed on September 2, Cohen highlighted singer Miley Cyrus' recent MTV performance where she infamously twerked in order to bring attention to a New Yorker report by Ariel Levy on the horrific rape of a minor in Steubenville, OH in August 2012. Cohen euphemistically characterized the victim as being stripped and manhandled:
The first thing you should know about the so-called Steubenville Rape is that this was not a rape involving intercourse. The next thing you should know is that there weren't many young men involved -- just two were convicted. The next thing you should know is that just about everything you do know about the case from TV and the Internet was wrong. One medium fed the other, a vicious circle of rumor, innuendo and just plain lies. It made for marvelous television.
The New Yorker piece was done by Ariel Levy, a gifted writer. When I finished her story, I felt somewhat disconcerted -- unhappily immersed in a teenage culture that was stupid, dirty and so incredibly and obliviously misogynistic that I felt like a visitor to a foreign country. That country, such as it is, exists on the Internet -- in e-mails and tweets and Facebook, which formed itself into a digital lynch mob that demanded the arrest of the innocent for a crime -- gang rape -- that had not been committed. It also turned the victim into a reviled public figure, her name and picture (passed out, drunk) available with a Google query.
And yet what indisputably did happen is troubling enough. A teenage girl, stone-drunk, was stripped and manhandled. She was photographed and the picture passed around. Obviously, she was sexually mistreated. And while many people knew about all of this, no one did anything about it. The girl was dehumanized. As Levy put it, "[T]he teens seemed largely unaware that they'd been involved in a crime." She quoted the Jefferson County prosecutor, Jane Hanlin: "'They don't think that what they've seen is a rape in the classic sense. And if you were to interview a thousand teen-agers before this case started and said, "Is it illegal to take a video of another teenager naked?," I would be astonished if you could find even one who said yes.'"
Illegal is sort of beside the point. Right, proper, nice, respectful, decent -- you choose the word -- is more apt. This is what got me: a teenage culture that was brutal and unfeeling, that treated the young woman as dirt. "'She's deader than O.J.'s wife. She's deader than Caylee Anthony,' " one kid exulted in a YouTube posting. "'They raped her harder than that cop raped Marsellus Wallace in "Pulp Fiction." She is so raped right now.' " Yes, I know, they were all drunk, woozy and disoriented from a tawdry cable TV and celebrity culture.
After bizarrely emphasizing that what happened in Steubenville did not involve rape by intercourse, Cohen later referred to the crime as stripping and manhandling without ever definitively acknowledging that the assault amounted to rape. Of course, an Ohio jury found that the victim was raped and two teens were guilty of the crime.
No act in modern media culture can create as instantly polarizing a figure as the leaking of classified information. Daniel Ellsberg, Julian Assange, Bradley Manning, and now Edward Snowden -- the complexity of their human psyche was instantly reduced to binary choices by opposing extremes tugging to set a narrative.
They must be canonized or villainized.
Creating a media narrative focused on battles over the moral character of imperfect individuals inevitably draws the public away from necessary debates about our fundamental rights.
Bob Schieffer's commentary Sunday night on CBS was jarring, because after acknowledging, "I don't know yet if the government has overreached since 9/11 to reinforce our defenses, and we need to find out," the veteran newsman then turned his fire: "I think what we have in Edward Snowden is just a narcissistic young man who has decided he is smarter than the rest of us."
Schieffer's statement followed former NBC anchor Tom Brokaw belittling Snowden as a "military washout" and Richard Cohen of The Washington Post describing him as a "cross-dressing Little Red Riding Hood."
Whether or not Edward Snowden is a narcissist is inconsequential. Was the information he leaked to The Guardian and The Washington Post accurate? What are the boundaries between the surveillance abilities our 21st century telecommunications infrastructure provides agencies like the NSA, and a free and open society?
Who Edward Snowden is as a person is insignificant to the question of whether or not we as a society should be having a debate - facts in hand - about the level of surveillance we are willing to tolerate.
There are legitimate grounds of inquiry into how individuals obtain clearances, the use of private contractors by the intelligence community, and if the disclosure of this information constitutes a criminal act. But the majority of attacks on Snowden don't seek answers to these questions. They attempt to distract us with a chorus of voices more interested in a conversation better suited to the naming of Kim Kardashian and Kanye West's baby than the most significant discussion about our right to privacy of the past decade.
Snowden has been called a "hero," "traitor," "dropout," "narcissist," and "washout." He has been attacked by elites from all ends of the ideological spectrum in government and the media. And yes, he has put himself forward for these attacks. But just as the conversation the Pentagon Papers promoted was ultimately far more significant than the personality of Daniel Ellsberg, the conversation Edward Snowden has begun is far more important than any defects - or heroic qualities - he may possess.
Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen legitimized the debunked right-wing claim that President Obama ceded leadership on Libya to other nations, choosing instead to "lead from behind."
Cohen wrote that Obama egregiously lied in the third presidential debate when he suggested that "he had America take the lead in Libya":
If, however you choose a president by [honesty] alone, then you have a tough time ahead of you. Both candidates lied.
Obama might have been the more egregious of the two. He strongly suggested that he had America take the lead in Libya, organizing the air campaign that brought down Moammar Gaddafi. In fact, the French took the lead and the United States followed, which gave rise the phrase "leading from behind" -- an indictable offense, if you ask me.
Cohen echoed a right-wing media claim based on a May New Yorker article examining President Obama's foreign policy record. In that article, Ryan Lizza quoted an unnamed Obama adviser who described the U.S. role during the successful campaign to oust former Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi as "leading from behind." Right-wing media figures have long claimed that quotation illustrated weakness in Obama's foreign policy.
But contrary to this claim from Cohen and the right-wing media, Lizza himself has said that the "leading from behind" phrase was not an expression of weakness by the Obama administration. Rather, the quote referred to the Obama administration's successful effort to lead "a coalition in the U.N. to get military authorization to topple Gadhafi."
Lizza explained to a conservative activist:
So the quote actually is the opposite of what you are saying. It actually refers to the strategy that Obama used in the U.N. to get all of the nations to support the U.S.' use of force resolution, because after the Bush years it was really hard for the U.S. to go to the U.N. and get support for the use of force because Bush was really, really unpopular.
In a Washington Post column, Richard Cohen justified a potential Israeli strike on Iran's nuclear facilities by claiming that it would delay Iran's ability to build nuclear weapons, as evidenced by Israel's 1981 strike on Iraq's Osirak reactor. But experts say that the Osirak reactor strike did not delay -- and might even have accelerated -- Saddam Hussein's pursuit of nuclear weapons.
As I've frequently pointed out, the fact that columnist Richard Cohen is what passes for a "liberal" at the Washington Post pretty thoroughly undermines the idea that the paper's opinion pages lean to the left. In response, people have occasionally asked me "Who says Cohen is supposed to be a liberal?" Well, now, the Post has removed any doubt about the role it thinks Cohen plays at the paper, officially designating him a "left-leaning" columnist:
Dana Milbank is the kind of "left-leaning" columnist who voted for Republican presidential candidates in 2000 and 2004 and a Republican-turned-independent in 2008. And who referred to Hillary Clinton as a "mad bitch." Just try to imagine the Post identifying as "right-leaning" a columnist who voted for Democratic presidential candidates in 2000 and 2004 and called Sarah Palin a "mad bitch."
But it's Richard Cohen's presence on the "left-leaning" list that's really remarkable. Here's a refresher:
"Liberal" Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen wants you to know that he really doesn't care what happened between Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill, who alleged during Thomas' Senate confirmation hearings that Thomas made repeated unwelcome "sexual overtures" to her when she was his assistant:
I was young and boorish once myself and have turned out to be a veritable saint. I venture to say we all did and said terrible things when we were young, which is why nature protects the elderly with failing memories. I want to forget both Hill and Thomas. Let us media types let go of this story.
Hill's accusations against Thomas are back in the news after Thomas' wife recently called Hill seeking an apology for her testimony. Lillian McEwen, Thomas' former girlfriend, also came forward to say that Hill's statements were consistent with the Clarence Thomas she knew. McEwen is currently seeking a publisher for her autobiography.
One thing Cohen is sure of: Hill definitely wasn't sexually harassed, because if she had been, she would have taken advantage of the benefits of affirmative action and found a different job:
In fact, they have nothing to do with anything -- unless it is to prove that nothing about Thomas and his initial accuser, Anita Hill, makes any sense. Her charges fell somewhat short of blatant, coercive, sexual harassment -- or, if they didn't, then why did she follow her abuser, Thomas, from one job to the next? A black, female Yale Law School graduate was not lacking in employment opportunities.
Richard Cohen, the Washington Post's torture-loving "liberal" columnist who denounces liberals as "leftists" and "communists" and who was so certain of the validity of President Bush's case for war in Iraq he sneered that only a "fool or possibly a Frenchman" could fail to see its wisdom, once again demonstrates the absurdity of the notion that the Post is a liberal paper.
The problem with Cohen's column today isn't that arguing against hate crimes legislation constitutes apostasy; it's the way in which he argues against hate crime legislation that causes the skin to crawl.
Cohen begins by noting what he calls New York City's "hate-crime spree, culminating early this month with the torture of three men in the Bronx, purportedly for being gay," which he follows by asserting:
Almost as bad as hate crimes themselves is the designation. It is a little piece of totalitarian nonsense, a way for prosecutors to punish miscreants for their thoughts or speech, both of which used to be protected by the Constitution (I am an originalist in this regard).
Really? Calling the torture of three gay men a "hate crime" is almost as bad as torturing three gay men? That the Washington Post would publish such warped anti-gay moral equivalence doesn't really surprise me; that it would come from the paper's purportedly liberal columnist is, however, quite disappointing.
[Jimmy] Carter's energy program was right on the money. The message was fine; the messenger was awful. This is exactly the case with Obama, who is far more likable than Carter, yet is being cuffed around in a similar manner. Being right is nice. Convincing others you are is essential. Yet even George W. Bush, who left a grateful nation with two wars and a recession -- somehow he forgot the mumps -- hypothetically runs neck and neck with Obama. This is because Obama's insistence on realism comes across as pessimism.
No. It is because unemployment has hovered around 9.5 percent for well more than a year. The problem isn't the messenger, it's the lousy economy. Or has Richard Cohen forgotten that just two years ago, "awful" messenger Barack Obama and his "insistence on realism" won a landslide electoral victory?
Cohen, by the way, has written the word "unemployment" in only three columns in the past 19 months. His September 7, 2010 column was typical of the punditocracy's bizarre belief that political salvation lies in better speechwriters rather than a better economy. After grudgingly acknowledging that "some" of Obama's troubles stem from a "lousy economy," Cohen demands not that policymakers focus on repairing that economy, but that Obama look more "commander in chiefish":
Some of Obama's travails stem from the lousy economy -- unemployment up at around 10 percent. … But it is clear by now that Obama has allowed others to define him. For this, Obama needs to blame Obama. His stutter-step approach to certain issues -- his wimpy statements regarding the planned Islamic center in Manhattan, for instance -- erodes not just his standing but his profile. … [W]hat Obama can do -- what he must do -- is get some new people. His staff ill-serves him so that he presents a persona at odds with his performance. … The president needs better speechwriters. The president needs a staff to tell him not to give an Oval Office address unless he has something worthy of the Oval Office to say. The president needs someone to look into the camera so that, when the light goes on and he says, "Good evening," he looks commander in chiefish: big. In other words, the president needs to fire some key people. Either that, or the way things are going, the American people are going to fire him.
Similarly, on July 20, 2010, Cohen acknowledged that Obama's political struggles are in part a result of the fact that "[t]he economy remains sluggish and unemployment remains high" -- and then went on to conclude "Americans know Obama is smart. But we still don't know him. Before Americans can give him credit for what he's done, they have to know who he is. We're waiting."
Let's set aside the question of whether Cohen is right that the solution to Obama's political problems is improved speeches rather than an improved economy. Think about what it says about Richard Cohen that he knows the economy is terrible, that unemployment has been too high for too long -- but what he's really concerned about is Barack Obama's "persona." How out of touch do you have to be to repeatedly gloss over a terrible economy in favor of a lengthy discussion of presidential style points?
In his August 24 Washington Post column, Richard Cohen states that those who recognize the difference between innocent Muslims and the "sliver of believers" who attacked the United States on 9/11 "have a moral duty to support the creation of the Islamic center." From the column:
This is not a complicated matter. If you believe that an entire religion of upward of a billion followers attacked the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, then it is understandable that locating a mosque near the fallen World Trade Center might be upsetting. But the facts are otherwise. Islam was not in on the attack -- just a sliver of believers. That being the case, those people with legitimate hurt feelings are mistaken. They need our understanding, not our indulgence.
If, on the other hand, you do not believe that the attack was launched by an entire religion, you have a moral duty to support the creation of the Islamic center. Lots of people fall into this category -- or say they do -- and still protest the mosque. They include Newt Gingrich, New York Republican gubernatorial candidate Rick Lazio and that Twittering Twit of the Tundra, Sarah Palin. They indulge in a kind of pornography of analogy -- a bit of demagogic buffoonery that is becoming more and more obvious. They pretend that they have a solemn obligation to defend the (powerful) majority from the demands of the (powerless) minority and champion people whose emotions are based on a misreading of the facts.
From Richard Cohen's August 3 Washington Post op-ed, titled, "Newt Gingrich, pushing prejudice at Ground Zero":
Newt Gingrich, his doctorate notwithstanding, has offered us an illogical and ahistorical context to the ugly dispute about building an Islamic cultural center and mosque near Manhattan's Ground Zero. For a while, I thought that Sarah Palin and others would be the only ones to reap the political benefit of exploiting anti-Muslim sentiment, but Gingrich was not to be denied. With a preposterous solemnity, he expounded the schoolyard doctrine of tit for tat.
Gingrich noted that there "are no churches or synagogues in Saudi Arabia." True enough. However, it is not the government of Saudi Arabia that seeks to open a mosque in Lower Manhattan, but a private group. In addition, and just for the record, Saudi Arabia does not represent all of Islam and, also just for the record, the al-Qaeda terrorists who murdered nearly 3,000 people on Sept. 11, 2001, would gladly have added the vast Saudi royal family to the list of victims. In recompense, the Saudis would just as gladly apply some dull swords to the necks of al-Qaeda's leaders. It is the way of the desert, or something like that.
I would also note that women are not allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia. Applying Gingrichian logic, it follows that no Muslim women should be allowed to drive in the United States and its possessions and territories -- or, for that matter, use a BlackBerry, since the United Arab Emirates is about to block some of its key functions. I'm sure Gingrich would agree.
This mosque and Islamic center were approved by the local neighborhood advisory board and have the backing of the mayor. To an alarming extent, the opponents are mostly Republican politicians -- Palin, Lazio, Gingrich and even congressional candidates in other states. They pretend to have the courage of their convictions, but the truth is otherwise. When it comes to convictions, they have none at all.
Last week, the Washington Post reported on a new Kaiser Family Foundation poll:
The poll found that misconceptions about the legislation persist, including the "death panel" falsehood propagated by opponents of the legislation.
"A year after the town meeting wars of last summer, a striking 36% of seniors said that the law 'allowed a government panel to make decisions about end of life care for people on Medicare', and another 17% said they didn't know," Kaiser Family Foundation chief executive Drew Altman wrote.
Brendan Nyhan argues that "motivated reasoning appears to play an important role in the persistence of the misperception ... 55% of seniors with an unfavorable view of the law believed in the death panel myth, while only 17% of those with a favorable view did so."
I would argue that something else surely plays a role: The failure of the media to consistently and clearly explain that the "death panels" claim was false. Sure, most major news organizations made that clear at least once. But they didn't do so consistently.
Let's take the Washington Post, for example, since it reported on the persistence of the myth.
Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz has praised his paper's "death panels" coverage, writing on March 22: "One stellar moment for the press was the refusal to perpetuate the myth of 'death panels.' ... journalists at The Washington Post, New York Times, CNN and ABC News, among others, said flatly that this was untrue." And Post political reporter Perry Bacon said in June 21 Live Q&A: "If you recall, the death panels issue got traction in conservative media, even as papers like ours did not cover it very much."
But this year alone, Post readers have encountered more than a dozen references to "death panels" that failed to explicitly state that such panels didn't exist. The following articles and columns mention the "death panels" claim without stating its falsity:
"The doctor is (finally) in; Medicare administrator must usher in low-cost, efficient care," David Ignatius, July 9
"A patriot's second act," Dana Milbank, June 3
"Under the new health-care law, what will happen when providers' morals conflict with patients' rights?," Rob Stein, May 11
"History shows that Democrats aren't exactly the boys of summer," Al Kamen, March 26
"44: Grassley touts provisions he authored in health bill he voted against," Michael Shear, March 24
"Three points for conservatives," E.J. Dionne, March 23
"The Republicans who stirred the tea," Dana Milbank, March 22
"Would Reagan vote for Sarah Palin?; He's their hero, but Palin and the tea partiers need to understand his true legacy," Steven F. Hayward (AEI) March 7
"Political theater with a point," Kathleen Parker, March 3
"Obama ready to advance on health care; In radio address, GOP compromise still offered but has limited shelf life," Anne Kornblut, February 28
"Trig and political calculus," Kathleen Parker, February 14
"How can apple pie suddenly turn bad?; To learn what's gone wrong with health-care reform, go back to 1994," Abigail Trafford, February 2
"Funding for health-care interest groups often fuzzy," Dan Eggen, January 7
"Leader without a cause," Richard Cohen, January 5
Yes, some of those are opinion columns, including one written by an AEI staffer rather than a Post employee. That isn't a relevant defense: Opinion columns have the ability to influence readers, too -- otherwise, why would they exist? And the Washington Post is responsible for everything that appears in its pages.
And, to be sure, some of those references are critical of the "death panels" rhetoric. The March 23 E.J. Dionne piece, for example, read:
In its current incarnation, conservatism has taken on an angry crankiness. It is caught up in a pseudo-populism that true conservatism should mistrust -- what on Earth would Bill Buckley have made of "death panels"? The creed is caught up in a suspicion of all reform that conservatives of the Edmund Burke stripe have always warned against.
But it didn't say the "death panels" claim wasn't true. (To Dionne's credit, his July 26 column was explicit: "There were no 'death panels' in the Democratic health-care bills. But this false charge got so much coverage that an NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll last August found that 45 percent of Americans thought the reform proposals would likely allow 'the government to make decisions about when to stop providing medical care to the elderly.' That was the summer when support for reform was dropping precipitously. A straight-out lie influenced the course of one of our most important debates.")
No such credit is owed to Kornblut's February 28 news article, which simply stated "Death panels became part of the debate last summer, after prominent Republicans, including former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, claimed the government would set them up to decide who could live or die." Or Kamen's misleading statement that "the tea partiers got their operation in gear at the usually dull town hall meetings with lawmakers, berating them for supporting those death panels." Really? "those" death panels? Which death panels are "those"?
Washington Post readers shouldn't be surprised to learn that many people still believe in "death panels" -- not when the Post has repeatedly mentioned the death panel claim without debunking it.
Incidentally, Washington Post reporters and editors won't answer this simple question: Does the Post think it is sufficient to occasionally debunk falsehoods, or does the paper believe it should do so every time it prints those falsehoods?
Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen writes under the header "Thank you, Switzerland, for freeing Polanski":
The Swiss got it right. Their refusal to extradite film director Roman Polanski to the United States on a 33-year-old sex charge is the proper dénouement for this mess of a case. There is no doubt that Polanski did what he did, which is have sex with a 13-year-old after plying her with booze. There is no doubt also that after all these years there is something stale about the case, not to mention a "victim," Samantha Geimer, who has long ago forgiven her assailant and dearly wishes the whole thing would go away. So do I.
Why would Cohen put the word victim in quotes, suggesting that he doesn't believe the word really applies, given that he stipulates that Polanski had "sex with a 13-year-old after plying her with booze"? Does Richard Cohen think that 13-year-olds who are plied with alcohol in order to get them to "have sex" are not victims?
Last September, Cohen referred to Polanski's treatment of Geimer as "seduction." No, really.
And Cohen isn't the only Washington Post columnist who has downplayed Polanski's crime.
Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen is the latest media figure to attack President Obama for not sufficiently displaying the proper "body language" to express his anger over the BP oil spill. Cohen complained that Obama "showed not the slightest sign in the idiom that really counts in a media age -- body language -- that he gave a damn. He could see your pain, he could talk about your pain, but he gave no indication that he felt it."
From Cohen's June 22 Washington Post column:
This, of course, is the Obama enigma: Who is this guy? What are his core beliefs? The president himself is no help on this score. When it comes to his own image, he has a tin ear. He hugely misunderstood what some people were saying when they demanded that he get angry over the gulf oil catastrophe and the insult-to-injury statements of BP chief executive Tony Hayward. (Wayward Hayward, he should be called.)
What these people were seeking was not an eruption of anger, not a tantrum and not a full-scale denunciation of an oil company. What they wanted instead was a sign that this catastrophe meant something to Obama, that it was not merely another problem that had crossed his desk -- and this time just wouldn't budge. He showed not the slightest sign in the idiom that really counts in a media age -- body language -- that he gave a damn. He could see your pain, he could talk about your pain, but he gave no indication that he felt it.
One can understand. Obama's father deserted the family and afterward visited his son only once. He twice was separated from his mother, who lived in Indonesia without him. He was partially raised by his grandparents -- an elderly white couple. If the president is what the shrinks call "well-defended," who can blame him? It's ironic that Oprah Winfrey was maybe Obama's most significant early backer when the man himself is so un-Oprah. He cannot emote.
Pragmatism is fine -- as long as it is complicated by regret. But that indispensable wince is precisely what Obama doesn't show. It is not essential that he get angry or cry. It is essential, though, that he show us who he is. As of now, we haven't a clue.
Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen claims:
The health-care bill has almost no near-term benefit for anyone who votes. Its immediate beneficiaries are the uninsured, consisting of the poor and vulnerable, and the young and delusionally invincible. As a voting bloc, they largely don't.
And remember, Cohen is what passes for a liberal at Fred Hiatt's Washington Post, home of the nation's worst opinion pages.