Reporting on the contentious, drawn-out political battle surrounding President Obama's decision to pick Republican Chuck Hagel to be his next Secretary of Defense, Politico recently noted the extraordinary partisan acrimony the confirmation process has produced.
With Republicans adopting an unprecedented obstructionist strategy to block a premier cabinet post by lodging all kinds of threats to "hold" the confirmation or even to try to deny Hagel a senate vote, Politico concluded the controversy meant problems for party leaders, including Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (D-MI).
"Levin faces a conundrum," Politico reported. "He can force a party-line vote on Hagel, but that could damage the committee's longtime bipartisan spirit."
This makes no sense.
By launching a drawn out campaign against Hagel, Republicans have torn up decades worth of tradition on the Senate Armed Services Committee in terms of working across party lines to confirm secretaries of defense. But according to Politico it's the Democratic chairman who faces a "conundrum" over the lack of "bipartisan spirit" in the senate. It's the Democrat who has to deal with the "damage" done by Republican maneuvers.
Sometimes it seems the Beltway press will do anything to avoid blaming Republicans for their wildly obstructionist ways. It's a pattern of timidity that has marked Obama's time in Washington, D.C. Indeed, the press for years now has insisted on providing no framework with regards to the radical ways that now define the GOP.
By refusing to hold Obama's opponents accountable, and by actually making media stars out of the ones who actively obstruct, the press simply encourages the corrosive behavior. (By the way, this is the same Beltway press corps that has routinely blamed Obama for not successfully changing the tone in Washington.)
Both in terms of Republican obstructionist behavior and the press' unwillingness to call it what it is, the trend has reached its pinnacle with the current confirmation mess. And it's getting worse. Fox News this week reported Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) was threatening to block a confirmation vote on Jack Lew, selected by the president to be the next Secretary of Treasury.
Discarding centuries worth of advise-and-consent tradition (i.e. the winning president picks his cabinet), Republicans have radically rewritten the cabinet confirmation rulebook while journalists have stood quietly by, not bothering to inform news consumers about the dramatic shift taking place. Instead, the press treats it all as being commonplace; as just more partisan bickering.
And when not downplaying the ramifications or erroneously suggesting Obama's "picking fights" with "controversial" cabinet picks like Hagel, journalists have bungled the story altogether, giving Republicans political cover in the process.
Roll Call has hired Daily Caller reporter Jonathan Strong to cover the House. Strong previously worked as a congressional aide to House Rep. Dan Lungren (R-CA), and more recently drew criticism for his reporting on Michele Bachmann's migraines.
According to House data compiled by LegiStorm, Strong served as a staff assistant and legislative correspondent for Lungren from August 2006 and August 2008. During his time at the Daily Caller, Strong reported on and provided friendly coverage of the congressman.
When asked by Media Matters if Strong would cover Lungren or legislative activity he's involved with, a Roll Call spokesperson said the details of his House assignment have yet to be finalized but they're "excited to bring" him aboard.
"As with many of our talented journalists, they have a distinguished work history that accompanies them to our newspaper," said Rebecca Gale, Roll Call's Director of Promotions, in an email. "We have not finalized details of Jonathan's reporting, but we expect he will continue to report on Capitol Hill with the highest integrity and ethics that Roll Call is known for."
In a staffing note, Roll Call suggested that Strong was hired, in part, because of his ability to break news. In the memo, posted on FishbowlDC, Roll Call editors noted some of Strong's stories, including "the recent excitement over Michele Bachmann's migraines? Jonathan broke that story." While some reporters defended him, Strong's story drew criticisms for sexism from conservatives and liberals (including Media Matters.)
Strong was also the reporter who spearheaded the Daily Caller's series on the JournoList archives, which purported to show liberal journalists conspiring together. The reporting however, resulted in a seemingly endless series of misleading write-ups about JournoList. The Columbia Journalism Review's Joel Meares wrote that "the controversial reports left many prominent Washington press types, Left and Right, cold."
Strong has devoted friendly coverage to Lungren in The Daily Caller (Strong's site biography notes that he worked for Lungren). On April 26, 2010, for instance, Strong published an article with the headline, "Lungren introduces bill to repeal hidden Obamacare tax authority." From the article:
Roll Call's Christina Bellantoni reports today that "Several Republicans privately admitted Members carefully monitor what's being said on conservative airwaves to make sure they aren't contradicting it or enraging talkers."
Also from Bellantoni's January 24 article:
With Members taking cues from the echo chamber as well as their party leadership, it's changed the way business gets done. Limbaugh and Fox News hosts Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity can mobilize more voters than any press release or floor speech, so Members find themselves needing to be responsive or face their wrath.
A Republican strategist and former top Republican National Committee aide told Roll Call that Members have one of two reactions when constituents start a message with "I just heard on Rush today ..." -- "joy and panic."
Limbaugh has more than 20 million listeners, and most Members couldn't dream of their message being so widely spread back home, the GOP strategist said.
"You've got to break eggs to make an omelette, and if you've never been mentioned on these shows in either a favorable or less than favorable context, one has to wonder, are you actually making an impact?" the strategist said.
If Limbaugh or Beck pushes an issue, his audience picks up the phone and taps out e-mails, asking lawmakers to take action. "These Members understand that their constituents are listening to this, and the consequence will elicit action that will place pressure on them," the strategist said.
The liberal watchdog group Media Matters has compiled examples of Limbaugh and Fox themes that made it from the airwaves to the floors of the House and Senate.
After Fox replayed "sting" videos showing alleged fraud at the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, then-Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) introduced a measure to cut ACORN's government funding. Rep. Pete Olson (R-Texas) wrote a resolution honoring James O'Keefe and Hannah Giles for producing the ACORN videos, and 31 of his GOP colleagues signed on. It never received a vote.
When Beck suggested on his show in June that an Obama administration drilling decision helped liberal billionaire George Soros, two Republican Members repeated the claim using similar language on the House floor. Limbaugh called the BP oil spill fund set up last year a "slush fund," a term repeated by Members in television appearances and during floor debates.
A June 21 Roll Call op-ed claimed that the Senate Judiciary Committee does not have Elena Kagan's "full record" from her time in the Clinton White House, called on President Obama to "authorize the release of Kagan's records as soon as possible," and said Republicans should filibuster Kagan's nomination if Obama does not comply. There's just one problem: The Judiciary Committee has already received all the documents demanded by the op-ed.
The Clinton Library has released all the documents from Kagan's time in the Clinton administration to the Judiciary Committee, except for documents that are strictly personal. Indeed, the Judiciary Committee has reportedly received more documents related to Kagan's nomination than they have for any other Supreme Court nominee.
As the Associated Press reported:
Paper documents released earlier revealed a bit about Kagan's role managing the scandals of the Clinton administration, and showed her pragmatic streak dealing with complex issues such as tobacco regulation and her political instincts weighing in on issues such as abortion, gun control and drug sentencing.
The White House and Clinton kept a fraction of the information private, allowing only Judiciary panel members and their top aides to see some documents and keeping secret anything of a strictly personal nature. But the 160,000 pages of information - including some 80,000 pages of e-mail - is far more than the committee received for other recent high court nominees.
In my column last week, I wrote (again) about the need for reporters -- who have spent the whole year telling us that cloture is the health care vote that matters -- to start telling us how Senators will vote on cloture. I wrote that a major news organization like the Washington Post should simply contact every Senator's office and ask if they'll filibuster a health care reform bill that contains a strong public option.
During an online Q&A today, Washington Post reporter Paul Kane was asked which Senators would filibuster such a bill:
Helena, Montana: When Max Baucus said that he supported the public option but he didn't think there were 60 votes for it - who does he think will join the Republicans in filibustering it? Democratic members of his committee? Can Reid hold the caucus together for cloture, even if some will vote against the bill?
Paul Kane: This is the insider's insider's question right now, the one that not even my friends at Politico and my alma mater Roll Call are writing.
Will the Ben Nelson/Landrieu/Lieberman crowd vote 'no' on cloture (the filibuster vote)? Will they vote yes on cloture, then vote however they want on final passage?
Activists on both sides are exploring this issue, trust me. I think that's where this whole debate is headed.
My gut: I don't know the answer. Sorry, I don't.
So ... Maybe that's something the Washington Post should start working on?
(I assume Paul Kane isn't responsible for making such decisions about resource allocation, but maybe he should mention the idea to an editor?)
UPDATE: Later in the Q&A:
Ask the question, maybe?: Given how much reporters write about the need for 60 votes to break a filibuster, it's pretty stunning that you never get around to asking Senators whether they'll vote to sustain or end a filibuster. Isn't it long-past time for reporters to start asking Senators if they will filibuster the public option -- not just whether they support it, or think it has enough votes: Will they filibuster it? Has the Post reported on this and I've just missed it?
Paul Kane: Most folks like Nelson and company just dodge the question, when asked, telling us it's way too soon to deal with questions like that.
Which raises a rather obvious question: Why don't news organizations report that "folks like Nelson and company" refuse to say they'll filibuster? All year, they've been reporting that cloture is the vote that matters. And whenever "Nelson and company" make so much as a grunt indicating unhappiness with a public option, journalists rush to report it. So why won't they report the fact that when it comes to the vote that matters, "Nelson and company" are unwilling to commit to filibuster? That would certainly paint a less pessimistic picture of the prospects for health care reform.
Roll Call uncritically quoted John Boehner's false suggestion that under a health care reform bill drafted by Senate Democrats, "at least 23 million Americans would lose their coverage" and be left without health insurance.
The Politico, Roll Call, and TheHill.com uncritically quoted Republican congressmen suggesting that the DHS report on right-wing extremist groups was "politic[ally]" motivated. None of the articles noted that DHS also issued an assessment of left-wing extremism.
Several media figures and outlets have uncritically repeated or failed to challenge the discredited GOP talking point that President Obama's cap-and-trade proposal would cost the average U.S. household more than $3,000 per year.
The Politico and Roll Call both reported on a letter sent by Senate Republicans to President Obama stating that if they "are not consulted on, and approve of, a nominee from our states," they would filibuster judicial nominations -- but neither article noted that several of those Republicans previously challenged the constitutionality of filibustering judicial nominees.
Roll Call wrote that the "official outfitter" of Sen. Barack Obama's campaign "is maintaining Obama's online store, which sells a $12 DVD of the candidate's speeches, $10 lapel pins -- though no American flags -- and $50 fleece jackets, perfect for those chilly Iowa winters." But Roll Call did not note that Sen. John McCain's store doesn't offer American flag lapel pins, either.
In a January 29 Roll Call article about Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), Paul Singer suggested that the organization's watchdog activities are motivated by the political objectives of its donors. But two of the donations Singer highlighted came well after CREW's initial actions, and Singer offered no evidence that CREW's actions were motivated by the interests of its donors.