Hillary Clinton's recent statement that her "biggest regret is what happened in Benghazi" led to a media feeding frenzy who treated her statement as a groundbreaking revelation, while ignoring the fact that immediately following the attacks, Clinton accepted responsibility multiple times including during her testimony with the Senate and House committee.
First things first.
Here is a video from the memorial service that was held last week in South Africa to honor anti-apartheid hero Nelson Mandela. While watching the video, keep in mind the controversy that erupted in the media when President Obama was part of a selfie picture at the event. Some media commentators were furious because it was such a undignified thing to do at a somber "funeral":
Here's how South Africans experienced the same memorial.
USA Today described the event, which was not a funeral, as a "raucous and festive send-off" that at times resembled a "soccer match," one where attendees "stomped until the bleachers shook." In fact, they "chanted and sang so loudly an official begged the crowd to quiet down."
So no, President Obama, Danish Prime Minister, Helle Thorning Schmidt and British Prime Minister David Cameron were never in danger of puncturing the memorial mood by using a few fleeting seconds to playfully snap a photo of themselves.
Nonetheless, the New York Daily News, among others, pounced. Following the right-wing media's misinformation lead, the Daily News mocked Obama for posing at a "funeral," while the Washington Post's Chris Cillizza described Obama as "acting like a bored kid at a school assembly during a funeral for a world leader." And a National Public Radio headline announced "President Obama Took A Funeral Selfie."
Of course, Obama didn't attend Mandela's funeral. But it sounded better to pretend he did, so lots of journalists did just that.
The story also sounded better by pretending images of First Lady Michelle Obama that day revealed the makings of a husband/wife spat, as journalists went full-on Zapruder on a couple of harmless snapshots and eagerly divined a soap opera storyline to the day, one that starred Michelle Obama as the "angry black woman" casting a nasty stare at the Danish prime minister.
Yes, the media simultaneously attacked Barack Obama for being too gleeful at the memorial and attacked Michelle Obama for not being gleeful enough. Talk about a lose-lose. And yes, this from the same press corps that bemoans the fact presidents aren't more spontaneous and unscripted.
Keep in mind, the mindless coverage revolved entirely around false premises; Obama was being disrespectful at a "funeral," and Michelle Obama was royally peeved at her husband's behavior. False and false: Here's a photo of Michelle sharing a light moment with the Danish prime minister that day.
To produce journalism and commentary this vapid and pointless takes work. It doesn't just happen. You have to play dumb about a whole range of issues in order to join in the Beltway fun. Coming at the end of the year, the selfie charade represented a sad encapsulation of the Beltway media's shortcomings; of its painfully unserious pursuits.
What is especially maddening is it highlighted that while the press becomes increasingly fascinated with gotcha events and treats them that as news, it's failing in its primary duty to produce reliable reporting about pressing public policy issues. Specifically, the selfie nonsense played out against the backdrop of the Beltway press corps' that bungled coverage of health care reform.
National Review editor Rich Lowry criticized Senator Ted Cruz's effort to defund Obamacare as "a grass roots-pleasing slogan," adding to the conservative media divide over Republican plans to defund the health care law by threatening a government shutdown.
Republican politicians, including Cruz (TX) and Senator Mike Lee (UT), have threatened to shut down the government in order to stop funding health care reform. That approach has earned criticism from other Republicans, such as Senator Richard Burr (NC), who called it "the dumbest idea I've ever heard of."
Writing in Politico, Lowry argued against Cruz's strategy, dismissing it as "a grass roots-pleasing slogan" and unrealistic:
His push to defund Obamacare this fall is a grass roots-pleasing slogan in search of a realistic path to legislative fruition. Cruz never explains how a government shutdown fight would bring about the desired end. The strategy seems tantamount to believing that if Republican politicians clicked their wing tips together and wished it so, President Barack Obama would collapse in a heap and surrender on his party's most cherished accomplishment.
Lowry's criticism adds to an already wide split among right-wing media on GOP threats to shut down the government.
With more than a dozen Senate Republicans now pushing the truly radical plan to try to defund the federal government in order to stop the implementation of President Obama's Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010, the news media are faced with an acute challenge: Convey the unprecedented nature of the GOP's latest obstructionist strategy, or simply report the maneuvers as politics as usual in the nation's permanently gridlocked Capitol.
To the surprise of no one who has followed the press' timidity towards the GOP in recent years and its open admiration of Republican hardball tactics, the answer is the news media have done very little to explain just how extreme and completely unprecedented the latest Republican gamut is. By doing so, the press has once again allowed the GOP to move the goal posts in defining acceptable, mainstream behavior.
The new plot is so off the wall that even some GOP leaders have condemned it as "silly" and a waste of time. But their critique deals mostly with partisan politics and their concern a possible government shutdown sparked by health care protest would hurt the Republican Party in the long run.
In terms of the sheer craziness of the strategy (i.e. who brings the government to a halt in order to kill a single law that's already been passed?), the Beltway press has mostly looked away and failed to put this absurdity in its proper context.
Unfortunately, that follows the media's tradition in recent years of letting the GOP practice an unheard brand of obstructionism and pay no price, and to draw little scorn in the press. (See: Cabinet nominations, sequestration, emergency relief funds and judicial picks.) It appears there's no cockamamie strategy or political plan that Republicans can ponder that the Beltway press won't immediately legitimize and take seriously.
The press for years now has failed to provide a framework with regards to the radical ways that now define the GOP, to the point where shutting down the federal government in order to eradicate a law that Republicans were unable to stop from being passed is casually referred to as "the plan," or the "strategy."
It's much, much more than that. It's unprecedented. And pundits and reporters ought to include that crucial context.
Answering reporters' questions in the White House Rose Garden last month, President Obama vowed to address the just-uncovered IRS controversy, in which the agency inappropriately targeted conservative groups that were applying for tax-exempt status. "We will be putting in new leadership that will be able to make sure that we...hold accountable those who have taken these outrageous actions," Obama said on May 16.
Obama announced that the acting IRS director was leaving, and pledged to work with Congress and institute new safeguards, in part by implementing some of the recommendations included in the newly released inspector general's report.
"The good news is it's fixable," Obama said. "And it's in everyone's best interest to work together to fix it." At the time, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), chairman of the House Oversight Committee, said that the president "set exactly the right tone."
Less than three weeks later, Issa appeared on CNN and called White House Press Secretary Jay Carney a "paid liar." He also dangled for journalists some cherry-picked excerpts from Congressional interviews with a handful of IRS workers, stressed he was convinced the IRS targeting had been done "in all likelihood" for political purposes, and assured viewers it was just a matter of time before he uncovered enough evidence to prove his claims. ("We're getting to proving it," he said.)
In other words, what started out, briefly, as a bipartisan effort to fix a serious federal government problem, and what started out with Obama admitting that mistakes were made and committing to holding people accountable, quickly degenerated into the latest partisan pursuit inside Washington.
The focus of Issa's hearings is no longer fixing a problem. It's been shifted to affixing political blame. Rather than asking how the IRS mistake can be avoided in the future, the questions now being asked revolve around politics and the process.
And it was Issa's June 2 CNN appearance, where he uncorked wild charges about the IRS story (charges often based on his "gut" instincts), that signaled to the press that Republicans were, without question, treating the IRS story as purely a political and partisan endeavor. And it was Issa's rhetoric that helped mold the larger media narrative surrounding the story: GOP targets the White House in IRS probe. That in turn produces puts Democrats on the defensive, forced to disprove Republican charges, even though the allegations aren't grounded in fact.
Much the same way the press followed Republicans' lead and allowed the terrorist attack on U.S. diplomatic facilities in Benghazi to be turned into an almost an exclusively partisan pursuit, the same pattern has emerged with the IRS story.
Veteran White House correspondents and political scribes dispute claims that a White House aide threatened Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward in a recent email exchange, calling that characterization "overblown."
A media firestorm has followed last night's Politico report that Woodward had received a "veiled threat" from White House economic adviser Gene Sperling for the journalist's reporting on the pending spending cuts known as the sequester, based on a snippet of a Sperling email Woodward provided the paper. The full context of Sperling's comment, released by Politico the next day, made it clear to even conservative observers that no threat had been intended.
"It doesn't seem threatening to me at all, it seems to me based on the email exchange that I read, that it was not threatening, it came at the tail end of a very friendly message, it seemed like it was saying 'you are making a mistake,'" said Bill Plante, CBS News White House correspondent and former president of the White House Correspondents Association. "It does not seem to me to be a threat of any kind in the sense that retaliation is promised."
In the email exchange about the sequestration issue, which followed an angry phone exchange for which Sperling apologized, the aide indicated to Woodward that if he reported the president had been "moving the goal post" related to revenue in the negotiations, Woodward would "regret staking out that claim."
In an interview posted Wednesday night, Woodward characterized the exchange as a threat, according to Politico:
Woodward repeated the last sentence, making clear he saw it as a veiled threat. " 'You'll regret.' Come on," he said. "I think if Obama himself saw the way they're dealing with some of this, he would say, 'Whoa, we don't tell any reporter 'you're going to regret challenging us.'"
But the full context of the emails, released by Politico the next day, casts doubt on the claim that Woodward had been threatened. In the email, Sperling had stated, "I do truly believe you should rethink your comment about saying that [President Obama] asking for revenues is moving the goal post. I know you may not believe this, but as a friend, I think you will regret staking out that claim." Woodward replied to that email in part, "I also welcome your personal advice. I am listening."
By the time the Washington Post's Bob Woodward appears on Sean Hannity Fox News show tonight to tell his tall tale of intimidation, is anyone even going to still care about the reporter's ominous claim that he was threatened by the White House for daring to raise questions about its ongoing sequestration battle with Republicans? Or more specifically, is anyone outside the right-wing media bubble going to care?
Woodward's hard-to-believe tale about being threatened, based on a single innocuous sounding phrase from an email sent by a senior White House aide, was cheered by Obama's conservative critics who claimed it proved their long-running theory about the administration's "thug" culture. But the shaky story of a threat quickly collapsed when the full context of Woodward's email exchange with the White House aide, Gene Sperling, was revealed. Rather than a threat, the two men had simply engaged in a vigorous, respectful debate.
Yesterday, Woodward summoned two reporters from Politico to his home and told them his tale of woe. According to the Politico article, Sperling had pushed back on Woodward's assertion that President Obama was "moving the goalposts" on the issue, telling Woodward in an email, "I think you will regret staking out that claim."
From that, Woodward insisted he'd been threatened, even though "I think you will regret staking out that claim" doesn't sound like very threatening language. Instead, it sounds like someone trying to tell Woodward he would regret publishing facts that are inaccurate. (Kind of the opposite of a threat, no?)
Indeed, when Politico published the email exchange in its entirety, the whole story fell apart. Sperling had actually written, "I know you may not believe this, but as a friend, I think you will regret staking out that claim." And Woodward's response certainly did not indicate that he felt threatened; he told Sperling, "I also welcome your personal advice. I am listening."
Why Woodward decided to stage a media tour based on a false premise of a non-existent threat remains to be seen. But we do know Woodward's now an honorary practitioner of the far right's Phony Outrage Machine.
Chuck Hagel's anticlimactic Senate confirmation to become the nation's next Secretary of Defense, passed by a vote of 58 to 41, stood in sharp contrast to the frenzied weeks of partisan fighting, and the often breathless media coverage that surrounded the unprecedented battle over President Obama's pick.
The Washington Post this week tallied up a scorecard to determine whether the furious Republican effort had been worth it. Republicans used up valuable political capital fighting a lost cause, but the Post claimed the party wouldn't suffer politically for its obstructionist ways. Indeed, for Republicans there wasn't "a whole lot of downside " in trying to derail Hagel.
Unfortunately, that's probably true. The Beltway press has made sure Republicans have routinely paid no price for their radical behavior, which means ugly stalling tactics will likely continue under Obama, as Republicans now try to grind the government to a halt on numerous fronts.
During the months-long Hagel debacle, in which the traditionally routine, bipartisan confirmation process was upended by Republicans, we learned some uncomfortable truths about the mainstream press and the right-wing media.
For instance we learned that, thanks to the Friends of Hamas debacle, conservative media sites continue to have much more in common with propaganda than they do journalism. We learned that even the piercing right-wing echo chamber, with conservative outlets working in concert with Republicans in Congress to amplify falsehoods, wasn't enough to sway the Hagel debate.
We learned that the hermetically sealed information bubble is still firmly intact. Reminiscent of the bubble that hyped the Mitt Romney "landslide" that never materialized last November, conservatives in the press assured followers for weeks that Hagel's nomination was doomed, that he'd soon be withdrawing his name, or he'd be rejected outright by angry Democrats.
We learned that non-starter crusades like the Hagel one are perfectly suited for the increasingly obsessive, phony outrage formula that so many right-wing outlets have adopted. (As blogger Charles Johnson noted on Twitter, the day Hagel was easily confirmed by the Senate, Breitbart.com's homepage featured no less than fourteen anti-Hagel headlines.)
A group named Donors Trust has been funneling far more money than ExxonMobil ever did to climate denial groups, but because the source of the funds remains largely hidden, the public has been unable to pressure the donations to stop as they did with Exxon. A small portion of Donors Trust's funding was recently revealed by the Center for Public Integrity, yet even that small portion has significant ties to the Koch brothers and other fossil fuel interests.
Between 2008 and 2011, Donors Trust doled out over $300 million in grants to what it describes as "conservative and libertarian causes," serving as "the dark money ATM of the conservative movement." Donors Trust enables donors to give anonymously, noting on its website that if you "wish to keep your charitable giving private, especially gifts funding sensitive or controversial issues," you can use it to direct your money.
One of the "controversial issues" that Donors Trust and its sister organization Donors Capital Fund have bankrolled is the campaign to cast doubt on the science of climate change and delay any government action to reduce emissions.* The following chart created by The Guardian based on data from Greenpeace shows that as ExxonMobil and the Koch Foundations have reduced traceable funding for these groups, donations from Donors Trust have surged:
Several of these organizations have sown confusion about the science demonstrating climate change. The Heartland Institute, which The Economist called the "world's most prominent think tank promoting skepticism about man-made climate change," received over $14 million from Donors Trust from 2002 to 2011, making up over a quarter of Heartland's budget. in 2010. In 2012, Heartland launched a billboard campaign comparing those that accept climate science to The Unabomber, Charles Manson, and Fidel Castro. Several corporate donors distanced themselves from the organization, but Donors Trust made no comment. Heartland removed the billboard soon afterward but refused to apologize for the "experiment."
Meanwhile, The Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow (CFACT) received over $4 million from Donors Trust from 2002 to 2011, accounting for over 45 percent of CFACT's budget in 2010. The highest-paid member of CFACT's staff is Marc Morano, who runs a website that pushes misleading attacks on climate science. Morano defended Heartland's billboard and said that climate scientists "deserve to be publicly flogged." Despite Morano's sordid background, CNN twice hosted him to "debate climate change and if it is really real" without disclosing that he has no scientific training and is paid by an industry-funded organization. CFACT lists the Forbes columns of Larry Bell, who calls global warming a "hoax," as "CFACT research and commentary." The organization is advised by several prominent climate misinformers, including Lord Christopher Monckton and Willie Soon.
The Center for Public Integrity (CPI) has revealed the sources of approximately $18.8 million of Donors Trust's funding from 2008 to 2011, culled from Internal Revenue Service filings. That leaves over $281 million in anonymous funds during that period, assuming that the organization gives out approximately as much as it takes in each year.
While the individuals and corporations funding Donors Trust remain largely hidden, we know that at least five separate foundations connected to Koch Industries have given over $3.8 million to Donors Trust in recent years. Koch Industries, owned by brothers Charles G. and David H. Koch, is the largest privately owned company in the U.S. and controls several oil refineries and pipelines.
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.
An analysis by the Checks & Balances Project finds that 60 major newspapers frequently quote fossil fuel-funded think tanks on energy and environmental issues without disclosing their industry ties. Further research by Media Matters finds that the Wall Street Journal's lack of disclosure has been especially glaring.
The Checks & Balances Project found that between 2007-2011, industry-funded organizations like the Heartland Institute, Competitive Enterprise Institute, and the Heritage Foundation were cited or quoted over 1000 times in 60 publications, often to attack environmental regulations or renewable energy technology. Their ties to fossil fuel interests were disclosed only 6 percent of the time, despite the fact that 17 percent of mentions promoted fossil fuels. The analysis concluded that "a transactional relationship of contributions in exchange for national media traction is playing out" between these groups and their corporate benefactors.
Expanding on these results, Media Matters found that the Wall Street Journal cited, quoted or featured these think tanks on energy issues more than 100 times between 2007-2011 -- more than any of the other other major papers evaluated by Checks & Balances. But the Journal -- which has a history of failing to disclose fossil fuel ties - mentioned the funding sources for these groups just under 4 percent of the time, slightly worse than the average disclosure rate for the other 60 publications.
The latest blow to the media myth that the National Rifle Association has the ability to determine election results is a Politico article reporting the result of a bipartisan poll that showed voters trusted Obama more than Romney on the issue of guns in North Carolina, Virginia and Colorado.
The NRA spent nearly $12 million dollars on an "All In" campaign to remove Obama from office, but was unable to deliver. Voters in Virginia trusted President Obama more than Mitt Romney on guns by a 9 point margin, and in Colorado and North Carolina by four and one point margins. Despite massive ad buys, less than 27 percent of voters in the three states polled recalled seeing the NRA's campaign material.
Politico quoted Mayors Against Illegal Guns director Mark Glaze reacting to the poll, which his organization paid for, as evidence that "the NRA has built a mythology around their ability to swing elections that has little basis in fact."
Politico adopted the falsehood pushed by Mitt Romney that President Obama had said he would bring the unemployment rate down to near 5 percent during his first term.
Independent fact-checkers have rated the charge that Obama promised an unemployment rate of around 5 percent as false and misleading. While economists working with Obama projected in 2009 that one version of a stimulus bill would lower the unemployment to that level, the severity of the recession wasn't fully understood at that time, and Obama himself never promised that level of unemployment would be achieved.
Nevertheless Politico claimed that the Obama administration never achieved "its own projections to bring unemployment to 5.4 percent, " which echoes Romney's claim that Obama promised an unemployment rate of 5.2 percent. From Politico's article:
Four years ago, both Obama and Republican John McCain tried to reach voters with a certain type of appeal: The idea that leadership has an almost mystical quality, created by a rare combination of extraordinary character and biography.
This time, neither Obama nor Romney is making an appeal on such romantic notions of leadership and for good reason--there is no evidence the public would buy it.
In Obama's case, the obstacle is his own mixed record. The power of his rhetoric and biography did nothing to tame Washington's bitter partisan wars, as he had suggested in 2008. Nor did the administration achieve its own projections to bring unemployment down to 5.4 percent by now.
The 5.4 percent projection is a reference to a projection Obama's economic advisers made in 2008 that unemployment would be near 5 percent in 2012 if the stimulus was passed. But the report was produced before the release of data showing that the recession was much worse than was thought at the time.
In August 2011, the Bureau of Economic Analysis estimated that real gross domestic product had declined by 8.9 percent during the fourth quarter of 2008 -- over twice as much as BEA's initial estimate of 3.8 percent. These revised estimates showed that the contraction included "the worst single-quarter decline" in gross domestic product (GDP) since 1958.
In focusing on the January 2009 unemployment prediction, Politico also hides the actual effect of Obama's economic policies on jobs. Since the end of the recession in June 2009, the economy has created about 4 million private sector jobs and the unemployment rate has dropped nearly 2 percent.
As the presidential campaign heads into the frantic final months, more and more Beltway reporters and pundits appear united in their complaint that the Obama vs. Romney contest has been a "joyless" affair. It's been so joyless -- so lacking in entertainment value -- that journalists can't wait for the campaign to be over. In the meantime, they hate their jobs.
Even for the political press corps, which tends to complain ever four years that covering campaigns is an awful, dreary task, the volume of woeful laments this year is noteworthy. ("How am I ever going to get through it?")
The complaints are also a bit baffling, though.
The idea that presidential referendums, which decide the political direction of the country every four years, are supposed to entertain journalists seems like a misguided take on the democratic process. And the fact that reporters and pundits openly complain that a White House race isn't interesting enough for them seems to highlight the outsized importance they place on their role in the electoral process. (What happened to just reporting the news?)
Note that a key complaint that runs through the media laments has been that the press, aside from being unable to detect any "joy" from the candidates, can't find any substance to cover; that they're forced to focus on the trivial pursuits of allegedly shallow, nasty campaigns. After Paul Ryan was selected as the Republican vice presidential pick, the press insisted it was desperate to cover substance and that Ryan was the vehicle to finally elevate the campaign. (He did not.)
Weeks later, pundits are still complaining about the lack of substance and insisting there's nothing they can do about it.
In fact, there is.
Have we ever seen two aligned camps within the conservative movement view the same event so differently? The far-right press is convinced the selection of Paul Ryan as VP is the boost Mitt Romney desperately needs, while GOP operatives, who try to win campaigns for a living, fret Ryan just doomed any chance Romney had of capturing the White House and will hurt Republican candidates nationwide.
Fox News got the vice presidential pick it wanted; the one Rupert Murdoch all but demanded Romney make. But the cheers of exultation that were heard within the right-wing media in the wake of the Ryan pick, as pundits toasted him as a true movement believer, have been met with equally emotional groans from Republican operatives who see Ryan as an unnecessary electoral anchor around the neck of GOP candidates who must now talk about Ryan's unpopular budget blue print, including his plans to radically alter Medicare.
The internal strife over Ryan is telling not only because it highlights a conservative movement that, three months before Election Day, still hasn't coalesced. But it also spotlights the fact that Romney's presidential campaign is the first one on record being run by the media, instead of political pros. No longer content to cheer on Republicans, the right-wing media complex now sees itself first and foremost as the power behind the party and has decided it's running the GOP's crusade to oust Obama, complete with opposition research and on-air fundraising.
And now VP picks.
In other words, Republican strategists are watching Fox News steer its first-ever national campaign, complete with its Paul Ryan cheering section, and the strategists aren't sure it's working.