One of the most predictable elements of any political controversy is the delayed rush by reporters and pundits to disparage the strategic and tactical response by the politician at the center of the controversy. I say "delayed rush" because these assessments so often come well after the fact -- when it is too late to be proven wrong, in other words -- but then come in a flurry.
Generally, the assessments come in one of two basic flavors: Either the politician made a mistake in failing to address the controversy, or the politician shouldn't have addressed it, which only gave the story "oxygen." Each comes in various permutations: Addressing the controversy can mean, among other things, a forceful denial accompanied by aggressive counter-attacks or a prompt and abject apology.
One great thing about waiting a week to say John Doe bungled this controversy by failing to immediately apologize or John Doe bungled this controversy by responding to the allegations, which only made them more newsworthy is that you can no longer be proven wrong, as you could if you made a prescriptive assessment on Day One. Another great thing about making such an assessment is that everyone has heard variations of each criticism often enough that it will ring true. Yet another is that there really are plenty of situations that would be best handled with an aggressive counterattack or a clear apology, and there really are plenty of situations that would best be handled by ignoring them until they go away due to lack of oxygen.
But that last part is what makes so many of the after-the-fact assessments so … well, empty and frustrating. See, sometimes "admit wrongdoing quickly and cleanly" is the right strategy, and sometimes "admit nothing, deny everything, make counter-allegations" is better. The trick is knowing which is best for a given situation.
Anyway, here's Time's Michael Scherer today, writing under the header "Blumenthal's Damage Control Bungle":
Earlier, Eric Boehlert (and Time's Michael Scherer) noted Politico's efforts to hype campaign contributions Barack Obama's campaigns received from employees of BP. I'm going to spell out two pieces of context the Politico article was missing, because I think it's an excellent example of how not to report on campaign contributions:
Obama biggest recipient of BP cash
While the BP oil geyser pumps millions of gallons of petroleum into the Gulf of Mexico, President Barack Obama and members of Congress may have to answer for the millions in campaign contributions they've taken from the oil and gas giant over the years.
During his time in the Senate and while running for president, Obama received a total of $77,051 from the oil giant and is the top recipient of BP PAC and individual money over the past 20 years, according to financial disclosure records.
So, Politico puts Obama in the headline and the lede because he has received more money from people who work for BP than any other elected official. But if you're trying to assess how much influence a company may have over a politician, looking at raw contribution amounts can be badly misleading. You need to consider how much of the politician's war chest the company provided. And that's where it becomes clear that the focus on Obama is absurd.
See, Barack Obama has raised $799 million for his campaigns. The $77,051 he got from BP employees is a drop in the bucket -- just one one-hundredth of one percent of his total campaign cash.
Meanwhile, Rep. Don Young -- mentioned only in passing by Politico -- has taken $73,300 from BP during his time in Congress, out of a total of $14.9 million raised. So BP contributions account for about one half of one percent of Young's fundraising -- still not a staggering amount, but enough to make BP contributions to Young far, far more significant than BP contributions to Obama.
The way Politico reported the BP contributions -- focusing on raw numbers, without putting them in context of the recipients' total fundraising -- is typical of the media's approach to campaign finance stories, but it isn't particularly useful.
Time's annual list of the 100 "people who most affect our world" is out, and includes a few oddities in the "Leaders" category. Like Sarah Palin. Who, exactly, is Sarah Palin "leading"? Even a plurality of tea partiers doesn't think she'd be a good president.
Weirder still: Scott Brown.
What, exactly, makes Scott Brown influential? Quick, name something -- anything -- he's done since becoming a Senator. Or before, for that matter (No, a Cosmo spread decades ago doesn't count.) Brown is a freshman Senator who joined the Senate in the middle of a term, has less than six months of Senate experience under his belt, and is a member of one of the smallest Senate minorities in modern American history. It isn't a shot at Brown personally to recognize that he simply isn't -- can't be, really -- particularly influential.
So, apparently, we're supposed to believe Brown is influential simply because of the fact that he became a Senator, rather than because of anything he has done as Senator. And, indeed, that's what everybody said at the time, after all -- the media quickly announced that Brown's election marked the death of health care reform.
Then health care reform became the law of the land.
Still, Time pretends that Scott Brown is more influential than every elected Democratic politician other than Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi. More influential than Mitch McConnell.
Each year, Time magazine announces its Time 100 -- a list of what it purports to be the world's most influential "leaders, artists, innovators and icons." These influentials are then profiled in the magazine by other influentials.
Media Matters has already looked at Sarah Palin's send up of fellow Fox Newser Glenn Beck (she couldn't go four words without lying) but it isn't Palin's only foray on the Time 100 this year. Center for American Progress' Eric Alterman looks at Ted Nugent's profile of the former half-term Governor and absolutely destroys the right-wing rocker:
"We know that bureaucrats and, even more, Fedzilla, are not the solution; they are the problem. I'd be proud to share a moose-barbecue campfire with the Palin family anytime, so long as I can shoot the moose." That's Ted Nugent on Sarah Palin from the current "100 Most Influential People in the World" cover package of Time.
I ask you, dear reader, has any other allegedly reputable magazine ever published a stupider article about a putatively serious subject? Nugent also provides a stirring character reference for the quitter of the Alaska governorship: "The tsunami of support proves that Sarah, 46, represents what many Americans know to be common and sensible. Her rugged individualism, self-reliance and a Herculean work ethic resonate now more than ever in a country spinning away from these basics that made the U.S.A. the last best place. We who are driven to be assets to our families, communities and our beloved country connect with the principles that Sarah Palin embodies."
This coming from a man who terms Hillary Clinton "a worthless bitch," believes "Barack Hussein Obama should be put in jail," and whose credentials in the family values department include once attempting to become the legal guardian of a minor in order to have a romantic relationship with her. He also has been ordered by the courts to pay child support to the mother of his illegitimate son whom he has never met.
I wonder if Time's fact-checkers, aware of Nugent's penchant for threatening innocent people with guns, were afraid to do even rudimentary fact-checking on this brilliant essay. In fact, the "tsunami of support" for Palin Nugent cites is barely a puddle. As David Cay Johnston reports in his Tax Notes column, based on the latest national polls done by reputable survey organizations and taken shortly before the dreaded tax day, fewer than one in four Americans view Palin favorably. Her approval rating of 24 percent does not even reach half the level of the Internal Revenue Service, which earned a 49 percent rating. (The so-called "Tea Party" movement came in somewhere in the middle at 36 percent, while the IRS was statistically tied with President Obama.)
You can find more on Nugent here.
There's an odd assumption among many political reporters that Republican attacks on Nancy Pelosi are some sort of silver bullet in the GOP's campaign attack arsenal. Time's Jay Newton-Small, for example, writes today:
In 1994, the GOP had Gingrich, an outsize personality whose Contract with America manifesto gave congressional Republicans a simple and accessible platform around which to rally voter discontent. This time, there's no clear-cut, dynamic leader to spearhead the charge and challenge Obama the way Gingrich challenged Clinton. On the other hand, in 1994 no one knew who Democratic House Speaker Tom Foley and Democratic Senate majority leader George Mitchell were. These days, the faces of Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid are plastered all over GOP attack ads.
But Republicans have been attacking Nancy Pelosi for three election cycles now, with little evidence it has ever helped them win a single campaign. Yet again and again, the media assume it'll work this time, apparently forgetting the last time Republicans made a show of attacking Pelosi. And the time before that. And the time before that ...
Maybe it will work this time. But shouldn't reporters be a little more skeptical after all those failures?
(And just for the record: Despite Newton-Small's suggestion that the "Contract with America" was a key to the GOP's 1994 victory, it was rolled out just a few weeks before election day and had very little to do with the GOP's gains that year. Yes, 1994 -- not, as the Tea Party Patriots would have it, the 1980s. You'd think a group backed by Dick Armey's FreedomWorks would know that ...)
In a bold challenge to the Washington Post's supremacy as the nation's leader in haircut journalism, Time magazine wastes your time with a feature on "Top Ten Expensive Haircuts." Number two on the list? "Hairgate," in which, according to Time:
For a about an hour in May 1993, two of LAX's four runways were shut down. And then-president Bill Clinton never heard the end of it. The reason for the delay was the presence of Air Force One, inside of which the president was in the throes of a $200 trim from a glamorati stylist named, fabulously, Christophe.
Clinton later insisted that he hadn't asked for (and had been told that there wasn't) a hold on air traffic while "Hair Force One" sat on the runway. Yet scheduled flights had already been forced to circle, people had already been made hours late, and "Hairgate" solidified an opinion in some quarters of Clinton's out-of-touch excesses.
Good story -- but it's complete bunk.
Newsday reported on June 30, 1993:
The story was that planes were kept circling as President Bill Clinton had his hair clipped on Air Force One at Los Angeles airport last month.
But the reports were wrong.
According to Federal Aviation Administration records obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, the May 18 haircut caused no significant delays of regularly scheduled passenger flights - no circling planes, no traffic jams on the runways.
Commuter airlines that fly routes reportedly affected by the president's haircut confirmed they have no record of delays that day.
The FAA records, generated by the regional Air Route Traffic Control Center, show that an unscheduled air taxi flight had the only delay attributed to the closure of two runways for an hour in anticipation of Air Force One's departure. The air taxi took off 17 minutes after leaving the gate -- two minutes late, by FAA accounting.
"If you understand the air traffic system, you'd find that statement [that planes were circling] ludicrous," said Fred O'Donnell, an FAA spokesman at the agency's Western-Pacific regional office, which responded to New York Newsday's May 21 request under the freedom of information law.
O'Donnell said that although two runways were closed, traffic was light that afternoon and arriving flights were simply diverted to the two other runways. "It did not cause any problems," he said.
UPDATE: Time has amended and corrected its false claim. Here's the new version:
The media widely reported that scheduled flights had been forced to circle, that runways were jammed and that people were made hours late, though a Newsday report later that year showed that there were no significant delays. By then, however, "Hairgate" had already become a public-relations nightmare and solidified an opinion in some quarters of Clinton's out-of-touch excesses. What made it doubly awkward was that it occurred while the President was struggling to get Congress to pass a deficit-reduction bill.
An earlier version of this item incorrectly stated that flights and passengers had been delayed several hours by the President's haircut.
Seems like this whole fiasco should be "doubly awkward" for the news outlets that spread ludicrous falsehoods years after those falsehoods were debunked, to the point that they're forced to run corrections on news reports about haircuts. But maybe that's just me.
Yesterday, an RNC aide sent reporters an email listing a bunch of mundane DNC expenditures -- money spent on hotels and travel, mostly -- in an apparent attempt to draw some sort of equivalence between staying at the Hilton and visiting a sex club. As Time's Jay Newton-Small put it, the DC expenditures are "very milquetoast" and "none of them were particularly controversial."
Naturally, Politico's Jonathan Martin posted the list -- the entire list -- under the over-heated headline "RNC drops oppo on DNC high-falutin' expenditures." Because, as you may know by now, Politico really is just a GOP bulletin board. Martin breathlessly explained:
RNC spokesman Doug Heye just blasted out raw oppo detailing the fact that the other guys also drop some cash for fancy purposes (mostly to stroke donors).
Writes Heye above the research goodies: "I thought you might find the list below of DNC expenditures of interest."
Wow, "Blasted out raw oppo" really makes it sound impressive, doesn't it? But it was just a list of payments to hotels. Not many "research goodies" there. And Heye's I-thought-you-might-be-interested line? Was that really quote-worthy? Basically, Heye sent around a whole big pile of nothing, and Politico's Jonathan Martin tried desperately to hype it into something.
It gets worse.
Politico then followed up with an article about the email, in which reporter Andy Barr listed several of the "research goodies" the RNC provided, just in case anyone missed Martin's blog post. For example: "During the past year and half, the DNC has paid $4,464 to the limousine service Carey International." That should just about lock up a Pulitzer, don't you think?
Interestingly, Barr vouched for the accuracy of the RNC's email, writing "the data the RNC presents is accurate." Why is that interesting? Because Time's Newton-Small wrote that "the RNC couldn't provide the Federal Election Commission links to each of the searches and the DNC disputed at least one item: the catering charge at the Elysian which wasn't at the Bahamian beach resort but, rather, the Elysian Hotel in Chicago." Barr didn't address that discrepancy.
Gee, you don't think Politico's Andy Barr affirmatively vouched for the accuracy of the RNC email without first checking the information himself, do you? Because that would be dishonest and wrong.
Believe it or not, there was a time when reporters didn't simply re-print opposition research without checking into it first -- particularly when the research in question is as mundane as a list of car companies and hotels. And when affirmatively proclaiming the accuracy of partisan political attacks without actually looking into them would get a reporter in some hot water.
Greg Sargent gets a comment from Jay Carney, Vice President Biden's communications director, about a new book's claims that Biden and President Obama had a strained relationship:
We aren't going to comment on rehashed rumors about the campaign. But I can say that if the authors were concerned with accuracy they might have checked their reporting with people on the Vice President's staff. They did not. I can also say that the President and Vice President have worked together very closely and successfully this past year.
It's worth keeping in mind that the book in question is co-authored by Mark Halperin, an editor-at-large at Time magazine -- where he worked with Carney, who served as Time's Washington bureau chief before going to work for Biden.
Also worth keeping in mind: concern for accuracy is not among Halperin's strong points:
Halperin says (repeatedly) that President Obama was the one who failed to seek bipartisan agreement. That is the exact opposite of what happened. This is not a matter of interpretation; it is a matter of clear facts. The Republican proposal consisted entirely of tax cuts. That happened. It's a fact. The Democratic stimulus package included a mix of tax cuts and spending. That happened. It's a fact. When Mark Halperin says it was Obama and the Democrats who refused to seek bipartisan agreement, he is demonstrating that he is either so woefully uninformed about basic facts or so blatantly dishonest that, in either case, he cannot be taken seriously.
Matthew Yglesias makes fun of Mark Halperin's complaints that Barack Obama hasn't succeeded in "Wooing Official Washington":
If a failure to woo "official Washington" is one of the major failings of an administration, then I'd say the administration is doing pretty well. Especially because if you read the item, it's clear that by "official Washington" Halperin means something like "my friends" rather than anything actually "official"
The people I know who work in the administration, though by no means "top aides," generally seem quite busy. They're trying to govern the country under difficult circumstances! And I think the public will generally sleep easily knowing that more time is being put into policies aimed at improving people's lives than on hankering for the "establishment seal of approval."
Yglesias is right on the merits, of course. But we shouldn't simply ignore Halperin's hurt feelings; this is the kind of idiocy that contributed to the elite media's hatred of the Clintons:
Actually, it could be said that Sally Quinn has been floundering around for the last couple of decades, when she failed first as a journalist, then as a novelist, before emerging as a hostess in a Washington society that even she admits is in its death throes. Which brings us to a central question: Who appointed Quinn as the mouthpiece for the permanent Washington establishment, if there is such an animal? A peek into Quinn's motives reveals a hidden political agenda and the venom of a hostess scorned, and ultimately, an aging semi-journalist propped up by a cadre of media buddies, carping at the Clintons because they wouldn't kiss her ring.
According to society sources, Sally invited Hillary to a luncheon when the Clintons came to town in 1993. Sally stocked her guest list with her best buddies and prepared to usher the first lady into the capital's social whirl. Apparently, Hillary didn't accept. Miffed, Sally wrote a catty piece in the Post about Mrs. Clinton. Hillary made sure that Quinn rarely made it into the White House dinners or social events.
In return, Sally started talking trash about Hillary to her buddies, and her animus became a staple of the social scene. "There's just something about her that pisses people off," Quinn is quoted as saying in a New Yorker article about Hillary.
Oh, and just this morning the Washington Post ran a column by that same Sally Quinn. She has had enough, and demands the resignation of the White House social secretary. Then again, Quinn just knew all along Desiree Rogers wasn't right for the job:
White House social secretary Desirée Rogers came under fire after the Salahi scandal erupted. From the start, Rogers was an unlikely choice for social secretary. She was not of Washington, considered by many too high-powered for the job and more interested in being a public figure (and thus upstaging the first lady) than in doing the gritty, behind-the-scenes work inherent in that position.
Through both the campaign and his presidency, Obama has made little secret of his disdain for some of the horse-race, tabloid elements of the press corps--though his political and communications staff are not above sometimes exploiting those same tendencies for their own benefit.
I see journalists make this same basic point fairly regularly -- that Obama and his staff may say they don't like the media's focus on politics and process at the expense of policy, but they exploit those tendencies when convenient. (Here, for example.)
If anyone is under the impression that this undermines the criticism of contemporary political journalism, they're mistaken. It isn't inconsistent to think political reporters should focus more on policy and less on gossip and conjecture, and at the same time take advantage of their tendencies when you can. As a former Defense Secretary might say, you make your case to the public through the media you have, not with the media you wish you had.
Nor does it let reporters off the hook. These statements about the White House "exploiting" reporters' tendencies should not be taken to mean that were it not for the White House (or the DNC or the RNC or whoever) egging them on, the Mark Halperins of the world would be writing serious, detailed pieces examining complex public policy questions. They wouldn't be. They aren't being led astray by the people they cover; they are already astray.
(Note: Scherer may or may not be trying to imply any of those things; I can't really tell. Either way, I'm not really talking about him specifically, but about the frequency with which I see asides like that, which suggests that some people must think they mean something. They really don't.)
A couple of days ago, I noted that Mark Halperin's idiotic portrayal of Sen. Mary Landrieu as having semen in her hair hadn't drawn as much attention and criticism as you might expect -- particularly given the widespread media attention that greeted Newsweek's use of a photo in which Sarah Palin posed for in a running suit.
Here's an example: Washington Post/CNN media critic Howard Kurtz addressed the Palin photo controversy on the November 22 broadcast of CNN's Reliable Sources.
Oh, yeah -- Mark Halperin works for Time magazine, whose web site hosted his offensive doctored photo of Sen. Landrieu. Time and CNN are corporate siblings.
(H/T: News Corpse)
Maybe you thought that the recent outrage from the right over Newsweek's use of a photo of Sarah Palin in a running outfit meant conservatives are finally coming to understand that sexism has no place in the news media. And maybe you thought all the attention the mainstream media paid to the controversy was a sign that they, too, are beginning to see the light -- and not simply another example of them asking conservative media critics how high they should jump. Well, if you thought that, you'd be wrong.
Take, for example, Newsbusters. The right-wing media critics were all over the Newsweek/Palin controversy. But they haven't said a word about Mark Halperin doctoring a photo to portray Mary Landrieu as having semen in her hair.
But Newsbusters certainly isn't alone in ignoring Halperin's vicious portrayal of Landrieu. Do a Nexis search for news reports containing the words "Halperin" and "Landrieu" in the past week, and you'll get exactly one result: a blog post by Michael Tomasky. And this comes immediately after the media uproar over the Newsweek Palin cover.
Now, you might think the difference in attention is because Newsweek made the mistake of putting the photo of Palin on its cover, while Halperin's photoshop of Landrieu appeared only on Time's web page. On the other hand, Newsweek used a photo Sarah Palin voluntarily posed for in order to promote herself, whereas Halperin doctored a photo of Mary Landrieu to make it look like she had semen in her hair. So, let's call it even, shall we?
And, no, the disparity can't be explained by the fact that Beltway journalists love Mark Halperin, creator of ABC's insider gossip sheet The Note. Glenn Beck called Mary Landrieu a prostitute, and the media didn't give a damn. And when I say Beck called Mary Landrieu a prostitute, I don't mean that he hinted that Landrieu might do legislative favors in exchange for campaign cash. I mean he literally called her a "prostitute."
Progressive political figures like Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi have been on the receiving end of sexist media treatment for years, and conservative media critics like Newsbusters don't give a damn. Nor does much of the mainstream media. The lesson? Newsweek's treatment of Sarah Palin was, indeed, sexist -- but many of those who criticized it don't really care about sexism in the media. They care that a Republican was the target, and that Republicans were upset.
It is truly amazing that Time allowed Mark Halperin to publish the following caption and image on his blog, The Page -- no matter how briefly (the site has since pulled it down):
Maybe Halperin thought it was really clever to echo a scene from a late-90s romantic comedy, but it isn't. The image and all that it suggests -- yes, her hair is supposed to be held up by semen -- isn't supported by any facts provided by Halperin in his post. The page to which he links doesn't have anything to do with semen, romantic comedies, or hair gel. In fact, it's a statement from Sen. Mary Landrieu's (D-LA) Communications Director "on motion to proceed timing" on the Senate's health care reform bill.
In other words, it's part of a broader, sexist right-wing narrative that the U.S. Senator from Louisiana is, as Glenn Beck put it yesterday, "a high-class prostitute" engaged in "hookin'" -- all because she lobbied Senate leadership for expanded Medicaid funding for Louisiana in the Senate health care bill in what was characterized by the media as an exchange for her "yea" vote to proceed with floor debate on the bill.
Not to be left out, Rush Limbaugh got in on the action yesterday too, declaring that Landrieu "may be the most expensive prostitute in the history of prostitution."
These types of backwards, sexist remarks are what we have come to expect from Beck or Limbaugh, but this is truly a new low for Halperin, and, by association, for Time. As my colleague Julie Millican pointed out last week, the other weekly news magazine -- Newsweek -- has a sexism problem that it needs to address concerning another female politician.
So let this serve as a word of warning to those media figures like Halperin who like to think of themselves as separate and apart from -- perhaps I should say above? -- right-wing bloviators and pot-stirrers like Beck and Limbaugh: When you engage in baseless, sexist smears of women politicians, you are no different than the side-show commentators. Maybe you're worse -- at least they don't purport to be journalists.
From James Poniewozik:
As anyone following health reform knows, centrism is a political position too. And you see moderate bias - i.e., a preference for centrism - whenever a news outlet assumes that the truth must be "somewhere in the middle." You see it whenever an organization decides that "balance" requires equal weight for an opposing position, however specious: "Some, however, believe global warming is a myth." (Moderate bias would also require me to find a countervailing liberal position and pretend that it is equivalent to global-warming denial. Sorry.)
Often, moderate bias is just the result of caution, but the effect is to bolster centrist political positions - not least by implying that they are not political positions at all but occupy a happy medium between the nutjobs. Meanwhile, conservatives see moderate bias as liberal, and liberals see it as conservative - letting journalists conclude that it's not bias at all.
Time reporter Jay Newton-Small insists it isn't her job to tell you which of two contradictory factual claims is true and which is false, claiming "I presented both sides of the story. I'll leave it to columnists and readers to draw their own conclusions on who had the best case."
Time reporter Michael Scherer fact-checks a DNC fundraising email and tells readers it contains a falsehood: "Biden got one big fact wrong. It is not true that 'powerful insurance companies' have been 'spending seven million bucks a week on lobbyists.'"
Maybe someone could explain to me when it's ok to fact-check statements and when that would be "slanted."
(For the record: I prefer Scherer's approach...)