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Eric Boehlert

Author ››› Eric Boehlert
  • Associated Press Becomes Latest To Get Burned Chasing Clinton 'Scandal' Stories

    Blog ››› ››› ERIC BOEHLERT

    As denunciations of the Associated Press continue to mount, and the wire service tries to defend its wildly misleading report about the Clinton Foundation donors Hillary Clinton met with or talked to while serving as secretary of state, keep in mind the AP now joins a long list of news outlets that have been burned chasing Clinton-related 'scandal' stories in recent years.

    Out to prove that Clinton was granting special access to foundation supporters, and that “possible ethics challenges” loomed if she were elected president, the AP announced on Twitter that “half” the people she met with while running the State Department had donated to her family charity. The claim set off a media firestorm, but it was completely false.

    Unfortunately, there’s a long tradition of media players practicing tunnel vision in pursuit of hollow Clinton gotcha stories; stories that instantly portray her, sometimes alongside President Obama, as being villainous or deceitful, but turn out to be flat wrong.

    Remember in 2015 when The New York Times accused Clinton of having possibly "violated federal requirements" for document retention with her use of personal email for official government business? It turned out that hint of criminality was invented by the Times, as several news outlets subsequently confirmed.

    In 2013, ABC News’ Jonathan Karl got duped by a (likely Republican) source regarding the contents of White House emails discussing the formulation of talking points in the wake of the Benghazi terror attack. Going off bad intel, the ABC exclusive accused the administration of having "scrubbed" vital information from the talking points, which sparked a media frenzy. (Karl later expressed “regret” for the flaws in the report.)

    That same year, CBS’ Lara Logan presented a bogus Benghazi investigation on 60 Minutes that relied on a supposed eyewitness to the terror attack; an eyewitness who previously told the FBI he had been nowhere near the U.S. diplomatic compound on the night of the killings. (The “witness” also told Logan he had scaled a twelve-foot high wall during the attack in order to bash a terrorist in the face.)

    Now the AP joins that list.

    I will note that unlike the New York Times, ABC News and CBS News examples cited above, the AP’s donor story this week did not revolve around false information. Instead, the AP chose to present information in a demonstrably misleading and unfair way, generating a firestorm of media coverage and dishonest campaign attack lines from Donald Trump.

    Caveat: In its “BREAKING” tweet promoting the story, the AP did push categorically false information about Clinton and foundation donors. The AP tweet announced, “More than half those who met Clinton as Cabinet secretary gave money to Clinton Foundation.” But the AP’s own article contradicted that claim: The “half” represents a minor subset of people who met with or talked to Clinton. The brazenly false tweet, designed to generate controversy, still hasn’t been corrected or deleted by the AP.

    Overall, the AP misfire seemed to be fueled by a newsroom desire to document Clinton malfeasance where none exists, or to ring the optics warning bell. “That is basically what most every drummed up ‘scandal’ against Hillary Clinton comes down to: from the perspective of the people judging her – it looks bad,” wrote Nancy LeTourneau at Washington Monthly in the wake of the APs’ failed donor story. “The AP blew their story,” she added.

    LeTourneau wasn’t alone in coming to that conclusion.

    From Vox:

    The nut fact that the AP uses to lead its coverage is wrong, and [Stephen] Braun and [Eileen] Sullivan’s reporting reveals absolutely no unethical conduct … There’s just nothing here. That’s the story. Braun and Sullivan looked into it, and as best they can tell, [Clinton’s] clean.

    The New Republic:

    Its entire premise was built on the kind of tendentious data-shaping that is the bread and butter of opposition researchers, not news outlets.

    And Inside Philanthropy [emphasis added]:

    Look, I get that the media doesn’t yet grasp how enmeshed our “charitable” sector has become in politics and public policy, since it's complicated and opaque stuff. But reporters like Stephen Braun and Eileen Sullivan should do their homework before writing about places where these two paths meet, like the Clinton Foundation, in order to provide more context. Otherwise, they’re just being irresponsible. 

    That last critique hit upon the glaring fact that the AP provided virtually no context for its Clinton hit piece. Rather than showing how Clinton’s contact with donors was “extraordinary,” the AP simply stated that as fact. That, along with plenty of innuendo, was supposed to convince readers that there was something very wrong with Clinton meeting with or speaking to 85 foundation donors over her days as secretary of state.

    Here’s the key: The AP’s face-plant this week wasn’t a one-off instance of a newsroom temporarily losing its way and editors inexplicably okaying for publication an investigation that stridently tried to skew the facts. This is what happens all the time with Clinton coverage. The press is absolutely locked into a GOP-friendly mindset.

    As Matthew Yglesias suggested at Vox, AP reporters and editors, using the exact same information they uncovered about Clinton’s visitors, could have written a factually accurate article about how, despite what her critics loudly claim, there’s no proof Clinton sold access, let alone favors, to foundation donors. Instead, the AP, adhering closely to accepted Beltway storylines, used the same information to depict Clinton as being ethically challenged, even though the AP’s own donor reporting didn’t support that conclusion.

    Note that the AP’s blunder has been part of a renewed media frenzy about the foundation and its supposedly crooked ways. The press has defended its hyper-attention under the guise of conflict-of-interest concerns about the Clinton charity and Hillary Clinton’s possible presidency. But if the press suddenly can’t sleep at night knowing conflicts of interest might be lurking, why has almost nobody in the media asked if the Trump Foundation is going to be “shut down” if Donald Trump is elected president? Why has the Beltway press been virtually silent about the obvious conflicts looming if Trump hands over his sprawling business enterprise to his sons while he serves as president?

    Why is there always a separate, higher standard the Clintons have to meet? And why do news outlets like the Associated Press, and The New York Times, and ABC and CBS, routinely engage in dishonest endeavors in the name of chasing so-called Clinton scandals?

    As Dylan Byers announced last year at Politico, the D.C. press seems “primed to take down Hillary Clinton.” The AP did nothing this week to disrupt that claim.

  • The New York Times And Trump’s Loopy Note From His Doctor

    Blog ››› ››› ERIC BOEHLERT

    Donald Trump

    With Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and his media surrogates making unfounded allegations about Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s mental and physical well-being and demanding she release more medical records, The New York Times recently addressed the issue of candidate health. In a story headlined "Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, Ages 68 and 70, Share Few Health Details," the newspaper claimed that both Trump and Clinton “have been more secretive and selective than many recent presidential nominees in providing up-to-date details about their personal health.”

    The Times article quickly conceded that Trump has been less forthcoming than Clinton. But it’s wildly misguided to suggest Trump and Clinton have treated the issue of medical disclosures in a remotely similar fashion. Yes, each candidate has released a letter from his or her personal doctor evaluating the candidate’s current health. But it’s fantasy to pretend that the two doctors’ letters are comparable.

    And that’s where the Times examination really stumbled, by trying to take seriously the dubious letter from Trump’s doctor that was released last December -- a letter that has been widely derided as a joke. “It purports to be a medical letter, but it is one of the most ridiculous documents ever to emerge in any political campaign,” Kurt Eichenwald recently wrote for Newsweek.

    So committed was the paper to the narrative that both Clinton and Trump were hiding their medical past, the Times ignored the real story: Trump has released no verifiable information about his medical history. None. Because to date, Trump’s only medical release is his very weird doctor’s letter, which remains a completely useless document.

    The brief, vague letter was released 11 days after Trump vowed in December to make public a “full medical report” about his physical health and fitness to serve as president. He bragged that the medical report would “show perfection.”

    To date, there’s been no medical report, just the weird, uninformative letter penned by Dr. Harold N. Bornstein.

    Accentuated by typos -- including a very odd “To Whom My Concern” salutation -- and featuring a website URL that doesn’t work, Trump’s four-paragraph medical letter was filled with strange terms like “astonishingly excellent,” which convey no medical meaning.  

    Dr. Jennifer Gunter dissected the Trump letter for The Huffington Post, noting that doctors "just don't typically write vague, quasi-medical things in letters. ... I would never write anything this terrible for a jury duty excuse or a back to work note. ... It’s medically illiterate.”

    At one point, Trump’s doctor boasted that the Republican nominee’s “physical strength and stamina are extraordinary.” But the doctor never explained how he measured Trump’s stamina and strength. Bornstein also claimed Trump had lost “at least fifteen pounds” in the previous year, but he never listed the candidate’s current weight.

    Another gaping hole, as noted by Eichenwald:

    The letter from the Trump campaign mentions nothing about family history, as any normal letter assessing someone’s medical condition would. (Clinton’s does.) Family history is critical in understanding possible diseases that may emerge, particularly those with a genetic link. Trump’s father, Fred Trump, died from complications of late-onset Alzheimer’s disease.

    Meanwhile, Bornstein in the letter says he’s been treating Trump for decades. But note that the physician is a gastroenterologist, a doctor who treats digestive tract problems. If Trump is in such “astonishingly excellent” health, why has he been going to see a gastroenterologist for nearly half his life? (Clinton’s letter of medical evaluation was written by Lisa Bardack, director of internal medicine in the Mount Sinai Health System at CareMount Medical.)

    None of it makes any sense, which is why the Trump letter has been widely derided as a joke. Yet this week the Times opted to treat the letter as legitimate in an effort to portray Trump and Clinton as equally secretive.

    The truth is, Clinton has released about as much medical information as President Obama did when he ran for president in 2008. By contrast, Trump has released only a baffling, useless document from his gastroenterologist. “The letter provides essentially no medical information,” wrote Gunter.

    The Times is right that there is a candidate in this race who’s being “more secretive and selective” about releasing medical information. But it’s not Clinton.

  • In The Name Of Optics, Beltway Press Renews Its War On The Clinton Foundation

    Blog ››› ››› ERIC BOEHLERT

    This Sunday’s New York Times front page delivered a curious pair of campaign bookends when the newspaper presented what it framed as problematic reports for both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.

    In the Trump dispatch, the Times detailed how the businesses run by the self-described billionaire are mired in at least $650 million of debt, and stressed “how much of Mr. Trump’s business remains shrouded in mystery.” For a candidate running on his supposed commerce wizardry, the report was highly damaging.

    As for that day’s Clinton campaign woes? According to the Times’ front page, the troubles come in the form of the Clinton family’s global charity: “Foundation Ties Bedevil Hillary Clinton’s Presidential Campaign.”

    The newspaper was never able to explain how the issue was bedeviling or sidelining her campaign, considering her White House run boasts some of the largest summertime presidential leads in decades, but the Times was sure that “the funding of the sprawling philanthropy has become an Achilles’ heel for her campaign.” 

    Republicans have echoed the spin in recent days, and dialed it up to 11. Trump called for a special prosecutor to investigate the foundation’s supposed criminal ways, and Trump surrogate Rudy Giuliani suggested the charity be indicted as a “racketeering enterprise.” 

    Is it possible a charity could emerge as bad news, or represent bad optics, for a presidential candidate? Certainly. For instance, if a politician is connected to a foundation that’s been caught ripping people off, siphoning off contributions, or misleading donors about the work being done. But none of that applies to the uniquely transparent Clinton Foundation. (See here for helpful context that’s usually overlooked in Beltway press coverage.)

    The charity represents a thriving philanthropic operation that assists people around the world, while brandishing esteemed charitable credentials. It’s a charity that’s helped more than nine million people get lower-cost HIV/AIDS medicine, and a foundation that also tries to improve global health and fights against economic inequalitychildhood obesity, and climate change.

    And it’s a charity that boasts an “A” rating (the frequent conservative refrain that the foundation spends 85 percent of its budget on "overhead" represents a lazy smear).

    That’s what the Times dubs Clinton’s “Achilles' heel”? It’s almost like someone posed a collective challenge to the press: Try to turn landmark charitable giving into a bad-news story for the Clintons. (Boy, have they tried.)

    How did we get to this absurd place -- to this absurd disconnect -- where the press depicts a wildly successful and transparent charity as some sort of ominous web of political deceit supposedly drenched in shadowy payments? And why do optics trump humanitarianism when it comes to the Clinton endeavors? 

    This truly does feel like a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t situation. Keep in mind, when the Clintons left the White House in January 2001, they could have chosen virtually any path they wanted. But they didn’t start a hedge fund, they don’t speculate on real estate, and they’re not charging $800 an hour as D.C. lawyers or lobbyists. They founded a charity. (And yes, they give speeches.)

    The Clintons in recent days have taken steps to address what would be clear conflicts of interests with the foundation if she were elected president. The Clinton family announced the foundation would stop accepting money from foreign donors. Also, after the election the charity will seek out partners to absorb much of the foundation’s work, leaving it dramatically smaller in size and scope.

    Still, the media’s latest hand-wringing foundation pile-on (i.e. shut it down!) represents a textbook example of the press joining forces with Republicans to push talking points about the Clintons and dubious ‘scandals.’ Eventually after much chasing and little success, the press usually retreats and presents the supposedly scandalous affair as bad optics, or complains that it raises troubling questions.

    In the last two years, the Times and Washington Post have published more than 200 articles about the Clinton Foundation, according to Nexis. I’m guessing if there were any blockbuster revelations to be found, we’d know about them by now.

    Like the endlessly monotonous email pursuit, the press long ago lost sight of what the actual Clinton Foundation wrongdoing was supposed to be. Last year, the overexcited headlines insisted foundation donors had influenced Clinton while she served as secretary of state, to the point where she altered U.S. policy to please fat cat supporters.

    But that’s never been proven to be true. Not even close.  (Time has conceded, “The suggestion of outside influence over U.S. decision-making is based on little evidence.”)

    Those allegations of heavy-handed influence peddling and favor-granting have faded and now, at least this week, the supposed foundation ‘scandal’ revolves around how meetings at the State Department were scheduled by Clinton aides. Talk about a major downgrade.

    Like clockwork, the press is treating as very big, and troubling, news the Associated Press report from Tuesday, which claims that of the non-government workers and foreign representatives Clinton met with or phoned with as secretary of state, 85 of them were Clinton donors. The implication being that if you gave to the foundation you were then granted special access to the State Department.

    Even if the contact between donors produced no wrongdoing (and there’s no suggestion it did), “it’s the number” of meetings that is causing Clinton “some heartburn,” according to CBS News.

    But why? Clinton ran the State Department for approximately 1,400 days and during that time she met or phoned 85 people who have donated to the Clinton Foundation. Why is that supposed to be scandalous? The AP also omitted key context, such as how many of those donors gave to the foundation years before anyone knew Clinton would become secretary of state? And how many of those donors were also granted meetings with previous Republican administration secretaries of state?

    We don’t know. Instead, we’re left with breathless reporting about how meetings were scheduled at the State Department. That’s the controversy. Talk about the ultimate process story.

    Yet incredibly, it’s the Clintons’ charity success that still warrants long-running, and often microscopic, coverage. It’s the Clinton Foundation that raises ‘troubling questions,’ not the fact that Donald Trump lies about his charitable giving.

    Note: If Hillary Clinton bragged about giving tens of millions of dollars to charities but only actually gave $10,000 of her own money, the way Trump apparently did, the outraged D.C. press corps would denounce her for days and all but demand she drop out of the race.

    But the foreign funding!, cries the press. The possible conflicts of interest! It’s all so uniquely Clinton-esque we’re told.

    But is it? As David Corn noted in Mother Jones last year:

    Anyone who wanted to gain favor with the Bush clan while George W. Bush was president could have anonymously donated an unlimited amount of money to his father’s foundation, and now that Jeb Bush is in the hunt, anyone looking to fashion a relationship with the Bushes can contribute millions to either of these Bush foundations and keep that connection a secret.

    So yes, the Bush family foundations can receive millions from foreign donors. And the Bush family foundations don’t reveal who the donors are. But it’s the Clinton Foundation that’s criticized in the press for disclosing all of its donors.

    Trying make sense of that pretzel logic. You can’t. It’s simply the press demanding there be a separate, higher, and often hysterical standard for the Clintons.

  • With Trump-Breitbart Alliance, The Right-Wing Media’s Civil War Just Got A Whole Lot Worse

    Blog ››› ››› ERIC BOEHLERT

    A growing list of horrified conservative commentators have watched Donald Trump swallow the Republican Party this year, convinced he’s dooming the GOP with a major November loss. One of their key complaints has been that the erstwhile candidate has embraced dark elements of the far-right media; that Trump is just recycling irresponsible nonsense pushed by sites that are blindly loyal to him, like Breitbart News.

    Wednesday’s news that Trump has tapped Breitbart News chairman Stephen Bannon to help run his campaign will only inflame those concerns, and pundits will likely see the move as yet another nail in the campaign’s coffin.

    Immediately following the Bannon news, former Breitbart editor Ben Shapiro, who quit the site in March over its obvious cheerleading for Trump, wrote that his former boss “openly embraced the white supremacist” movement of the extreme right. Shapiro added, “It’s clear that Breitbart News is indeed and Trumpbart News. That’s pathetic and disgusting.”

    In other words, the Trump-inspired civil war that has consumed the right-wing media for months just got a whole lot worse. And the long-term implications could mean big problems for the movement, long after November.

    With Trump’s unorthodox campaign igniting especially deep passions among conservatives, the Right-Wing Noise Machine’s famously loud megaphone has transformed itself into something of a circular firing squad. “Trump is choosing to end his campaign living in the alternate reality that Breitbart creates for him on a daily basis,” The Weekly Standard’s Stephen Hayes announced.

    The civil war is now consuming the movement. (National Review Online, post-Bannon: “There are no good options left for conservatives, only disputably less bad ones.”) The irony is that the non-stop bickering and name-calling threatens to burn to the ground what had been a movement built on message discipline; on everyone singing off the same page. Today, those songs sheets are being torn up day after day.

    For decades, it’s been a media movement where internal disagreements were virtually always set aside in time for presidential general elections, and where commentators unified around their contempt for the Democratic foe. When finely tuned and focused, the conservative media machine served as a battering ram for the GOP.

    Not this year, and not with Trump.

    Increasingly, it’s Trump who generates the most visceral response among conservative commentators. It’s Trump who’s viewed and denounced by the right as the looming danger facing America. All the while, Clinton widens her lead in the polls.

    Indeed, some of the media attacks on Clinton this cycle seem somewhat muted, or less focused, given the widespread lack of enthusiasm for Trump on the right. Unable to project a unified, anti-Clinton message when they’re so busy denouncing their own nominee -- and when fighting with his remaining media fans -- conservative pundits are unraveling the distinctive fabric of the far-right press: message discipline.

    Of course, the Trump-inspired split isn’t new. During the wildly fractured GOP primary, Trump was denounced from inside the conservative media as a "vicious demagogue," a "con man," a "glib egomaniac," and "the very epitome of vulgarity."

    How bad has the sniping gotten this summer?

    Lead Trump cheerleader Sean Hannity has been derided as “pathetic” and “stupid or dishonest.” He’s Fox News’ “dumbest anchor.” He’s a Donald Trump enabler whose weeknight show resembles a Trump “infomercial.” In fact, Hannity might even be rooting for a Clinton win.

    And that’s just what Hannity’s fellow conservatives are saying about him.

    And the brawling isn’t limited to Trump-specific issues. This week, Breitbart News unleashed a broadside against Glenn Beck, who has been vocal in his contempt for Trump. Breibart belittled Beck for cozying up to Black Lives Matter, accusing him of “actually repeating a talking point of the Black Lives Matter founders themselves.”

    Meaning, Breitbart has its enemies list and is more than willing to take down conservatives like Beck if they get in Trump’s way. And that was before the site’s chief took over the Trump campaign. At the same time, Beck has been knocking longtime Trump ally Matt Drudge, calling him unreliable and claiming he’s gone to “this weird conspiratorial” place since he starting “hanging out with” radio host Alex Jones, another of Trump’s far-right supporters. 

    In terms of the traditional right-wing media campaign megaphone, the internal feud is diminishing its effectiveness.

    For starters, a site like Breitbart has very little mainstream appeal. Unlike The Weekly Standard or National Review, which routinely tout Republican candidates (but now refuse to back Trump) and are viewed as legitimate by the Beltway media, Breitbart’s long, and at-times comical, history of concocting falsehoods makes it hard for mainstream media observers to take it seriously.

    Another example of the diminishing right-wing media megaphone: Hannity recently rushed out to be the point person of a sloppy, irresponsible smear campaign against Clinton, suggesting her health is in serious decline and that her medical records are shrouded in mystery. It’s guttural stuff for sure (“Is it possible she had a stroke?”), but not unusual for a carnival barker like Hannity. Increasingly though, it looks like Hannity led a very small army into battle over Clinton’s health record.

    Meaning, with large portions of the conservative media openly mocking Hannity for what they see as his disingenuous and sycophantic support of Trump (the same goes for Breitbart), Hannity’s foray against Clinton’s health failed to pick up much meaningful support.

    That’s significant because it means the power of the collective right-wing media megaphone, effective when angry voices are yelling in unison, loses its punch. And without its vaunted message discipline, the Noise Machine can’t move the campaign needle.

    Another long-term effect from the open civil war is that members of the conservative media are finally calling out the avalanche of lies and misinformation the conservative press itself has peddled for so many years. Pushed to the breaking point by the Trump nomination and the lies that fuel it, more commentators are willing to admit, in public, that so much of the conservative media content is garbage.

    From longtime conservative radio talk show host Charlie Sykes:

    We have the InfoWars, we have the Breitbarts, we have the Drudges, in which information is passed, things that that bear no resemblance to reality whatsoever. So I'm in the position of having on a regular basis to basically say, look, that information is not valid, that's not true, that's not accurate.

    And from The Wall Street Journal’s Bret Stephens:

    If you spend your time listening to certain cable shows all the time, listening to nobody else, if you're prone to the kind of conspiracy theories that whiz around on Twitter or certain fringes of the internet, you end up having this kind of conversation that's just increasingly divorced from reality.

    What happens after the election? Are conservatives just going to pretend that all the lies and misinformation shoveled to readers, viewers and listeners weren’t denounced from within the conservative press during the campaign?

    For now, the right-wing media chorus, that Tabernacle Choir of misinformation where every voice is hitting the same note, has been muted.

  • How Clinton Emails Became The New Whitewater: A “Scandal” In Search of A Crime

    Blog ››› ››› ERIC BOEHLERT

    Journalism is often about priorities. The act of newsgathering and storytelling is more than assembling facts and quotes and providing context. It’s also about deciding what’s important and specifically which stories are more newsworthy than others.

    On August 10, NBC News’ First Read, the early morning tip sheet, signaled to readers what the top news story of that day was:

    OFF TO THE RACES: New Clinton email questions

    From the New York Times: "A new batch of State Department emails released Tuesday showed the close and sometimes overlapping interests between the Clinton Foundation and the State Department when Hillary Clinton served as secretary of state. The documents raised new questions about whether the charitable foundation worked to reward its donors with access and influence at the State Department, a charge that Mrs. Clinton has faced in the past and has always denied."

    Our story on Donald Trump's "Second Amendment people" comment is here. 

    So the morning after Donald Trump seemed to make a veiled, yet shocking threat of political violence against his opponent, NBC News dubbed the day’s top story to be a small number of 2009 emails from Hillary Clinton’s State Department that had been released; emails that Clinton neither sent nor received.

    For me, that weird prioritization represented an early red flag that the latest round of Clinton email coverage was heading seriously off-track -- again. It also confirmed that there seems to be some weird magnetic bond the press has devised that keeps itself breathlessly attached to the email pursuit, not matter how trivial the developments.

    In other words, the Clinton emails are the new Whitewater. It’s the media’s latest Clinton “scandal” in search of a storyline. It’s a meandering genre of overexcited journalism that long ago lost sight of what the Clinton wrongdoing was supposed to be.

    Recall that Whitewater, the-hard-to-follow pseudo-scandal sponsored by The New York Times in the 1990s, dragged on so long that it became hard to recall what the Clintons’ alleged original sin was. (Losing money on a real estate deal is against the law?)

    “I could never remember what it was supposed to be about,” former Times reporter Todd Purdum recently conceded about Whitewater. “It was so byzantine.”

    We’ve seen the same arc with the Groundhog Day email saga. In real time, very few Beltway journalists will admit that the gotcha email story no longer has any gotcha. Likely only years from now will reporters and pundits concede that the Clinton email story was “byzantine” and hard to follow.

    Note that I’m not saying the fact that Clinton used a private server for email wasn’t a legitimate news story. It clearly was. The FBI investigated it and found no legal wrongdoing and that’s where the press should have jumped off the GOP’s bandwagon because the story was over.

    But the press refuses to disengage or provide honest context, and that’s where the weird clinging comes into play. And that’s what was on display last week as the Beltway press desperately tried to convince news consumers, and itself, that a handful of innocuous, 7-year-old emails represented a startling  revelation. (NBC News insisted Clinton should have been “reeling” from the email revelations.)

    But there was no there, there. As Media Matters detailed, while the press excitedly echoed Republican charges about how a couple of 2009 emails revealed dastardly deeds regarding access and policy, “Neither the emails nor the news reports provide any evidence that Clinton Foundation donors impacted decisions Clinton made at the State Department.”

    If you dug deep enough last week, you noticed the buried caveat that conceded the newly released emails didn’t actually reveal any wrongdoing. From ABC News: “There has been no concrete evidence linking State Department favors to foreign donors in exchange for donations to the Clinton Foundation."

    Here’s the dirty secret about what fuels Clinton scandal coverage and what has always fueled the wayward pursuit: Journalists are invested. And for the email story they’ve been deeply invested since March 2015. Lots of journalists want there to be a story and therefore they’re absolutely not independent observers refereeing a tennis match between two partisan sides.

    For the press, the hollow email story allows them to harp on Clinton’s supposed untrustworthiness. It also allows them to show Republicans that they’re putting the Democratic nominee under a microscope; to prove they don’t have a liberal bias. So when Trump seems to encourage violence, the press can say, "Yeah, but Clinton’s emails," the way NBC did last week.

    Meanwhile, an avalanche of good-news polls for Clinton severely undercut any press suggestion that the emails constitute a key issue in the campaign, let alone that they’re hurting her presidential chances. It was hard to take seriously The Wall Street Journal on Friday when it claimed on its front page that the emails were “undercutting” and “hindering” Clinton’s campaign, when that same day she opened up a 9-point lead in the dependably red state of North Carolina. (So without the email story she’d be up 13 points in North Carolina?)

    But the press remains pot-committed. Like poker players who’ve already bet too much on a weak hand, journalists refuse to admit defeat. 

    Today, the only lynch pin still holding this non-story together is the media's beloved “optics”: the story doesn’t look good. The story has “raise[d] questions.”

    You know what else “raise[d] questions”? The fact that in 2013 Donald Trump wrote a $25,000 check to help reelect Florida Republican Attorney General Pam Bondi just six days after her office announced it was reviewing allegations of fraud against the Trump University enterprise. After the generous check arrived, the Florida attorney general said the state wasn’t going to investigate Trump University.

    That’s a political access story worthy of extraordinarily focus and coverage. But few news organizations seem interested: Since that story broke in June, The Washington Post and New York Times have published just a handful of articles noting Trump’s convenient $25,000 donation to Bondi, according to Nexis.

    By contrast, since June the Times and Post have published more than 200 Clinton email stories.

    Journalists today look back and shake their heads and wonder how a convoluted mess of a “scandal” like Whitewater ever dominated news cycles, year after year. Will scribes one day look back and ask the same about the Clinton emails? 

  • Here We Go Again: Media Say Clinton’s Winning, But Not Winning The Right Way

    Blog ››› ››› ERIC BOEHLERT

    “She is an awful candidate. Everybody knows it.”

    That’s how Matthew Dowd summed up Hillary Clinton on this Sunday’s This Week on ABC. Reviewing the state of the 2016 White House campaign and insisting that Clinton is deeply flawed, Dowd deepened his critique: “She's an awful candidate. She's not liked. She's not trusted. The positive for her is she's running against a worse candidate in the course of it.”

    Clinton’s an "awful" candidate, yet she amassed more votes than anyone else running in the Democratic and Republican primaries, she currently holds a commanding lead over Donald Trump, and she might rewrite the electoral map by flipping some dependably red states blue. 

    That’s a very unusual election equation.

    Dowd isn’t alone in his peculiar appraisal. As the prospects of a Clinton victory loom larger this year, more pundits seem to be trying to explain why her historic victory wouldn’t be that big of a deal. Why it might not be that meaningful, and how Clinton might just luck her way into the White House, no matter how commanding her potential margin of victory is.  

    The commentary trend is rather remarkable considering that in 2000, Republican George W. Bush not only lost the popular vote, but had to be hand-selected by the Supreme Court to become the next president. Yet Clinton is the one facing a possibly depleted victory?

    Indeed, Clinton’s alternately portrayed as boring and uninspiring, overly aggressive and widely disliked, or sleepwalking through history like a modern day Chauncey the Gardener.

    New rule: Clinton not only has to win. She has to win a certain way.

    According to a recent report by Maeve Reston, Clinton’s definitely not winning the right way. Reston announced the 2016 election cycle lacks any “inspiration,” in part because so many voters “can’t stand either candidate.” According to Reston, the campaign is void of the “joy and even the sweeping rhetoric that drove voters to the polls” in previous campaigns -- like when George W. Bush pushed for "compassionate conservatism."

    Doesn’t everyone recall Bush’s sweeping rhetoric in 2000?

    Insisting that Clinton “barely escaped indictment over her use of a personal email server as secretary of state” -- which isn’t true, many legal scholar signaled long ago she’d never be indicted -- Reston interviewed some voters who expressed low opinions of Clinton. "I used to admire her. She's obviously a very intelligent woman," said one voter who claimed Clinton "has done things that are illegal, and she's gotten away with it because of who she is. People have covered up for her."

    Those last three claims are false, false, and false. But none of them were challenged by CNN. So in a report that stressed how Clinton is unpopular, CNN didn’t correct falsehoods about Clinton; falsehoods that likely add to the reason of why some voters don’t like her.

    Last month, NPR’s Domenico Montanaro announced, “Clinton Is Lucky She's Running Against Trump.” Why is Clinton lucky? Because the uninspiring candidate is allegedly so disliked by voters who view her with simmering contempt that there’s no way she could beat any other Republican candidate.

    This remains a popular pundit theme: Clinton’s only leading the polls because Trump’s such a bad candidate. And of course Republicans would normally be favored to win in 2016. (Question: If Trump’s such a crummy candidate, how did he easily defeat 16 opponents during the GOP primary?) But it seems to me that when a Democrat is up seven points in a state like Georgia -- which hasn’t voted for a Democratic president in two decades -- that can’t all be dismissed with she-has-a-flawed-opponent analysis.

    Meanwhile, remember back in May when Clinton locked up the Kentucky Democratic primary contest and Politico marked the event with the headline, “Hillary Clinton’s Joyless Victory”? Earlier that month, Politico published “How Hillary Could Win the Election—and Lose the Country,” which suggested the Democrat might be elected as a “kind of default president.”

    Nothing condescending there, right?

    You’ll recall that the preferred storyline through much of the primary season was that Clinton wasn’t inspiring voters the way Bernie Sanders was. That, despite the fact a March Gallup poll found Clinton supporters were among the most enthusiastic this campaign season.

    And then there’s the mandate chatter. Considered by the press to be perhaps the ultimate prize, mythical mandates are only awarded to candidates who secure overwhelming victories. Writing in the Los Angeles Times, Doyle McManus suggested the mandate crown could be elusive for Clinton because, in his eyes, she’s focusing too much on Trump:

    But it comes with a potential cost. By focusing on the other guy’s flaws, Clinton may fail to build a strong mandate for her agenda, including higher taxes for upper-income earners, a $275 billion infrastructure program and comprehensive immigration reform.

    Even if Clinton wins by a very large margin she won’t have won a mandate because she talked about her opponent too much during the campaign? Since when has that been the campaign template for achieving a mandate?

    McManus continued:

    Republicans in Congress (depending on how many survive) will be able to claim that Clinton won the White House only because the GOP nominated the wrong candidate, and that the American people aren’t on board with her proposals — some of which they might not even know about. 

    The argument seems unfounded -- since when do Americans elect the person they don’t want to be president? Tens of millions are voters are going to cast their vote for the person they don’t support? But McManus says Republicans “will be able” to make that claim -- in part because journalists like McManus are already making it!

    All of this comes across as a rather a heavy-handed attempt to preemptively deduct points from Clinton’s possible win. Which brings us to Vanity Fair and its recent entry into the genre: “Why Hillary Clinton Could Win in November, But Only Serve One Term; Experts Predict A Short-Lived Victory For the Former Secretary of State.”

    That’s right, facing the prospects of a Clinton victory in 2016, some in the press are already mapping out her re-election defeat in 2020.

    After all, she’s an “awful” candidate, right?

  • Trump’s Dangerous Embrace Of Right-Wing Media Insurrectionism

    Blog ››› ››› ERIC BOEHLERT

    For anyone stunned by Donald Trump’s apparent suggestion yesterday that “Second Amendment people” could prevent Hillary Clinton from appointing justices to the Supreme Court -- a remark widely interpreted as a veiled threat of political violence -- keep in mind that vigilante, insurrectionist rhetoric has become a cornerstone of the conservative movement and right-wing media in recent years.

    Not content to portray President Obama as misguided or wrong on the facts during his eight years in office, troubled portions of the far-right press embraced openly violent rhetoric to condemn the president of the United States. Especially hysterical regarding the topic of guns -- which was the topic that prompted Trump’s startling statement yesterday -- the far-right media have in recent years helped mainstream a type of violent rhetoric once considered to be outside the norms of American politics.

    Trump’s apparent embrace of that dark, dangerous side was on display on Tuesday when he said that if Clinton “gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks. Although the Second Amendment people maybe there is, I don’t know.” (Trump and his campaign have since tried to claim that he meant NRA types would rally behind his candidacy and vote against Clinton in the election.)

    Following up his repeated claim that November’s election might be “rigged” to ensure a Democratic victory, Trump has layered onto that dangerous fantasy the idea of insurrectionism following Clinton’s inauguration.

    Longtime Trump adviser and guttural media player Roger Stone has been outspoken about the looming uprising if Trump loses. Stone recently appeared on a fringe-right radio show and warned about the massive tumult that would occur if Trump loses the election:

    “He needs to say for example, today would be a perfect example: ‘I am leading in Florida. The polls all show it. If I lose Florida, we will know that there’s voter fraud. If there’s voter fraud, this election will be illegitimate, the election of the winner will be illegitimate, we will have a constitutional crisis, widespread civil disobedience, and the government will no longer be the government.’”

    “If you can’t have an honest election, nothing else counts,” he continued. “I think he’s gotta put them on notice that their inauguration will be a rhetorical, and when I mean civil disobedience, not violence, but it will be a bloodbath. The government will be shut down if they attempt to steal this and swear Hillary in. No, we will not stand for it. We will not stand for it.”

    Stone himself has a long history of making insanely incendiary comments. In July 2014, Stone tweeted that Hillary Clinton should be “tried” and “executed for murder.” He tweeted that Sen. Bernie Sanders should be “arrested for treason and shot,” and that philanthropist and businessman George Soros should be “executed.”

    Just this week, Stone went on Twitter and suggested the Clintons were responsible for the recent deaths of four people. So no, Trump’s “Second Amendment people” comment did not spring from a vacuum.

    Trump’s campaign and his media allies are increasingly embracing the dead-end view of right-wing politics where violence is justified to right a perceived wrong; where violent political action might need to be taken by private citizens to curb a dangerously powerful federal government.

    Sadly, this kind of irresponsible, doomsday chatter isn’t new. The sewer runs quite deep, Trump’s simply riding the currents. But having a presidential candidate who will give it credence is new and alarming.

    As the rampant anti-government rhetoric of the tea party movement swelled in 2009 and 2010, and activists marched around with Swastika posters, brandished guns, and gave speeches about the need to wage bloody war against the federal government, one Newsmax columnist determined that a military coup "to resolve the 'Obama problem'" was not "unrealistic." (Newsmax later pulled the column.) Meanwhile, Glenn Beck landed a show on Fox News and gamed out bloody scenarios for the then-looming civil war against the Obama-led tyranny. (Beck later insisted Obama might throw his political opponents into internment camps.)

    A writer branded Obama "suicide-bomber-in-chief." Rush Limbaugh announced, “Adolf Hitler, like Barack Obama, also ruled by dictate." And appearing on Fox News, Dick Morris essentially endorsed armed insurrectionism against law enforcement: "Those crazies in Montana who say, 'We're going to kill ATF agents because the UN's going to take over' -- well, they're beginning to have a case."

    Years later, amid Obama urging new gun safety legislation in the wake of the school gun massacre in Newtown, CT, Fox's Todd Starnes warned there would "a revolution" if the government tries to "confiscate our guns." Fox News’ Pat Caddell claimed the country was in a "pre-revolutionary condition," and "on the verge of an explosion," while Arthur Herman declared on that the U.S. is "one step closer" to a looming "civil war." 

    Trump himself responded to Obama’s re-election by sending out (and later deleting) two tweets invoking the need for a “revolution,” including saying, “He lost the popular vote by a lot and won the election. We should have a revolution in this country!” (Obama actually won the popular vote by nearly five million votes.)

    Trump's favorite professional conspiracy theorist, Alex Jones, warned that year, “Hitler took the guns, Stalin took the guns, Mao took the guns, Fidel Castro took the guns, Hugo Chavez took the guns! ... And I am here to tell you, 1776 will commence again if you try to take our firearms!”

    That reactionary mindset has been embraced by Trump’s fervent followers, who chant “Lock her up” at rallies, and much worse. (“Hang the bitch!”) Al Baldasaro, an adviser to the Trump campaign for veterans issues, announced that Clinton “should be shot” for treason. And West Virginia lawmaker Michael Folk agreed, suggesting Clinton should be “hung on the mall in Washington, DC.”

    The doomsday, Armageddon rhetoric about Democratic criminality and the party’s supposed traitorous desire to tear down America carries with it an implicit suggestion to aggrieved listeners and viewers.

    Back when Beck first started broadcasting this brand of insurrectionist rhetoric on Fox News, Jeffrey Jones, a professor of media and politics at Old Dominion University, explained the significance: "People hear their values are under attack and they get worried. It becomes an opportunity for them to stand up and do something."

    Now we have a wildly irresponsible presidential candidate who has adopted that same dangerous rhetoric and is sending the same ominous message: Do something.

  • The Death Of “Both Sides” Campaign Coverage

    Trump’s Erratic Behavior Has Killed It (For Now)

    Blog ››› ››› ERIC BOEHLERT

    It was buried near the bottom of yet another energetic Ron Fournier denunciation of Hillary Clinton’s character, but close readers of his recent Atlantic column might have been surprised by this passage [emphasis added]:

    And yet, in my mind, the case against Clinton is not as disturbing as Trump’s mendacity, megalomania, intolerance, and intellectual slovenliness. With Clinton and Trump, the two most unpopular presidential candidates in the modern era, there is no equivalence.

    That’s right, Fournier, a champion of the persistent Both Sides brand of political commentary, which revolves around the core belief that Democrats and Republicans are always equally to blame, set aside two sentences to specifically announce that whatever Clinton’s shortcomings, there was no comparison between her political sins and those of Donald Trump.

    A small victory.

    Both Sides reporting and commentary has represented a constant journalism failing for years, and it's always been especially bad in political journalism. But is it possible that Trump is killing off false equivalency journalism? Is it possible that in recent days and weeks, Trump’s campaign has become such an inferno of incompetence that it’s just not possible for the press to look at the GOP campaign wreckage on display and suggest Democrats are facing a similar type of blaze; that both sides are in disarray?

    And has Trump’s divisive and hateful rhetoric leaped so far out of the mainstream that pundits and reporters just aren’t able to draw a false equivalency connection to Clinton? They simply cannot claim she’s an equally divisive, hateful and controversial figure?

    That may be one of the unintended, but welcomed, consequences of Trump’s extraordinary campaign run in recent days. 

    Can anyone recall a single 7-10 day stretch quite like the last one in terms of the sheer number of monumental unforced errors made by a single presidential candidate? Trump in the span of about a week racked up more memorable miscues than most losing candidates tally in six or 12 months.

    Among the lowlights that have Republicans scurrying:

    *Trump attacked a Gold Star family whose son was killed in the Iraq War.

    *Trump wouldn't commit to endorsing Rep. Paul Ryan or Sen. John McCain (he eventually endorsed them during a Friday night event). 

    *Trump suggested women who were sexually harassed at work should go work somewhere else.

    *Trump offered baffling remarks regarding Russia’s annexation of Crimea.                                                  

    *Trump invited Russia to interfere in an American presidential election.

    *Trump announced the 2016 election would probably be “rigged.”

    *Trump implied the presidential debate process was also rigged.

    *Trump claimed Clinton was a “founder” of ISIS.

    Meanwhile, prominent Trump surrogates appeared on television and suggested President Obama might not have been an American citizen when he attended Harvard Law School, and that Clinton and Obama were responsible for the death of Capt. Humayun Khan. (The latter attack was later walked back.)

    Observers on each side of the political aisle can’t stop shaking their heads at the spectacle. Already known for his erratic, eccentric behavior, Trump has shifted into fifth gear and left all semblance of normalcy behind. And with it, he’s badly damaged the Both Sides approach.

    The long-running practice really has been weighing down journalism. President Obama himself reportedly points to the pattern of false equivalency as one of the key media failures during his presidency.

    The problem? As Media Matters’ Jamison Foser explained several years ago:

    There's a tendency to think that saying "both sides do it" is the way to avoid taking sides in a dispute…..But when saying "both sides do it" requires drawing a false equivalence, the speaker is taking sides -- on behalf of the people responsible for the greater sin. A journalist's imperative is telling the truth, not creating the false impression of neutrality by equating unequal things.

    Whatever the cause, Both Sides journalism does a disservice to news consumers who are looking for clear, concise information and analysis about current events, and especially presidential campaigns.

    Here’s a good example of the problematic approach, from a New York Times tweet back in May:

    See? Both Sides are in a “race to the bottom.” Hillary Clinton -- a former first lady, United States senator, and secretary of state -- is just like Donald Trump, and they’re both equally objectionable, seemed to be the message.

    But again, I think there’s been a clear shift in recent days and weeks. There’s been a general, albeit belated, media realization that the Trump campaign is like no other, and that his allergic reaction to factual discussions is unprecedented. Therefore, Both Sides doesn’t work, and Trump cannot be covered based on the idea that he’s a GOP mirror image of the Democratic candidate, with the underlying assumption being they’re similar, minus some adjustments around the edges.

    “[T]he idea that they are even in the same league is preposterous,” wrote The New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof over the weekend. “If deception were a sport, Trump would be the Olympic gold medalist; Clinton would be an honorable mention at her local Y.”

    That’s why we’re seeing news channels use their on-screen graphics to instantly fact-check Trump.

    We’ve never seen this practice before because we’ve never seen a major party nominee who willfully lies day after day on the campaign trail at the rate Trump does, even after those lies are dutifully debunked.

    For the most part, there’s been little attempt to frame the recent Trump meltdown with Both Sides language. There’s been very little attempt to frame the past few days as bad news for Trump while also kind of bad news for Clinton.

    Instead, the campaign press has been quite vivid and clear in its language regarding the purely Republican implosion.

    And no, that’s not piling on. That’s not being “biased.” It’s being factual and accurate.

    For the record, I’m completely aware that Both Sides journalism could return, and it might even storm back during this campaign cycle. But it’s worth noting that there’s currently something of a moratorium on the unpleasant newsroom trend.

    Let’s enjoy it while it lasts.

  • Why Reports About Rush Limbaugh's Contract Renewal Don't Mention The Price

    Blog ››› ››› ERIC BOEHLERT

    Rush Limbaugh’s radio business model has been cracked and broken for several years. News this week of his four-year contract extension does little to repair those fractures, but does raise the specter of his eventual departure from the AM dial. Because without a solid advertising and affiliate base, Limbaugh simply cannot flourish the way he once did.

    And what a difference eight years makes for the talker and the precarious state of his radio career.

    Back in 2008 when Limbaugh re-upped with his syndicated radio bosses, the details of the wildly generous deal were quickly trumpeted in the press. Headlines heralded the AM talker’s NBA-type, eight-year contract signed with Clear Channel, the conservative-friendly media behemoth with a soft spot for right-wing radio: $400 million! That included a 40 percent raise from his previous deal and a $100 million signing bonus.

    The larger 2008 context was clear: Limbaugh had established himself as a larger-than-life media and political kingpin and this was his victory lap. Limbaugh commanded the type of money and influence that few in the media and entertainment industry ever achieve. A radio ratings hero, Limbaugh was at the top of his game. Or so Clear Channel insisted.

    Compare all that 2008 contract triumph to this week’s minimalist roll-out announcing Limbaugh’s extension, which consisted of a single-page press release from his radio boss, iHeartMedia (formerly Clear Channel), and Limbaugh mentioning it on his program.

    Conspicuously absent this time around were any details about the size of the contract, or an acknowledgement that Limbaugh might have been forced to take a sizeable pay cut thanks to his diminished stature.

    On his Tuesday program, Limbaugh insisted he’s never wanted his earnings to be public knowledge and so he wasn’t going to discuss the details of the extension; “It was a sign of good manners.” But in a 2008 New York Times magazine profile, Limbaugh openly discussed the dollar figures behind his blockbuster deal. (“He estimated that it would bring in about $38 million a year. To sweeten the deal, he said he was also getting a nine-figure signing bonus.”) He also talked about how much his private jet cost ($54 million).

    Today Limbaugh announced -- while obscuring the details of his new deal -- that estimating his annual salary is “kind of a joke” because he doesn’t “earn a salary.” He continued, “I have to perform every quarter, every six months, every year. There's no salary involved here, so throwing out numbers with this is kind of misleading in the first place.”

    Put it this way, if Limbaugh got a raise or another big payday this week, you can be sure the figures would’ve at least been leaked to the press.

    “I hear the new deal has a much lower base salary and a much bigger revenue share component,” Darryl Parks tells Media Matters. Parks is a former talk radio host, programmer, and self-identified Republican who writes about the radio industry at DarrylParksBlog. “With the revenue share, the company is lowering its financial risk in signing him.”

    And let’s be clear, struggling iHeartMedia is in no position to take any “financial risk” on Limbaugh, or anybody else. Instead, the once-dominant radio behemoth is saddled with $20 billion in debt, thanks to a misguided leveraged takeover engineered by Bain Capital in 2008.

    Consider this: 

    Clear Channel stock value, April 2007: $39.

    iHeartMedia stock price, July 2011: Approximately $8

    iHeartMedia stock price at close of Tuesday: $1.30.

    But even with a sturdy corporate parent, it’s likely Limbaugh was facing a pay cut thanks to the historic advertising exodus that has wreaked havoc on his business model. The widespread Madison Ave. rejection was sparked by in part by the talker’s days-long sexist meltdown over Sandra Fluke in 2012. With advertisers staying away, and ratings down, station owners were suddenly less interested in carrying his expensive program.

    In key major markets such as Boston, New York, Los Angeles, and Indianapolis, Limbaugh has been demoted on the AM dial, onto often struggling, underperforming stations -- the type of affiliates that Limbaugh was rarely associated with during his glory days as the king of talk radio.

    Parks last week looked at Limbaugh’s most recent ratings in Boston:

    Limbaugh’s show has been banished to WKOX-AM, a iHeart Radio owned station, and in June ’16 that station ranked #23 with a 0.2.  That’s just two tenths of a point away from a DNS or “did not show,” meaning not having enough listeners to show in the ratings.

    Limbaugh’s show airs on a station in Boston that basically has no listeners.

    The Buffalo News recently looked at Limbaugh’s local ratings and found that for the months of January, February and March this year, his audience declined “14 percent in age 12 plus, 16 percent in the age 25-54 category and 5 percent in the older age 35-64 demographic.” And that was during the height of the political primary season.

    The paper also reported that the Buffalo station, like so many other Limbaugh affiliates, was having trouble selling ads on the program.

    As Parks wrote on his blog last week, “Years ago, Rush Limbaugh could make or break a news/talk station.  But, that was many years ago and is no longer the case.”

  • Trump vs. Khan: How Smearing Everyday Americans Became A Right-Wing Media Tradition

    Blog ››› ››› ERIC BOEHLERT

    Who picks a campaign fight with Gold Star parents who have paid the ultimate sacrifice?

    That’s the dominant campaign question being asked from so many different quarters as Donald Trump continues his jaw-dropping public feud with Khizr Khan and his wife Ghazala. The Khans have been the subject of a series of attacks from Trump following Khizr Khan’s speech at the Democratic National Convention last week with his wife by his side. During that speech, Khan recounted how their son Capt. Humayun Khan had died in 2004 in Iraq as he tried to save fellow American troops, and then forcefully admonished Trump’s proposal to ban Muslims from entering America.

    The Republican nominee has received some right-wing media support in his misguided campaign to discredit the sympathetic mother and father, but not much political support. Indeed, Trump’s strategy appears to have been a political blunder, with the nominee being denounced on many sides.

    Regardless of the outcome, the sad spectacle exemplifies a right-wing tradition where players don’t hesitate to smear their opponents, including everyday Americans who happen to stand up to or question the GOP orthodoxy, whether it’s parents like the Khans, or injured schoolboys, caring husbands, gunshot victims, health advocates, or the father of a U.S. prisoner of war. They’re people often suffering from loss or trauma in their own lives. People who deserve to be treated with respect, instead of being battered around politically.

    But nobody has been immune from the intimidation tactics.

    Here’s a look at previous, disturbing examples of when conservatives adopted Trump’s Khan strategy and unleashed coordinated, and unjustified, personal attacks against vulnerable Americans who stood in the way of GOP messaging.

    Michael Schiavo

    In early 2005, riding the high of President Bush’s 2004 re-election, Republicans decided to turn the painfully personal saga of Terri Schiavo’s right-to-die case in Florida into a partisan football, which was then punted through news cycles during the month of March. That’s when Republicans began their unprecedented push to intervene legislatively in a state court case that had already been heard by numerous judges.

    The problem for the GOP was that Terri’s husband Michael had been fighting and winning in courts for years for the right to end Terri’s life. (Terri’s parents opposed Michael’s effort in court.) So the right-wing media set out to transform Michael Schiavo from loving husband to heartless bad guy.

    Then-radio host Glenn Beck reportedly tagged Schiavo as a “murderer” who had fathered two "bastard" children. One conservative Colorado columnist denounced Michael as a “scumbag,” while The Wall Street Journal’s Peggy Noonan mocked the husband as a “disaffected” “strange-o.”

    This, for a man whose wife had lived in a persistent vegetative state for 15 years.

    Graeme Frost

    In 2007, President George W. Bush vetoed bipartisan legislation to bolster State Children’s Health Insurance Program, or SCHIP. The bill was set to expand the program to millions of children who didn’t have insurance. After the veto, 12-year old Graeme Frost was chosen to give the Democratic response to Bush’s weekly radio address and used his platform to urge the expansion.  

    After he suffered injuries from a car crash, including a days-long coma, Frost needed continued therapy. But his working parents, with a combined income of about $45,000, couldn’t afford private health insurance, especially after Frost’s injuries. (Graeme’s sister was also injured in the crash, and remained in a coma for three weeks.)

    Soon after the radio address, an electronic mob descended on the Frost family, and specifically their 12-year-old son. Led by conservative blogger Michelle Malkin, who traveled to Maryland to scope out the Frosts (“I just returned from a visit to Frost’s commercial property near Patterson Park in Baltimore. It’s a modest place.”), the right-wing media mob, joined by Rush Limbaugh, lambasted the family, suggesting they were defrauding the government, or clearly undeserving of help. Malkin even dubbed the boy a "human shield" for Democrats.

    Digging online, bloggers discovered Graeme attended private school and used that as proof of a scam. But the boy attended the school on scholarship and the family clearly did deserve government help to care for their ailing children. As Time concluded, “The Frosts are precisely the kind of people that the SCHIP program was intended to help.”

    But the right-wing media had no problem attacking the family of a little boy who almost died in a car crash.

    Sandra Fluke

    When Georgetown Law student Sandra Fluke testified before Congress in February 2012 about the need for health insurance companies to provide access to affordable contraception, Rush Limbaugh responded with an unhinged, career-defining, three-day smear campaign. During his bullying meltdown, Limbaugh attacked Fluke as a “slut” and a “prostitute,” and urged her to post online videos of herself having sex. The talker unfurled 46 Fluke insults that week.

    The talker even ridiculed her parents on his nationally syndicated radio show:

    Can you imagine if you're her parents how proud of Sandra Fluke you would be? Your daughter goes up to a congressional hearing conducted by the Botox-filled Nancy Pelosi and testifies she's having so much sex she can't afford her own birth control pills and she agrees that Obama should provide them, or the Pope.

    For Limbaugh, the bizarre, misogynistic campaign targeting the previously unknown law school student marked a turning point in his career, as advertisers by the hundreds announced they refused to be associated with his program. Four years later, his show still has not fully recovered from the advertising exodus.

    Trayvon Martin

    Who would’ve ever thought that a cable news channel would devote 16 months to victim shaming an unarmed teenager shot to death while walking home at night? But that’s what Fox News did to Trayvon Martin after he was killed by a neighborhood watchman, George Zimmerman, during a late-night encounter in a Sanford, Florida, gated community in 2012. Police initially did not charge Zimmerman with a crime, citing the state’s controversial Stand Your Ground self-defense law. Following intense public outcry, Zimmerman was charged with murder and found not guilty.

    But why did the conservative media feel the need to smear and attack a dead teenager? Unlike Frost and Fluke, Martin hadn’t made any overt political statement against the GOP. And the tragic story of his death certainly didn’t fit any pre-existing narratives about crime or gun violence in America that conservatives embrace. In fact, the storyline was an awkward one for Fox News. As Orlando Sentinel columnist Beth Kassab wrote at the time, there was "no good way for gun proponents to spin the death of an unarmed teenager."

    Initially, the conservative media mostly downplayed the story. National Review editor Rich Lowry actually published a blog post headlined "Al Sharpton is right," agreeing that Zimmerman should have immediately been charged with the killing of Martin.

    But when President Obama expressed sympathy for the Martin family and famously said, “If I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon," the conservative media, wallowing in Obama Derangement Syndrome, instantly treated that as some sort of declaration of war; a war on “thug” Trayvon Martin and his reputation.

    Robert Bergdahl

    When President Obama made the Rose Garden announcement on May 31, 2014, that Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl was returning home after being held captive for five years by the Taliban, there’s probably no way Bowe’s grateful father Robert could have known he’d instantly become the target of the right-wing media’s wrath. (Conservatives were furious Obama exchanged five Taliban detainees held at Guantanamo; Bergdahl is currently facing “charges of desertion and misbehavior before the enemy.”)

    In what other instance has the father of a returning prisoner of war been depicted by portions of the press as a possible terrorist sympathizer and mocked on national television as he awaited a reunion with his son?   

    Fox’s Brian Kilmeade: Bergdahl’s father looks “like a member of the Taliban."

    Bill O’Reilly: He “looks like a Muslim.”

    Laura Ingraham: “If he wasn’t so light-skinned, he actually looks like the terrorists.”

    All of those attacks were launched in the name of scoring partisan points against Obama for okaying a controversial prisoner/detainee swap and returned home a captured American.