Media Matters: Bush-nesia strikes again in smear against Obama, DOJ

Conservative media figures have been sounding the alarm, attacking President Obama and the Department of Justice for employing lawyers who previously represented terrorism suspects. It really is just the latest case of Bush-nesia, in which media conservatives block all memory of the Bush administration in an attempt to tar the Obama administration.

In recent days, conservative media figures have been sounding the alarm, attacking President Obama and the Department of Justice (DOJ) for employing lawyers who previously represented terrorism suspects or supported their legal arguments in their private practices. It really is just the latest case of Bush-nesia, in which media conservatives block all memory of the Bush administration in an attempt to tar the Obama administration with politically motivated, half-baked smears.

The fact that President Bush's DOJ also hired lawyers who represented terror suspects hasn't fazed right-wing media shills.

Fox News host Sean Hannity led the charge on the conservative network, doing his best impersonation of Sen. Joe McCarthy, saying, “If you're going to work in our Justice Department ... and you represented Al Qaeda, I want to know who you are.” He later stated, “Obama is weak. He's an appeaser. Obama is making this country and every citizen vulnerable to attack.”

S.E. Cupp, a Fox News contributor, said, “If what these guys are doing is so great and they're so proud of it, then why can't they tell us who they are? I think they're -- the silence is a tacit admission that they're not doing -- that they're something controversial,” later adding, “These are people who specifically make their bread and butter defending terrorists.” Similarly, on the network's crown jewel, The O'Reilly Factor, Cupp's fellow Fox News contributor Charles Krauthammer said, “These people chose to do, for free, defense work for people in Guantánamo, for people like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who not only was the architect of 9-11, but he boasts of slitting the throat of Daniel Pearl.” He then said of Attorney General Eric Holder, “He's choosing at least nine people who chose that this is the work they are going to do on the side. That tells you there is some ideological affinity here,” adding, “And that's very troubling, because it tells you why the Justice Department has ended up with some of the absurd decisions it's made in the war on terror.”

Worse still, it appears Bush-nesia is highly contagious.

Copying Fox News and Investor's Business Daily, which both used headlines asking, “Department of Jihad?” CNN's The Situation Room ran a graphic with the same text and spent eight minutes asking if DOJ lawyers are “disloyal.” (Wolf Blitzer apologized the following night.)

As the attacks from Fox News continued, media gadfly Liz Cheney's Keep America Safe produced a video attacking the DOJ attorneys, which prompted former head of the Office of Legal Counsel Walter Dellinger to pen an op-ed calling the smears “shameful.”

Salon's Glenn Greenwald points out that the Washington Post editorial board -- which Fred Hiatt runs -- has now denounced the video attacking the Obama administration as a “smear” that plays on “ignorance and fear” at the expense of reason. Perhaps Hiatt and the editorial board could have taken just a moment to look inward, because one of their own opinion columnists, Bill Kristol, sits with Cheney on the board of directors for Keep America Safe -- the organization responsible for the disturbingly misleading video. Hiatt, whose op-ed pages have been plagued with problems of late, praised Kristol when he hired the neocon last year, saying, “I think he's a very smart, plugged-in guy,” adding, “I thought he wrote a good column” at The New York Times, which tired of Kristol after only a year.

Perhaps there are media conservatives out there looking for a cure to Bush-nesia. If you or someone you know fits that bill, please consult your physician and be sure to read Media Matters' memo to right-wing media: Bush DOJ lawyers also represented terror suspects.

Other major stories

The “reconciliation as 'nuclear option' ” lie: Let's go through this one more time

The use of the “reconciliation process” is fundamentally different from the use of the so-called “nuclear option.” The phrase “nuclear option” was coined by former Sen. Trent Lott (R-MS) in 2005. At the time, Lott was one of the leading advocates of a proposal to change the Senate rules on filibusters for judicial nominations. Again -- he wanted to change Senate rules, a process unto itself. After Republican strategists deemed the term a political liability, Republican senators began to attribute it to Democrats. As Media Matters noted at the time, many in the news media followed suit, repeating the Republicans' false attribution of the term to the Democrats.

By contrast, the budget reconciliation process is entirely separate. It is defined by the U.S. House Committee on Rules as “part of the congressional budget process ... utilized when Congress issues directives to legislate policy changes in mandatory spending (entitlements) or revenue programs (tax laws) to achieve the goals in spending and revenue contemplated by the budget resolution.” Notice that there are no rule changes involved whatsoever.

Republicans used the budget reconciliation process to pass President George W. Bush's 2001 and 2003 tax cuts, as well as the 2005 Tax Increase Prevention and Reconciliation Act. The Senate also used the procedure to pass a bill containing a provision that would permit oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. In fact, between 1981 and 2008, Republicans used the reconciliation process no fewer than 16 times (a point made by MSNBC's Joe Scarborough -- a former GOP congressman, no less).

Has reconciliation been used solely on tax and budget bills? No. As has been noted, the process was used to pass changes to COBRA, which allows laid-off workers to keep their insurance coverage, and to the State Children's Health Insurance Program. In other words, health care reforms.

Got it? Now, please, somebody go explain it to the right-wing media.

Fox News hosts and guests have repeatedly pushed the falsehood that the “nuclear option” refers to the budget reconciliation process. The Fox Nation and Fox News personalities such as Sean Hannity, Greta Van Susteren, Dick Morris, Bret Baier, and Bill Sammon have all falsely called reconciliation the “nuclear option,” and The Fox Nation has frequently coupled its headlines with images of a mushroom cloud from a nuclear bomb.

This past week proved to be more of the same, especially in the wake of Obama's announced willingness to use the process to pass changes to Democratic health care reform legislation if Senate Republicans refuse to allow an up-or-down vote.

“Reconciliation or the nuclear option ... people aren't calling it the nuclear option” but “it's exactly what it is,” said Baier. “White House: Let's Go Nuclear...” read a Fox Nation headline. “Obama to Trigger Nuke Option on Healthcare,” screeched Matt Drudge. “What used to be called the 'nuclear option' is now kind of a warm-and-fuzzy phrase called 'reconciliation,' ” explained Fox News anchor Gregg Jarrett. When Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) described the possible use of the reconciliation process to pass health care reform as “an abuse of the Senate rules like I've never seen before,” Van Susteren offered no challenge -- in spite of the fact that Hatch has repeatedly supported the use of the process to pass major Bush administration initiatives.

Last week, conservative media figures feverishly pushed a video montage, promoted by Andrew Breitbart, of Democrats objecting to the actual nuclear option in 2005. The clips were held up as evidence of Democratic hypocrisy, even though the lawmakers in question were not talking about the reconciliation process. This didn't stop Glenn Beck from hyping the video or Hannity from doing the same.

It's worth noting that the use of the reconciliation process was hardly worthy of mention for media outlets when it was used to pass Bush's tax cuts for the wealthy in 2003. But now, even mainstream outlets are intrigued. Politico and The Washington Post have advanced GOP attacks that using the process is "arrogant" and "an end-run around the normal legislative process." The Hill allowed Sen. Judd Gregg (R-NH) to claim it is a way for Democrats to “circumvent Senate rules,” even though it's in the Senate rules. CNN has gotten into the misinformation mix as well.

It's clear that when it comes to Fox and its phalanx of conservative media imitators, reconciling reality with reporting is a non-starter.

With ACORN cleared in Brooklyn, Breitbart flails and Giles pleads for defense-fund dough

On Monday, the district attorney of Kings County, New York, Joe Hynes, concluded a nearly six-month investigation “into possible criminality on the part of three ACORN employees” in the organization's Brooklyn office who “had been secretly videotaped by” James O'Keefe and Hannah Giles. Announcing the investigation's completion in a statement, Hynes said that “no criminality has been found.”

Andrew Breitbart, O'Keefe and Giles' right-wing mentor, took to his Twitter account with a post stating that the ACORN tapes were “less about 'criminality' than facility with which employees all knew how to work [the] system.” An odd statement to be sure, especially when one considers the fact that Breitbart has been demanding criminal investigations into ACORN for months. I'd be remiss if I didn't note that Breitbart's Big Government website this week compared ACORN to the Ku Klux Klan -- so you can imagine just the type of fair-minded investigation Breitbart's seeking.

After news broke that “no criminality” was found, right-wing blogs began pushing the wacky notion that Hynes was a “member” of the Working Families Party, and that given ACORN's support of that party, the investigation was a scam. Their claim was simple: Since Hynes, a Democrat, had received the endorsement and ballot line of the Working Families Party, he was automatically a member of that party. As Media Matters' Todd Gregory noted, by that standard, Hynes is a member of four parties: the Democratic Party, the Republican Party, the Conservative Party, and the Working Families Party. See, in New York, candidates can earn the endorsement of more than one party and appear on a ballot line for each of them. And in the 2009 election, all four of those parties endorsed Hynes.

Another classic example of “conservative investigative journalism.” Sigh.

Things didn't get much better for Breitbart, O'Keefe, and Giles as the week progressed. On Tuesday, the New York Post, under the headline “ACORN set up by vidiots: DA,” reported that the “video that unleashed a firestorm of criticism on the activist group ACORN was a 'heavily edited' splice job,” according to sources. The News Corp./Rupert Murdoch-owned Post further reported, “Many of the seemingly crime-encouraging answers were taken out of context so as to appear more sinister, sources said.”

For her part, Giles isn't standing idly by as the ACORN escapade continues to unravel on a seemingly daily basis. The Washington Independent's David Weigel obtained a letter this week soliciting cash for her legal defense fund, and one thing was abundantly clear from the missive: O'Keefe's undercover ACORN video partner loves to annotate her pleas for help with plenty of pink pen -- stars, underlines, double underlines, circles, double parentheses, arrows -- you name it! Other than that, the plea for support is exactly what you'd expect -- chock full of attacks on ACORN and Obama.

How to invent a scandal with a single punctuation mark

Here's an urgent question: Is The Weekly Standard funding its operations by selling drugs to children?

As Media Matters' Jamison Foser explained earlier this week, the addition of a question mark at the end of the previous sentence allows me to suggest something entirely baseless without accepting responsibility for it. And that's exactly what occurred recently when the Standard's John McCormack suggested that Obama had appointed Scott M. Matheson Jr. to the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to influence the health care vote of Matheson's brother, Rep. Jim Matheson (D-UT).

No evidence was provided to back up the claim -- but as Foser explained, “John McCormack doesn't need evidence -- he has question marks!” Remarkably, even though some conservatives quickly distanced themselves from the accusation, many others did not. The story was soon getting attention on Fox News and The Fox Nation, on the blog Hot Air, at, from Michelle Malkin, from Hannity and Beck, and on the Drudge Report, among others.

And of course, since the right-wing media issue the marching orders for the movement these days, on the March 3 edition of CNN's Larry King Live, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) called for an investigation.

Even though plenty of countervailing evidence was soon produced -- indeed, even McCormack, the claim's originator, may have begun to walk it back -- the smear continued (especially on Fox & Friends, which must assume its early-morning viewers are too groggy to understand what they're being told).

Politico also helped hype the story, publishing an article headlined "Some Republicans criticize judge pick." But the paper could only come up with one such Republican: Bachmann. By contrast, Politico cited two Republicans who praised the nomination, including one who directly refuted the conspiracy theory. Finally, in a last-ditch effort to keep the “story” alive, media conservatives began arguing that it may now be illegal for Jim Matheson to vote in favor of health care reform legislation due to his brother's appointment. Predictably, this, too, was baseless.

As the story continues to fall apart, it's worth remembering how often the right invents scandals to tarnish Democrats. No question mark needed there.

This Week's Media Columns

This week's media columns from the Media Matters senior fellows: Eric Boehlert discusses Andrew Breitbart's confirmation that he was duped by O'Keefe and the ACORN pimp hoax; and Jamison Foser looks at how media covered the GOP's 2003 use of reconciliation -- they didn't.

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This weekly wrap-up was compiled and edited by Karl Frisch, a senior fellow at Media Matters for America. Frisch also contributes to County Fair, a media blog featuring links to progressive media criticism from around the Web, as well as original commentary. You can follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube or sign up to receive his columns by email.