In the wake of this week's controversy surrounding John McCain's dealings with lobbyists, and his honesty about those dealings, it is impossible to avoid thinking about how differently the media would have handled the news had it been about Bill Clinton or Al Gore rather than John McCain.
John McCain and the Clinton Rules
In the wake of this week's controversy surrounding John McCain's dealings with lobbyists, and his honesty about those dealings, it is impossible to avoid thinking about how differently the media would have handled the news had it been about Bill Clinton or Al Gore rather than John McCain. Three consistent rules of media coverage of purported scandals involving progressives come immediately to mind:
If any part of an alleged scandal turns out to be true, the media behaves as though the entire story is true.
Take, for example, Gennifer Flowers. In 1992, Flowers claimed that she and Clinton had a 12-year affair. In 1998, during his deposition in the Paula Jones case, Clinton acknowledged having had “sexual relations” with Flowers, one time. Under the definition of “sexual relations” at use for that deposition (at the insistence of Jones' attorneys, not Clinton) Clinton's acknowledgment didn't mean much: It could have meant that he and Flowers slept together, or it could have meant that he briefly placed his hand on her thigh in a bar. Clinton didn't explain what had happened, and -- significantly, one would assume -- the Jones attorneys didn't ask him to.
For the past 10 years, the news media have portrayed Clinton as having acknowledged that Flowers' story was true. He did nothing of the kind -- and Flowers is just about the least credible accuser you could imagine, having lied about the place her supposed affair with Clinton began, about her education, about her career as an entertainer, about having been kidnapped, and about having a twin sister.
Yet because Clinton acknowledged there to be a sliver of truth to Flowers' wild claims, the news media pretended her entire story was true.
Similarly, despite the fact that example after example of Al Gore purportedly lying or exaggerating turned out to have been made up (or, perversely, exaggerated) by the news media as part of what Bob Somerby has rightly called their “War Against Gore,” the media continued to pretend that the entire line of criticism of Gore had merit simply because they could point to one example that supported their case. Gore didn't tour Texas with James Lee Witt -- so the whole years-long smear campaign against him must be true!
Media parse every statement by progressives in response to controversy, looking for something to ridicule -- whether the ridicule is fair or not.
Bill Clinton's statement about “what the meaning of the word 'is' is,” Al Gore's reference to “no controlling legal authority” in response to questions about his fundraising, Hillary Clinton's explanation that she has always been a Yankees fan, John Kerry's comments about voting for Iraq funding before voting against it -- all have been the subject of literally years of media ridicule. Never mind that Bill Clinton was making the correct point that the tense of the question he was asked, and of his answer, was directly relevant to the issue of whether he was lying about something that happened in the past. Never mind that Gore's point, which was basically that he hadn't broken any laws, was right (he was never charged with, never mind convicted of, any crime). Never mind that Hillary Clinton really has always been a Yankees fan, as the comments of her childhood friends -- not to mention old photographs of her in a Yankees hat -- demonstrate. Never mind that Kerry was talking about two different versions of the bill, not about flip-flopping on one version -- and never mind that President Bush had said he would veto one version, then signed the other. To this day, the media mock them for these statements. And they don't just mock: These comments are depicted as evidence of character flaws.
Allegations that turn out to be unproven, or even false, are used by the media as evidence in support of future allegations.
Again, Flowers is a perfect example. Not long after she first sold her story to a supermarket tabloid, Flowers had been shown to be a liar. And she thoroughly failed to support her allegations against Clinton -- the audiotapes she produced were reportedly spliced, and, as Joe Conason and Gene Lyons have noted, “Flowers never produced a single paragraph, valentine, or birthday card as evidence of her twelve-year affair with Clinton; no witness ever came forward who had seen them together. Indeed, she would eventually write an entire book, Passion and Betrayal, without stating a specific time and place where she and her famous lover were together.”
Perversely, Flowers' unproven (and in large part debunked) allegations against Clinton were subsequently invoked by the news media as proof that other allegations of infidelity by Clinton were true.
Such absurd standards played a role in the spread of the Gore-as-liar narrative. Examples of Gore as a liar or exaggerator were trotted out by the media, shown to be false, then later recycled as evidence of a pattern when some future bogus example was invented. Al Gore didn't actually take credit for having discovered Love Canal -- it simply didn't happen; it was made up by reporters at The New York Times and The Washington Post. It was conclusively demonstrated to be a made-up story, and the newspapers (eventually) ran corrections. Then what happened? Love Canal, alongside the equally bogus allegation that Gore had claimed to have invented the Internet, was regularly invoked by reporters to bolster subsequent depictions of Gore as a liar and exaggerator.
The media's apparent belief that it is acceptable to say any damn thing they want, true or false, as long as they say it about the Clintons, has become known as the “Clinton Rules of Journalism.” Those rules, however, apply to progressives broadly, not just the Clintons. They have applied to Al Gore, as indicated above, and to John Edwards (witness the nonsense about his haircut). And there are signs Barack Obama may soon have to deal with these rules, if it hasn't started already. The New York Times' (truly bizarre) recent attempt to portray Obama as having used drugs as a teenager less than he suggested in his autobiography is one such example. As The New Yorker's Hendrik Hertzberg observed:
The news here is -- what, exactly? That Obama, who now appears grounded, motivated, and poised, formerly appeared grounded, motivated, and poised? That his inner uncertainties, such as they were, were more apparent to himself than to others? That he was marginally less of a pothead than he has made himself out to be? ... For a candidate to stand accused of exaggerating his youthful drug use is something new indeed.
The Clinton Rules are, on their own, a clear indictment of modern political journalism. It should go without saying that making up quotes in order to depict a politician as a liar is horrible journalism. It should go without saying that repeating long-ago debunked claims is, too.
But as bad as these things are, they are made even worse by the contrasting treatment that leading Republicans have gotten from the media in recent years.
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Not only have the three rules discussed above not typically been applied to the likes of George W. Bush and John McCain, the media also have often taken the opposite approach.
While Democratic “scandals” have been treated as true if any individual element has turned out to be accurate, allegations against Republicans have been deemed false if any individual element turned out to be wrong -- or even questionable.
The clearest example of this is the 2004 controversy around Bush's National Guard service, or lack thereof.
The national media spent years ignoring documentary evidence that Bush didn't fulfill the requirements of his National Guard commitment, and attacking those who raised the issue. In 2004, for example, ABC's Peter Jennings called Michael Moore's assertion that Bush was a “deserter” a “reckless charge not supported by the facts” and suggested it was an example of poor “ethical behavior” for Wesley Clark not to have contradicted Moore. In fact, there was ample evidence that Bush had not bothered to show up for required Guard duty -- evidence Jennings and ABC had been carefully ignoring for years.
Later that year, when CBS News aired a report about Bush's Guard service, conservatives seized on documents used in that report that they claimed were fake. The media immediately acted as though the entire question about whether Bush fulfilled his commitment to the National Guard came down to whether or not the CBS documents were real, ignoring voluminous other evidence. When a consensus emerged that they were not, the media treated this as vindication for Bush and his campaign -- despite the fact that, with or without the CBS documents, there is overwhelming evidence that Bush skipped out on his Guard duty. (It should be noted that though there emerged a consensus that the documents were not real, this was not proven, and former CBS anchor Dan Rather is suing the network over its handling of the matter.)
Likewise, when news broke this week that John McCain may have done legislative favors for a lobbyist with whom he may have had an affair, countless journalists quickly declared that the alleged affair was all that mattered. If there was no affair, they asserted, McCain would be vindicated. Never mind the indications that McCain may have done favors for lobbyists -- exactly the type of image-incongruous behavior the media pounce on when the subject is a Democrat.
How many times were we sanctimoniously told by journalists that the reason the Edwards haircut got so much media attention was that it supposedly conflicted with his image as an advocate for the poor and middle class? Well, no politician in recent memory has had an image as well-developed as McCain, who (thanks largely to the news media that adore him) is seen as a reformer, a man of principle, a tireless warrior against the influence of special interests. But this week brought explosive allegations that, in contrast to this image, McCain (who was, remember, one of the Keating Five) may have been doing favors for lobbyists. It also brought a reminder that he has essentially turned his presidential campaign over to some of the nation's most powerful lobbyists. Yet, rather than seizing on this tension between McCain's carefully cultivated image and his actions, many journalists swiftly moved to declare it a non-story: All that mattered was the alleged affair, and if that didn't happen, McCain must be innocent of everything, the victim of a “smear.”
In contrast to their treatment of Democrats, in which they declare a “scandal” true if any element of it is true, the media have moved to declare the entire McCain story a “smear” if any element of it is false.
And rather than examine whether McCain reacted to the stories with false claims, contradictions, or absurdities, as they have done to countless Democrats in the past, much of the media simply noted his denials and behaved as though the story is all about The New York Times' behavior in breaking it. Just as they had with the Bush National Guard story, other media quickly made the Times the story, rather than McCain's actions and statements. (One notable exception: a Newsweek article by Michael Isikoff that begins: “A sworn deposition that Sen. John McCain gave in a lawsuit more than five years ago appears to contradict one part of a sweeping denial that his campaign issued this week to rebut a New York Times story about his ties to a Washington lobbyist.”)
Yesterday, John McCain's presidential campaign sent out a fundraising email (from lobbyist/McCain campaign manager Rick Davis) that claimed, “Objective observers are viewing this ... as a sleazy smear attack from a liberal newspaper against the conservative Republican frontrunner.” The email quoted four such “objective observers,” including right-wing Fox News host Sean Hannity, former Republican Congressman Joe Scarborough, and “Washington attorney Bob Bennett, who was the Democrat counsel during the Keating investigation.”
The description of Hannity and Scarborough as “objective observers” is funny enough, but Bob Bennett is John McCain's personal attorney in this matter. He is the exact opposite of an “objective observer” -- he is a paid advocate on McCain's behalf. When he defends McCain, he isn't doing so as an “objective observer,” he is doing so in exchange for hundreds of dollars an hour.
McCain's campaign manager's portrayal of McCain's personal lawyer as an “objective observer” defending McCain isn't merely a breathtaking display of chutzpah, though it is certainly that. It is also precisely the kind of thing that, had it been done in defense of Bill Clinton or Al Gore, would have led to a cascade of ridicule from the news media. We would constantly hear about how they were hurting themselves with such transparently dishonest defense, which not only calls their character into question, it suggests that the underlying allegations must be true. Tucker Carlson would have a field day mocking the defense, and he wouldn't be alone. And, for once, he wouldn't be wrong.
Yet, when this transparently dishonest defense is made on John McCain's behalf, the media ignore it.
The hinted-at-but-not-proven (and thus, perhaps not real) affair between McCain and the lobbyist is, in many ways, the least important and least interesting aspect of this week's revelations. As Media Matters' Eric Alterman noted yesterday, "[I]t's none of our business and does not belong on the front page of The New York Times, regardless of timing. What's more, the sex gets in the way of what is really important about McCain's behavior."
But the media's reaction to this element of the story is very interesting -- particularly in contrast to their treatment of allegations of affairs by Democrats. McCain left his first wife for his current wife -- a fact that was notably absent from yesterday's cable coverage of the McCain controversy. Whenever some new allegation of an affair by Clinton popped up, the media were quick to invoke previous (unproven and in many ways provably false) claims, like those of Gennifer Flowers, as evidence of a pattern that made the new allegations likely to be true. Yet here we have the media ignoring McCain's history with women, even as they discuss the possibility of an affair between McCain and a lobbyist.
Then there's the reaction to the New York Times article. All day yesterday, a firestorm raged in the media over the Times article, as journalists from other news organizations denounced the paper for suggesting, based on unnamed sources, that McCain had an affair. It was denounced as a smear, and reckless journalism.
Some of the same people who were challenging the Times' reliance on unnamed sources, and its printing of what amounts to rumors of an affair, praised the Times for doing exactly the same thing nearly two years ago.
Well, not quite the same thing: Back then, the victim of the Times' crude innuendo was Bill Clinton, not John McCain.
When The New York Times ran a 2,000-word article about the state of the Clintons' marriage in May of 2006, the paper passed on gossip about Bill Clinton and a Canadian politician named Belinda Stronach. According to the Times, “Several prominent New York Democrats, in interviews, volunteered that they became concerned last year over a tabloid photograph” of Clinton and Stronach.
Chris Matthews, among others, loved -- loved -- the article. He discussed it again and again and again on Hardball. He -- approvingly -- described it as a warning from The New York Times to Clinton that “he better watch it” and “behave himself.” Interviewing Clinton aide Ann Lewis, Matthews added, “I think it'd be great for the country if ... we were not once again distracted by what you call private life. And I think the way to avoid getting distracted is to have nothing there to distract us. ... I want to have some assurances from people that I trust and like to spread the word that he better watch it.”
In short, Matthews did not criticize the Times article; he endorsed it. He didn't complain about it being based on unnamed sources, or about the paper trafficking in gossip it couldn't prove true.
Now, how did Matthews react to the Times article about McCain, a man Matthews has said “deserves” to be president? Did he repeatedly ask if McCain would “behave himself” during the campaign? Did he approvingly note that the Times had sent a warning that McCain “better watch it”? Of course not.
Instead, Matthews turned on the Times for the same type of reporting it had employed in the Clinton article. Again and again he used his perch at MSNBC to rail against the Times not only for using unnamed sources in the McCain article, but for failing to explain why it was granting the sources anonymity, which, as Matthews pointed out, is inconsistent with the Times' guidelines.
But Matthews expressed no such concern about the 2006 article about Clinton. Here's the Times' passage about Stronach again -- a passage the Times' public editor at the time said should not have appeared in the paper:
Because of Mr. Clinton's behavior in the White House, tabloid gossip sticks to him like iron filings to a magnet. Several prominent New York Democrats, in interviews, volunteered that they became concerned last year over a tabloid photograph showing Mr. Clinton leaving B.L.T. Steak in Midtown Manhattan late one night after dining with a group that included Belinda Stronach, a Canadian politician. The two were among roughly a dozen people at a dinner, but it still was enough to fuel coverage in the gossip pages.
Why had the Times granted anonymity to the “New York Democrats”? The Times didn't say -- and Chris Matthews didn't give a damn; he was just thrilled that the paper had issued its “warning.” Of course, back then, the targets of the Times' article were the Clintons, and Chris Matthews very much does not like the Clintons. Now the subject of a Times article relying on unnamed sources is McCain, who Matthews thinks “deserves” to be president. And so Matthews now righteously denounces the same sourcing techniques that he didn't mind at all when the subject was Clinton.
And Matthews has repeatedly railed against the Times for running the McCain story on the front page, above the fold -- right where the Times' article about the Clintons' marriage ran.
Not that Matthews has cornered the market on blatant double standards. His MSNBC colleague Tucker Carlson kept insisting that the Times' reference to a possible affair by McCain was inappropriate because, according to Carlson, the media collectively agreed not to focus on such things post-Monica Lewinksy. To his credit, this is not the first time Carlson has been outraged by discussion of a candidate's marriage: He frequently opposes such discussion -- when Republicans are the subjects.
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The point here isn't that the Times article about McCain was flawless. It wasn't. The paper could have run, as many have noted, a much stronger article that focused on McCain's actions on behalf of lobbyists, without including unnamed sources asserting that unnamed aides believed McCain to have had an affair. But I don't remember Chris Matthews or Tucker Carlson or the countless other journalists who have denounced the Times over the past two days leveling a similar complaint about unnamed sources talking about Clinton and Stronach. To the contrary; they embraced that article.
Regardless of the merits of the Times article, particularly its treatment of the affair question, it is important to recognize the blatant double standards media employ to hype stories damaging to Democrats and downplay and dismiss those damaging to Republicans.
The Clinton Rules make for lousy journalism, as we've seen over the past two decades. But the media's rush to dismiss serious questions about prominent Republicans is no better than their repeated peddling of bogus stories about Democrats.
Jamison Foser is Executive Vice President at Media Matters for America.