Richard Cohen | Media Matters for America

Richard Cohen

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  • What is the point of Richard Cohen?

    The Washington Post’s tenured barnacle has some wheezy observations on socialism

    Blog ››› ››› SIMON MALOY


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    It’s genuinely baffling that Richard Cohen still occupies a place of prominence on the Washington Post opinion page. The only time you ever hear about something he’s written is when he blurps up a column so obtuse, horrific, sexist, horny, or racist that someone like me musters the requisite energies to point out how obtuse, horrific, sexist, horny, or racist it is. He’s good for the occasional hate-read traffic bump and that’s about it. And yet he just keeps on cranking out his flaccid, miserable takes and taking up space that could be better utilized by columnists whose worldviews have progressed beyond the Reagan era.

    In his latest offering, Cohen reacts to the energy and enthusiasm surrounding NY-14 Democratic nominee Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who vaulted to national prominence with her upset victory over House Democratic Caucus Chairman Joe Crowley. Ocasio-Cortez is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America and she ran, in part, on abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement. These two facts are highly worrisome to Cohen, who frets that they’ll be used by President Donald Trump and the Republicans to attack Democrats.

    “The trouble with left-wing Democrats is that they lack a proper respect for right-wing demagoguery,” Cohen writes as his thesis. “Hence, at the moment, many of them extol socialism ... and are calling for the abolition of ICE, generously giving President Trump yet another opportunity to demagogue on immigration. They will, if allowed, declaim their way to another defeat.”

    This is, not surprisingly, a precisely backward diagnosis of what ails the modern Democratic Party. Democrats have been obsessively and self-destructively worried about what nasty things Republicans and conservatives will say if they don’t come off as sufficiently “moderate.” And when they try to mollify the right they still get the full blast of right-wing demagoguery. John Kerry voted for the Iraq War and the Patriot Act, and in 2004 he got torn apart by the right as a weakling and terrorist sympathizer. President Barack Obama implemented a record-setting increase in deportations to show Republicans how tough he was on border security, and comprehensive immigration reform still tanked because the hard-right faction in the House called him an open-borders amnesty lover.

    Now Cohen is worried that Trump and the Republicans will start calling Democrats “socialists” because New York voters elected Ocasio-Cortez. “To [older voters], the socialist label is anathema and, as far as I’m concerned, unnecessary,” he writes. “This, after all, is the avuncular socialism of Bernie Sanders: universal Medicare and free higher education. It needs no label. Sign me up.” (“No label”? What a fresh and intriguing concept!)

    Because Cohen has his head stuck in 1983’s ass, it never occurs to him that several decades worth of Democratic maneuvering to avoid overt associations with “socialism” has done nothing to deter Republicans from calling them “socialists.” But he wants Democrats to keep playing this losing game according to Republican rules because that’s how politics has worked for the length and breadth of his career and his brain is too ossified to contemplate an alternative.

    “The socialist label, combined with the demand to obliterate the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, is the nitro and the glycerin of a bomb that Trump can throw at the Democrats,” Cohen continues, writing that Trump will seize on #AbolishICE to stoke white identity politics and capitalize on “resentment and fury.” Once again, I have to wonder whether Cohen has paid any attention to politics in the last decade. Donald Trump’s entire political identity is rooted in white resentment and xenophobia, and he requires no excuse to stoke racial grievance for his own benefit.

    Neither Trump nor the GOP actually care what the Democratic position on ICE or immigration is; they’ll all be smeared with the same shit-laden brush regardless. Take, as a timely example, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), who supports abolishing ICE, and Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), who says “we've got to critically re-examine ICE”: They were both attacked by the White House this week as crime lovers and gang supporters.

    The democratic-socialist movement in the U.S. is resurgent and is proving to be a source of energy and intensity within Democratic politics. So, naturally, Cohen wants it diluted to nothingness. “ICE could certainly use some restraint,” he writes. “And some aspects of democratic socialism are welcome.” But “speak no more of socialism,” he concludes, because that accursed word might angry up the already angry reactionaries and nativists in power. This is a variation of the tiresome “civility” game that privileges bad-faith actors and lets them set the rules for how we talk about politics. Right-wing demagoguery deserves no respect, and no one should ever listen to Richard Cohen.

  • Would A Primary Challenger Improve Hillary Clinton's Press Coverage? It Didn't Help Al Gore

    Blog ››› ››› ERIC BOEHLERT

    Hillary Clinton's race for the White House might be historic in more than ways than one. Not only would a successful presidential campaign usher in a new era of a female president, but if Clinton ends up running unopposed during the Democratic primary season it would represent a modern-day first for a non-incumbent or a non-sitting vice president. 

    That prospect has generated endless hand-wringing among journalists who seem nervous about covering a Democratic primary season where there are no serious Clinton challengers. But instead of acknowledging their professional desire for a story to cover ("The media wants a fight, they love a fight," notes Democratic strategist Joe Trippi), some journalists have presented their agita as concern for Clinton's political well-being. They stress that an uncontested primary would hurt her chances in 2016. And specifically, commentators suggest Clinton's press coverage would improve if she had a Democratic opponent.

    The argument goes like this: If a primary challenger steps forward, the media's harsh focus would move off Clinton and onto her opponent who'd be the target of equally vigorous scrutiny.

    "She needs someone else in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination -- someone to divert the news media," wrote Richard Cohen at the Washington Post. He stressed that currently, "Clinton's chief opponent is the press. It covers her like the proverbial cheap suit, if only because it has no one else to cover." The New York Times cited a Republican strategist who suggested "an absence of top-tier Democratic campaign rivals would hurt Mrs. Clinton because the glare of the news media spotlight intensifies when a single person is in it."

    In other words, the current campaign dynamic of the press squaring off against Clinton and essentially acting as her opponent in the absence of a challenger is bad news for her, which is why she'd benefit from a capable opponent. 

    Bonus: Having a challenger would supposedly force the press to cover substantive issues as two or more candidates battled over ideas.

    That all sounds logical, in theory. But somebody might want to ask Al Gore if that's what happened during the 2000 campaign when he was the prohibitive Democratic favorite and faced a single challenger, former Sen. Bill Bradley.

    Ask Al Gore if the emergence of Bradley's campaign meant the former vice president's caustic press coverage suddenly lightened up as reporters scrambled to dissect Bradley with equal vigor; if Bradley's presence meant the press obediently focused on the issues instead of obsessing over trivial campaign gotcha and claims of character flaws.

    They did not.

  • Wash. Post's Cohen "Sicken[ed]" By Obama's "Repellent" Embrace Of Bergdahl Family

    Blog ››› ››› SOPHIA TESFAYE

    Richard CohenWashington Post columnist Richard Cohen condemned the White House visit by the parents of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the U.S. soldier held captive in Afghanistan for five years, as "utterly repellent," even though Cohen acknowledged that the circumstances surrounding Bergdahl's capture are unclear. 

    In a June 4 post, Cohen attacked President Obama for inviting Bergdahl's parents to the White House on May 31 to announce that his release had been secured. Noting reports that Bergdahl may have been captured by Taliban combatants after leaving his post on his own volition, Cohen labeled Bergdahl a "deserter" despite admitting that the "ultimate truth about Bergdahl has yet to be determined":

    On Jan. 31, 1945, the U.S. Army executed a soldier from Detroit named Eddie Slovik. He was what we would now call a loser -a petty thief, a self-proclaimed coward and, by his admission, a deserter. He was the first U.S. soldier executed for desertion since the Civil War and, as far as I can tell, the last. He soon became the subject of a book and a movie - and then slipped into history, ignominious and pathetic in death and now almost entirely forgotten.

    Now, all these years later, deserters are treated somewhat differently. Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl is accused by some of his Army colleagues of deserting his post in Afghanistan, leaving behind his weapon and his body armor. He was taken prisoner by the Taliban and was just swapped for five terrorists who were being held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. If the charges are true, the Taliban got back valuable and esteemed warriors and the United States got a deserter.

    Cohen went on to question the President's "huggy session" with the Bergdahls and made clear that he is "not for executing deserters, but I am not for hugging parents, either":

    But the Rose Garden production sticks in my craw -- Obama leaving with his arms around Bergdahl's mother and father. So touching. So warm. So utterly repellent! Did the president know that their son was being accused of desertion? Did he care? As commander in chief, did he ponder what he owed the many millions of soldiers who were also scared or fed up with war -- but did not allegedly amble off? Did he consider how Bergdahl's platoon was exposed and what could happen to the men who went out in search of him?

    Truly, I find it necessary to have retrieved Bergdahl ... in some way. The freeing of five killers of Americans as part of the deal bothers me, but maybe there was no other way. But I am even more bothered, though, that the president and his incautious mouthpiece Susan Rice -- she said Bergdahl served "with honor and distinction" -- turned what had to be a sordid but possibly necessary deal into a virtual patriotic exercise. It was fundamentally a lie. It was frankly sickening. 

    Cohen's column echoes right-wing attacks on Bergdahl's father, Bob, who grew out his beard in solidarity with his captive son. Fox contributor Laura Ingraham claimed Bob Bergdahl looked like a "terrorist," and Fox host Bill O'Reilly said he was "insulted" by his appearance at the Rose Garden. 

    While Cohen claimed to be "sicken[ed]" by the treatment of the Bergdahls, he has also written that "people with conventional views must repress a gag reflex" when considering interracial families. 

  • Richard Cohen's History Of Downplaying Sexual Misconduct

    Blog ››› ››› EMILY ARROWOOD

    Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen dismissed the real-life rape of a minor as "manhandl[ing]" and refused to acknowledge the realities of the sexual misconduct, a longstanding and common practice for Cohen.

    In a Post op-ed on September 2, Cohen highlighted singer Miley Cyrus' recent MTV performance where she infamously twerked in order to bring attention to a New Yorker report by Ariel Levy on the horrific rape of a minor in Steubenville, OH in August 2012. Cohen euphemistically characterized the victim as being stripped and manhandled:

    The first thing you should know about the so-called Steubenville Rape is that this was not a rape involving intercourse. The next thing you should know is that there weren't many young men involved -- just two were convicted. The next thing you should know is that just about everything you do know about the case from TV and the Internet was wrong. One medium fed the other, a vicious circle of rumor, innuendo and just plain lies. It made for marvelous television.

    The New Yorker piece was done by Ariel Levy, a gifted writer. When I finished her story, I felt somewhat disconcerted -- unhappily immersed in a teenage culture that was stupid, dirty and so incredibly and obliviously misogynistic that I felt like a visitor to a foreign country. That country, such as it is, exists on the Internet -- in e-mails and tweets and Facebook, which formed itself into a digital lynch mob that demanded the arrest of the innocent for a crime -- gang rape -- that had not been committed. It also turned the victim into a reviled public figure, her name and picture (passed out, drunk) available with a Google query.

    And yet what indisputably did happen is troubling enough. A teenage girl, stone-drunk, was stripped and manhandled. She was photographed and the picture passed around. Obviously, she was sexually mistreated. And while many people knew about all of this, no one did anything about it. The girl was dehumanized. As Levy put it, "[T]he teens seemed largely unaware that they'd been involved in a crime." She quoted the Jefferson County prosecutor, Jane Hanlin: "'They don't think that what they've seen is a rape in the classic sense. And if you were to interview a thousand teen-agers before this case started and said, "Is it illegal to take a video of another teenager naked?," I would be astonished if you could find even one who said yes.'"

    Illegal is sort of beside the point. Right, proper, nice, respectful, decent -- you choose the word -- is more apt. This is what got me: a teenage culture that was brutal and unfeeling, that treated the young woman as dirt. "'She's deader than O.J.'s wife. She's deader than Caylee Anthony,' " one kid exulted in a YouTube posting. "'They raped her harder than that cop raped Marsellus Wallace in "Pulp Fiction." She is so raped right now.' " Yes, I know, they were all drunk, woozy and disoriented from a tawdry cable TV and celebrity culture.

    After bizarrely emphasizing that what happened in Steubenville did not involve rape by intercourse, Cohen later referred to the crime as stripping and manhandling without ever definitively acknowledging that the assault amounted to rape. Of course, an Ohio jury found that the victim was raped and two teens were guilty of the crime.

  • Canonize or Villainize?

    Blog ››› ››› ARI RABIN-HAVT

    Edward SnowdenNo act in modern media culture can create as instantly polarizing a figure as the leaking of classified information. Daniel Ellsberg, Julian Assange, Bradley Manning, and now Edward Snowden -- the complexity of their human psyche was instantly reduced to binary choices by opposing extremes tugging to set a narrative.

    They must be canonized or villainized.  

    Creating a media narrative focused on battles over the moral character of imperfect individuals inevitably draws the public away from necessary debates about our fundamental rights.

    Bob Schieffer's commentary Sunday night on CBS was jarring, because after acknowledging, "I don't know yet if the government has overreached since 9/11 to reinforce our defenses, and we need to find out," the veteran newsman then turned his fire: "I think what we have in Edward Snowden is just a narcissistic young man who has decided he is smarter than the rest of us."

    Schieffer's statement followed former NBC anchor Tom Brokaw belittling Snowden as a "military washout" and Richard Cohen of The Washington Post describing him as a "cross-dressing Little Red Riding Hood."

    Whether or not Edward Snowden is a narcissist is inconsequential. Was the information he leaked to The Guardian and The Washington Post accurate? What are the boundaries between the surveillance abilities our 21st century telecommunications infrastructure provides agencies like the NSA, and a free and open society?

    Who Edward Snowden is as a person is insignificant to the question of whether or not we as a society should be having a debate - facts in hand - about the level of surveillance we are willing to tolerate.

    There are legitimate grounds of inquiry into how individuals obtain clearances, the use of private contractors by the intelligence community, and if the disclosure of this information constitutes a criminal act. But the majority of attacks on Snowden don't seek answers to these questions. They attempt to distract us with a chorus of voices more interested in a conversation better suited to the naming of Kim Kardashian and Kanye West's baby than the most significant discussion about our right to privacy of the past decade.

    Snowden has been called a "hero," "traitor," "dropout," "narcissist," and "washout." He has been attacked by elites from all ends of the ideological spectrum in government and the media. And yes, he has put himself forward for these attacks. But just as the conversation the Pentagon Papers promoted was ultimately far more significant than the personality of Daniel Ellsberg, the conversation Edward Snowden has begun is far more important than any defects - or heroic qualities - he may possess.

  • Wash. Post's Cohen Embraces "Leading From Behind" Smear Of Obama

    Blog ››› ››› ADAM SHAH

    Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen legitimized the debunked right-wing claim that President Obama ceded leadership on Libya to other nations, choosing instead to "lead from behind."

    Cohen wrote that Obama egregiously lied in the third presidential debate when he suggested that "he had America take the lead in Libya":

    If, however you choose a president by [honesty] alone, then you have a tough time ahead of you. Both candidates lied.

    Obama might have been the more egregious of the two. He strongly suggested that he had America take the lead in Libya, organizing the air campaign that brought down Moammar Gaddafi. In fact, the French took the lead and the United States followed, which gave rise the phrase "leading from behind" -- an indictable offense, if you ask me.

    Cohen echoed a right-wing media claim based on a May New Yorker article examining President Obama's foreign policy record. In that article, Ryan Lizza quoted an unnamed Obama adviser who described the U.S. role during the successful campaign to oust former Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi as "leading from behind." Right-wing media figures have long claimed that quotation illustrated weakness in Obama's foreign policy.

    But contrary to this claim from Cohen and the right-wing media, Lizza himself has said that the "leading from behind" phrase was not an expression of weakness by the Obama administration. Rather, the quote referred to the Obama administration's successful effort to lead "a coalition in the U.N. to get military authorization to topple Gadhafi."

    Lizza explained to a conservative activist:

    So the quote actually is the opposite of what you are saying. It actually refers to the strategy that Obama used in the U.N. to get all of the nations to support the U.S.' use of force resolution, because after the Bush years it was really hard for the U.S. to go to the U.N. and get support for the use of force because Bush was really, really unpopular.

  • Wash. Post's Cohen's Misguided Push For A Strike On Iran

    ››› ››› MIKE BURNS

    In a Washington Post column, Richard Cohen justified a potential Israeli strike on Iran's nuclear facilities by claiming that it would delay Iran's ability to build nuclear weapons, as evidenced by Israel's 1981 strike on Iraq's Osirak reactor. But experts say that the Osirak reactor strike did not delay -- and might even have accelerated -- Saddam Hussein's pursuit of nuclear weapons.

  • The Washington Post's Liberal-Bashing, Pro-Torture "Left-Leaning" Columnist

    Blog ››› ››› JAMISON FOSER

    As I've frequently pointed out, the fact that columnist Richard Cohen is what passes for a "liberal" at the Washington Post pretty thoroughly undermines the idea that the paper's opinion pages lean to the left. In response, people have occasionally asked me "Who says Cohen is supposed to be a liberal?" Well, now, the Post has removed any doubt about the role it thinks Cohen plays at the paper, officially designating him a "left-leaning" columnist:

    Dana Milbank is the kind of "left-leaning" columnist who voted for Republican presidential candidates in 2000 and 2004 and a Republican-turned-independent in 2008. And who referred to Hillary Clinton as a "mad bitch." Just try to imagine the Post identifying as "right-leaning" a columnist who voted for Democratic presidential candidates in 2000 and 2004 and called Sarah Palin a "mad bitch."

    But it's Richard Cohen's presence on the "left-leaning" list that's really remarkable. Here's a refresher:

  • Wash. Post columnists agree: Even if the Clarence Thomas allegations were true, who cares?

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ

    "Liberal" Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen wants you to know that he really doesn't care what happened between Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill, who alleged during Thomas' Senate confirmation hearings that Thomas made repeated unwelcome "sexual overtures" to her when she was his assistant:

    I was young and boorish once myself and have turned out to be a veritable saint. I venture to say we all did and said terrible things when we were young, which is why nature protects the elderly with failing memories. I want to forget both Hill and Thomas. Let us media types let go of this story.

    Hill's accusations against Thomas are back in the news after Thomas' wife recently called Hill seeking an apology for her testimony. Lillian McEwen, Thomas' former girlfriend, also came forward to say that Hill's statements were consistent with the Clarence Thomas she knew. McEwen is currently seeking a publisher for her autobiography.

    One thing Cohen is sure of: Hill definitely wasn't sexually harassed, because if she had been, she would have taken advantage of the benefits of affirmative action and found a different job:

    In fact, they have nothing to do with anything -- unless it is to prove that nothing about Thomas and his initial accuser, Anita Hill, makes any sense. Her charges fell somewhat short of blatant, coercive, sexual harassment -- or, if they didn't, then why did she follow her abuser, Thomas, from one job to the next? A black, female Yale Law School graduate was not lacking in employment opportunities.

  • Here's what passes for a "liberal" at the Washington Post

    Blog ››› ››› JAMISON FOSER

    Richard Cohen, the Washington Post's torture-loving "liberal" columnist who denounces liberals as "leftists" and "communists" and who was so certain of the validity of President Bush's case for war in Iraq he sneered that only a "fool or possibly a Frenchman" could fail to see its wisdom, once again demonstrates the absurdity of the notion that the Post is a liberal paper.

    The problem with Cohen's column today isn't that arguing against hate crimes legislation constitutes apostasy; it's the way in which he argues against hate crime legislation that causes the skin to crawl.

    Cohen begins by noting what he calls New York City's "hate-crime spree, culminating early this month with the torture of three men in the Bronx, purportedly for being gay," which he follows by asserting:

    Almost as bad as hate crimes themselves is the designation. It is a little piece of totalitarian nonsense, a way for prosecutors to punish miscreants for their thoughts or speech, both of which used to be protected by the Constitution (I am an originalist in this regard).

    Really? Calling the torture of three gay men a "hate crime" is almost as bad as torturing three gay men? That the Washington Post would publish such warped anti-gay moral equivalence doesn't really surprise me; that it would come from the paper's purportedly liberal columnist is, however, quite disappointing.

  • Ignoring the obvious

    Blog ››› ››› JAMISON FOSER

    And now, in another installment of "Ignoring the obvious," Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen offers up a convoluted explanation for President Obama's troubles:

    [Jimmy] Carter's energy program was right on the money. The message was fine; the messenger was awful. This is exactly the case with Obama, who is far more likable than Carter, yet is being cuffed around in a similar manner. Being right is nice. Convincing others you are is essential. Yet even George W. Bush, who left a grateful nation with two wars and a recession -- somehow he forgot the mumps -- hypothetically runs neck and neck with Obama. This is because Obama's insistence on realism comes across as pessimism.

    No. It is because unemployment has hovered around 9.5 percent for well more than a year. The problem isn't the messenger, it's the lousy economy. Or has Richard Cohen forgotten that just two years ago, "awful" messenger Barack Obama and his "insistence on realism" won a landslide electoral victory?

    Cohen, by the way, has written the word "unemployment" in only three columns in the past 19 months. His September 7, 2010 column was typical of the punditocracy's bizarre belief that political salvation lies in better speechwriters rather than a better economy. After grudgingly acknowledging that "some" of Obama's troubles stem from a "lousy economy," Cohen demands not that policymakers focus on repairing that economy, but that Obama look more "commander in chiefish":

    Some of Obama's travails stem from the lousy economy -- unemployment up at around 10 percent. … But it is clear by now that Obama has allowed others to define him. For this, Obama needs to blame Obama. His stutter-step approach to certain issues -- his wimpy statements regarding the planned Islamic center in Manhattan, for instance -- erodes not just his standing but his profile. … [W]hat Obama can do -- what he must do -- is get some new people. His staff ill-serves him so that he presents a persona at odds with his performance. … The president needs better speechwriters. The president needs a staff to tell him not to give an Oval Office address unless he has something worthy of the Oval Office to say. The president needs someone to look into the camera so that, when the light goes on and he says, "Good evening," he looks commander in chiefish: big. In other words, the president needs to fire some key people. Either that, or the way things are going, the American people are going to fire him.

    Similarly, on July 20, 2010, Cohen acknowledged that Obama's political struggles are in part a result of the fact that "[t]he economy remains sluggish and unemployment remains high" -- and then went on to conclude "Americans know Obama is smart. But we still don't know him. Before Americans can give him credit for what he's done, they have to know who he is. We're waiting."

    Let's set aside the question of whether Cohen is right that the solution to Obama's political problems is improved speeches rather than an improved economy. Think about what it says about Richard Cohen that he knows the economy is terrible, that unemployment has been too high for too long -- but what he's really concerned about is Barack Obama's "persona." How out of touch do you have to be to repeatedly gloss over a terrible economy in favor of a lengthy discussion of presidential style points?

  • Wash. Post's Cohen: Those offended by NYC mosque "need our understanding, not our indulgence"

    Blog ››› ››› MEDIA MATTERS STAFF

    In his August 24 Washington Post column, Richard Cohen states that those who recognize the difference between innocent Muslims and the "sliver of believers" who attacked the United States on 9/11 "have a moral duty to support the creation of the Islamic center." From the column:

    This is not a complicated matter. If you believe that an entire religion of upward of a billion followers attacked the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, then it is understandable that locating a mosque near the fallen World Trade Center might be upsetting. But the facts are otherwise. Islam was not in on the attack -- just a sliver of believers. That being the case, those people with legitimate hurt feelings are mistaken. They need our understanding, not our indulgence.

    If, on the other hand, you do not believe that the attack was launched by an entire religion, you have a moral duty to support the creation of the Islamic center. Lots of people fall into this category -- or say they do -- and still protest the mosque. They include Newt Gingrich, New York Republican gubernatorial candidate Rick Lazio and that Twittering Twit of the Tundra, Sarah Palin. They indulge in a kind of pornography of analogy -- a bit of demagogic buffoonery that is becoming more and more obvious. They pretend that they have a solemn obligation to defend the (powerful) majority from the demands of the (powerless) minority and champion people whose emotions are based on a misreading of the facts.