Wednesday, May 22, 2013


Pretty much everyone acknowledges that the establishment press (i.e. the major non-cable broadcast networks, The New York Times, The Washington Post) went pretty easy on President Obama during two presidential elections and during his first term. So are they going overboard making up for it now?

Unfortunately, things have gotten to the point where most politically engaged people no longer care about the fairness of news coverage or public opinion, but only about whether their side is up or down. And among the political class, hardly anyone even pretends to care about principles, and no one even looks embarrassed when they swap from one side of an argument to another because their guy is now in or out of the White House.

So now the “mainstream” press gives the appearance that it is simply following a timeworn script. “Everyone knows” that second terms are when the scandals come out and, besides, when the incumbent has no reelection battle for them to look forward to, reporters need to find something to entertain themselves with. So now that the president is safely ensconced for a second term, they have free reign to dump on him, right?

There does indeed seem to be some of that going on. The only question is: are the media being too hard on the president or are they only doing what they should have been doing all along?

I’ll vote for the latter. I’m a firm believer that the press should be adversarial toward the government, no matter who is in power. The man who sits in the White House has plenty of resources at his disposal to burnish his image or argue his case. The press’s job should be to fact check his assertions aggressively—and also those of his opponents. Sad to say, the more influential a journalist is, the more comfortable he or she seems to be in the Washington bubble. You see it on the Sunday news programs as well as on shows like PBS’s Washington Week. There is an argument to be made for newspapers and networks rotating their correspondents frequently in and out of Washington, if only to help them keep some sort of perspective.

I have heard a few outlets refer to President Obama’s “trifecta” of scandals, which I find kind of interesting. A trifecta, in its original meaning anyway, is a bet on all of the first three finishers, usually in a horse race. Secondarily, it can refer to winning three major prizes or racking up three major accomplishments. It’s a strange term to use for political scandals.

So what are we to make of this “trifecta”? I’ve already made my thoughts known on Benghazi. Somebody really fell down on security for U.S. diplomats in Libya, and it’s very clear in hindsight that a lot of danger signs—and pleas from people on the ground—were ignored. And after the attack, the administration spun the story to such a point that it’s not too harsh to call it lying. Was any of it criminal or illegal? Not as far as we know. Bad judgment is not a crime, but that’s not the same thing as saying that penalties shouldn’t be paid.

Not surprisingly, the press has gotten most passionate about the fishing expedition into Associated Press phone records. But even the administration’s harshest critics concede that nothing illegal was done here. But it does show that the Obama team, living up to the venerable Chicago political tradition, is not afraid to play hardball in using the levers of power for its own advantage. This is even more apparent in the tactic they used in getting Fox News’s James Rosen’s phone records: naming him as a “co-conspirator” in a leak investigation. Maybe the administration isn’t worried too much about media blowback on that one because, after all, it’s only Fox News. But it does represent a worrying shift from the past practice of going after leakers rather than the people they leak to.

Speaking of an administration not afraid to use government power against enemies, we also have the IRS affair. House Speaker John Boehner’s rhetorical question about who will go to jail aside, it’s not clear any laws were broken here either. The scandal is over how IRS employees used their discretion, but no one can really argue that, under the current mess that is the tax code, they do not have that discretion. Barring a smoking gun that shows that someone in the White House directed the targeting of conservative groups, nothing much is likely to come of this other than months of congressional hearings. What the eventual political fallout will be is another question, though.

The scary thing about the IRS revelations isn’t even the notion that the White House might be using this agency against its enemies. It’s that the agency—or elements within the agency—might just be doing this on its own. After all, it seems perfectly plausible that they picked their targets not because they were Republican but specifically because they were in favor of smaller government. Like any organism in nature, why wouldn’t the IRS instinctively protect itself? And it’s not like they’re accountable to anybody. After all, didn’t the president say he read about the whole thing in the papers like everybody else?

At the end of the day, what I really wonder about is how things are at home for Jay Carney. After all, this presidential spokesman has had to spin some pretty laughable scenarios to the press corps. And he actually used to be one of them. He’s not just some guy who was always a political flack. He was a correspondent for Time and CNN. Would he have had any patience for this kind of misdirection when he was covering the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush White Houses?

Carney’s wife is Claire Shipman of ABC News. I wonder if they have had any chats about the strange campaign to smear her colleague Jonathan Karl over a transcription error in his report on the White House’s Benghazi email trail. In the end, The Washington Post’s factchecker awarded three Pinocchios to White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer for his assertion on five news shows on Sunday that this somehow invalidated what the emails clearly show.

Yet that hasn’t stopped Media Matters—which essentially functions as an arm of the Obama press office and is, incidentally, tax-exempt—from continuing to spread the smear anyway.

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