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Oh, That Liberal Media…

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  • Eric Alterman
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Here we go again. Polls consistently demonstrate that the nation rejects almost everything about the Bush administration — both its incompetence and dishonesty, yet reporters for mainstream news organizations treat Democrats and liberal ideals with the kind of cloying contempt that one might expect to find in National Review or The Weekly Standard.

The past week has seen a truly astounding series of articles in the most highfalutin locations that mock, belittle and dismiss Democrats, while engaging in a little character assassination along the way. Each one, in their own way, does violence to the notion of a responsible and responsive news media.

The party kicked off last Tuesday, May 23, when the New York Times dipped its toes in the fetid waters of tabloid journalism by running a long, extensively reported investigative piece, featuring 50 interviews, that attempted to determine just how often the Clintons lay their respective heads on matching pillows in their suburban New York home. The obvious implication was that since the two are busy, and are often in different cities, their marriage is one that is in name only.

Writing in National Journal, Chuck Todd asked, “Why now? Why ever? Didn't the voters decide a long time ago that the state of the Clinton marriage wasn't a factor? Or if it was a factor, it's been, well, factored into their vote? The statistical analysis of their weekend time together was meaningless because there was no comparison to the 99 other senators' personal travel schedules.”

Meanwhile, Jamison Foser of MediaMatters recently wrote a long and thoughtful critique in which he asked:

“If the media are going to put candidates' personal lives on the table, it's time they do so for all candidates. If common decency and the shame that should accompany behaving like voyeuristic 10th-graders aren't enough to convince the David Broders and Chris Matthewses and Tim Russerts of the world that the Clintons marriage is none of their damn business — or ours — then basic fairness dictates that they treat Republican candidates the same way.”

And then there's David Broder, the guardian of press ethics at The Washington Post. Remember this guy? Well, the "dean" of the nation's political journalists “quickly jumped in, suggesting that the Times might have explored the purported Clinton-Stronach relationship in greater detail and declaring the Clintons' private lives a ‘hot topic’ if Sen. Clinton runs for president.” (Belinda Stronach is a wealthy Canadian politician who has what some see as a suspicious link to the former president.) As Foser detailed:

“Broder has previously argued that journalists delve too far into the private lives of political figures. Highlights of old Broder columns include:

  • "In the public forums and roundtables I've attended this year, nothing seems to bother people more about today's journalism than the blurring of lines between the public records of candidates and their private lives." [12/15/99]
  • "It is certainly the case that reporters at times have pushed their examinations of candidates' personal histories beyond decent limits." [12/15/99]
  • "[T]he press ought to exercise some restraint and try harder to put these matters in perspective. The public is choking on a surfeit of smut." [1/27/98]
  • "It's equally unfair, as Clinton points out, to hold up his past conduct to microscopic scrutiny because he is still in his marriage, while divorced politicians and unmarried ones (such as Bob Kerrey and Jerry Brown) are given broad leeway when it comes to the details of their past lives. Surely those issues — if any — are of more import to the family members of these candidates than to the public at large." [1/28/92]
  • "The ransacking of personal histories diverts journalism from what is far more important — the examination of past performance in public office and the scrutiny of current policy positions." [1/28/92]
  • "It's time to slow down and take another look at what we're doing, before more damage is done to the reputations of candidates and the credibility of the press." [11/15/87]

If the media’s going to go down this road, what makes the Clintons’ marriage so special? Take John McCain, for example. As Foser notes:

“He divorced his first wife (after having a series of affairs) to marry (a month after his divorce) a wealthy and politically connected heiress … just in time to launch his political career. And what of his relationship with the second (and current) wife?

Let's apply the New York Times test to them, shall we? How many days a month do they spend together? How many days are they apart — she in Arizona and he in Washington, or traveling the country raising money? How close can they really be, given that he reportedly had no idea his wife was addicted to painkillers she was stealing from a charity she founded, and had no clue of an addiction that caused her to check herself into a drug treatment center.”

But things get even sillier from there. Writing in Slate.com, its chief editor, Jacob Weisberg, complained that Senator Clinton told the New York Post her iPod was filled with songs from the late ’60s and ’70s: the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Aretha Franklin, the Motown library. Weisberg read her mind and insisted the "playlist suggests premeditation if not actual poll-testing."

And make no mistake, Weisberg reads minds. Specifically the minds of prominent Democrats in order to mock them. Witness: "In point of fact, I doubt that the relentlessly driven Hillary Clinton spends much time listening to music of any kind." What’s his evidence? Um, there isn’t any. (“Maybe,” writes Huffpo’s Eric Boehlert, “the New York Times could do a follow-up story and interview 50 people about that.) As Foser notes, Weisberg thinks Bush’s playlist appears "uncalculated." Bush "doesn't worry about being politically correct or care what other people think of him."

And anyway, he just lies about wars and stuff, nothing to bother the MSM about….

Imagine, asks Foser, “how Weisberg would have reacted had Clinton answered the iPod query another way:

  • If she had said she didn't have an iPod, she'd be hopelessly out of touch with America.
  • If she said her music was her business, she'd be guilty of Nixonian secrecy.
  • If she said she listened to classical music, she'd be portrayed as aloof and elitist.
  • If she said she listened to country music, she'd be accused of pandering to rural Southern voters.
  • If she said she listened to The Hives and the White Stripes, she'd be ridiculed for dishonesty and for trying to appear young and hip.
  • If she said she listened to 50 Cent or Marilyn Manson, she'd be derided for her role in the coarsening of American culture.”

The Times continued to display the unspoken biases of the media last week when Mark Leibovich authored a front-page treatise essentially dismissing Nancy Pelosi, the House minority leader, as someone who “lends herself to easy caricature by Republicans. She is an unapologetic liberal, with a voting record to match….”

Excuse me, but why are Democratic leaders supposed to “apologize” for being liberals? Does the Times wonder how Denny Hastert can look at himself in the shaving mirror every morning while professing to be an “unapologetic conservative?

Another story of questionable news value but perfectly consistent with the Beltway mindset — one in which Democratic political ethics are thought to be just as bad as Republicans’ (despite Abramoff, DeLay, Cunningham), we got an AP story about the Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada accepting free tickets from the Nevada Athletic Commission for fights in Las Vegas between 2003 and 2005. This was at a time when he was “pressing legislation to increase government oversight of the sport, including the creation of a federal boxing commission that Nevada's agency feared might usurp its authority.” It’s almost interesting until we find out a little further on that Reid ended up voting against the state boxing commission.

What’s more, the free tickets were well within the Senate ethics rules — something that the AP tries its darndest to ignore by consulting “ethics experts” about whether the deal was kosher or not. Under the rules, they are. (For more on that, go to TPM Café.)

Finally, we have the case of The New Yorker’s Jeffrey Goldberg, who wrote a mostly news-free account of the Democratic Party’s attempts to retake Congress this fall. Only problem is, aside from Goldberg’s insistence on proclaiming the Democrats guilty of failing to come up with solutions for problems the Republican Party has both created and failed to solve themselves, he also writes that Democrats “are only muddling toward a Gingrich-style Contract With America, which, in its drama and clarity, gave 1994 voters an understanding of national Republican priorities."

Anyone who can remember back to 1994 — or can conduct a Google search — is able to discern that the “Contract” didn’t emerge until six weeks before the election, and in polls taken after the midterms that year, a vast majority of American voters said that they didn’t even know what the Contract With America was. Yet the myth of this allegedly epoch-making document persists, even in the pages of a publication as venerable — and well fact-checked as The New Yorker. Yes, The New Yorker.

Impressive, until you read the lengthy web-only piece by Newsweek’s Michael Hirsh, in which no MSM cliché is safe from deployment. We get “the maverick John McCain” and “the GOP is engaged in a war over real policy choices.” This is followed by these old standards: “By contrast the Democrats, ostensibly the party poised to exploit this GOP civil war, don't seem to remember what it is like to behave as adults. They resemble nothing so much as ill-adjusted adolescents, afraid of their own shadows, much less the presidency. … They are all afflicted with varying degrees of megalophobia, a fear of assuming power. Even Dr. Melfi of “The Sopranos” wouldn’t take this case. … The champion of this ‘new’ breed of Dem tough guys, of course, is Hillary Clinton, who every week, it seems, finds some new way of pandering to the right in her long, stealth march to the 2008 nomination. All in an apparent effort to escape her own shadow. … Here is a message to those few Democrats who retain their self-confidence and sanity (I’m not sure who you are, but there must be some).”

These are just the opening salvos on the part of a press corps determined to prove its mettle in an election season and which is terrified of being labeled “liberal.” Sadly, these are just the trailers; the movie doesn’t open until 2008.

Eric Alterman is a senior fellow of the Center for American Progress and the author of six books. His most recent, When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and its Consequences, was just published in paperback by Penguin.

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