The mainstream media agree that this has been a year of failure for President Obama, in part because of ScandalFest 2013. But each alleged “scandal” was debunked and what remains are two disputes over policy. So who really had a bad year? (More)
A Year of Media Failure, Part I: ScandalFest 2013
This week Morning Feature looks at the year’s media failures. Today we begin with ScandalFest 2013, a series of falsely-hyped and long-debunked partisan attacks, and two policy disputes that the media reported as “scandals.” Tomorrow we’ll see broken news, from shoddy reporting on the Boston Marathon bombing investigation to shoddier reporting on the Healthcare.gov website. Saturday we’ll conclude with how the media claim a mission to hold government accountable, while largely rejecting accountability for themselves.
“The big distractions”
In his much-ballyhooed column titled “This Is the End of the Presidency,” the National Journal’s Ron Fournier argues that President Obama is repeating the mistakes of President Bush, citing in part “the big distractions” of scandals:
For Bush, it was the investigation of a leak the led to exposure of an undercover CIA agent. The inquiry divided the White House staff and cast a pall over the administration. For Obama, it was the IRS’s review of political organizations, the Justice Department’s seizure of Associated Press telephone records, and widespread surveillance by the National Security Agency. The controversies, along with the 2012 attack in Benghazi, Libya, were exacerbated by the way the White House handled them – with shifting explanations and, in some cases, outright distortions.
Like the rest of Fournier’s column, that paragraph takes the media trope of false equivalence to new heights. While trying to build a case for the Iraq War in his 2003 State of the Union Address, President George W. Bush claimed that Iraq had tried to buy uranium in Africa. The president said a former U.S. official was sent to Niger to verify the claim. That official was retired diplomat Joe Wilson, and in July he wrote a New York Times op-ed concluding that “some of the intelligence related to Iraq’s nuclear weapons program was twisted to exaggerate the Iraqi threat.”
The Bush administration quickly pounced. Eight days later, columnist Robert Novak wrote that Wilson was sent to Africa on the recommendation of his wife, Valerie Plame, whom Novak named as “[a CIA] operative on weapons of mass destruction.” That information was classified, and endangered not only Plame’s life but the lives of her contacts in Africa. Later, witnesses told a grand jury that Bush chief of staff Karl Rove, deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, and Cheney chief of staff Scooter Libby all leaked the information to journalists, and Armitage later admitted that he was Novak’s source.
Compare that real scandal to the debunked partisan attacks that Fournier lists:
- The White House had no role in the IRS review of groups seeking tax-exempt status – Yes, the special scrutiny was revealed after Tea Party groups in Ohio complained. But it quickly came out that progressive groups received identical scrutiny, and the IRS official who oversaw the program said the White House had no role in the reviews. This was not an Obama scandal. It was one undermanned office’s ill-considered attempt to focus their efforts more efficiently.
- The Benghazi ‘scandal’ is a conservative myth – Yes, the original talking points on the day after the attack conflated protests that same day across the Middle East with the terrorist attack in Benghazi. That story was driven in part by the CIA’s reluctance to admit that the Benghazi consulate was actually a CIA substation. Contrary to conservative hype, there was no ‘stand down order’ during or after the attack, and two of the Americans killed in the attack were members of a rescue mission that arrived from Tripoli. This was all established long before 60 Minutes broadcast the ‘blockbuster’ story that they were later forced to retract.
Fournier presents those as paralleling the Valerie Plame investigation. But debunked partisan witch hunts are not parallels to actual crimes … except to a media obsessed with finding some scandal in this White House.
And two not-scandals
The other two items on Fournier’s list of Obama ‘scandals’ are not ‘scandals’ in any meaningful sense of that word. They are disputes about policy:
- The AP Phone Records – In 2012, DOJ investigators were granted subpoenas for phone records of several Associated Press reporters. The investigation involved the leak of a classified CIA operation, which was reported by the AP, which forced the CIA to evacuate a source inside Al Qaeda. In September, a former FBI agent admitted that he leaked the information and later pleaded guilty to passing secret information. We can debate whether a federal court should grant subpoenas for reporters’ phone records, but the investigators followed the law. It was only a ‘scandal’ to reporters who believe they should be untouchable.
- The NSA Metadata Records – The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court repeatedly authorized the National Security Agency to collect metadata – the times of calls and numbers called – on Americans’ phone records. The FISC decision is consistent with a 1979 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, and the NSA program began during the Bush administration. Again, this is a policy dispute and, while a federal trial court ruled this week that the program is probably unconstitutional, and a presidential commission criticized the program, following existing court decisions until they change is not a ‘scandal.’
“A good old-fashioned Washington pile-on”
As we discussed back in May, ScandalFest 2013 has never been about real scandals. In a surprising display of arrogance, Politico’s Mike Allen and Jim Vandehei admitted their feeding frenzy:
The town is turning on President Obama – and this is very bad news for this White House.
Republicans have waited five years for the moment to put the screws to Obama – and they have one-third of all congressional committees on the case now. Establishment Democrats, never big fans of this president to begin with, are starting to speak out. And reporters are tripping over themselves to condemn lies, bullying and shadiness in the Obama administration.
Buy-in from all three D.C. stakeholders is an essential ingredient for a good old-fashioned Washington pile-on – so get ready for bad stories and public scolding to pile up.
Many in the Beltway media just plain don’t like President Obama. Some of that may be ideological. Some of it may be personal. He doesn’t pamper them like President Bush did, and that’s simply unacceptable in Suck Up City. As Sally Quinn announced back in 1998, D.C. is the Beltway insiders’ home town, and presidents are merely temporary guests. If the president doesn’t suck up to their liking – and President Obama hasn’t – the media will turn on him.
And as Fournier proves, the media will describe their feverishly chasing one debunked non-scandal after another as the president’s failure.