Yesterday Senate Republicans flaunted their cowardice under a banner of absurd bravado. Also, another media study documents anti-Clinton bias. (More)

“Republicans have decided to sell weapons to ISIS”

Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy (D) was unsparing in his criticism of Senate Republicans voting down any and every restriction on gun sales:

“We’ve got to make this clear, constant case that Republicans have decided to sell weapons to ISIS,” Murphy said, using an alternative term for the Islamic State militant group. “That’s what they’ve decided to do. ISIS has decided that the assault weapon is the new airplane, and Republicans, in refusing to close the terror gap, refusing to pass bans on assault weapons, are allowing these weapons to get in the hands of potential lone-wolf attackers. We’ve got to make this connection and make it in very stark terms.”

Perhaps that was hyperbole, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s response was stunning in its absurdity:

McConnell, also speaking on the Senate floor, dismissed the Democratic gun amendments as attempts to “push a partisan agenda or craft the next 30-second campaign ad.”

“No one wants terrorists to be able to buy guns or explosives,” he said, arguing that Republicans are “approaching this serious topic in a serious and constitutional way” and that “ultimately the most important way to prevent more terrorist tragedies at home is by defeating terrorism overseas.”

Indeed that meets a common definition of insanity….

“Most internet quotes are wrongly attributed or just plain made up” – Albert Einstein

Of course Albert Einstein did not say that “most internet quotes are wrongly attributed or just plain made up.” That was Thomas Jefferson. But Einstein also didn’t say this:

The definition of insanity is doing the same thing again and again and expecting a different outcome.

That quote probably originated in 12 Step documents, unlike the Serenity Prayer often attributed to 12 Step programs but actually written by theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, who spent time at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Studies, where Albert Einstein was among the first faculty members, although Einstein died in 1955 and Niebuhr didn’t come to the IAS until 1960, so they probably never debated not-Einstein’s non-definition of insanity. But I digress.

“We’re fighting them over there….”

My point is, we tried the “we’re fighting them there so we don’t have to fight them here” strategy, for thirteen years. Of course that’s not long enough for conservatives, who still oppose lifting the embargo on Cuba because hey, it’s only been in place for 50 years so give it a chance to work.

Simply, there’s no evidence that sending U.S. troops back to Iraq and Afghanistan, or to Syria, will “defeat terrorism overseas.” Nor will it “save American lives,” unless you don’t count our troops as “American lives.” From March 2003 to December 2011 we lost an average 44 Americans per month in Iraq, and from October 2001 to December 2014 we lost an average 21 Americans per month in Afghanistan. Together, that’s an average of an Orlando Massacre plus a San Bernardino Massacre … every month.

Meanwhile, the U.S. had an average of two mass shootings a month from January 2009 to July 2015. That counts only shootings where at least four people were killed. Count cases where at least four people were killed or injured in a single event, and there have been 145 mass shootings so far this year.

Color me skeptical, but I don’t see how getting more Americans killed in Iraq, Syria, or Afghanistan would affect the daily gun violence here at home … even if we could “defeat terrorism overseas.” And history shows we can’t, at least not the way Republicans want to do it.

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“Her ‘bad news’ outpaced her ‘good news,’ usually by a wide margin”

Also, the right-wing Newsbusters is upset because ABC, CBS, and NBC spend too much time nitpicking Donald Trump and not enough time informing the public about Hillary Clinton’s emails, Wall Street speeches, Benghazi, the Clinton Foundation, Bill’s affairs, and even (yes, really) her statement that extraterrestrial life probably exists. She’s not being vetted, they say.

But the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy just released an exhaustive study of primary coverage during 2015, and guess what? Turns out Clinton got the most negative coverage of any candidate in either party:

The report shows that during the year 2015, major news outlets covered Donald Trump in a way that was unusual given his low initial polling numbers – a high volume of media coverage preceded Trump’s rise in the polls. Trump’s coverage was positive in tone – he received far more “good press” than “bad press.” The volume and tone of the coverage helped propel Trump to the top of Republican polls.

The Democratic race in 2015 received less than half the coverage of the Republican race. Bernie Sanders’ campaign was largely ignored in the early months but, as it began to get coverage, it was overwhelmingly positive in tone. Sanders’ coverage in 2015 was the most favorable of any of the top candidates, Republican or Democratic. For her part, Hillary Clinton had by far the most negative coverage of any candidate. In 11 of the 12 months, her “bad news” outpaced her “good news,” usually by a wide margin, contributing to the increase in her unfavorable poll ratings in 2015.

The Shorenstein Center study is based on an analysis of thousands of news statements by CBS, Fox, the Los Angeles Times, NBC, The New York Times, USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post. The study’s data were provided by Media Tenor, a firm that specializes in the content analysis of news coverage.

So much for the meme that Clinton was anointed by the media.

“The politics of outrage”

The positive coverage of Trump was driven by the media’s unquenchable thirst for an audience, the report argues:

So what explains the news media’s early fascination with Trump? The answer is that journalists were behaving in their normal way. Although journalists play a political brokering role in presidential primaries, their decisions are driven by news values rather than political values. Journalists are attracted to the new, the unusual, the sensational – the type of story material that will catch and hold an audience’s attention. Trump fit that need as no other candidate in recent memory. Trump is arguably the first bona fide media-created presidential nominee. Although he subsequently tapped a political nerve, journalists fueled his launch.

Journalists seemed unmindful that they and not the electorate were Trump’s first audience. Trump exploited their lust for riveting stories. He didn’t have any other option. He had no constituency base and no claim to presidential credentials. If Trump had possessed them, his strategy could have been political suicide, which is what the press predicted as they showcased his tirades. Trump couldn’t compete with the likes of Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, or Jeb Bush on the basis of his political standing or following. The politics of outrage was his edge, and the press became his dependable if unwitting ally.

Simply, Trump was the equivalent of a busload of nudists slamming into a busload of nuns in front of city hall during a mayoral press conference. The media covered the GOP primary campaign as a spectacle, and Trump’s strategy was to be spectacular.

“It’s a David vs. Goliath story”

The report notes that Bernie Sanders didn’t get much early coverage, especially not when his poll numbers were down with those of Martin O’Malley or Jim Webb. But to complain about that begs the question of why the media should have selected Sanders – rather than O’Malley or Webb – to grant disproportionate coverage.

More’s the point, once Sanders’ poll numbers began to rise, the media’s coverage of him was overwhelmingly positive:

Sanders’ initial poll position meant that, when he was reported in the news, the coverage was sure to have a negative component. He was in the unenviable position of a “likely loser.” At the same time, his initial poll standing proved advantageous as the year unfolded. As his poll numbers ticked upward, he was portrayed as a “gaining ground” candidate, a favorable storyline buttressed by reports of increasingly large crowds and enthusiastic followers. “The overflow crowds Sanders has been drawing in Iowa and New Hampshire,” said USA Today, “are signs that there is ‘a real hunger’ for a substantive discussion about Americans’ economic anxieties….” The “real hunger” extended also to journalists, who are drawn to a candidate who begins to make headway against an odds-on favorite. It’s a David vs. Goliath story, the same story that helped propel Gary Hart’s challenge to Walter Mondale in 1984 and John McCain’s challenge to George W. Bush in 2000. A challenger also gives journalists what they relish most – a competitive race. “Hillary Clinton can’t afford to ignore Bernie Sanders any longer,” said a CNN piece. “She has a serious problem on her hands. Sanders is showing that his campaign poses a genuine threat. He is drawing massive crowds months before the caucuses and primaries begin and without much of a staff to speak of.”

Not until the primaries were well underway did the media seriously question Sanders’ policy promises. And when the New York Daily News finally did that, in April, on the eve of the New York primary, Sanders’ wife called it an “inquisition.”

“Month after month … her coverage was more negative than positive”

Meanwhile, the criticism of Clinton was relentless:

For her part, Clinton might have wished that the Democratic race received even less attention than it did, given that her coverage was the least favorable of the leading contenders, Democratic and Republican. Month after month … her coverage was more negative than positive. There was only one month in the whole of 2015 where the tone of her coverage was not in the red and, even then, it barely touched positive territory. During the first half of the year, excluding neutral references, it averaged three to one negative statements over positive statements. Her coverage in the second half of the year was more favorable, but still damning. The ratio for that period was more than three to two negative over positive.

Whereas media coverage helped build up Trump, it helped tear down Clinton. Trump’s positive coverage was the equivalent of millions of dollars in ad-buys in his favor, whereas Clinton’s negative coverage can be equated to millions of dollars in attack ads, with her on the receiving end.

The report describes that as typical for a frontrunner:

What accounts for Clinton’s negative coverage? One reason is the schizophrenic quality of journalists’ coverage of a “front-running” candidate. It is the story of a candidate with a solid lead, which is the main source of the candidate’s “good news.” There is, however, a less positive aspect to a frontrunner’s story. The candidate is typically described as overly calculating and cautious—the implication is that the candidate is withholding something from the voters. And if the frontrunner loses support in the polls – a virtual certainty given the artificial boost that comes from high name recognition in the earliest polls – the narrative tilts negative. The candidate is slipping, which cries out for an explanation of one sort or another, which is always found in soft spots in the candidate’s character, message, or organization and not in the vagaries of polling. A Washington Post report found an explanation for Clinton’s slide in her campaign style: “Her efforts now are also aimed at more moderate Democrats concerned that her early pace was too placid or regal. She did little to dispel the image of privilege by spending the night of the Republican debates raising money in Hollywood and posing for a picture with reality television star Kim Kardashian.”

But they did concede the possibility of anti-Clinton bias:

The Clinton campaign complained that journalists were holding her to a different standard than other candidates, alleging that they have a longstanding bias against her and her husband, the former president. That’s a complaint for journalists to answer, but her 2015 coverage did include more than a few anomalies. Journalists made more references to her past history than they did to those of other candidates and focused on the negative. Her successful acts as secretary of state were seldom mentioned, and her tenure in the Senate, a period where she earned praise from both sides of the aisle, was all but ignored. Clinton’s coverage during the invisible primary phase of the 2008 campaign also leaves open the question of whether journalists hold her to a different standard. According to a study by the Shorenstein Center and the Project for Excellence in Journalism, Clinton’s coverage in the first months of 2007 was three-to-two negative over positive. In contrast, Obama’s coverage in the same period was three-to-one positive over negative. Stated differently, of reporting that was positive or negative in tone, Obama’s coverage was 75 percent positive while Clinton’s was 60 percent negative. Regina Lawrence and Melody Rose’s book-length study of Clinton’s 2008 campaign documented the same negative tendency in her media coverage.

So yes, the report acknowledges, there is a persistent pattern of anti-Clinton bias.

“The scoop that brings down Hillary Clinton and her family’s political empire”

Jonathan Allen explained that in an article for Vox last July:

The Clinton rules are driven by reporters’ and editors’ desire to score the ultimate prize in contemporary journalism: the scoop that brings down Hillary Clinton and her family’s political empire. At least in that way, Republicans and the media have a common interest.

I understand these dynamics well, having co-written a book that demonstrated how Bill and Hillary Clinton used Hillary’s time at State to build the family political operation and set up for their fourth presidential campaign. That is to say, I’ve done a lot of research about the Clintons’ relationship with the media, and experienced it firsthand. As an author, I felt that I owed it to myself and the reader to report, investigate, and write with the same mix of curiosity, skepticism, rigor, and compassion that I would use with any other subject. I wanted to sell books, of course. But the easier way to do that – proven over time – is to write as though the Clintons are the purest form of evil. The same holds for daily reporting. Want to drive traffic to a website? Write something nasty about a Clinton, particularly Hillary.

Allen then details the five “Clinton Rules”:

  1. Everything, no matter how ludicrous-sounding, is worthy of a full investigation by federal agencies, Congress, the “vast right-wing conspiracy,” and mainstream media outlets.
  2. Every allegation, no matter how ludicrous, is believable until it can be proven completely and utterly false. And even then, it keeps a life of its own in the conservative media world.
  3. The media assumes that Clinton is acting in bad faith until there’s hard evidence otherwise.
  4. Everything is newsworthy because the Clintons are the equivalent of America’s royal family.
  5. Everything she does is fake and calculated for maximum political benefit.

The Poynter Institute’s James Warren tried to rebut Allen’s analysis, and instead demonstrated it:

There is for both Bill and Hillary a long pattern of thinking they can skate on an edge; be it in politics or their personal and financial lives. It’s perhaps exacerbated by their worldwide celebrity and a distinct sense of entitlement after decades of traveling only in private jets and chauffeur driven sedans and limos.

There is, too, a sense of righteousness that seemingly blinds them to their own corner-cutting, evasions and mistruths. They are involved in many honorable endeavors, they seem to be saying, how dare anyone impugn their character!

The press aren’t being unfair, Warren argues, because the Clintons really are borderline corrupt. Never mind that none of the allegations of corruption has ever been proved, despite endless investigations. The mere ubiquity of such allegations proves the Clintons try to “skate on an edge.”

If that’s the best defense journalists can offer, it’s reasonable to assume that the relentlessly negative Clinton coverage last year wasn’t merely the press looking for “a David and Goliath story” … unless that story is the media David slaying the Clinton Goliath.

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Photo Credit: J. Scott Applewhite (AP)

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Good day and good nuts