Saturday, May 18, 2013

The Real D.C. Scandal

The Washington media is in full "scandal" mode, pitchforks sharpened and marching inexorably toward 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue fully prepared with a canned narrative that the dreaded "second term curse" [1] is coming home to roost against one Barack Hussein Obama. The most disappointing aspect of the last week's reporting, where three disparate stories were conflated into a greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts framing of an Administration in crisis was the shoot first, ask questions later mentality that overrode the most basic aspects of reporting that media big foots should have learned in their first year of J school.  Let's look at these non-scandals one at a time:

The AP "scandal": Arguably, this is the "worst" of the three stories. The Department of Justice issued a subpoena for phone records from various AP phone lines and reporters for an approximately two month period of time. Based on the subpoena's time frame and the reporters involved, it was widely reported the DOJ's request related to a story written by AP reporters that exposed the presence of a mole deep within Al Qaeda. The media was in high dudgeon over this entirely legal action by the DOJ. Breast beating from the left and right over these alleged Nixonian tactics were uttered, calls for a media "shield law" were resurrected and even the President's staunchest defenders in the media lambasted this decision. 

While it is convenient for the media to protect its own prerogatives, by conflating what it viewed as immoral with what is illegal, the media did itself a disservice. Comparing the Obama Administration's lawful exercise of its right to investigate national security leaks with, for example, reporting done during the George W. Bush Administration over its warrantless wiretapping program is false equivalency at its worst. The Bush Administration was engaged in illegal conduct (violating both FISA and the Geneva Conventions) that was rightly ferreted out. [2] The Obama Administration may be engaging in action that the media thinks is heavy handed or chilling, but it is not illegal. 

Moreover, in attempting to tie the actions of the DOJ to the White House, the media refused to acknowledge that the exact reason the White House was "out of the loop" was because the independence afforded to the Justice Department, indeed, the pathological independence afforded to the DOJ, is a direct outgrowth of .. wait for it .. the Nixon Administration's use of that agency to go after its political enemies. In other words, it is impossible to connect the DOJ to the White House in this way because the Obama team is devoted to the separation of the Justice Department's investigative powers from White House interference. 

The IRS "scandal": Did you hear about the IRS? Those jack-booted thugs were "targeting" right wing advocacy groups and imposing overly burdensome requests on them for no apparently good reason other than because they were the President's political enemies. At least that's what the media would have you believe in what was probably the worst case of letting the hyperbole trump the facts. 

The problem with DC reporting these days is that nuance is the anti-sizzle and the IRS story required a level of granularity that a Politico-ized journalistic corps incessantly efforting to get click thrus and cable TV appearances simply does not do anymore. While I wrote at some length about the IRS earlier this week [3], some basic facts the media ignored are worth noting. First, the IRS's "investigation" of right wing groups stemmed from two related incidents - the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision that opened the floodgates for (literally) hundreds of millions of dollars in non-publicly disclosed "dark" money in politics and the 2010 rise of the "tea party" movement. The former encouraged the formation of advocacy groups interested in influencing elections and the latter resulted in a lot of new political energy directed into creating those groups. Second, the 501c(4) designation conveys several critical benefits upon groups who secure it - protection from most federal taxation, first and foremost; but also, the ability to shield the names of donors and the amounts given from public view. 

That the IRS subjected groups it had never heard of to additional scrutiny and that arose in the wake of a Supreme Court decision that the IRS had to comply with to ensure these groups met the standard for receiving generous government benefits does not strike me as problematic. No matter, the burden placed on these groups (answering some additional questions) was emphasized while the fact that not a single right wing group was denied 501c4 status was an afterthought. And even if you bought into the idea that the IRS acted inappropriately, recommendations submitted by its Inspector General were immediately adopted and resignations of top leaders occurred before the week was out. [4] Further, there was never any suggestion that the White House was involved at all in the IRS's decision. Next …. 

Benghazi 3.0: It's like the vampire that no matter how hard you drive a stake through its heart, refuses to die. To be honest, this is not only the most specious of the three "scandals," but is beginning to have the feel of other nothing burgers of the Clinton Era (see, e.g., "Whitewater," "Travelgate") that people on the conservative fringe pour all their weird black helicopter cum One World Government conspiracies into. Again, a thorough investigation of this situation was performed months ago by two high-level former Republican leaders (former Ambassador Thomas Pickering and former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen) and nearly 30 recommendations made by them have been adopted or agreed to be adopted by the State Department. 

The media wrapped itself in a layer of ignominy this week when it came to Benghazi. ABC reporter Jon Karl passed off as authentic email that he (1) had not seen himself; (2) quoted verbatim and (3) had been selectively edited by his GOP "sources." [5] This was not discovered for a few days, so his inaccurate reporting was put through the media echo chamber, particularly on FOX and in other dark corners of the right-wing spin machine, before the truth came out. Moreover, it was also learned (after the fact) that Republican leaders on the Hill had this purported "smoking gun" since March and did nothing about it. [6] What we learned was that in the aftermath of an attack, some facts were known and others not, some internal deliberations took place about how to frame what was known and some turf battles occurred between agencies of government over how to communicate that message. 

In other words, something that happens all the time in government but that is being ginned up to slime everyone from the President down to the woman many of us hope will replace him in 2017. To add to the transparency of the GOP's attempt to make this tempest in a teapot into something more meaningful is the fact that Ambassador Pickering has been asked to testify before the Committee "investigating" this matter, but is doing so behind closed doors even though he specifically asked (along with Admiral Mullen) to testify in public. Meanwhile, Karl has said little about his utterly manufactured story, and his network bosses have not removed him from the air - something that follows in the sad footsteps of CNN's awful coverage of the Boston Marathon bombing, where one of its "ace" reporters, John King, falsely reported about arrests that never took place. 

This may all seem like so much Inside the Beltway mumbo-jumbo, but this matters deeply, not just because the media does have an important role to play in scrutinizing government, but because the loose standards they now seem to apply are actually harmful to them institutionally and to us as Americans. More bad reporting that gets critical facts wrong and fewer journalists who question their sources before making their stories public is damaging to the reporters who do take the time to follow journalistic standards, risking getting scooped to ensure they get it right. It also does violence to what one might call the "public record." Months from now, all of this shoddy reporting will be muddied into some ill-defined memory hole that feels scandalous but was nothing of the sort. Objective truth will be sublimated to the political lens of those who choose to ignore inconvenient facts and/or ape discredited ones. 

That the media continues to fall into a trap that the Bush Administration so deftly set for them is also discouraging to say the least. In the lead up to the Iraq War, the Bush Administration gave cherry picked information to people like Judith Miller at the New York Times and then cited the very work she wrote based on the information they gave her to buttress their bogus case for war. Now, GOP operatives fed Jon Karl a bad story that echoed for days even though it was totally false. With the IRS, the GOP is tarring it as engaging in Nixonian tactics while a complicit media acts as a Greek chorus without doing the type of "gum shoe" investigating that would provide needed context to this story. [7] Instead of acting skeptically, people like Chuck Todd (ostensibly a reporter) go on TV and opine about what the White House should do about this "scandal," which provides the added bonus to the GOP of being able to use these editorial comments as amplifiers for their own view of what punishment should be doled out. 

Taken as a whole, these stories are smoke with very little fire. To compare any one (or all three collectively) to Watergate, which was a criminal conspiracy run by the President of the United States where he personally directed the DOJ to go after his political enemies, or Iran-Contra, where the President of the United States ordered the sale of weapons to Iran, is laughable on its face but dangerous when expressed to a general public that, frankly, is not that up on the specifics of what happens in their government day-to-day. Further, when the media allows Republicans to lump these "scandals" into a larger narrative, it does a disservice to what the term, not to mention the repercussions of these incidents. The GOP is already leveraging public anger toward the IRS to discredit an agency that already has little public credibility. For example, the GOP could use this "scandal" to water down the IRS's future efforts to vet right wing "advocacy" groups - making it that much easier for mysterious fat cats to fund electioneering in ways that pervert our democracy. Republicans are already trying to take advantage of this "scandal" to try and limit (or eliminate) the IRS's ability to investigate and fine people who do not purchase health insurance beginning next year - something wholly unrelated to the "targeting" of right wing groups who sought a 501c(4) tax exemption. 

The media obsession with these stories has two other harmful effects - first, it takes other stories off the front page that merit serious discussion - everything from continued GOP efforts to reduce aid to the poor [8] to our plunging federal deficit [9] and the GOP's unprecedented obstruction of two critical Cabinet nominees, Gina McCarthy and Tom Perez [10]; second, it lets Republicans off the hook for their continued intransigence on matters both great and small.  The clock on a President's term is always running, and every day that the national news is focused on these "shiny objects" is a day no one notices that the House GOP voted to repeal Obamacare (for the 37th time) or that for all their talk about "jobs, jobs, jobs" they have not introduced a single bill in Congress on that subject since John Boehner was handed the Speaker's gavel. [11]

The one thing these "scandals" have in common is that none can be laid at the President's door, yet the media are attempting to shoe horn them into their narrative of a President losing control of his second term. The AP subpoenas were issued by the Department of Justice, with no input or foreknowledge by the White House; the IRS investigations of groups seeking tax-exempt status were decisions made within that agency and with no White House involvement and there is simply no Benghazi "scandal" except for the media's utter failure to stop aiding and abetting Darrell Issa's delusional rantings about it. Yet somehow the "villagers" that make up the Inside the Beltway chattering class have sunk their teeth into these stories with the tenacity of a dog to a bone and simply will not let go. The only sanguine note I can strike is that informed members of the public can push back against them in ways we could not in years past - no longer are we limited to letters to the editor, we have our own voice (the Internet) and a hive (crowd sourced fact checking) that more quickly pushes back against bogus media narratives. 


1. See, e.g.,

2.  That what the Bush Administration was doing was illegal was proven, ipso facto by the passage of a law that provided retroactive immunity to telecommunications companies for actions that would have subjected those companies to both criminal and civil liability. 


4.  The comparison to what happened under George W. Bush when it was discovered that the whole case for the Iraq War was a sheer and utter fabrication is almost too easy to make. Condi Rice was promoted to Secretary of State and Donald Rumsfeld did not step down until 2006. Vice President Cheney's Chief of Staff, "Scooter" Libby, convicted to perjury based on his leak of information to the New York Times had his sentence commuted by President Bush. 

5. Rachel Maddow did a particularly nice job of calling out Karl's sloppy reporting:

6.  Which makes sense. Having seen the full, unedited versions of email that were clipped by (still unknown) GOP operatives, there was no "there, there" to tar the White House with. 

7.  One reporter, Nick Confessore, from The New York Times is an exception.


9.  The CBO's projection of a $642 billion for Fiscal Year 2013 is $200 billion less than their estimate of earlier this year. Odd that the media obsessed over the deficit and debt when Republicans were banging the drum on the "fiscal cliff" about the need for fiscal restraint. Now, neither journalists nor Republicans have much to say on the subject.

10.  The McCarthy saga is particularly rich viz a viz the IRS non-scandal. Some tea party groups were asked to answer 100 question and none were denied 501c(4) status; McCarthy was asked to answer nearly 1,100 questions and Republicans still claim she has not been "transparent" enough.



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