The Obama-Clinton contest has become a war of nerves, it seems, even though the outcome is virtually certain.
I'm concerned about the problems in the press coverage of Clinton's campaign for the same reason I'm concerned about the problems in how the press treated the Jeremiah Wright story, the silly flag pin flap, etc. We need a responsible press that gets their facts right, that provides some substantive news analysis beyond "Side A said, Side B said", and has some sane priorities in news judgment. We don't have such a press corps today.
There are real problems with American democracy today: the Iraq War, the torture policy, the partisan-politicization of federal prosecutors, the reactionary court system, the one-sided predominance of Republicans in the military officers corps, the massive illegal surveillance, the extreme secrecy in the Executive branch, the systematic anti-science attitude across the government, the staggering levels of crony-capitalist style corruption, and the covert operations of which we only have hints at this point (e.g., Somalia). By the standards of contemporary democracies, the US has some serious democratic deficits.
And without a decent press, we'll never to be able to fix them. One of the most important things a new administration could do would be to reinstate some version of the Fairness Doctrine for broadcast and cable news and to put serious restrictions on corporate ownership and policies for newspapers, magazine and TV news. A change to accounting laws restricting the internal profit margin a TV news division could be required to generate would go a long way to improving coverage. Or at least giving it a reasonable chance to improve. In a more fundamental long-term sense, the collapse of TV journalism in particular may be the most destructive weakness of our democratic culture today.
In a previous post, I discussed how Tim Russert (who is considered a icon of the "liberal media" by conservatives) and his fellow travelers dealt with the Clinton RFK remark this past Sunday. Unfortunately, MSNBC's actual liberal Keith Olbermann also went seriously overboard on the story, as well. One of the problems of today's Establishment is that it has very few liberals voices and does a bad job of presenting liberal perspectives. But in the case of the press conventional wisdom about Vile Hillary, the press dysfunction also has its liberal components, as well.
Here's the video of Olbermann giving his righteously indignant denunciation of Vile Hillary.
This is an unpleasant rant. It seems especially weird coming from the guy who wound up having to apologize on the air for talking about Clinton's persistence in the Presidential race, saying that someone needs to take her into a room and only he comes out. In his rant about the RFK remark, he even trashes Clinton for saying falsely that people are pressing her to drop out - even though that was the point of his take-her-into-a-room statement.
It was a nasty and tasteless remark. But no one I know of thought Olbermann was actually advocating that someone murder Hillary Clinton. Even though his comment could more easily have been taken to conjure up that image than what Clinton said about Robert Kennedy's death after the California primary in 1968. I don't recall anyone saying of his remark that it provided "an X-ray of a very dark soul" and was evidence that he had "murder on [his] mind", or that he "has more lethal fantasies than that nutty skater" Tanya Harding, as columnist Michael Goodwin did of Clinton.
The Daily Howler in his 05/27/08 post recalls that back in March, Clinton said the following in an interview published in Time magazine:
STENGEL (3/6/08): Can you envision a point at which—if the race stays this close—Democratic Party elders would step in and say, "This is now hurting the party and whoever will be the nominee in the fall"?
CLINTON: No, I really can't. I think people have short memories. Primary contests used to last a lot longer. We all remember the great tragedy of Bobby Kennedy being assassinated in June in L.A. My husband didn't wrap up the nomination in 1992 until June. Having a primary contest go through June is nothing particularly unusual.
Yep! Last Friday, all the mimis screamed and yelled at Clinton’s deeply vile statement. But Clinton had said the same thing in March! And to show you how fake this week’s outrage was: Not one damn thing happened back then!
There was no madness back in March. Before considering Robinson, Olbermann, Herbert and Dowd, let’s make sure we understand the chronology of Clinton’s March statement:
Clinton’s interview with Stengel was held on March 5. The full transcript was posted on-line, on March 6.
As you can clearly see from the transcript, Stengel said nothing—nothing at all—when Clinton made her statement about Robert Kennedy. This was no sign—no sign at all—that he was troubled, in any way, by what the vile person had said.
On March 10 or thereabouts, Time’s hard-copy edition hit the street (dated March 17). The cover stories—about Obama and Clinton—included two Q-and-A’s from the Stengel interview. And yes: This did include the Q-and-A in which Clinton cited Kennedy’s death. But even then, after several days had passed, there was no reference to Clinton’s statement in Time’s cover-story reporting. There was still no sign that anyone at Time was troubled by what Clinton had said.
In its next edition (dated March 24), Time published several letters about the Obama/Clinton cover stories. None of the letters mentioned Clinton’s reference to Kennedy’s assassination - and no such letters appeared in subsequent editions. In short, there was still no sign that anyone had found a problem with Clinton’s remark.
That brings us around to our hounds from hell - to Olbermann, Robinson, Herbert and Dowd. Olbermann, Robinson, Herbert and Dowd wrote many columns - appeared on many cable programs - during the first few weeks in March. And guess what? Not one of them said the first f*cking thing about the outrage Clinton committed. Olbermann and Robinson kept their traps shut. Joe Klein didn’t say one word either.
In fact, no mainstream pundit (no one; nobody) said a word about Clinton’s statement in March - a statement which was published in Time, and on-line at the magazine’s web site. No one at Time said a word; no one in the wider press corps. And yet, this past weekend, everyone keened and wailed and tore their hair when Clinton so vilely said the same thing!
At the very least, the fact that she had made the same point in March, worded a bit more artfully then, and that no one took it as showing the darkness of her soul filled with thoughts of murder, should at the very least be reason to think she simply phrased it poorly in the now-infamous version. Olbermann even quotes that March statement of hers. But rather than point out that this at least suggests that she had other than homicidal intentions in her more recent statement, Olbermann said, "In retrospect, we failed her when we did not call her out, for that remark, dry and only disturbing, inside the pages of a magazine."
I've been impressed with some of Olbermann's forcefully worded editorials about the Bush administration and about the Iraq War. But in the future, I'm going to listen much more carefully to his editorials even when he's taking a position I like.
Because while such journalistic malpractice might occasionally work to the benefit of the Democrats, on the whole we've seen for the last 16 years since the Whitewater pseudo-scandal appeared on the front page of the New York Times, this kind of loose-cannon journalism overwhelming works against the interests of the Democrats and, more importantly, greatly disadvantages the public.
The substance (or lack thereof) of the controversy notwithstanding—big sister blog Swampland weighs in here and here and here and here and here - Olbermann is edging ever-closer to self-parody, or, worse, predictability. (As soon as the Clinton gaffe broke, blog commenters were wondering how ballistic he would go, and he obliged, and how.) Even if we concede his argument - that Clinton was at best callously and at worst intentionally suggesting she should stay in the race because Obama might be killed - every time he turns up the volume to 11 like this lately, he sounds like just another of the cable gasbags he used to be a corrective to.
Fair enough, as I see it. But then Poniewozik goes on to talk about what it shows about the narrow-mindedness of Obama and Clinton supporters, turning away (as the unwritten laws of the Establishment media require him to) from what it says about the massive dysfunction of the national press.
There is a distinct liberal critique of the mass media that has become widespread since 2002 and the media's collapse in the buildup to war in Iraq. The decades-long conservative whine about the Liberal Press! Liberal Press! Liberal Press! has mostly been a fact-free form of "working the ref". And, for various reasons, it's been depressingly successful.
Democratic candidates should try to "work the ref" as well, since Republican campaigns do it so effectively.
But the thrust of the liberal critique of the Establishment press is that it's failing to do it's job. Instead of getting their facts right, providing substantive news analysis", and applying sane priorities in news judgment, they run with often mindless scripts, allow the Drudge Report and other gossip-mongers to set their news agendas, and often can't get the most basic factual reporting right. We don't need a press that flacks more often for Democrats. We need a press that does the job that the press has to do for democracy to function.
The mass media script of the incorrigible vileness and malice of the Clintons is currently working to Obama's favor. But we've already got some heavy doses about how the same bad habits that are currently driving their journalistic jihad against Clinton can quickly be turned on Obama. And given the press' general adoration of St. McCain, it will be again during this year, almost certainly in much uglier ways than we've seen directed against Obama before. And the result could be McCain elected in 2008, and war with Iran in 2009.
But the press has had 16 years since they went off the Whitewater cliff to refine their hatred for the Clintons. It will take them another year or two at least to develop such a poisonous script about Vile Obama.