Zero, one, two or three scandals or controversies are now dogging the Obama White House, depending on your political perspective.No matter how you view the issues, however, there’s a strain of journalism that pops up in these times, and last night on “The O’Reilly Factor,” Bernard Goldberg attacked it:
BERNIE GOLDBERG, FOX NEWS CONTRIBUTOR: You know what, I really — I’m not going to lose much sleep over her asking if it was a mistake instead of it being political. She gave him a chance to answer. But it does fall into the broad category of a reporter asking a scientist, “Is it possible that the Earth is flat,” because the chances of the Earth being flat are exactly the same as the IRS thing being simply a mistake. But, Bill, there is something much bigger going on here. And it’s how the mainstream media, so-called mainstream media, covers scandals in general.
If it’s a Republican scandal, it’s always covered as a scandal. But if it’s a democratic scandal, it’s covered as, “How are these cynical Republicans going to take advantage of this for political points.” A classic example, page one of “The New York Times” a week ago, page one. This is a headline you can’t make up, “IRS Focus On Conservatives Gives GOP an Issue to Seize On.” IRS Focus — come on.
The “Associated Press,” you know, the gold standard of American journalism? So, they write a story that says, “The scandals dogging President Obama are a political gift to Republicans. But it’s unclear how they’re going to capitalize on this politically.”
Again, story is not about the abuse. The story is about how are Republicans going to take advantage of it.
A strong argument. Lodging discussion of scandals inside the framework of political coverage invariably cheapens the story, lowering it to just another talking point in a long-running partisan Washington food fight. And it happens all the time, across just about every significant media outlet in the country. After one of these messes breaks into view, you can just hear assignment editors around the Beltway say, “Let’s do something big on the political dimensions of this.”
That’s a reasonable impulse. Politics, after all, is at the heart of Washington coverage. It’s what we do here. It’s just too bad that the political-angle stories on these scandals end up feeling like all those horse-race stories last year about the presidential race: A lot of speculation, triangulation and optics.
As highlighted on this blog, Dan Rather, in a recent MSNBC appearance, offered an excellent example of such content-free analysis:
RATHER: This is advantage, Republican[s]. The Republicans must be slapping high-five behind closed doors….Because they have three things going for them. One, their No. 1 agenda item is to stop President Obama from accomplishing anything in his second term, and this aids that. No. 2, they have their eye on the next congressional elections, 2014. And many Republicans in Congress were getting estranged from the Tea Party and now they have solidarity with the Tea Party moving toward that election. And by the way, with the Benghazi thing, they managed to damage Hillary Clinton’s chances of not only getting the presidency in ’16 but also getting the nomination. So it’s a trifecta for them and no wonder their slapping high-fives behind closed doors.
Goldberg’s slap at the New York Times is a bit more complicated. The story, which ran on May 12, features a wealth of original digging on the then-budding IRS scandal. It chronicles how the IRS kept “lapsing” back to loaded search criteria in choosing which groups to investigate. It gave voice to those affected by the IRS’s lopsided auditing. And it notes that scrutiny is in the future of the IRS.
Consistent with Goldberg’s argument, however, the New York Times story includes the following paragraph. It follows a discussion about Republicans’ uneven legislative record in recent years:
The I.R.S. disclosures present Republican critics a golden opportunity. In 1998, Republicans on the Senate Finance Committee mounted a series of hearings on I.R.S. abuse, featuring taxpayers who portrayed the agency’s tax collectors as overzealous thugs with no respect for due process. Under I.R.S. rules, the agency could not defend itself against specific charges without the permission of the taxpayers who were making the accusations. The result was a one-sided media onslaught, and many of the cases would later prove to be considerably more complex than portrayed at the hearings.
What’s that supposed to mean? That the GOP can now stage a one-sided charade?
The Associated Press story that Goldberg hammers is right here. On the NPR site, it’s headlined, “GOP Ponders How To Capitalize On Obama’s Woes.” The following paragraph feels like an analog to the New York Times’s “golden opportunity” paragraph:
On other political fronts, the White House’s scandal problems offer a fat, easy target. Republicans on the House Ways and Means Committee on Friday ripped into the ousted head of the Internal Revenue Service. He apologized for the agency’s heightened scrutiny of tea party affiliates and other conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status.
As to Goldberg’s contention that the media doesn’t churn out the same sorts of stories when the parties are reversed, the Erik Wemple Blog isn’t so sure about that one. We’ll have to do a Nexis dive to investigate.