Character Assassination?

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 28, 2008 9:07 AM

I slipped away for the holiday weekend, and when I arrived in New York, the tabloids were going wild over Hillary's RFK reference.

"SHE SAID WHAT?" exclaimed the New York Post.

The drumbeat had begun the night before, online and on cable, and within hours you'd have thought that Hillary Clinton had wished Barack Obama dead.

I was somewhat puzzled. Surely it was a clumsy and insensitive thing for Hillary to have noted, in explaining that past presidential primaries have dragged on through June, that Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in June of 1968. Clearly it was a mistake made by a tired candidate. She soon expressed her regret. But was it a blunder that warranted the denunciations that quickly descended on her?

If so, why did South Dakota's Argus Leader, where Clinton had made the comment, not pounce on it? Instead, the editor put out a statement defending Hillary on that point. And why did it not create a firestorm when she made the same remark to Time in March? This time, though, big online headlines on Drudge and in the New York Post helped whip the MSM into action.

Is there a journalist in the country who truly believes that Clinton was openly hinting that she had to stay in the race because Obama might be sidelined by some horrible fate?

My theory is that there's a lot of residual anger at Clinton to staying in the race beyond what members of the media believe is reasonable. The subtext to all these "What does Hillary want?" segments is that she is so consumed by ambition that she can't see straight, otherwise she'd have bowed out by now. So when she mentioned RFK, it matched the media narrative about the inexplicable Hillary, prompting some to seize on it as an insight into her dark mind.

So the coverage, in retrospect, seems "over the top," as NBC's Chuck Todd put it yesterday. But such is the danger of making pseudo-news on the cusp of Memorial Day weekend, when nothing else is going on.

Politico Editor John Harris reflects candidly on the role of the Web, and one Web site in particular:

"This weekend's uproar over Hillary Rodham Clinton invoking the assassination of Robert Kennedy as rationale for continuing her presidential campaign is an especially vivid example of modern journalism as hyperkinetic child -- overstimulated by speed and hunger for a head-turning angle that will draw an audience. The truth about what Clinton said -- and any fair-minded appraisal of what she meant -- was entirely beside the point. Her comment was news by any standard. But it was only big news when wrested from context and set aflame by a news media more concerned with being interesting and provocative than with being relevant or serious. Thus, the story made the front page of The New York Times, was the lead story of The Washington Post and got prominent treatment on the evening news on ABC, CBS and NBC. What gives? . . .

"On Friday afternoon, I heard my colleague, Politico reporter Jonathan Martin, bellow in excitement as he called me over to his desk. Martin was furiously typing away, not looking up as he told me the latest: Clinton had given an interview to the editorial board of the Argus Leader newspaper in South Dakota in which she answered inquiries into why she is staying in the race by citing the fact that it's only May, and RFK had been shot and killed in June.

"Here is what I was thinking: Wow. Maybe she has come unhinged? It's not as though such macabre thoughts have never occurred to me, but for Clinton to give public voice to such a scenario is bizarre. This is going to be a big story and is almost certainly going to shadow and quite likely accelerate the final chapter of her presidential campaign. Here is what I said: Martin, quick get that item up! He needed no prompting.

"As leaders of a new publication, Politico's senior editors and I are relentlessly focused on audience traffic. The way to build traffic on the Web is to get links from other websites. The way to get links is to be first with news -- sometimes big news, sometimes small -- that drives that day's conversation."

Which, of course, all but guarantees that such conversations will often be driven by minuscule and ephemeral matters.

The issue is still percolating, in columns by Gene Robinson ("while losing this race for the nomination, Hillary Clinton also loses her soul") and Bob Herbert ("If you give her every benefit of the doubt, you still have a candidate making a tasteless and purely self-serving comment that she should have understood would send a shiver of dread through millions.")

Mike Allen has a big scoop:

"Former White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan writes in a surprisingly scathing memoir to be published next week that President Bush 'veered terribly off course,' was not 'open and forthright on Iraq,' and took a 'permanent campaign approach' to governing at the expense of candor and competence . . .

"McClellan charges that Bush relied on 'propaganda' to sell the war. He says the White House press corps was too easy on the administration during the run-up to the war. He admits that some of his own assertions from the briefing room podium turned out to be 'badly misguided.' . . .

"McClellan asserts that . . . Karl Rove, the president's senior adviser, and I. Lewis 'Scooter' Libby, the vice president's chief of staff, 'had at best misled' him about their role in the disclosure of former CIA operative Valerie Plame's identity."

Oh, and he says that after Hurricane Katrina, the White House "spent most of the first week in a state of denial."

And McClellan was one of President Bush's biggest loyalists!

Was this worthy of being the lead story--after an RNC attack--on "Hannity & Colmes," "Anderson Cooper 360" and other shows: Obama saying his uncle helped liberate Auschwitz, when his [great-]uncle helped liberate Buchenwald? The fact that he got the concentration camp wrong? Power Line says Obama must be "the most gaffe-prone politician in memory."

The latest Bill Clinton blast against the media has to do with the alleged suppression of polls showing Hillary as the stronger general-election candidate, as ABC reports:

"Clinton also strongly criticized the media, saying that ever since Iowa they have been against his wife, making him feel as though he was living in a 'fun house.' As he concluded his thoughts on how this election has been handled, he again went back to the media's choice of coverage.

" 'If you notice, there hasn't been a lot of publicity on these polls I just told you about,' Clinton said. 'It is the first time you've heard it? Why do you think that is? Why do you think? Don't you think if the polls were the reverse and he was winning the electoral college against Sen. [John] McCain and Hillary was losing it, it would be blasted on every television station? You would know it wouldn't you? It wouldn't be a little secret.' "

I will simply observe that I've seen those polls reported again and again.

In Newsweek, Evan Thomas pens an open letter to Obama:

"The good news is that you have all but won the nomination. The bad news, if we are willing to face reality, is that the country--some parts of it, anyway--may not be ready to elect a black president of the United States. It is hard to get a precise fix on the problem. Voters generally deny to pollsters that race is a factor in casting their votes, but when they step into the privacy of the polling booth, their prejudices can sometimes emerge. Probably only a tiny fraction of voters are outright racist. But race is not irrelevant to many others, black or white; exit polls vary greatly by state, but show that 10 to 30 percent of primary voters considered race as they voted (if white, those voters broke overwhelmingly for Hillary Clinton; if African-American, they voted for you).

"NEWSWEEK pollsters recently created a 'Racial Resentment Index' to measure the impact of race on the 2008 election. White voters were asked a series of 10 questions about a variety of race-related topics, including racial preferences in hiring, interracial marriage--and what they have 'in common' with African-Americans. About a third of these voters scored 'high' on this index; 29 percent of all white Democrats did. Overwhelmingly, these Democrats are the ones most likely to defect to John McCain in the fall. (Among 'High RR' white Democratic voters, according to the new NEWSWEEK Poll, Clinton leads McCain by 77 percent to 18 percent, while you win by only 51 percent to 33 percent.) Many Democratic voters in West Virginia interviewed by a NEWSWEEK reporter on primary night, May 13, did not hide their animus toward you as a kind of exotic alien. Menina Parsons, 45, said she will not vote for Obama in the general election because 'I don't think he's real. I don't think he's American.' "

MSNBC Taking Flak

We'll close today with my report on a cable channel under fire--from all sides:

MSNBC, which bills itself as "the place for politics," is being pummeled by political practitioners.

"It's an organ of the Democratic National Committee," says Steve Schmidt, a senior strategist for John McCain's campaign. "It's a partisan advocacy organization that exists for the purpose of attacking John McCain."

Ed Gillespie, President Bush's counselor, says there is an "increasing blurring" of the line between NBC News and MSNBC's "blatantly partisan talk show hosts like Christopher Matthews and Keith Olbermann."

Terry McAuliffe, chairman of Hillary Clinton's campaign, says Matthews has been "in the tank" for Barack Obama "from Day One" and is practically "the Obama campaign chair."

Why are operatives from across the political spectrum suddenly beating up on the third-place cable channel? Phil Griffin, the NBC senior vice president who runs MSNBC, dismisses the criticism, calling Schmidt's broadsides "pretty outrageous accusations."

"To call us an arm of the DNC is a joke," he says. "We have people with multiple points of view. Everyone is getting a little thin-skinned. We argue and debate every topic."

The focus of the attacks is MSNBC's evening lineup, where the channel has clearly gravitated to the left in recent years and often seems to regard itself as the antithesis of Fox News. Schmidt, for instance, says he regards MSNBC's daytime reporting as fair, but that it would be "delusional" to view its nighttime operation as anything other than a "partisan entity."

NBC and its cable outlet have become more integrated since MSNBC moved to the 30 Rockefeller Plaza headquarters in New York last fall, a trend accelerated by the sharing of journalistic talent during the campaign. Some top NBC journalists say privately they are troubled by the overlapping identities.

Matthews, the voluble "Hardball" host, appears frequently on NBC's "Today," and Tim Russert, NBC's Washington bureau chief and "Meet the Press" moderator, is an increasingly visible presence on MSNBC. Andrea Mitchell and David Gregory, both well-regarded NBC correspondents, now anchor hour-long programs on the cable outlet. Gregory replaced Tucker Carlson, leaving former GOP congressman Joe Scarborough as the channel's only conservative host.

NBC News President Steve Capus says the distinctions between reporting and opinion are clear. "We happen to have programs that at times are driven by opinion on MSNBC, and we have a worldwide news organization driven by NBC News," he says. "The only people trying to lump it all together are people who tend to view these things through a political filter or are our competitors."

But news and opinion often seem to merge on primary nights. MSNBC's coverage is anchored by Matthews, a onetime Democratic operative, and Olbermann, the "Countdown" host who recently finished one anti-Bush commentary by instructing the president to "shut the hell up."

On election nights, Griffin says, Matthews and Olbermann "put on different hats. I think the audience gets it. . . . I see zero problem." MSNBC, he adds, offers "a little irreverence, entertainment, and sometimes it's even borderline dangerous."

Terence Smith, a former correspondent for CBS, PBS and the New York Times, says that "NBC Nightly News," for example, is far different from cable fare. "I don't believe Brian Williams's show reflects the attitudes and positions of Olbermann and Matthews and others on MSNBC," he says. "But it is potentially a perception problem. The public doesn't make a lot of distinctions between different arms of an organization."

As for Matthews and Olbermann, Smith says, "there's no confusion on 'Hardball' or 'Countdown' as to where they stand. They are and have been enamored of Obama from the beginning."

Scarborough, who hosts "Morning Joe," has been more sympathetic toward Clinton, while often criticizing the Republican Party he once represented in Florida.

The Obama campaign, for its part, has not complained about MSNBC's coverage. "Has it been too pro-Obama? Absolutely not," says Obama spokesman Bill Burton. "When the cable news channels had wall-to-wall negative coverage about our campaign for weeks on end, we didn't think it was particularly fair, but we also didn't whine about it all the time."

Gillespie, who raised questions about the overlap between the networks in a letter to Capus, says in an interview: "The president is not covered on MSNBC, he's talked about on MSNBC," largely in unflattering terms. "It's an advocacy network, and they're free to say what they want."

Russert drew some flak for declaring on the night of the May 6 primaries in Indiana and North Carolina: "We now know who the Democratic nominee is going to be, and no one's going to dispute it." He notes that he made a similar declaration on NBC -- that Bill Clinton had the Democratic race wrapped up -- in 1992.

As Russert sees it, appearing on the cable channel "enhances" his reputation. "I don't do anything differently on MSNBC than I do on the network -- try to report and analyze as best I can," he says.

In the bitter battle for the Democratic nomination, MSNBC is widely viewed as being rough on Clinton. Matthews -- who said after one Obama speech that he "felt this thrill going up my leg" -- apologized in January for saying that Clinton owes her political career to the fact that "her husband messed around." Correspondent David Shuster, who recently began anchoring the 4 p.m. hour, drew a two-week suspension in February for questioning whether Chelsea Clinton was being "pimped out" by her mother's campaign.

Griffin maintains that MSNBC has been "very fair" to Clinton, despite what he calls her "baggage." "Obama had a lot of early success, and that colored people's thinking," he says. "That was a newer story, a fresher story, and people locked onto it."

In a "special comment" Friday -- an occasional segment devoted to editorializing -- Olbermann denounced Clinton for mentioning the 1968 assassination of Robert Kennedy while talking about how past primary seasons have lasted through June. "This cannot be forgiven," Olbermann said, adding: "A politician, a person who can let hang in midair the prospect that she might just be sticking around, in part, just in case the other guy gets shot has no business being, and no capacity to be, the president of the United States."

Olbermann has also unloaded on the presumed Republican nominee, sometimes with the on-screen headline "Double Talk Express." When McCain missed a vote on legislation to expand educational benefits for veterans, Olbermann accused him of "political opportunism." When the Arizona senator suggested that as president he would regularly answer questions before Congress, Olbermann said: "John McCain would last 11 minutes doing it before he swore or punched somebody or stormed out or all three."

MSNBC's evening guest lineup adds to its left-leaning image. While Griffin proclaims, with some exaggeration, that "Pat Buchanan's on every show," that is in part because the former GOP presidential candidate is the channel's only regular conservative commentator. Such liberals as Air America host Rachel Maddow (an Olbermann substitute), Washington Post columnist Gene Robinson and Newsweek columnist Jonathan Alter make frequent appearances. Olbermann generally does not book conservative or Republican guests, saying he doesn't want to stage "talking point" debates with liberal pundits.

In a further contrast to Fox, where former White House adviser Karl Rove is often the leadoff guest on nighttime shows, Dan Abrams, the host of MSNBC's "Verdict," spent half a program last week on a House committee's subpoena of Rove in a probe of political influence at the Justice Department.

NBC executives say the ratings growth at MSNBC -- up 61 percent this month in prime time, compared with a year ago -- has made it a target.

"It used to be people didn't have to worry about MSNBC because it was an also-ran cable channel," Capus says. "That's not the case anymore. With that is going to come more scrutiny, and we're ready for it."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company