by Justin Rosario
I have a confession to make: Despite being 44 years old, I’ve only really been politically aware since early-2008. I knew that Republicans were not good people (long story behind that) but I didn’t pay attention beyond presidential elections. I was the typical American voter. Tsk.
Even though I’ve since boned up on my general political history, I’ve recently started to pick up books written by liberals during the Bush administration to see how accurate their predictions and ideas were. In the case of Eric Alterman’s What Liberal Media? The Truth About BIAS and the News, it was like Alterman had lived through the 2016 election and then traveled back in time to 2003 to write a warning that no one listened to.
We’re going to focus on three specific parts of the book: How the “liberal” media normalized hardcore racism, abandoned journalistic norms when the name “Clinton” was involved, and picked sides in an election by shamelessly lying about one candidate while downplaying the scandals and lies of the other. Remember, we’re talking about a book written in 2003, not 2017. If the feeling of deja vu tends to make you dizzy, you’d best have a bottle of Dramamine handy.
Normalizing white supremacy and overt racism
Between 1994 and 1995, two books were released by right wing authors funded by right wing billionaires. Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray’s The Bell Curve and Dinesh D’Souza’s The End of Racism were celebrated by the “liberal” media as a bold and refreshing look at race relations in America.
The books are thinly disguised eugenics trash but it allowed white people to spew racist ideas in public that would have just a year before shocked polite society. Sound familiar?
What Murray, Herrnstein, and later D’Souza helped accomplish was to offer permission to well-educated and sophisticated people – the kind of people Murray congratulated for having the high intelligence and taste to read his book – to say the kinds of things that had been previously been placed off limits. There can be no doubt that in the past several years, conservatives by their own statements have eroded the taboo against public racism.
The media was deeply complicit then, as now, in giving a platform to this kind of hate. Just as Murray, Herrnstein, and D’Souza were treated with respect despite being lowlife hacks, so has the media bent over backwards to treat Steve Bannon as a serious political player. When Buzzfeed released its bombshell report proving that Bannon was a literal Nazi sympathizer, the media flat out ignored it. Since then, they’ve worked overtime to give a voice to the poor misunderstood white nationalist demanding more inequality, a platform they rarely, if ever, seem to provide to the black or Latino activist demanding just a little bit less. It’s become something of a running joke on how much ink has been spilled asking the allegedly “forgotten” white rural voter what they think.
This fawning attitude towards “respectable” racism back in the 90s opened the door to the Tea Party’s far more overt racism which, in turn, allowed Trump’s appeal to white nationalism to take root. Give a bigot an inch, they’ll take several feet and make a noose:
A stunning lack of journalistic integrity when the name “Clinton” in involved
I knew going into the 2016 election that the press was going to give Hillary a hard time. I knew they didn’t like the Clintons and that they’d treated both Bill and Hillary poorly back in the 90s. I wasn’t, however, aware of how poorly they’d been treated or how much the “liberal” press had embarrassed itself trying to destroy them. If I’d read What Liberal Bias? before the election, I would have know Hillary was going to lose before she even officially announced.
If, like me, you were only marginally aware of politics at the time, you’ll recall a never-ending string of scandals surrounding the Clinton administration. There was Troopergate, Whitewater, the suicide of Vince Foster, accusations of drug dealing, and, of course, Monica Lewinsky. Everyone knew the Clintons were the most corrupt politicians to ever exist, a refrain picked up 20+ years later by Trump and echoed by the “liberal” media to great effect.
Curiously, in all that time, no one was ever able to prove the Clintons ever broke a single law and a whole whopping two people in the Clinton executive branch were indicted. Compared to Republican administrations, the Clintons were paragons of virtue:
Courtesy of DailyKOS
This didn’t mean a damn thing to the “liberal” media who loathed the Clintons:
The elite media’s attitude towards the Clintons appeared akin to be that of Old Money (or power) toward some Ozark hick who failed to pay proper heed to their superor social grace and aristoitc breeding. As Davoid Broder would later explain to the famed Georgetown hostess and sometimes reporter Sally Quinn, “He came in here and trashed the place, and it’s not his place.”
And it reflected in the ongoing hit job that passed for reporting at the time:
For the sake of a story of a man lying about a blow job, the Washington Post frequently broke its own famed two-source “Watergate” rule and relied in most cases on anonymous “background” sources. Many stories were written in the passive voice, or were a few steps removed from the actual source, as in “were said to be” or “there were reports” or “were reported to be….” Robert Kaiser, the Post’s assistant managing editor, admitted that the paper ran stories with “only the vaguest sourcing” during the early days of the scandal.
What was true of the Post was true everywhere. With a degree of overkill that is all but unfathomable today, on a single day following the outbreak of the news, the Washington Post, New York Time, and Los Angeles Times combined managed to publish a total of 47,500 words on this single topic in fifty-seven separate stories.
And when they couldn’t find anything negative to report, they just made something up:
In a “community” where everyone thinks pretty much the same thoughts, actual reporting is beside the point. Thus Americans were treated to CNN analyst Jeff Greenfield reporting on CNN on what White Staffers were “thinking” but not saying.
Writing about what you “know” people are “thinking” is not reporting any more than writing about “the perception of corruption” is but that was the entire basis for the media’s assault on Hillary Clinton throughout much of 2016. Once again, the media failed to find any criminal activity in either Hillary’s emails or her foundation so they simply invented a new metric that no one else had ever been held to before and certainly not since:
Even though there is no evidence yet that Clinton took any actions while secretary of state to help donors to the foundation her husband and daughter ran, “the issue is the perception,” said Rob Reich, a professor of political science at Stanford University and co-director of the Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society.“
The perception is that donating to the foundation is the way to gain influence,” Reich said. It’s a reason that philanthropy and partisan politics “mix like oil and water.”
Perception of corruption was never an issue for Donald Trump. Hell, actual corruption wasn’t an issue at the time. The liberal media was far too busy trying to get back at the Clintons for slipping out of their grasp in the 90s. Think of how frustrating it must have been to have spent the better part of 8 years desperately trying to take a president down and to have them leave with a sky high approval rating. 8 years and no real scandals to speak of other than a blow job that turned out to be more damaging to the Republicans and the reputation of the press than it was to the Clintons.
Even punishing Al Gore in the election of 2000 wouldn’t slake their thirst for revenge 16 years later.
Throwing The Election
See if you can tell which Democratic candidate, Al Gore or Hillary Clinton, the following passage is about:
In addition to its refusal to pay attention to the many substantive issues that separated the two candidates, the media also aided the ________ campaign by conducting what looks very much in retrospect to be a campaign of character assassination against _______, which they conducted almost as if to draw the public’s attention away from the far more serious character defects in ___ Republican opponent.
You can’t tell, can you? Here, try this one:
The most common theme of the campaign was that ______ was scandal-tainted. This accounted for 42 percent of all the assertions about _______’s character. The second most common assertion about ________ was that ______ was a liar. These accounted for 34 percent of stories about ___. The least common of the major themes, accounting for 14 percent of assertions, was that ______ was competent, experienced, and knowledgeable.
Again, there is no way to tell which election these are about, 2000 or 2016 (both are 2000. Or are they?), because the media’s appalling behavior is almost identical. The “liberal” press seized on every minor misstep of Gore’s and turned them into front page news while quietly burying Bush’s actual illegal activities. Gore was “corrupt”, “dishonest”, “stiff”, and “hungry for power” while Bush was a “man of the people” despite being an elite millionaire that never worked a real job a day in his life.
Now where have I heard this before…..?
In 2000, the press was smitten with Bush because he was just so goshdarn likable whereas Gore didn’t properly kiss their ass. In 2016, Trump was a monster that literally put the lives of the press at risk but he was making them so much money, they didn’t care. Hillary, on the other hand, was going to pay for embarrassing the press back in the 90s. They had been denied their scalp and they were going to claim it even if it meant putting Donald Trump in the White House.
That’s how an contest between a brilliant woman that spent her life serving the public and a racist, misogynist conman that spent his life lying, stealing and cheating everyone around him turned into this:
Emails. Emails. And more fucking emails.
It bears repeating that after all was said and done, there was no criminal trespass, no shenanigans, no corruption, nothing. The email story was absolute bullshit but it was the only thing the press wanted to talk about. That was a deliberate choice made by the “liberal” media to depict Hillary Clinton as corrupt and dishonest while downplaying Donald Trump’s pathological lying and historic criminality just like they made Gore into a scandalized liar while ignoring Bush’s real scandals. Well done!
The Bush administration, of course, went on to be the most secretive and dishonest since Nixon but with the patriotic fervor of 9/11 infecting the “liberal” media, they didn’t question it much until years later. Yet, instead of learning their lesson, they went right ahead and did it again, helping install Trump in the White House in 2016. Because the “liberal” media couldn’t let go of their petty hatred of the Clintons, they gave us a barely coherent monster who has been working nonstop for two years to undermine the entire concept of a free press and the rule of law.
Why else goad North Korea and the entire Muslim world into attacking us? Trump believes that a massive terrorist attack or a nuclear strike would make him politically untouchable. The existential dread any sane person feels contemplating what Trump would do with the power Bush was granted by 9/11 is indescribable. Bush at least knew there were limits to his depravity. Trump knows none.
Reading Alterman’s book has been both eye opening and incredibly depressing. The press is a disgrace and has been for a long time. We badly need the media to hold the Trump administration accountable and for the moment, they are. More or less. But, honestly, that’s only because of the full scale war Trump is waging against them; self preservation is a good motivator to do your job. That also means that as soon as Trump is gone, we’ll be right back to the lazy false equivalence nonsense because journalism is hard (Just ask Chuck Todd). Even now, the media haven’t fully abandoned it despite one side literally embracing Nazis and child molesters. The idea of saying out loud that the problem is the Republican Party’s corruption, dishonesty, and hunger for power is anathema for the “liberal” press. They only feel comfortable saying that when talking about a Democrat.
Maybe in 14 years or so, assuming we’re not all living in a radioactive wasteland or in a “reeducation camp” for political dissidents, I’ll read Alterman’s book about the 2016 election just in time for the press to push another Republican into office because the Democratic candidate is Hillary Clinton’s second cousin’s roommate’s sister. They couldn’t possibly get any pettier than they are already so why not?