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Daily Howler: Channeling Atrios, we recall the birth of the corps' Clinton rules
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A BIT OF OUR HISTORY! Channeling Atrios, we recall the birth of the corps’ Clinton rules: // link // print // previous // next //

THAT WE WOULD BE GOOD: Kevin! Dude! Please please please please! Roughly speaking, that was our internal reaction to Kevin Drum’s superlative post when we espied it this morning:
DRUM (1/18/07):
IMN AWARD OF THE WEEK.... I know that highlighting idiotic media narratives is Bob Somerby's beat, not mine, but Howard Fineman’s latest in Newsweek has to be seen to be believed. If I were writing a parody of the genre, I wouldn't change a word.

And a note to Fineman: please don't try to make up for this by writing a companion piece about the Republican primary field. It won't be any better just because you're taking on people I don't like.
Kevin linked to this fatuous piece by Fineman—and yes, it’s a work for the ages (like so much of this cohort’s work product). Indeed, Fineman presented the same material on yesterday’s Imus, complete with snide, resentful tone-of-voice about Hillary Clinton. (“Miss Perfect.”). We had planned—and still plan—to transcribe and discuss Fineman’s performance on Monday. We’ll do so under a new heading—“Spinning Hillary”—which we sadly expect to use often. As the next election unfolds, Hillary Clinton is the Big Dem who will be the target of these “IMNs.”

But back to our internal reaction: Dude! Please! we found ourselves saying. Please make our beat your beat too! “Idiotic media narratives” have driven our recent White House campaigns. It’s perfectly obvious that these idiot narratives decided the outcome of Campaign 2000, thereby changing the course of U.S. and world history. But it has been very hard to get liberal observers to walk this important and crime-ridden beat. (For the latest example of that, see below). Kevin has superlative analytical skills. We’d love to see him apply these skills—often—to this key field of study.

That we would be good! We should all work harder to strip these narrative out of this coming White House election. And by the way, we don’t have to worry about one thing; Fineman has no plan to write a companion piece about the Republicans, in which McCain would be the subject of his weird and childish resentment. There will be no such “IMN” from Fineman. The direction of this cohort’s narratives has been abundantly clear for years—which explains why libs and Dems simply must stand up and resist them, in force. We all have to tackle the IMNs this time around. And we must start to do this right now.

THEY COMPETE TO SEE WHO CAN BE THE TOP IDIOT: We’ve said it over and over and over—if you couldn’t see their work, you could never imagine such consummate idiocy. For example, here’s Fineman’s current take on crazy Gore. Yes, he actually wrote this:

FINEMAN (1/18/07): Then Obama showed up. He was new, he was smooth, he was skinny, he was smart, but not in-your-face about it. The girls flocked to him, of course—that grin!—but so did the guys, because he had Game. His promised to Change Everything, and yet there was something calming about him—but also something that told you he might fade away as quickly as he materialized.

At least he was not like that crazy Al Gore, who had been the ultimate goody-goody but who had grown a beard, made a film and dropped out to attend the School Without Walls.
Yes, this is supposed to be some sort of humor sketch. But the sheer inanity would be hard to imagine if you couldn’t actually see it. It would also be hard to imagine they way they cling to their treasured narratives. In Fineman’s world, Gore still equates to two things: “bearded” and “crazy.” Gore was right on Iraq—and right about warming. But Fineman, devoted to “rule by the wrong,” is still all about the man’s beard.

And yes, dear readers—at Newsweek High, they compete to see who can be BIOC. If you doubt that, click here to read Andy Borowitz’s current “satire,” still featured on Newsweek’s brainless news site. Here’s the tragic synopsis:
Al Gore says that a Hillary Clinton run for the White House could wreak havoc with the world's climate.
There isn’t a hint of political insight in this “satire;” it’s a naked bid by Borowitz to achieve insider idiot status. Our reaction? Don’t worry, Andy! We’re convinced—you’ve proved it. You’re a prime idiot too!

If you couldn’t see such idiot work, could you ever have imagined it? Could you veer have dreamed that a millionaire press corps could produce such a race of primal idiots? Kevin used the word “idiotic” to describe the latest work by Fineman. But these “idiotic media narratives” have played key roles in our recent White House elections. With Campaign 08 underway, today is the day—today; right now—for all liberals, Democrats, progressives and centrists to make this a principal beat.

OVER THE YEARS, WE HAVEN’T FOUGHT BACK: But over the years, we haven’t fought back—and the “idiotic media narratives” have simply savaged our candidates. (Yes. These narratives did send Bush to the White House. Will there ever come a day when liberals acknowledge this fact—perhaps the most obvious fact on the planet?) How poorly have we explained the ways these narratives have harmed our interests? For the latest answer, just read this superlative post by Scott Lemieux at Tapped. In it, Lemieux responds to a more typical post by his colleague, Ann Friedman.

To judge from her post, Friedman has recently arrived on the planet, transported by a space ship from Neptune. (How can the Prospect afford it?) With a perfectly appropriate sense of annoyance, she complains about the way news orgs sometimes write pointless reviews of the clothing worn by female pols. But we see that Friedman is newly arrived here when she quickly writes this:
FRIEDMAN (1/18/07): Men will get called out if they wear something totally inappropriate (see: Cheney’s parka at the Holocaust remembrance ceremony), not really for simple fashion choices. It's easy for them (if they want) to avoid calling attention to their clothing. Women, on the other hand, are “marked” no matter what they choose to wear.
To read that at a major liberal journal—well, it’s simply astounding. Male politicians don’t get criticized the “for simple fashion choices?” And Cheney is the only example she can conjure among major men? Good God! In Campaign 2000 (you know? the one before last?), the Democratic candidate, a male named Al Gore, was endlessly savaged for his “simple fashion choices,” as Lemieux notes in his quick rebuttal. Indeed, Gore was mocked for his “fashion choices” in a way no female pol has ever experienced. He was criticized for his boots; for his suits; for his polo shirts; and for his deeply troubling earth tones. He was psychoanalyzed—by Howard Fineman and Brian Williams—for wearing casual clothing on some occasions and formal clothing on others. Regarding his suits, he was criticized because one was brown—and because they had too many buttons. At least three major news orgs criticized Gore because his pants were hemmed too high. The widespread mockery lasted for months, conducted at the highest levels of mainstream American punditry. We’ve written about this again and again—but we might as well write for a team of mules as to write for most modern “liberals.” People like Friedman have simply refused to understand or discuss our recent history. And we’ve paid the price for this cosmic ignorance. Our failure to explain the workings of these “idiot narratives” leaves our candidates very susceptible when such narratives are offered again. Most voters have never heard about this history—but they’ve often heard about “liberal bias.” For that reason, they’re easily fooled when nitwits like Fineman start composing their latest inane narratives.

And so, three cheers for Lemieux, who has been breaking the code of silence concerning these topics in his work at the Prospect. And three cheers for Josh Marshall, for bringing Greg Sargent aboard at TPM. Over the past decade, liberals and Democrats have simply refused to discuss the press corps’ “idiot narratives.” We’re thrilled to see Lemieux and Sargent making IMNs their beat. And we’re more than thrilled when we see Drum call out Fineman too.

Final note to Friedman: This time around, the person who will suffer most from these idiot narratives will be the woman, Hillary Clinton. The empty boys of the mainstream press have a jones about Clinton that won’t let their souls go. And by the way—the astounding attacks on Gore’s “fashion choices” had a deeply sexist sub-text. The attacks on Naomi Wolf were endless—and endlessly nasty. (Wolf had “gotten in touch with her inner slut,” a string of Dowd-scripted pundits wrote. What a cosmic disgrace.) So please, get off your god-damned [keister]. The IMNs are starting again. It’s time to show that you’ve heard.

Special feature—Channeling Atrios!

A BIT OF OUR HISTORY: As we noted yesterday, Atrios was right on the money when he offered this brief post-and-link. It’s true! Under “the Clinton rules of journalism,” you can say any goddamn thing you want—as long as you say it about the Clintons. This rules have already begun to affect the way Campaign 08 is covered. But these rules have been in place a long time—and they were most virulent in the late 90s. We’ve been preparing some longer-form work on this period, and Atrios almost took the phrasing right out of our mouths in yesterday’s post. What follows is some recent history about our broken press culture. For reasons only they can explain, it’s the kind of history our liberal elites have simply refused to discuss.

In this excerpt, we enter the middle of a longer exposition. As we start, it’s October 1999. Gore and Bradley have just staged their first debate—a session in which 300 reporters, in a Dartmouth press room, jeered and laughed at Gore for the entire hour. The incident was separately described by three major scribes—and was then sent straight down the memory hole. The public has never heard of such conduct—though they’ve heard all about “liberal bias.”

What could explain such astonishing conduct on the part of the national press corps? Simple! The “Clinton rules” were already in place—and they were now being transferred to Gore. Here’s the material that came to mind when we read that Atrios post. We’ll highlight the language which channels Atrios. Sorry—there are some references in this excerpt which are not fully explained:

Excerpt—Some recent history:

stunning breakdown in normal comportment? A few suggestions can be offered before we return to the puzzling coverage which made such a total, yowling joke of the 2000 White House campaign.

First, this campaign began roughly ten years after the Cold War’s end. In recent years, one Washington hand had even declared that the “end of history” was upon us. To all appearances, the pleasing illusion of post-Cold War peace—and the steady growth of upper-class affluence—had created a somewhat frivolous mind-set among the press corps’ elite. A new generation was ruling the corps, clear and distinct from the “forty or fifty men, all veterans of their craft, all proud of their integrity and their calling” whom Teddy White had found on the trail in 1960, covering Nixon and Kennedy. By the late 1990s, the press corps’ opinion leaders were often multimillionaires; they were often TV stars in their own right. And to all appearances, the “end of history” had seemed to suggest that their greatest responsibilities lay behind them. Was this press corps concerned with war and peace? Did pundits “feel the pain” of the working poor—of the challenged middle class? As we’ll see, this press corps seemed to take perverse pride in its abject refusal to consider such matters. Throughout this campaign, reporters routinely botched the simplest facts about the most central policy issues; in general, they used policy disputes as the latest excuse for writing contrived, prefabricated stories about various candidates’ “character.” Their most heralded tribune was now Maureen Dowd, a columnist for the New York Times; she won the Pulitzer Prize in April 1999, just as Campaign 2000 was starting. In late July, Dowd returned from a month-long absence. What was on her prize-winning mind? Here’s the list of topics she tackled upon her return:
July 28: She described her recent lazer eye surgery.
August 1: She reviewed the movie “Runaway Bride.”
August 4: She discussed a new Talk magazine piece about the Clintons’ marriage.
August 8: She interviewed Bob Dole about the prospect of being “first gentleman.” (Dole’s wife was running for president.)
August 11: She compared and contrasted “two blond icons”—Hillary Clinton and Marilyn Monroe.
August 15: Will Warren Beatty run for the White House?
August 18: Bush and the question of youthful drug use
August 22: Bush and the question of youthful drug use
August 25: She reviewed a new cable movie about Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas.
August 29: She examined McCain’s life story, psychoanalyzing his reasons for seeking the White House.
September 1: “I ran into Kato Kaelin the other night.” she wrote—at the start of a column about Monica Lewinsky.
September 5: She penned a review of Paris, a new Las Vegas casino hotel.
In short, Dowd’s typical column was witty but fatuous—a hodgepodge of personality, sex chat and gossip. Frequently, she slammed the culture’s celebrity focus—while revealing few other interests herself. Meanwhile, in terms of the presidential election, the public interest was better served the farther she stayed away from the candidates. In April, for example, she had written a column, “President Frat Boy,” scolding Bush for trivial conduct he’d engaged in as a college student, thirty-one years earlier. Three weeks later, she scolded Gore for having told friends that he’d enjoyed the new hit movie, The Matrix. What made Gore’s remark so troubling? A few weeks after Gore’s remarks, three students committed mass murder at Colorado’s Columbine High School, wearing clothing they’d seen in the film. Gore had no way to know this would happen, of course—but Dowd tortured a column from his remarks all the same. But with Dowd, there was rarely a topic too pointless to consider, or a judgment too unfair or foolish to render. And in the summer of 1999, this was, in the press corps’ view, the best their cohort had to offer. The Pulitzer Prize awarded to Dowd was a portrait of a press in decline—a portrait of a floundering press corps in love with arch tone and sheer trivia.

Just how low had their standards fallen by the summer of 1999? Consider a pair of TV appearances in which the sitting president of the United States—Bill Clinton—was accused of a long string of murders.

In this case, Clinton’s accuser was Gennifer Flowers, the Little Rock woman who had played a role in the 1992 New Hampshire primary. During that race, Flowers authored a two-part report for a supermarket tabloid, The Star; it alleged a torrid, twelve-year affair with then-governor Clinton. Flowers was paid $150,000 by the Star; eventually, she’d receive more than $500,000 for making her various claims about Clinton. But her Star piece was “riddled with demonstrable inaccuracies,” as Jonathan Alter quickly noted in Newsweek. “Flowers claims she met Clinton at the Excelsior Hotel in 1979 or 1980,” he wrote. “The hotel didn’t open until late 1982.” And this: “Flowers claims to have been Miss Teen Age America, 1967. She wasn’t—that year, or any other.” But then, Flowers’ assortment of clownish misstatements turned out to be rather lengthy. “Among other things, Flowers’ resumé claimed degrees from colleges she’d barely attended, membership in a sorority she’d never joined and jobs she’d never held,” the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette’s Gene Lyons wrote in 1998. In 1995, she had written an entire book about her alleged twelve-year affair without naming a single time and place when she and Clinton were alone together. Nor was Flowers an especially dignified critic. In her book, she recalled the first time she met Hillary Clinton. “I was shocked,” she thoughtfully wrote. “She looked like a big fat frump with her hair hanging down kind of curly and wavy. She had big, thick glasses; an ugly dress; and a big, fat butt.” By the summer of 1999, this was the person the press had adopted as an unfailing vessel of truth.

In his deposition in the Paula Jones lawsuit, Clinton—using an expansive definition of “sexual relations” which had been mandated by the court—testified to one such act with Flowers, in 1977. He said the act wasn’t intercourse. Washington’s pundits were thrilled, of course; on this basis, scribes routinely said they “now knew” that Flowers had been telling the truth all along. In an unintentionally comic formulation, Frank Rich wrote that Clinton had “conceded having an affair with [Flowers], disputing only its duration.” Only its duration! Flowers said the “duration” had been twelve years; Clinton said it was more like ten minutes. But this was close enough for journalistic work in an increasingly fatuous era.

At any rate, Flowers was back in the spotlight in 1999, this time pushing an eponymous web site—and a long list of alleged murders. On August 2, she was granted an unusually long, half-hour guest segment on Hardball; instantly, she described Bill and Hillary Clinton as “murderers.” Her host, Chris Matthews, expressed (or feigned) surprise—and from that point on, viewers were treated to a clownish spectacle, one which captured the public morals of an increasingly puzzling era. “Who did he try to kill that you know of? Give me one hard case,” Matthews asked. When his guest presented a name, Matthews asked if she had any evidence that either Clinton played a role in his death. This produced the type of absurd exchange which was now remarkably common among the cohort which had told Sally Quinn about their vast love for the truth:
MATTHEWS: But you don’t know there’s any connection!

FLOWERS: I don’t know for—I didn’t hear Bill get on the phone and call and place the order to have this man killed, no.

MATTHEWS: Well, that’s not—you sort of need evidence like that to accuse even this guy, a guy you don’t like, perhaps, of murder, don’t you?

FLOWERS: Well, I think if it looks like a chicken and walks like a chicken, perhaps it’s a chicken. I mean, come on!
“You sort of need evidence, don’t you?” Matthews asked. But by this time, it was clear that the answer was no. If it looked like a chicken, you could call it a murder—and given the press corps’ devolving standards, you could then get yourself booked onto TV “news” programs to make your ugly and ludicrous charges. (“I dissociate myself completely from the accusation,” Matthews said, midway through. “I can’t believe, not by any shot, that he's guilty of such horrible crimes as you suggest.”) Indeed, consummate nonsense consumed the half-hour. Flowers also claimed that Bill Clinton’s aides had gotten her fired from singing engagements. When Matthews pressed for the names of such aides, Flowers engaged in clownish evasions, promising to provide the names later—and back-pedaling from her initial accusations. But then, the “who’s-on-first” quality of these exchanges suffused the murder discussions as well.

Judged by any rational standard, Flowers’ performance had been a disaster. It was also an outrage against normal practice; by traditional standards, people are not invited on TV to make ugly claims against public figures, accusations for which they can’t produce a shred of actual evidence. But this was no longer a rational world; this was the world of American “news” by the summer of 1999. Result? Precisely because she’d behaved so egregiously, Flowers turned up two weeks later on Hannity & Colmes, a Fox News program whose standards were even more degraded than those found on Hardball. In fact, Fox rewarded Flowers’ conduct; they booked her for the program’s full hour, giving her twice as much time to make her rambling accusations. Alternately, Sean Hannity feigned concern at her lack of evidence—and invited her to restate her charges. As such, the show was a masterwork of journalistic bad faith—like so much of the work which was now suffusing large parts of our national “press corps.”

Flowers’ outings had been astounding. Repeatedly, she’d accused a president (and first lady) of murders, while staging absurd exchanges about her “evidence”—exchanges which would have been over-the-top as examples of old-fashioned slapstick. But what was most remarkable here? The total lack of comment or criticism from anywhere else in the press corps. In the Washington Post, Howard Kurtz mentioned the Hardball appearance, but only to say that Matthews had “even trotted out Gennifer Flowers for the umpteenth time” to discuss the Clintons. Kurtz didn’t mention the murder accusations, and he ignored Flowers’ subsequent appearance on Fox. But then, a Nexis search finds no one else, anywhere in the press corps, commenting on Flowers’ murder charges—or asking why two major “news” programs had booked her on TV to make them. No one asked Matthews why she was booked, or if he’d known what she planned to say. No one asked Hannity why she’d been booked even after he knew what she would be saying. By now, traditional standards had been stood on their head. Crackpots were asked to come on TV to accuse sitting presidents of multiple murders—and no one in the mainstream press corps seemed to notice or care.

But then, by the summer of 1999, claims like these were no longer novel—so long as they were aimed at the Clintons. In March 1994, talk radio titan Rush Limbaugh had broadly suggested that White House aide Vince Foster had been murdered—and that Hillary Clinton had been involved in the crime. (A long string of investigations concluded that Foster committed suicide.) Two months later, Jerry Falwell, a well-known “religious” broadcaster, began peddling a $20 videotape on his syndicated TV program—a tape which charged Bill Clinton with a long string of murders. But so what? In 1997, Limbaugh began appearing as a guest on Meet the Press, the most venerable American news program. By 1998, Falwell was a frequent guest on cable news shows—like Limbaugh, a magnet for conservative viewers and, therefore, a source of income for the programs which booked him. The press corps had reached a remarkable state. Quite literally, there was nothing so ugly that you couldn’t say it—as long as you said it about the Clintons. And it was in this strange context that Candidate Gore had begun his run for the White House.

It’s hard to fathom, but the record is clear. By the summer of 1999, your press corps’ standards lay in tatters. The problem had been apparent in March as the press corps invented a troubling LIAR—a “liar” who had made three accurate statements. And the problem would be apparent again in the fall as 300 journalists sat in a room, jeering, hissing and laughing at the Democratic front-runner for president. And the problem would be transcendently clear in the commentary which followed this session.

A crackpot strain had invaded our discourse—and the mainstream press corps had lost its way too. “Gathered in a pack they can be cruel and unfeeling,” Barnes had written, with considerable prescience. Three weeks after his column appeared, their jeering of Gore was simply astounding—but the commentary which followed was even more startling. Standards and practices lay in ruins as several White House hopefuls were “puffed”—and one was openly jeered...