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How the Media's Tarring of Hillary Hurt Obama Too

From the primaries to the convention, the media have become experts at inventing a storyline and skewing facts to support it.
 
 
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Within the fast-forward world of campaign journalism, it's not considered cool to examine the recent past in order to provide context for today's events. (We know it's not cool because nobody does it.) Nonetheless, here's a very brief history lesson that the political press prefers to ignore.

At the Democratic National Convention in 1992, Jerry Brown, who finished a very distant second to the party's nominee, had his name placed into nomination and addressed the assembled convention. After seconding his own nomination (true story), Brown delivered a fiery speech that thrilled his unruly supporters inside Madison Square Garden. Brown's ill will toward nominee Bill Clinton was so legendary that The Atlanta Journal-Constitution considered it newsworthy that Brown's convention address "avoided a direct attack" on the nominee, while the Los Angeles Times noted Brown "did not specifically endorse presidential nominee Bill Clinton."

Indeed, for weeks leading up to the convention, Brown refused to back his party's nominee, complaining to The New York Times in June that supporting Clinton was like buying a ticket for the Titanic.

Four years earlier, the Democratic convention in Atlanta witnessed even more tumult from the second-place finisher when Jesse Jackson, furious at being passed over for the vice-presidential slot by the party's nominee, Michael Dukakis (who failed to call Jackson and tell him the VP news), threatened to withhold his delegates' support from the party's nominee. In fact, just hours before the convention began, Jackson's supporters threatened to place the candidate's name into nomination for the vice presidency, which would have created a massive floor fight between Jackson and Dukakis' pick, Sen. Lloyd Bentsen of Texas.

Pre-convention tension grew so heated that the mild-mannered Dukakis was quoted as saying, "I don't care what Jesse Jackson does. I'm going to this convention and I'm going to win." During his convention keynote address, which lasted nearly an hour -- much longer than expected, Jackson did not specifically endorse Dukakis.

End of history lesson.

Now, take those historical nuggets from 1992 and 1988 and transport them to Denver this week, and try to imagine what the press reaction would be (not the political reaction, but the press reaction) if Hillary Clinton delivered her address Tuesday night and did not endorse the Democratic Party's nominee.

Honestly, I have trouble even picturing the response, mostly because there has already been such an unhinged media response ( see Maureen Dowd, if you must) to Clinton's finishing second, speaking at the convention, and supporting the party's nominee. If she snubbed the nominee? We'd probably see a media-credentialed riot, with hordes of pundits and reporters roaming the late-night streets of Denver (Pitchforks? Probably) in search of Clinton and looking to inflict long-term pain.

Fact: Many in the press have portrayed Clinton's planned convention address, as well as the fact that her name is being placed into nomination, as an unprecedented, heavy-handed power grab.

Fact: It's not. In years past, Democratic candidates who won lots of primaries and accumulated hundreds of delegates (sorry, Howard Dean and Bill Bradley) have always been allowed to address the convention and very often place their name into nomination. It's the norm. It's expected. It's a formality.

This newly manufactured media attack on Clinton is just the latest in a long line of press grenades thrown her way this year. But this time, she's not the only victim, because the media's concocted story line is being used to unfairly skewer Barack Obama, too.

Consider New York magazine: "Obama Agrees to Roll-Call Vote for Clinton. Does That Make Him a Sissy?"

What's so startling in watching the coverage of the Clinton convention-speech story has been the complete ignorance displayed about how previous Democratic conventions have dealt with runners-up like Clinton. It's either complete ignorance or the media's strong desire to painstakingly avoid any historical context, which, in turn, allows the press to mislead news consumers into thinking Clinton's appearance (as well as the gracious invitation extended by Obama) represents something unique and unusual. Something newsworthy.

Based on previous conventions, if a candidate had accumulated as many delegates and votes as Clinton did during the primaries and then did not have her name placed into nomination, that would represent a radical departure from the convention norm.

But, boy, in 2008, an awful
lot of media outlets have played dumb. When covering the August 14 announcement about Clinton's role in Denver, they miraculously forgot to make any historical reference to similar names-placed-in-nomination at previous conventions.

Instead, readers and viewers were left with the obvious impression that what was scheduled to happen in Denver was remarkable, an anomaly. And I suppose if you look at the events through a soda straw, it does look unusual. But if you include the slightest bit of context, the story changes into something normal and routine.

But that's not the story the press wants to tell (the Clintons are not normal!), so the press simply erased the context and stuck to its preferred story line that Clinton's appearance in Denver and the placing of her name in nomination are one for the record books.

Searching the recent news archives, it's hard to find many articles or television segments that reported on Clinton's symbolic nomination and also mentioned that runner-up Jerry Brown had been nominated in '92 or that Jesse Jackson had been nominated in '88 or that Gary Hart had been nominated in '84. (You get the idea.)

When The New York Times
reported on Clinton's pending nomination, it made no reference to historical precedents. Neither did The Boston Globe, nor The Wall Street Journal, nor The Washington Post. And on and on and on.

On CNN, Jack Cafferty commented, "The Democratic National Convention is now shaping up to be quite a party for Hillary Clinton. Her name will be placed in nomination. She'll give a prime-time address." He made no mention that that's what previous runners-up had done at conventions.

Let's give credit to the Los Angeles Times, though. In the final two sentences in an article reporting the Clinton convention story, the Times miraculously found space to note that Brown, Jackson, and Hart all had their second-place names placed into nomination.

Actually, the real credit goes to CNN polling director Keating Holland (figures, he doesn't work in the newsroom), who posted a lengthy analysis at CNN.com. Holland's piece not only put Clinton's role in Denver into historical perspective ("Overall, between 1972 and 1992, 10 Democratic candidates who lost the nomination in the primaries went on to have their names formally placed in nomination at the convention."), it also pointed out that Clinton represents the only runner-up to speak at the convention who formally endorsed the party's nominee months before the convention; i.e., all the others grudgingly held out on endorsing their rivals.

But not Clinton. Yet she's the one slimed by media venom.

Even after all these months, I still don't completely understand why Clinton's essentially centrist campaign for the White House ginned up so much open contempt from the press corps, which has felt completely comfortable addressing her in an openly derogatory and condescending manner. The issue of her convention involvement simply allowed the press to whack her around like a piñata one more time, regardless of the facts.

Just take a look at a recent edition of ABC's CW-worshipping daily bulletin The Note as it mocked Clinton's convention role with barely containable contempt:

Maybe it was better for the Obama campaign to invite you inside, since you would have made an ugly scene outside. Surely Sen. Barack Obama can afford to be gracious, even to you, since he'll leave Denver with the only prize that counts.

"Even to you." That's a nice touch, coming from the same press corps that erupts with indignation whenever somebody suggests Clinton might have been tarred with sexist campaign coverage. (Y'think? National Review Online, August 15: "Sure, Hillary's fat and waddly and screechy and gives pantsuits a bad name.")

And this from Radar magazine:

Barack Obama has approved Hillary Clinton's dubious campaign to put herself up for nomination at the upcoming Democratic National Convention. We have to ask: Is it because she's a woman or just power-hungry?

Note that Clinton's convention campaign was "dubious," which was accurate if Radar, y'know, ignored facts and precedent and history and all that annoying stuff.

Meanwhile, what was The Note's proof that Clinton would have "made an ugly scene outside" the convention if not included? The Note had none. And that's what's been so amazing about watching the brazen, Clinton's-trying-to-steal-the-convention-with-a-speech coverage: The narrative is built on a swamp. The press has provided virtually no facts, not even anonymous quotes, to support its beloved narrative that Hillary Clinton's planned speech ignited some kind of civil war inside the Democratic Party.

What's curious is that journalists who have actually bothered to cite campaign sources about her speech and symbolic nomination came away with a very different picture of what was unfolding behind the scenes.

Writing at his Atlantic blog, Marc Ambinder, who seems to enjoy regular access to Obama sources, noted that "reports of strife between negotiators for Sen. Hillary Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama are exaggerated" and that "multiple sources in both campaigns have described the negotiations as relatively free of acrimony."

The next day, Ambinder returned to the topic perplexed, wondering why so many members of the press were pushing the clearly inaccurate story line that the Obama and Clinton camps were practically at war over the convention schedule.

Ambinder was either being naïve or playing nice with his Beltway colleagues. (My guess is the latter.) Because it was obvious the press didn't care whether the rift about Clinton's speech was real or imagined. The story helped journalists advance their beloved narrative that Clinton is a political-party wrecking ball and that Obama is too weak to control her. So even if the evidence ran counter to that, the press was sticking with its story line.

Like Ambinder, another journalist who actually reported the story was Joan Walsh at Salon.com, who wrote, "My sources say the Obama campaign was enthusiastic about the idea of putting Clinton's name in nomination, having independently reached the conclusion that it was the best way to honor her achievement and do more to win over her supporters."

She then included a quote from Obama spokesman Bill Burton:

"The conversations with her folks were very cordial and we've been able to work very closely with them as we unify this party. ... We couldn't be happier about how things are going with Senator Clinton and her team."

Burton made several public pronouncements like that regarding the Denver convention schedule, but New York Times columnist Gail Collins mocked the idea that the scheduling had been cordial and easy, instead comparing the convention task to negotiating a Middle East between "enemy forces."

And then there was Washington Post columnist Jeff Birnbaum who announced Obama never should have allowed Clinton to be nominated, suggesting it was a huge political mistake. How did Birnbaum know? He just knew. The fact that polling found Democrats by an almost 2-to-1 margin thought Clinton's nomination would be good for party unity was of no interest to Birnbaum or anyone else in the press spinning the event as a Democratic catastrophe.

FYI, Birnbaum told The Wall Street Journal he was "grateful" for "Hillary Clinton's attempt tacitly to take over the Obama victory" because it was a great story that the press could cover throughout the convention. (Oh, goody.) As one blogger wrote after reading Birnbaum's quote, "I thought journalists were supposed to uncover the facts and report the story, not decide on the story and then interpret the facts to accommodate their storyline."

Meanwhile, let's be clear: Clinton isn't the only injured party here. After the press constructed the phony premise abut Clinton's convention speech, critics then used it, unfairly, to tag Obama as a softie who can't even stand up to a woman. (Gasp.)

  • "Russia rolls over Georgia, Hillary Clinton does the same to Barack Obama. Now we know who's boss." ( Michael Goodwin, New York Daily News)
  • "If Hillary Clinton can ride [roughshod] over this guy what do you think bin Laden will do?" ( Dick Morris, on Fox News)
  • "Russia invades Georgia. Hillary invades Obama's convention. Obama does nothing constructive on either count." ( Amanda Carpenter, at Townhall.com)

Why were critics able to get off those cheap shots? Because the press, strenuously ignoring facts and recent history, was determined to paint Clinton as the ultimate party crasher.

 
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