The only performance worse than that of Republican candidates in the last debate was the performance of the mainstream media in its aftermath
Imagine that you’re a journalist who covers national politics for what is considered the most important and widely-read newspaper on the planet.
You write for a little section of the paper called “First Draft.” Literally being a “first draft,” your article is not expected to be lengthy and you are not expected to engage the topic in great depth or parse it tightly. First impressions, initial takes; those are what your editor looks for. If need be, someone else will take the story deeper later.
It is 9 a.m. Thursday a week ago and you have been staring at your empty computer screen for the ten hours or so since the last CNBC anchor standing said a weary “Good-Night” to those who had gone the distance watching the debate debacle between the ten Republican presidential nomination candidates who had qualified to sit at the “adult table.”
It is not that you have spent those ten hours or so juggling several storylines about the debate in your head. The almost perverse flow of lies, false insinuations and misleading statements combined with the candidates’ blatant deflection of fundamental character- and policy-related questions made their performance the obvious, perhaps the only story-line.
But, just after that weary “Good-Night” was said and your monitor went dark, your editor poked her head into your cubicle and offered a suggestion.
In the service of a milquetoast “objectivity” unworthy of the gold-standard journalistic enterprise for which she labors, she “wondered” if you should perhaps pretend that the GOP candidates’ in-debate and post-debate screed about CNBC’s moderators in particular and “the mainstream media” in general actually had substance to it.
In order to appear “fair and balanced,” she “wondered” if you should pretend that the faux-indignant bloviating of the candidates and their handlers was not, purely and simply, an attempt to distract attention away from an unhinged candidate forum so bad that Brian Beutler, writing in the New Republic, termed it “The GOP’s Grotesque Festival of Lies.”
I doubt that was the actual, real-time experience of Ashley Parker, political writer for the New York Times’ “First Draft” section, but, based on the article she published last week, you could make a case for my fictional scenario.
While those of us who do not live and work down in the rabbit hole were stupefied by the incompetence and prevarication we had witnessed, Ms. Parker, who is usually a more than adequate reporter, presented the GOP spin on the debate moderators, CNBC and the “mainstream media” – read, any national media outlet that does not serve as a collaborator for the spread of right-wing propaganda – as if it was actually credible. Which is more laughable than Ben Carson’s recent take on Noah’s Ark and the good doctor’s perspective on how the pyramids functioned in the life of ancient Egypt.
As noted above, the only real story-line stemming from the debate itself centers on the unbounded, unapologetic dishonesty of the candidates. As Emily Arrowood wrote in the U.S. News and World Report, “the candidates’ disconnect from reality soared to new, baffling heights” during what amounted to the third GOP failure to have an actual debate. And, as she further noted, no one exemplified this disconnect more than Marco Rubio, who lied about his shape-shifting on immigration, his tax plan and his personal finances.
But the story-line that emerged post-debate involved the all-too-familiar hesitance of the “mainstream media” to immediately call out this “disconnect from reality” and aggressively push back against the GOP’s efforts to distract attention away from the incompetence and prevarication of its Candidate Clown Show.
Joe Scarborough, the morning after the debate, eviscerated Miami Marco for “just flat-out [lying] to the American people” per questions about his personal finances.” But he could not, as hard as he tried, get Chuck “I’m No Tim Russert” Todd to simply admit what was obvious to him and anyone else with a functioning cerebral cortex that Marco lied.
Chuck knew it. But he wouldn’t say it. And he wouldn’t say it because he was scared to say it, limiting himself to a pathetic “Well, I don’t know what your definition of lying is.”
Even the taunting of Joe Scarborough – which, to a self-aware, thinking person, must be a form of humiliation without peer – couldn’t make him say it. Though the Chuckster has no problem talking, ad infinitum, about Hillary Clinton’s supposed and much-hyped, by the mainstream media, “credibility problem.”
The response of the mainstream media to Republican festivities constitutes a sad commentary on just how intimidated it is by the GOP. And the commentary becomes even more distressing when, as Ms. Arrowood correctly notes, the post-debate analysis of candidate performances focused on praise for “Rubio’s distortion of reality.” Indeed, she concludes, “he was roundly declared [by the mainstream media] to have had a break-out night.” Baffling, indeed.
Ben Carson, treated by the mainstream media as if he were some kind of Christian zen master or institutional shaman, pronounced as “false” a well-documented story about his association with a “nutritional supplement” scam and the company that produced it. He was lying. Just as he lied about the well-documented consequences of his tax plan. 40% of the government would have to either exist without funding or just disappear
Ted Cruz was asked if his penchant for blocking Senate legislation at every opportunity made him the kind of problem-solver Americans were looking for in a president. He never responded to the question, choosing instead to launch a Cruz Missile at the debate moderators, accusing them of pimping for the “liberal media.” Nothing new there, but, instead of focusing on his refusal to answer the perfectly fair question, the mainstream media gave 100% of its attention to Cruz’ critique of it.
Donald Trump denied that he had accused Marco Rubio of being “Mark Zuckerberg’s personal senator.” The questioner, Becky Quick, apologized, not knowing, at that moment, that those very words could be found verbatim on Trump’s campaign website. When, momentarily, Ms. Quick pointed this out to him, Trump inasmuch as shrugged his shoulders and moved on. It was left to the Daily Intelligencer – definitely not part of the mainstream media – to state the obvious in a tweet noting that it was “like he’s used to saying wild things not based in reality.” Ya’ reckon?
Catherine Rampell of the Chicago Tribune may have written the best post-mortem of the mainstream media’s coverage of the GOP debates. Published earlier last week, her column begins by saying “The Republican candidates are right. The media do suck. [We suck] because we have rewarded their rampant dishonesty and buffoonery with nonstop news coverage,” though little of it had to do with the dishonesty.
“Fact checkers,” she continues, “had lots of material to mine [after the latest debate], but the candidates’ dramatic delivery, and the immediate plaudits they earned from talking heads, made post-debate truth-squadding seem pedantic and tone-deaf.”
We have noted that the general belief among media-types was that no GOP candidate more engaged in reality-distortion than Marco Rubio. We also noted that, as a reward for his efforts, the mainstream media widely “praised” his performance, any number of pundits calling it a “breakout night.”
Which illustrates Ms. Rampell’s point perfectly: The mainstream media does, indeed, suck. And Republicans in general and their candidates in particular could not be happier about it.