Back when I used to advise politicians, I had a metaphor I'd tell them about relations with the press. "It's like owning a pet alligator," I'd say. "You don't have to love it, you don't have to like it, but you do have to feed it."
The maw of the Washington news machine is an insatiable thing, and it makes the people running the show often make poor decisions, especially in the increasingly bean-counter-oriented major news outlets. And this breeds a pack mentality, where it's simpler just to report something someone else has reported, rather than creating enterprise journalism. And this is the environment that has allowed the conservative propaganda machine to flourish over the last 10 years.
Some call it "the Clinton Rules." This is a media phenomenon in which anything can be said about the former president or his wife, the presidential aspirant. Anything at all--speculation, conjecture, unsourced allegation--and the story will be transmitted as fact all around the world before a single person assesses the truth to the story. It is a news environment based on the model of the gossip pages of the New York tabloids, but it focuses, laserlike, on the lives of politicians.
A recent and obvious example occurred a few weeks ago at a town hall-type meeting in Davenport, Iowa, where Sen. Hillary Clinton encouraged the crowd to "ask her anything." When an audience member asked her what in her background prepared her to be a commander in chief, Clinton rephrased the entire question so the audience could hear: "The question really is, we face a lot of dangers in the world, and in the gentleman's' words, we face a lot of `evil men.' People like Osama bin Laden come to mind."
She continued, rhetorically, "And what in my background equips me to deal"--pause--"with evil and bad men?" And she smiled.
At this point, the audience in the room got the joke--here's a woman who coined the term "vast right-wing conspiracy," whose husband they tried to railroad out of office despite 60-plus percent approval ratings, and who remains married to said husband despite more than 15 years of tabloid-style reporting calling her a lesbian or saying that she and Bill have separated. And the national political media, following the lead of the right-wing pundits, immediately decided that the unspoken butt of her joke was her husband.
And that was the story you read and saw for the next two weeks.
Not long after that, in an effort to pitch a twofer, Insight magazine, a sister publication of Sun Myung Moon's Washington Times, tried to smear Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, also a front-runner for the Democratic nomination in 2008, and by proxy tried to blame Sen. Clinton for the smear. The magazine, without a single named source, claimed that Obama had attended a Muslim madrassa during his childhood in Indonesia, and that the story was planted by the Clinton camp.
Now, the idea that anyone who worked for Hillary Clinton would leak to a publication run by one of the largest Republican propagandists in the country is like saying that Karl Rove calls Michael Moore to spill his guts every night, but it gets better: After Insight tried to pitch its bogus story to Matt Drudge, the usual conduit for thinly sourced gossip and innuendo, and Drudge refused to run it, it then went to the Fox News Channel, a media entity run by another right-wing plutocrat with propagandist tendencies: Rupert Murdoch, the man who told interviewers in Davos, Switzerland, at the World Economic Forum that his network had "tried" to shape the agenda for the Iraq war.
So the fake Clinton-Obama madrassa story gets injected into the news mix via Fox and Friends, the Fox morning show hosted by Steve Doocy, a former D.C.-area TV morning clown, and it then gets "legitimized" because other news outlets can simply report that it's been reported. Ordinarily, this is the end of any legitimate reporting, but CNN actually sent a reporter to Indonesia, where he completely and thoroughly debunked the story.
This is the way the smears begin, and we're likely to see a lot more of them between now and the New Hampshire primary in 2008. Molehills will become mountains, and thinly or invisibly sourced stories about Democrats will come flying like tennis balls out of the serving machines at Congressional Country Club.
As it stands, we're in the middle of yet another story run by "the Rules"--the GOP's efforts to make a mountain out of a gopher hole over House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's airplane travel back and forth to her district. The speaker of the House is, in our democracy, the second person in line to the presidency, and as the Republicans are fond of telling us every 10 minutes or so, we live in a post-Sept. 11 world. Previous speakers used military air travel, and the House sergeant at arms issued a statement saying that Pelosi needs a plane capable of nonstop flight between Washington and San Francisco. So it's the Clinton haircut story all over again.
Now that you know "the Rules," maybe we can try and change "the game."
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