Saturday, April 19, 2008


Today at the Politico, John Harris and Jim VandeHei argue that press criticism of this week's debate proves that the press is in the tank for Obama -- absolutely no one apart from "Clinton supporters," Harris and VandeHei insist, uttered a word of criticism when Hillary Clinton was subjected to similar treatment by Tim Russert and Brian Williams in a debate last fall. Certainly no one in the press.

Further, Harris and VandeHei suggest that "the liberal echo chamber" is driving press coverage -- which seems to be their way of implying that new-media liberals were silent in the fall.

Er, sorry, but not quite. The evidence is below.

Here's what Harris and VandeHei have to say:

...The shower of indignation on Charlie Gibson and George Stephanopoulos over the last few days is the clearest evidence yet that the Clintonites are fundamentally correct in their complaint that she has been flying throughout this campaign into a headwind of media favoritism for Obama.

Last fall, when NBC's Tim Russert hazed Clinton with a bunch of similar questions -- a mix of fair and impertinent -- he got lots of gripes from Clinton supporters.

But there was nothing like the piling on from journalists ... denouncing ABC's performance as journalistically unsound....

There wasn't? As Media Matters noted at the time, there was all this:

...In writing about the October 30 debate, numerous media figures noted the conduct of the moderators, and Russert's in particular:

* An October 31
New York Times article on the debate reported: "Mrs. Clinton walked into the debate expecting to be the target of attacks but as the night went on, she appeared surprised by the intensity as she was challenged not only by her opponents but by the moderators, Brian Williams and Tim Russert of NBC." The article later described Russert as "arguably" Clinton's "third toughest opponent on the stage."

* In an October 31
Washington Post "Media Notes" column, media critic Howard Kurtz wrote: "At times, it seemed like 4 against 1, with Brian [Williams] and Tim [Russert] repeatedly pressing Hillary as well." ...

* In an October 30 entry on the blog The Fix, Chris Cillizza wrote: "Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) spent the first hour of the debate fending off shots from her opponents and parrying pointed questions from the moderators." He also asserted that Clinton "for the majority of the debate ... acquitted herself well despite having the deck stacked heavily against her. In the first hour, nearly every question and response started and ended with Clinton." ...

There was also this, from Nicholas Von Hoffman in The New York Observer:

A couple of weeks ago, during a Democratic presidential debate on MSNBC, two men claiming to be journalists threw wilted lettuce and decomposed organic material at the candidates. Judging from the questions aimed at the candidate/victims, the purpose of the networks sponsoring these debates is to bait, bully and embarrass while giving the news celebrities a chance to make themselves appear superior to the dumbkins running for president. If the people putting on this show treated their pets thusly, they would be arrested.

... Tim Russert cast himself as a political Jerry Springer, posing questions that had no other purpose than to get these politicians fighting each other as they do in those daytime television spectacles. Mr. Russert left the viewer with the impression that he believes he should be running for president. His intention was plain. He was to be the superior one, the poised person with the correct answers while the candidates were made to look like a clutch of clumsy, ox-brained tangle-foots.

... Tim Russert abandon[ed] the role of debate moderator for that of Crusader Rabbit or Tribune of the People...

And even this from a right-winger, Jay Cost, at Real Clear Politics:

In the first two segments, I counted thirty-three questions. Twenty-two of them were designed to facilitate either another candidate attacking Hillary Clinton, or Clinton responding to attacks (either from another candidate or from Russert). Indeed, all of the major subjects were structured around attacks on Clinton....Afterwards, I could only stomach so much post-debate "analysis." Before I had to walk away from the TV to find the Tums, I watched in amazement as Chris Matthews interviewed Joe Biden and Chris Dodd -- and talked about nothing more than Hillary Clinton.

Yet Harris and VandeHei say that no one apart from her advocates stuck up for Clinton. And if Obama's being defended now, they say, here's one reason:

The rise of the liberal echo chamber. It used to be that if a reporter received a letter that started, "You biased S.O.B.," it was almost certainly coming from someone on the right....

But it has only been in this campaign cycle that we have seen the liberal echo chamber -- from websites like The Huffington Post and cable commentators like Keith Olbermann -- be able consistently to drive a campaign story line... This is a huge shift.

But, er, there was plenty of outrage at Russert in "the liberal echo chamber" back in the fall.

The Daily Howler:

On Tuesday night, Russert and Williams staged a public auto-da-fe the likes of which we've never seen. But then, no one else has seen such a thing either; simply put, there has never been a presidential debate like the one the two high peacocks staged. And let's get real here: For anyone who has followed their work, it is impossible to imagine the pair doing such things to a leading Republican.

The American Prospect:

Tim Russert: Stop the Inanity

...I have a fantasy that at one of these moments, a candidate will say, "You know what, Tim, I'm not going to answer that question. This is serious business. And you, sir, are a disgrace. You have in front of you a group of accomplished, talented leaders, one of whom will in all likelihood be the next president of the United States. You can ask them whatever you want. And you choose to engage in this ridiculous gotcha game, thinking up inane questions you hope will trick us into saying something controversial or stupid. Your fondest hope is that the answer to your question will destroy someone's campaign. You're not a journalist, you're the worst kind of hack, someone whose efforts not only don't contribute to a better informed electorate, they make everyone dumber. So no, I'm not going to stand here and try to come up with the most politically safe Bible verse to cite. Is that the best you can do?"

And this is in addition to Hillary advocates in the blogosphere such as Taylor Marsh ("Russert Leads Boys in Hillary Hit Job") and Jane Hamsher ("As John Amato said last night when we were watching the debate, 'why doesn't he just ask her if she killed Vince Foster?'").

So if Harris and VandeHei think there wasn't enough backlash against Russert and Williams, why not, given their sense that the press asks "How high?" when angry online liberals say "Jump!"?

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