I was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator and am now a journalist. I am the author of three New York Times bestselling books -- "How Would a Patriot Act" (a critique of Bush executive power theories), "Tragic Legacy" (documenting the Bush legacy), and With Liberty and Justice for Some (critiquing America's two-tiered justice system and the collapse of the rule of law for its political and financial elites). My fifth book - No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the US Surveillance State - will be released on April 29, 2014 by Holt/Metropolitan.

Friday, February 09, 2007

The significance of the Edwards story

(updated below)

With the merciful (and generally positive) conclusion of the Edwards "controversy," it is worth examining the story's significance and the reasons it merited as much attention as it was given. On several levels, what happened here illustrates some very important developments.

For the last 15 years or so -- since the early years of the Clinton administration -- our public political discourse has been centrally driven by an ever-growing network of scandal-mongers and filth-peddling purveyors of baseless, petty innuendo churned out by the likes of Rush Limbaugh, Matt Drudge, various right-wing operatives and, more recently, the right-wing press led by Fox News. Every issue of significance is either shaped and wildly distorted by that process, or the public is distracted from important issues by contrived and unbelievably vapid, petty scandals. Our political discourse has long been infected by this potent toxin, one which has grown in strength and degraded most of our political and media institutions.

For anyone who thinks that that is overstated, the definitive refutation is provided by ABC News Political Director Mark Halperin and The Washington Post's former National Politics Editor John Harris, who provided this description in their recent book about how their national media world operates:

Matt Drudge is the gatekeeper... he is the Walter Cronkite of his era.

In the fragmented, remote-control, click-on-this, did you hear? political media world in which we live, revered Uncle Walter has been replaced by odd nephew Matt. . . .

Matt Drudge rules our world . . . With the exception of the Associated Press, there is no outlet other than the Drudge Report whose dispatches instantly can command the attention and energies of the most established newspapers and television newscasts.

So many media elites check the Drudge Report consistently that a reporter is aware his bosses, his competitors, his sources, his friends on Wall Street, lobbyists, White House officials, congressional aides, cousins, and everyone who is anyone has seen it, too.

This is why our political process has been so broken and corrupt. The worst elements of what has become the pro-Bush right wing have been shaping and driving how national journalists view events, the stories they cover, and the narratives they disseminate.

What kind of government and political system -- what kind of country -- is going to arise from a political landscape shaped by the likes of Rush Limbaugh, Matt Drudge, Sean Hannity, Fox News, Michelle Malkin, and their similar right-wing appendages in talk radio, print and the blogosphere? Allowing those elements to dominate our political debates and drive media coverage guarantees a decrepit, rotted, and deeply corrupt country. That is just a basic matter of cause and effect.

Peter Daou wrote what I think is one of the definitive articles detailing the mechanics of that process (Tom Tomorrow provided the illustration), but whatever the details, its dominance simply cannot be reasonably doubted. The last two presidential elections were overwhelmed by the pettiest and most fictitious "controversies" (things like Al Gore's invention of the Internet and Love Story claims, John Kerry's windsurfing and war wounds, John Edwards' hair brushing and Howard Dean's scream), and our discussions of the most critical issues are continuously clouded by distortive sideshows concocted by this filth-peddling network. Their endless lynch mob crusades supplant rational and substantive political debates, and the most wild fictions are passively conveyed by a lazy and co-opted national media.

In a typically excellent article, Dan Froomkin in The Washington Post this morning explains what Tim Russert's testimony in the Libby trial reveals about how our nation's media stars operate (emphasis in original):

And get this: According to Russert's testimony yesterday at Libby's trial, when any senior government official calls him, they are presumptively off the record.

That's not reporting, that's enabling. That's how you treat your friends when you're having an innocent chat, not the people you're supposed to be holding accountable.

With rare exception, our national press has completely abdicated the function of scrutinizing any of the cheap "scandals" churned out by the right-wing machine because they have merged seamlessly into the political power structures they are supposed to be scrutinizing, or, worse still, they eagerly become an appendage of that machine -- as illustrated, in the Edwards case, by ABC News' Terry Moran's mindless, one-sided echoing of the right-wing blogosphere's chatter on this story ("Does John Edwards Condone Hate Speech?") .

There are few, if any, more important priorities than creating a counterweight to that network, a method for diluting its influence and exposing and discrediting the people who drive it. And the Edwards story illustrates why that is so and how the blogosphere is beginning to achieve that.

The Edwards "controversy" was a story that was concocted at the lowest depths of the right-wing blogosphere, and it then bubbled up through the standard channels until it arrived in the national press. When the story was first reported by The New York Times and the Associated Press, those outlets mindlessly tracked the right-wing storyline without deviation, and that storyline was designed to convey these familiar themes:

(1) Liberals hate Christianity and religion generally and are so radical that they actually border on mental illness;

(2) The Democratic Party is captive to the hateful, vulgar extremists in the liberal blogosphere;

(3) Bill Donohue and Michelle Malkin are vigilant truth-seekers and objective watchdogs, exposing bigotry and radicalism and forcing a reluctant mainstream media to talk about the evil that lurks within the "Left";

(4) John Edwards is going to be forced by the all-powerful right-wing crusaders to fire his own staffers and appear weak and bullied.

That is a storyline that has played out time and again in different contexts, and it was well on its way to being cemented here. It is exactly what would have happened had it not been for the blogosphere, which forced into the public discussion critical facts that were being omitted and which exposed the absurdity of this story, thereby providing a counterweight to the joint right-wing/media pressure on Edwards to capitulate to these forces.

As a result, look at the New York Times story this morning on the conclusion of this matter. The story which ended up being told is significantly different than the one which was being originally peddled. The article includes, for instance, a lengthy passage about the ethically suspect and extremist, offensive writings of John McCain's blogger:

Last summer, Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, hired Patrick J. Hynes, a conservative blogger and political consultant, to be his campaign’s blog liaison. Mr. Hynes quickly ran afoul of fellow bloggers by initially concealing his relationship to the McCain campaign while he was writing critically about other Republicans.

He then came under fire for declaring that the United States was a “Christian nation” in a book and television appearances that predated his work for Mr. McCain. Last November, while employed by Mr. McCain’s campaign, Mr. Hynes posted on his personal blog a picture of Representative Henry A. Waxman, Democrat of California, and invited readers to submit nicknames, some of which were anti-Semitic.

In an interview, Mr. Hynes said the Internet was a place where overheated language and vicious personal attacks were often tolerated, even encouraged. But, he said, “I would caution against holding candidates responsible for what their bloggers and blog consultants have said in the past.”

“The blogosphere is a conversation; it’s not reportage,” Mr. Hynes said. “We’re all trying to figure out, what does this mean for the convergence of all these media? It’s a Pandora’s box and no one knows where it’s going to end up.”

Mr. Hynes remained on the McCain campaign staff and maintained his personal blog.

A story invented and driven by the right-wing blogosphere resulted in a prominent discussion in The New York Times of the serious ethical lapses and extremist views of John McCain's personal blogger, and even the presence of anti-semitic slurs against Henry Waxman by that blogger's readers in the right-wing blogosphere. McCain's own blogger was thus forced defensively to contradict the central premise of the right-wing scandal: "I would caution against holding candidates responsible for what their bloggers and blog consultants have said in the past."

Earlier versions of that Times story (I believe) -- as well as other press accounts by reporters who originally echoed the right-wing narrative -- also ended up featuring excerpts of statements made in the past by Bill Donohue which reveal what a profoundly inappropriate and discredited source he is on any topic, let alone for sitting as arbiter over which viewpoints are too offensive for the mainstream. And multiple stories credited the liberal blogosphere -- citing MyDD and Chris Bowers -- as the effective shield against demands that Edwards sacrifice these bloggers at the altar of Michelle Malkin, Bill Donohue and Fox News.

The blogosphere fundamentally altered the arc of this story. All of the balancing information which made its way into the national press within a very short period of time was found by bloggers, amplified by other bloggers and by groups such as Media Matters, and that shaped the story -- both how it was discussed and its ultimate outcome -- in numerous ways. And it re-inforced the idea that the rotted network composed of the Michelle Malkins and Bill O'Reillys and Bill Donohues cannot drive media stories unilaterally anymore and cannot force major presidential candidates to capitulate to their demands.

It is still the case that the political impressions of most Americans are shaped by how our dominant media outlets discuss political issues. That is true for every issue from the seemingly inconsequential (staffing decisions of the Edwards campaign) to whatever issue you want to say is the "most important" -- Iraq, Iran, presidential power, debates over domestic policy, and everything in between. How the national media reports on all of these matters, which sources they depict as credible, and the factions that influence and shape that reporting is still the single most influential factor in the outcome of all political disputes.

We are in the position we are in as a country because there has been really no effective counterweight to the lowly, deceitful and filth-peddling right-wing network which has dominated our political discourse and the media's coverage of it. That is clearly changing -- slowly perhaps, though still meaningfully (which is why the Edwards campaign felt sufficiently comfortable in defying these pressures, and it is also why -- as Time's Ana Marie Cox surprisingly acknowledges (while linking to FDL) -- the most astute and insightful reporting on the Libby trial (and so many other news items) is coming from the blogosphere, not the national press).

As long as Matt Drudge -- and Rush Limbaugh and Fox News, etc. -- rule the world of national journalists, little can be accomplished on any front. Diluting their influence and forcing actual facts into these public discussions is of the utmost urgency, and the growing (though admittedly still incomplete) ability of the blogosphere to achieve that objective is the true significance of the Edwards story.

UPDATE: For a highly representative sampling of the bulging corruption that drives our national media, see this "debate" on MSNBC today concerning the Edwards controversy. MSNBC had an extremely balanced panel of one Republican strategist and one "Democratic" strategist -- Lieberman crony Dan Gerstein -- who, needless to say, agreed on everything (the right-wing protesters were completely right and Edwards made a horrible choice that will doom him). There was not a peep in dissent from anyone.

Pay particular attention to the morbidly hilarious last line of the exchange. This brings back memories of all of those pre-war "debates" between all sorts of experts and pundits whose only source of disagreement was whether we should invade Iraq in March or in April.

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