Warning: Campaign press won't protect Democrats from bogus GOP attacks

Media internalizes Republican attacks

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‘Joe Biden is corrupt!’

‘Bernie Sanders is a communist!’

‘Elizabeth Warren is a "Pocahontas"!’

Trump and Republicans have their talking points all lined up for this year's general election as Democrats sort out their nominating process. Unfortunately, history suggests the campaign press won't be much help in knocking down those signature smears in 2020. Instead of playing the neutral referee, loudly calling out balls and strikes and penalizing players who play dirty, news outlets will likely internalize and embrace the Republican attacks, like they did with the Clinton Foundation in 2016, and John Kerry's Vietnam War record in 2004.

It's important to recognize this pattern so Democrats aren't caught off-guard this year, or surprised when the press fails to highlight nuanced arguments in defense of the Democratic nominee. The concerns were raised recently when Sanders appeared on "60 Minutes" and praised former Cuban leader Fidel Castro for increasing literacy among children during his communist reign. There's certainly a clear-headed explanation for Sanders' comments, and the fact that if he were the nominee he'd run against Trump who openly embraces authoritarian leaders around the world today suggests that on paper that an orchestrated Castro attack wouldn't necessarily work against Sanders. But that's assuming the campaign press calls out the bogus allegations.

Sanders is hardly the only prominent Democrat who faces a looming smear campaign against him.  

Trump was so anxious to launch an orchestrated attack against Biden, by demanding the Ukraine government interfere in this year's election, that Trump got himself impeached in the process! In that case, we've already seen how the press played that story, and it was often to present the collusion attack as bad news for the Democrat.


Reporters helped Trump by not unequivocally stating that the conspiracy theory launched against Biden and his son had already been thoroughly debunked (see here, here, and here). They also helped by treating the Ukraine smear as newsworthy and somehow equivalent to Trump's egregious colluding.

"What's Going on With Trump and Biden and Ukraine," asked a CNN headline when the story broke last year, immediately presenting Trump's behavior as equivalent to the bogus allegations Biden faced. The New York Times presented a similar framing with its headline, "Trump, Biden and a Whistle-Blower Complaint: Here Are the Basics."

By tying the two events together, the press routinely did the White House a favor by suggesting that both Trump and Biden were being sullied in the process. But Biden was the victim of a GOP smear campaign.

That's reminiscent of the 2016 campaign and Hillary Clinton's work with the A-rated global charity, the Clinton Foundation. Journalists were quite open at the time about how they could not find any wrongdoing by the Clinton’s or the foundation—no evidence of conflicts of interest or of Clinton selling State Department access to donors—yet the story remained hugely important because, they said, it looked bad.

Perhaps the strangest Clinton Foundation presentation came from a Times news report that claimed, “the potential for real or perceived conflicts of interest” was causing problems for the candidate. Wait, what? Not only was Clinton being graded on perceived conflicts of interest, but also on potential perceived ones. It got so weird that some newspaper editorial boards demanded the Clinton’s shut down their global charity simply because the optics were bad, because it didn’t “look good” in the eyes of the accusatory Beltway press.

Then there was the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth smear campaign from the 2004 presidential election, which targeted Kerry and his war service in Vietnam. The partisan Republican accusers famously manufactured nearly every allegation they made about Kerry. They lied about documents. They lied about eyewitnesses. And they lied about their partisan leanings and connections. Despite the lack of evidence to substantiate their claims, which were floated 35 years after the fact, the press refused, in real time, to call out the Swift Boat allegations as a dirty trick.

Instead, they gorged on the story. The Washington Post at one point published 13 page-one Swift Boat stories in 12 days. During the month of August 2004, NBC network news alone covered the Swift Boat story on Aug. 8, 15, 19, 20, 22, 23, 25, 26, and 29. CBS covered the story Aug. 8, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, and 30, while ABC devoted airtime to it on Aug. 6, 8, 9, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 25, and 26. Some of the networks, using different morning and evening news programs, returned to the topic several times in one day.

Bottom line: Whoever the Democratic nominee is, he or she will not only be battling the GOP, but the press as well. It's a lopsided equation we've seen time and again.

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So much of what we see unfolding in this year's campaign coverage stems from the lessons not learned from the last Trump campaign. Brian Beutler, writing at Crooked Media, recently had a good piece examining that connection: "The 2016 Emails Nightmare Is About to Repeat Itself." He notes, "Trump’s extortion scheme worked, and reporters began treating [Ukraine's] Burisma as breathlessly as they treated Hillary Clinton’s emails."


Patty Griffin, "Heavenly Day"

I always heard this song as an impossibly intimate postcard to a close companion, as Griffin uses her poetic powers of observation to detail life’s true love. It turns out the song is about her dog! At least that's the story she told when I saw her in concert. And that's the magic of music — it allows a connection on so many different levels.

Got nothing to tell you, I've got nothing much to say

Only I'm glad to be here with you

On this heavenly, heavenly, heavenly, heavenly day