All In the Family

Column: Why the mainstream media failed to break Obama scandals

Obama answers questions during news conference in the Brady Press Briefing Room / AP
June 14, 2013

Last week John Nolte of Breitbart observed that the mainstream media had failed to break any of the controversial news occupying Washington. This week Paul Farhi of the Washington Post, without intending to, explained why.

There are four stories harming President Obama’s approval rating, and the heirs of Tarbell and Woodward and Novak uncovered none of them. The long-simmering tale of what happened before, during, and after the attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya, on Sept. 11, 2012, was all but ignored by media other than Fox until Gregory Hicks’ blockbuster testimony before the House Oversight Committee last month. It was the IRS, in a carefully planned "apology," that revealed to the world it had targeted the applications of conservative and Tea Party groups for special scrutiny. The Justice Department, not the press, announced it had been scouring AP phone records to plug national security leaks. And Edward Snowden, the contractor who exposed secret intelligence, went to the Guardian, a left-wing British rag, with his scoop. (Only when Snowden’s anti-anti-terror accomplice Laura Poitras suggested, in the words of Guardian writer Glenn Greenwald, "It would be good to have the Washington Post invested in the leak, so it wasn’t just us—to tie in official Washington in the leak" did the three filtradors approach former Post reporter Barton Gellman.)

Four stories, four separate races in which the establishment press, the major print dailies and the heavily watched network broadcasts, are sweating to catch up. "We are getting big stories wrong, over and over again," said Scott Pelley, the anchor of the CBS evening news, in a speech at Quinnipiac University in May. Did he, did anybody, read the June 13 Washington Post, I wonder; did Pelley’s eye scan the innocuous headline—"Media, administration deal with conflicts"—and the well-kneaded copy below? If so he would have learned much about life in the capital city.

"Conflicts" is not the best description of Farhi’s subject. His topic is marriages, unions, and blood, legal and romantic and familial connections between individuals where one party works in media and another works in politics. The extent of such links is staggering. Farhi has to interrupt his story to announce, in a parenthetical, that Post reporter Sari Horwitz, who covers the Justice Department, is married to William B. Schultz, who is Kathleen Sebelius’ top lawyer at the Department of Health and Human Services. Ben Sherwood, the president of ABC News, is brother to Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, "a top national security adviser to President Obama." Another Obama national security aide, Ben Rhodes, is brother to David Rhodes, president of CBS News. One of CNN’s top D.C. hacks is married to Tom Nides, whose upward career trajectory has taken him from the office of Democratic congressional powerbroker Tony Coelho to, where else, Fannie Mae, Credit Suisse, and Morgan Stanley, as well as a two-year stint as an undersecretary of state for Hillary Clinton. Whose daughter is on contract with NBC.

White House spokesman Jay Carney, who worked for many years at Time magazine, is married to Claire Shipman, a correspondent for ABC News. The White House correspondent for NPR, Ari Shapiro, has been married to former White House counsel Michael Gottlieb since 2004. Longtime NPR personality Michele Norris went on leave in 2011, when her husband Broderick Johnson, a corporate lawyer who served in the Clinton White House, joined the Obama reelection campaign as a full-time adviser. Wall Street Journal political reporter Neil King is married to Shailagh Murray, who serves as communications director for Vice President Joe Biden, and who used to report on Congress for the Post. Savannah Guthrie of NBC recently became engaged to Mike Feldman, a former Gore aide who is now part of the Democratic Glover Park Group consultancy. Syndicated columnist Connie Schultz is married to Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio.

Tracing these associations is enough to keep busy any student of the caste. Assurances from mainstream media outlets that "they’ve worked out the conflicts" that might arise from deep ties between reporters, editors, and government employees, Farhi reports, "hasn’t stopped a few eyebrows from being raised." You can guess whose eyebrows are those. Farhi quotes the great Mark Steyn, who wrote on National Review Online in May, "The inbreeding among Obama’s court and its press corps is more like one of those ‘I’m my own grandpaw’ deals." The journalists, though, aren’t laughing. "Such insinuations make media types bristle."

And oh, how they bristle. "There is zero evidence, zero, that [Sherwood’s relationship to his sister] has had any impact on our coverage," ABC spokesman Jeffrey Schneider tells the Post. Employing the old reporter mind trick of using paraphrase to inject one’s viewpoint into an article, Farhi writes of "media types" who "take exception to the notion that complicated judgments about the news—often made by others within an organization—have anything to do with personal favorites or familial relationships." Media types take precautions. Work is "closely monitored." Recusals are sometimes demanded. Journalists can be reassigned.

The mainstream media says it goes to great lengths, then, to avoid the whiff of bias, to guard against a reputation for compromised integrity. But there are no prophylactic measures against living in a shared culture, attending the same schools, uttering the same clichéd small talk, and breathing the same atmosphere of conventional wisdom. What matters here are not the relationships themselves but the closed and impenetrable bubble in which they exist. Why would network executives and New York Times editors put resources into investigating Benghazi when their friends and relatives and trusted informants tell them the only people who care about the story are the cranks at Fox? Why would journalists adopt an adversarial relation to the government for which their spouses, relatives, romances, friends, and social betters work? No specific conflict can be easily identified because all of the bias occurs prior to the actual manufacturing of news: in the punches pulled, in what stories are selected, in what position is assumed by writers and editors, in which experts are judged knowledgeable, "objective," "straight-shooters" and which are not.

So closed-minded is the community of right-thinkers who live in the Northeast corridor, who work at our banks and universities and media outlets and governments, that the slightest hint of alternative thinking causes them to spasm in revolt. At times the revolt can be petty and snarky and mocking, as in this recording of journalists laughing at Weekly Standard writer John McCormack’s serious questioning of Nancy Pelosi on late-term abortion. At times the revolt is furious and unrelenting, bringing political measures such as boycotts, firing, even legislation to bear to suppress dissent—as in the hysteria that has accompanied discussions of Charles and David Koch possibly buying the Los Angeles Times. What unites these reactions is the shared sense of tribal affiliation. We, the objective, the rational, the scientific, must not be tainted by the faithful, the irrational, the zealous.

Overprotective, over-solicitous, making excuses, indulgent, sympathetic, understanding, partial, antagonistic to outsiders—this is how the mainstream media has behaved during the years Barack Obama has been president. And it is exactly how you would behave, too. If your family were at stake.