“When two storms collide, the weather gets hairy. For President Obama, the IRS and Benghazi stories converged this weekend for a self-inflicted tempest that threatens his credibility.”
Ignore the beauty of National Journal editorial director Ron Fournier’s marvelously (and multiply) mixed metaphors for a moment. Consider, instead, the nature of these “hairy” storms and “self-inflicted” tsunamis (or whatever) allegedly menacing Barack Obama’s “credibility.”
Hairy hurricane number one refers to the decision made by some people in a Cincinnati IRS office to scrutinize the applications for tax-free status by Tea Party–related organizations. The decision—justifiable, perhaps, on professional grounds given the proliferation of such groups and the shadiness of their funding process—was clearly ham-handed politically, as it failed to pay fealty to the iron “both sides do it” law of present-day political discourse. More to the point, however, it had nothing whatever to do with Barack Obama. The president did not appoint the employees concerned, and we have no indication that anyone in the White House was in any way involved. How does Fournier deal with these inconvenient facts? He writes, citing the opinion of a Democratic consultant named Chris Kofinis, that the “White House needs to explain itself,” because… well, because.
With regard to storm number two—the catastrophe in Benghazi—Fournier explains that “Obama’s team stuck with [its] story until the truth was exposed amid a GOP congressional investigation. Emails leaked to news organizations last week show that both the White House and State Department were directly involved in scrubbing the CIA talking points of any mention of past threats and al-Qaida involvement. That is the exact opposite of what the Obama White House had claimed. Inexplicably, White House spokesman Jay Carney refused late Friday to acknowledge the contradiction.” Actually, Carney did have an explanation: he was telling the truth. The “talking points” were presumably doctored by some (still) anonymous GOP congressional staffer seeking to use reporters like Fournier as scandal-mad lapdogs. So when Fournier insists that Obama “may need to forcefully condemn the half-truths and distortions disseminated under his name,” the irony thickens considerably. The “half-truths and distortions” were disseminated not by Obama, much less “under his name”—whatever that means—but by Fournier and his colleagues based on a doctored transcript leaked to a gullible Jonathan Karl of ABC News. If Fournier has “forcefully condemned” himself, it has so far escaped the attention of your intrepid columnist.
In certain respects, it’s unfair to focus too much attention on Fournier. He is at the top of his game, with a prestigious position at National Journal and a regular invite to the Sunday morning shows, but he is really no better or worse than most members of the Beltway pack. Typical of DC insiders who define themselves by the access they are accorded, Fournier admits that he grants blanket automatic anonymity to his regular sources, a practice that in effect allows them to lie with impunity (just as Jonathan Karl’s source did about the Benghazi e-mail trail).
No less typically, Fournier works within a deep and inflexible ideological prism, though he believes himself to be doing just the opposite. The crux of this prism is nicely described by Fournier himself: “Which side’s approach to averting the sequester, and solving the deficit, [do I] actually agree with? I honestly don’t have a strong opinion. Like most independent voters, I just want it fixed. I want my leaders to lead.” Again characteristic of the contemporary punditocracy, Fournier is addicted to the ideology of “balance,” in which perpetrators and victims are equally to blame. As the New York Times editorial board observes, “At every opportunity since they took over the House in 2011, Republicans have made it clear that they have no interest in reaching a compromise with the White House…. Mr. Obama hasn’t given up inviting the Republicans to join him in making the hard choices of governing, but he has been rebuffed each time.” And yet actual, observable reality does not impress Fournier.
How exactly is Obama to “fix” the problem that so concerns Fournier? That’s easy. “Great presidents rise above circumstance,” he explains, but this Obama fellow, I kid you not, is “unwilling or unable to overcome stubborn GOP opposition.” After all, and I am still not kidding, Fournier writes, “That’s how it works in the sports pages.”
Were this all there is to the story, it would be bad enough, but Fournier merges his mindlessness with a weird personal hero worship of right-wing politicians (oblivious, naturally, to the consequences of their policy proposals). Like so many of his homies, Fournier fell hard for John McCain in 2000. But he kept it up harder and longer than most, going so far as to interview for a high-level position in McCain’s far-right 2008 campaign. Things did not work out, but Fournier’s coverage of that election for the allegedly impartial AP demonstrated an odd affinity for Republican talking points. (For instance, he opined, oddly, that Obama’s selection of Joe Biden for the vice presidency somehow demonstrated a “lack of confidence”—which is pretty funny in retrospect, when you consider who McCain picked.)
But McCain was hardly the only object of Fournier’s affection. When he was still at the AP, Fournier sent Karl Rove a private mash note that waxed lyrical about the wisdom of “the Lord” in allowing “great and free” nations like the United States to flourish and advising him to “keep up the fight.” Lately, Fournier has also taken up the cause of Obama’s predecessor, demanding that the rest of us “Admit it: George W. Bush Is a Good Man.”
I’ll admit this much: he’s at least as good a man as Ron Fournier is a reporter… which helps to explain, a little, the mess we’re in.
Eric Alterman has explored the media’s false equivalence delusion before, most recently in his April 29 column.