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« Taking Them Seriously? | Main | Can Libertarians Be Religious? »

The MSM President

Commenter "Vulgorilla" asks a very simple question, about CBS, CNN and the MSM in general, over at Austin Bay's site:

“Just how long have they been feeding us this crap before the blogosphere?….before we had a way to uncover their fabrications and lies?”

It's a good question, and it raises a more complex one to which I've been trying to devote some thought, off and on, over the past few months.

Despite Evan Thomas' estimate that MSM support was worth fifteen points in the election, the MSM failed in their efforts to drag the rotting carcass of the Kerry presidential campaign across the goal line last November (in part, I suspect, because of the huge blowback from some of their more egregious attempts to do so, including Rathergate in particular).

I actually still think that it's possible that they got their fifteen percent, which means that had the media played it straight down the line (e.g., actually investigating the Swift Boat controversy, and demanding that Kerry sign the Form 180 before the election, instead of afterward), it would have been a true fifty-state Bush blowout, instead of being close enough that the Dems continue to whine about stolen elections (while the media continue to focus on Ohio and ignore Wisconsin where clear fraud took place in a much closer race).

Anyway, here's my question.

Would Bill Clinton have survived the blogosphere?

Recall, if you will, that Don Hewitt used to brag that he put Clinton in the White House, when in the midst of the Gennifer Flowers "bimbo eruption" during the campaign, he gave him the opportunity to go on Sixty Minutes with his devoted wife Hillary, and explain about how in the past he had "had problems in his marriage" (with no more specificity than that). This was back in the days when Sixty Minutes still had some credibility among many (as did, amazingly, Dan Rather) and this faux-sincere contrition managed to put the incident behind him sufficiently to salvage the campaign and get him into the White House the first time. (I should add, as an aside, that in addition to his rabid partisanship, I think that it was Dan's desire to one-up Don Hewitt by being a kingmaker to Kerry that was a significant part of the motivation behind Rathergate.)

And it wasn't just Don Hewitt. After all, the nature of the corruption of the Clinton governorship was well known in Arkansas--why wasn't it reported during the campaign? Because the MSM didn't want to investigate it, let alone report it--it might have prevented the election of what they saw as the best hope to retake the White House against a weak incumbent president, and the official (as opposed to the real) Bill Clinton had been viewed as an up-and-coming party star ever since he was first elected as a young governor in the 1970s.

Would Hewitt have gotten away with such a thing today? Or would the blogosphere have not allowed the cloying images on Sunday night to whitewash the dirty tricks, such as the threats and attacks on Flowers' character, being orchestrated by Hillary and Carville? Would it have exposed the womanizing, the corruption of the eighties, not allowing it to be buried by a fawning media?

How much of the spin in Whitewater, Filegate (who hired Craig Livingstone?), the Travel Office firings (a serious abuse of power), the Foster "suicide note" (indeed, the mystery of his "suicide" altogether), the Ron Brown death, the Indonesian connection, the Chinese campaign donations, et al would have been chewed up and spit out by a vigorously masticating network of highly read blogs?

And even if he'd gotten into the White House the first time, would he have been reelected? Could the nation have been spared the impeachment "trial" (which was mainly a failed surrogate as a means to bring him to account for all of the other abuses of power, evidence tampering, and corruption that the press continued to cover up)?

As it was, the major news outlets were simply White House stenographers, and the only place one could get an alternative viewpoint was from so-called right-wing publications, like the Washington Times and Insight Magazine, and the Pittsburgh paper where Chris Ruddy worked. So rather than having access to all the facts in these scandals, and thoughtful analysis and dissection of the White House spin, the public, absurdly, actually believed that the media was picking on Bill Clinton when it was in fact his greatest enabler.

How would Gary Aldridge have fared in a world in which George Stephanopolous (then a White House staffer) wasn't able to just make a call to ABC and keep them from interviewing Aldridge on This Week With David Brinkley (and after that escapade one can only be all the more amazed that he ended up becoming the host of the show)? I submit that in today's world, he'd have a much better means for getting the word out about his book, just as the Swift Boat Vets did--through the blogosphere. The facts in the book, and the merits of its arguments, would actually be discussed, rather than dismissed.

It would be very interesting to go back and analyze the myriad wrongdoings of the Clinton administration, of which it was only held to account for a few (and even then, with the equivalent of a quickly forgotten slap on the wrist), and try to imagine how the blogosphere (indeed, specific blogs, such as Hugh Hewitt, Instapundit, Powerline, or even a pre-911 Roger Simon. After all, there were some Democrats who got fed up with Bill Clinton, and the breezy acceptance (and spinning denial) of his corruption, such as Pat Caddell, and David Schippers, et al. They might have prevented the master politician from being elected once, let alone twice. Could their voices have made a difference?

I think it's likely that John Kennedy won his election because he was the first candidate for the television age. People who heard the Nixon-Kennedy debate on the radio thought that Nixon won, but the sweaty, jowled five-o'clock-shadowed vice president lost the debate under the harsh glare of the videocon tube.

Bill Clinton was the candidate of the MSM, and there was no alternate media in the 1990s with enough power to sway that. But those days are over, which has to be one of the things that has both the MSM and their political arm, the Democrat Party, quaking.

[Update at 11:37 EST]

Lynne notes in comments that a more pertinent (and testable) question is whether or not Hillary will survive the blogosphere. We may find out.

One of the tactics that the Clintons used to use to deflect bad news was to leak something on a Friday afternoon, and hope that it would die down after the weekend. Then if anyone brought it up, they'd dismiss it as "that's old news."

Given how ignorant much of the public remains of all the Clinton scandals that they successfully buried in the nineties, I wonder if this "old news" tactic will continue to work if things like Travelgate are brought up as issues in a 2008 campaign. I've already noted that Hillary will have her own "Slick Grope Vets" problem if she runs.

[Update at 6 PM EST]

It occurs to me that the "that's old news" defense may not work, particularly with the "Slick Grope Vets For Truth," at least based on the Kerry experience. After all, what could be older news than his congressional testimony after Vietnam? Yet it did become a potent campaign issue.

Posted by Rand Simberg at February 09, 2005 06:45 AM
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The Limits Of Rapport
Excerpt: Rand Simberg asks an interesting question. Would Bill Clinton have survived the blogosphere? Well now, Bill had a certain, shall we say, rapport with the MSM. But as Mr. Simberg helpfully points out, Kerry had it too... Despite Evan Thomas'...
Weblog: Classical Values
Tracked: February 10, 2005 03:54 PM
Next you're going to tell me Ted Kennedy ain't one-sixteenth black!
Excerpt: Rand Simberg asks a great question: Would Bill Clinton have survived the blogosphere? To which I answer: No. F**king. Way. The internet scared the living bejeebers out of both Clintons. Between the project that became WorldNetDaily, Chri...
Weblog: Banana Oil!
Tracked: February 10, 2005 09:43 PM

How long has this been going on? I know that I've encountered its naked arrogance and deception for decades. Specifically, when researching the 1983 KAL-007 shootdown, I noted that the NY Times coverage was slanted way over to the looney-left conspiracy theories, via the misrepresentations and half-truths of Dick Witkin, their reporter on the story. He apparently was long-time buddies with a guy named Keppel in Connecticut who was sure the poor Russians were tricked into having no other choice but fire missiles at the obvious spy plane sent by the CIA. Witkin and the NY times continued to profess 'balance' until after he'd retired, when he was allowed to drop the ragged mask and write a glowing endorsement of some conspiracy book that some guy was selling out of the trunk of his car. When I wrote critiques of each of Witkin's articles, to the editor, they never got published, but Keppel's did, all further castigating Reagan and the CIA for responsibility for the deaths of the 269 people on board. What I wouldn't have done for a blogosphere in the 1980's!

Posted by Jim O at February 9, 2005 08:02 AM

Hmmm...if there'd been a blogosphere in the thirties, and bloggers in the Ukraine, could Walter Durante have gotten away with his sycophancy of Stalin, let alone gotten himself and the New York Times a Pulitzer for it?

Posted by Rand Simberg at February 9, 2005 08:05 AM

I don't know what to think about the power of blogging.

You raise some interesting points, Rand.

I was fifteen when Kennedy narrowly beat Nixon. Neither one impressed me all that much -- but I favored Nixon. I grew up in solidly Republican family. My parents, though, recognized good people in the Democratic party and would occasionally vote for them. No, they weren't "liberal" Republicans. Accountants like my father don't tend to be "liberal."

There's an old saying to the effect that no man is a hero to his butler. I like to point out to today's moralists than conervative icon (and great man) Winston Churchill was known to drink heavily, smoke cigars and make disparaging comments about some women.

I can see a world where we elect the "safest" politicians in terms of current prejudices. Don't think Clinton versus Bush I or Dole. Think Clinton as compared to Gore. Our current President (whom I do respect and sometimes agree with) has some less than complimentary rumors about his past. Would we prefer Ashcroft -- or someone like him -- as President over Bush? I certainly wouldn't.

The blogosphere can help a good bit. But I think active bloggers (not occasional commenters like myself) need to focus on what's most important. Building a solid case in favor or in opposition to a candidate is vital. Grabbing whatever mud you can find to attack someone can be counterproductive if you don't build a solid case.

You, Rand, tend to do a good job in that regard. That's why I read your blog. Others, though, make my eyes roll.

Posted by Chuck Divine at February 9, 2005 08:10 AM

Rand, you asked if Bill Clinton could have survived the blogosphere. The other question will be, "Can Hillary survive the blogosphere?"

Posted by Lynne at February 9, 2005 08:44 AM

"Can Hillary survive the blogosphere?"

For better or worse, that's one that we just may get to actually test, rather than doing historical thought experiments.

Posted by Rand Simberg at February 9, 2005 08:49 AM

Personally, I think Clinton would survive the blogosphere just fine. He's shown a talent for evading scandal and he was a stronger candidate than Kerry. The old school anti-Clintons didn't lack for media resources either.

Second, I don't see the MSM as inherently liberal but rather that MSM is vulnerable to subversion by special interests of which the liberal sorts got in the door first (perhaps by taking over so many colleges and hence controlling the pipeline).

Given Fox news came out strongly in support of Bush and has grown very influential over the past few years, I'd put any MSM boost for Kerry to be far less than 15%.

Posted by Karl Hallowell at February 9, 2005 08:52 AM

I'm a huge fan of the blogs. They do reach quite a sizable audience thus providing a least a viable alternate to the MSM. The trends point toward the growth of blogs and other alternate media besides the MSM.

Clinton actually did have to tangle with new media; the Monica scandal was outed by the Drudge Report. Clinton's women problems were well known by the MSM, but they were studiously ignored, not reported, or actually played down. The specific Monica story was ignored/spiked by Newsweek until Drudge ran with it.

So, yes, I think that Clinton did, and other powerful figures will, be able to avoid scrutiny even in the era of blogs, based upon the agenda of the MSM.

On the otherhand however, the power of the MSM is directly proportional to its audience size and to the access (or lack there of) by the audience to other credible sources. Blogs are one of the other credible source that do not share the same biases, value, and constraints as the MSM. One can hope that blogs scale up enough that the MSM must modify its behavior to become less biased, and more strictly accurate.

Posted by Fred K at February 9, 2005 04:55 PM

“Just how long have they been feeding us this crap before the blogosphere?….before we had a way to uncover their fabrications and lies?”

I noticed when I was 20 that most/all of the news reports that I had personal knowledge of were .. wrong. Sometimes just in the details but ... details matter.

Posted by Brian at February 9, 2005 10:08 PM

Brian, you have a great point there. My experiences have been somewhat better. There are knowledgeable and skilled reporters out there. But so much of the news (particularly that shown on TV) is superficial and incompetent.

Posted by Karl Hallowell at February 10, 2005 05:02 AM

Thanks for attributing my quote - much appreciated. If the TSM (Terrorist Supporting Media - old MSM) finally got caught with their hand in the cookie jar, just how long has it been in there? How many Presidents, senators, congressmen, govenors, etc. got elected because of the intentional lies and fabrications of the TSM? With a supposedly watchdog press having morphed into a lapdog press for the DNC, it's no wonder the blogosphere came into its own.

Posted by Vulgorilla at February 11, 2005 06:06 AM

First thing She-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named will do, if elected, is shut down the blogosphere. She tried using the IRS during her first two terms, she'll likely use the much more powerful USAPATRIOT Act if elected to a third.

Posted by Circuit_Rider at February 11, 2005 11:20 AM


Many people experience that, and then turn around and believe the rest of the news. Many people do (myself included, though I try to avoid it) -- Michael Crichton called it The Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect, and having the blogosphere to help me fact check what I personally don't have the knowledge or time to check is essential (for me) in avoiding that trap.

Posted by Robin S. at February 11, 2005 12:56 PM

TV news is particularly shallow and bad. It's a real shame TV news has so much influence.

Yale professor (I can see your eyes rolling from here) Edward Tufte goes around giving seminars on communication. One interesting example he gives is a comparison of the TV news versus newspapers. The amount of information conveyed on a 30 minute TV news program is the same amount of information found above the fold on the front page of a major newspaper. Not even considering biases, that's a pretty horrifying comparison.

TV news is entertainment for the most part. Print journalism is so much better -- even accounting for biases.

Posted by Chuck Divine at February 11, 2005 01:01 PM

The critical test of integrity is "If Clinton had done the same thing as Bush - for instance: started a war against someone who didn't attack us and fabricated evidence of WMD as a justification and then turned it into a nation building exercise; would you feel as supportive? If you answer yes then you must have been in favor of staying in Somalia for the purpose of bringing democracy to it - right. If you thought involvment there was a mistake then and support the current Iraq effort then you are an unprincipled hypocritical partisan incapable of seeing beyond the latest talking points from the Neocon machine.
If Clinton did it it is bad but Bush et al have never made a mistake or told a lie I suppose. Boy didn't you hate the surplus and the excellent employment figures under Clinton?
Heck now the six figure IT guy can work at Wall Mart. Hooray!

Posted by Steve Mickler at February 17, 2005 10:41 AM

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