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Great American Hypocrites: Glenn Greenwald on the Corporate Media’s Failures in the 2008 Race

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ABC News is coming under intense criticism for its handling of Wednesday night’s Democratic debate in Pennsylvania. During the first forty-five minutes of the debate, the moderators Charles Gibson and George Stephanopoulos focused on Obama’s comments that some voters in Pennsylvania were bitter, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright controversy, Clinton’s Bosnia “sniper fire” story, flag pins and the Weather Underground. We speak with Glenn Greenwald, author of Great American Hypocrites: Toppling the Big Myths of Republican Politics. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: ABC News is coming under intense criticism for its handling of Wednesday night’s Democratic debate in Pennsylvania. It was the last before next week’s primary.

During the first forty-five minutes of the debate, the moderators Charles Gibson and George Stephanopoulos focused on Obama’s comments that some voters in Pennsylvania were bitter, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright controversy, Clinton’s Bosnia “sniper fire” story, a flag pin and the Weather Underground. Here are some of the questions.

    VOICEOVER: The candidates await. Charles Gibson and George Stephanopoulos.

    CHARLES GIBSON: You got talking in California about small-town Pennsylvanians who have had tough economic times in recent years, and you said they get bitter, and they cling to guns or they cling to their religion or they cling to antipathy toward people who are not like them. Now, you’ve said you misspoke; you said you mangled what it was you wanted to say. But we’ve talked to a lot of voters. Do you understand that some people in this state find that patronizing and think that you said actually what you meant?

    GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Well, let me pick up on this. When these comments from Senator Obama broke on Friday, Senator McCain’s campaign immediately said that it was going to be a killer issue in November.

    CHARLES GIBSON: Senator Obama, since you last debated, you made a significant speech in this building on the subject of race and your former pastor, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright.

    Senator, let me follow up, and let me add to that. You have said that he would not have been my pastor, and you said that you have to speak out against those kinds of remarks, and implicitly by getting up and moving, and I presume you mean out of the church. Do you honestly believe that 8,000 people should have gotten up and walked out of that church?

    GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Senator, two questions. Number one, do you think Reverend Wright loves America as much as you do?

    Senator Clinton, we also did a poll today, and there are also questions about you raised in this poll. About six in ten voters that we talked to don’t believe you’re honest and trustworthy. And we also asked a lot of Pennsylvania voters for questions they had. A lot of them raised this honesty issue and your comments about being under sniper fire in Bosnia.

    And you yourself have said she hasn’t been fully truthful about what she would do as president. Do you believe that Senator Clinton has been fully truthful about her past?

    CHARLES GIBSON: It’s a question raised by a voter in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, a woman by the name of Nash McCabe. Take a look.

    NASH McCABE: Senator Obama, I have a question, and I want to know if you believe in the American flag. I am not questioning your patriotism, but all our servicemen, policemen and EMS wear the flag. I want to know why you don’t.

    GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: A follow-up on this issue, the general theme of patriotism in your relationships. A gentleman named William Ayers, he was part of the Weather Underground in the 1970s. They bombed the Pentagon, the Capitol and other buildings. He’s never apologized for that. And in fact, on 9/11 he was quoted in the New York Times saying, “I don’t regret setting bombs; I feel we didn’t do enough.” An early organizing meeting for your state senate campaign was held at his house, and your campaign has said you are friendly. Can you explain that relationship for the voters and explain to Democrats why it won’t be a problem?

    CHARLES GIBSON: The crowd is turning on me. The crowd is turning on me.

AMY GOODMAN: Just some of the questions in the first half of last night’s presidential debate on ABC. The prime-time debate was seen by 10.7 million people, according to Nielsen Media Research. That’s the most of any debate this election cycle. According to the Associated Press, nearly 17,000 comments were posted on ABC News’s website by Thursday evening, the tone overwhelmingly negative.

Tom Shales of the Washington Post said Gibson and Stephanopoulos “turned in shoddy, despicable performances.” The media critic Greg Mitchell said it was “perhaps the most embarrassing performance by the media in a major presidential debate in years.” Salon.com said, “I’m not sure if we’ve seen anything quite as train-wreck, cover-your-eyes bad as the spectacle on ABC last night.” Will Bunch, a Philadelphia Daily News writer, posted an open letter to Gibson and Stephanopoulos on his blog telling them, “you disgraced the American voters, and in fact even disgraced democracy itself.” And the group MoveOn said it would air an ad protesting ABC if 100,000 people signed their petition.

Glenn Greenwald is a former constitutional law attorney, now a contributing writer at Salon.com. He is the author of a number of books. His latest is called Great American Hypocrites We welcome you to Democracy Now!, Glenn Greenwald.

GLENN GREENWALD: Great to be back. Thanks, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: You’ve been blogging a great deal about this debate. Can you talk about what happened on Wednesday night in Pennsylvania?

GLENN GREENWALD: Well, in one sense, it was an extreme and rather transparent act of journalistic malfeasance. I mean, that’s just obvious. Take a look at just some of the stories that you reported on in the prior segment, virtually all of which were completely absent from the debate. Instead, the first half of the debate focused almost exclusively on the type of petty, insipid personality-based attacks that dominate our political discourse and determine our national elections.

But in another sense, I think it’s important to note that this debate is not in any way aberrational. I mean, in heaping all this scorn on what George Stephanopoulos and Charlie Gibson have done, I think it’s important to acknowledge the fact that really all they’re doing is what is done continuously throughout our election cycles for decades now. This was sort of a more transparent act, because all of these vapid questions were bunched together at the beginning.

But it’s worth recalling that over the past couple of weeks, the news cycle was dominated by the scandal that Barack Obama wants to be president of the United States even though he doesn’t bowl very well, which was followed by the comments that he made in San Francisco, what Maureen Dowd in the New York Times called the capital of elitism. And prior to that, there was the lapel pin controversy, the never-ending fixation on Jeremiah Wright’s video, the comments made by Barack Obama’s wife Michelle, all of this culminating in this theme that Barack Obama is this exotic, bizarre elitist, out of touch with mainstream American values, subversive, anti-American.

And these are the themes which over and over and over and over again are used to demolish and destroy the character and personality of Democrats and progressives, going all the way back to Jimmy Carter, Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis, and on and on, to the point where none of the substantive issues and the weighty crises that our country faces in every realm are really a part of our national elections. And I think Charlie Gibson and George Stephanopoulos, though a bit more extreme and really more transparent, I would say, in just how vapid they are, were really doing what the establishment media does pretty much without exception, in terms of how it covers our political culture.

AMY GOODMAN: George Stephanopoulos, the former Clinton aide — President Clinton — said he had asked fair, tough questions, the kind of questions that would be asked later. What is your response to that, Glenn Greenwald?

GLENN GREENWALD: This is the justification that reporters use repeatedly whenever they focus on insipid, substance-free stories. They pretend that if it were strictly up to them, they of course would focus on the serious substantive matters that the country faces, because they’re politically sophisticated observers. The problem, they say, is that Americans, the sort of heartland voter whom they patronizingly look down upon is interested in these sort of personality-based Drudge-like issues, and therefore they have no choice but to report them, since these are the issues that are going to predominate in our political process.

Now, leave aside the question as to whether or not journalists holding themselves out as political journalists have an obligation to focus on the more substantive matters, independent of what they can do in order to generate as high ratings as possible, even if you assume that political journalism ought to simply feed the public whatever the public wants, there’s no evidence whatsoever to suggest that the American public is more interested in Barack Obama’s bowling score or whether he wears a lapel pin than they are in how our political leaders are going to address the grave economic insecurity that the country faces or extricate ourselves from the debacle in Iraq that’s becoming increasingly savage and brutal without any end in sight. This is a fiction, an invention on the part of political journalists to justify their never-ending coverage of trash.

And in fact there’s much evidence to suggest — and you can ask any political elected official — that when they go back to their district, what they hear continuously are grave complaints from their constituents and others about just how ridiculous and inane political coverage is and how dominated it is by matters that have nothing to do with their lives and with the problems that they face. And these journalists believe that they’re sort of spokespeople for the people in the heartland and speak for them and patronizingly say that they’re interested in these insipid issues and that’s why they’re covered. The reality is there’s no connection between the establishment journalistic class and the people whom they claim to represent, and the reason they cover those issues is because they, the journalists, want to cover them, not because the people want to hear them.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, Stephanopoulos said overall the questions were tough, fair, relevant and appropriate and rejected the claim by Obama supporters that the debate had been stacked against him, saying Hillary had faced sharp questioning, as well. Glenn Greenwald?

GLENN GREENWALD: Well, you can just simply look at the way that the first fifty minutes of the debate evolved. It was true that she was asked a question about her purported dishonesty and the quote-unquote “scandal” of her claiming that she was under sniper fire in Bosnia, and that was the type of question that Obama was subjected to, as well.

But what you really see happening here is, throughout 2007, when it looked as though Hillary was going to be the nominee, or at least the media and the right wing assumed that that was the case, she was the target, overwhelmingly, of these sorts of attacks. The media discussed at length what they said was her artificial laugh, the sort of cackle that kind of masked a soulless, satanic quest for power underneath. They talked about whether she was showing cleavage. These kinds of personality attacks were directed at her when it looked as though she was the nominee.

Now that Obama looks to be the nominee — and the media and the right assume that — he clearly is receiving the preponderance of these attacks. And as I said, it’s always done in the same demonizing way to suggest that he’s out of touch with mainstream America, even though he grew up as — in a single home and his accomplishments are self-made, in contrast to George Bush and John McCain, and that he obviously is subversive and hates America and won’t defend it the way all progressives won’t. And that’s the theme that clearly is being dumped on him the way it always is whenever they identify who they think the progressive leader is.

AMY GOODMAN: At one point in the debate, Senator Obama voiced his frustration with the questions by the ABC moderators.

    SEN. BARACK OBAMA: I think what’s important is to make sure that we don’t get so obsessed with gaffes that we lose sight of the fact that this is a defining moment in our history. We are going to be tackling some of the biggest issues that any president has dealt with in the last forty years.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Senator Obama talking to the moderators. Glenn Greenwald?

GLENN GREENWALD: Yeah, I mean, he’s absolutely right about that. I mean, what’s so ironic about this is that ABC melodramatically touted this debate as one that would confront grave constitutional questions. It was in the National Constitution Hall, and that was how they touted it.

If you look at public opinion polls, the American public knows that there’s something fundamentally wrong with our country. Eight out of ten Americans think the country is dramatically off track. We have one of the most radical and hated administrations in modern American history, that has dismantled our constitutional framework, that has brought us into extreme economic precariousness and disrepute around the world. And yet, here are our leading journalists asking these type of questions as though those are the things that Americans want to hear.

And what happens is, whenever you point out that it is the media that is rendering our political discourse so toxic in a way that really disserves the American public, the way that Obama did, most journalists will immediately start banding together and attacking whoever the critic is who points out the media behavior. And so, you had all journalists across the board — Roger Simon in The Politico, Marc Ambinder in The Atlantic, and especially David Brooks in the New York Times — essentially attacking Obama for being too petulant or for being too soft and incapable of withstanding the hardships of political battle, as though there’s something adversarial and substantive about what it is that they’re doing, rather than trashy and petty.

And again, you saw — there’s a column from David Brooks this morning, who always thinks he’s the spokesman for heartland American values, who says that the reason why things like John Kerry’s windsurfing tights and John Edwards’s haircut and Barack Obama’s bowling score are relevant is because that’s what the American people care about. And Barack Obama, who’s spent the last fifteen months going around the country and speaking to the American people, knows that that’s not the case. Everyone knows that that’s not the case. But when you point out the corruption of the journalist class, of course, you then immediately become the target of attack by the pack mentality in which journalists operate.

AMY GOODMAN: Glenn Greenwald, your new book has just come out this week, Great American Hypocrites: Toppling the Myths of Republican Politics. Can you talk about how the media portrays John McCain?

GLENN GREENWALD: Can you repeat that question? There was a problem with the audio, and I actually didn’t hear it.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about how the media portrays John McCain?

GLENN GREENWALD: Well, there’s simply no political figure in the last several decades — and this includes the canonized Ronald Reagan, and it includes the swaggering war hero George Bush in 2003 — who is as revered and loved and really worshiped by the establishment media the way that John McCain is. It simply is — there’s no parallel to it. And oddly enough, a lot of the reporters who travel around with him are so enamored of him that they actually acknowledge the deep affection that they have for him, and they do so without shame, as though it’s just natural that they would have such overwhelming affection for someone like John McCain.

They actually, about a month ago, six weeks ago, spent a weekend at his ranch in Arizona drinking wine, swinging on tires hanging from his swing set. In 2004, many of the leading journalists in our country, anchors on network news, correspondents on cable news networks, went to various Manhattan restaurants traveling around with McCain, celebrating his birthday, toasting him, singing songs to him.

And there are so many examples that demonstrate how this affects the coverage. But the fact that his character is built up into this honor-bound man of principle, this heroic, strong, protective figure, is very consistent with how Republican and rightwing leaders are always built up: first by the right wing, and then by the media. But it seeps into coverage even more.

There was an example that was incredible. About three weeks ago, John McCain was traveling around the Middle East with his top Middle East adviser, Joe Lieberman. And on many occasions, four separate occasions at least, John McCain said falsely that Iran was importing al-Qaeda warriors into Iran, training them and then sending them back into Iraq. That’s something that not even people like Bill Kristol would claim to be the case. It’s clearly false. And he finally was forced to retract it, when on the fourth occasion Joe Lieberman whispered in his ear that it wasn’t true.

And yet, the media virtually ignored that story completely, notwithstanding the fact that it means either that John McCain is completely ignorant about the most basic facts of the Middle East, the area that he claims to be his strong suit, or that he, more likely, is engaging in the type of deceit that the Bush administration has engaged in for the last eight years, where they link whoever the enemy is of the week to al-Qaeda. They’re training al-Qaeda, they’re working with al-Qaeda.
<p.And many journalists, numerous journalists, when asked why they downplayed that story, said that because they know that John McCain is an expert in foreign affairs and because they know that he’s honest, it can’t possibly be the case that he was ignorant about what he was talking about, nor can it be the case that he was actively deceiving or intentionally misleading the public; it must have just been that it was sort of a negligible disconnect, a misspeaking incident between his brain and his mouth, and therefore it wasn’t newsworthy. So the fact that they revere him personally and have an enormously high opinion of his character and integrity means that they won’t see stories that reflect negatively on him as newsworthy, because, by definition, stories that reflect negatively on John McCain’s character or integrity must not really be news. And that’s clearly how — what dictates the coverage.

AMY GOODMAN: This was that clip. I believe John McCain was in Jordan. He was standing with South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, who had also gone on that trip, as well as Joseph Lieberman, who has been traveling with him in the United States and was also with him on the Middle East trip. This is what John McCain had to say.

    SEN. JOHN McCAIN: Well, it’s common knowledge and has been reported in the media that al-Qaeda is going back into Iran and receiving training and are coming back into Iraq from Iran. That’s well known. And it’s unfortunate. So I believe that we are succeeding in Iraq. The situation is dramatically improved. But I also want to emphasize time and again al-Qaeda is on the run, but they are not defeated.

    SEN. JOSEPH LIEBERMAN: [whispering] You said that the Iranians were training al-Qaeda. I think you meant they’re training in extremist terrorism.

    SEN. JOHN McCAIN: I’m sorry, the Iranians are training extremists, not al-Qaeda, not al-Qaeda. I’m sorry.

AMY GOODMAN: And for our radio listeners, that was Joseph Lieberman whispering in his ear and then John McCain correcting himself.

Glenn Greenwald, you write about the Limbaugh-Kristol-Fox News rightwing faction that controls the political party, the Republican Party. What about the media?

GLENN GREENWALD: Well, I mean, you know, media critics can describe how the media functions and point to all sorts of data and stories and narratives that we’ve been discussing today, but ultimately, often the most conclusive evidence of what the media is and how they function come from journalists themselves, when they unintentionally reveal how it is that their profession operates.

And to me, one of the most extraordinary and revealing statements came from a book called How to Win by two of the most establishment journalists in America, Mark Halperin, formerly of ABC News and now of Time magazine, and John Harris, who was the national political director of the Washington Post and is now with The Politico. And they famously wrote a chapter entitled —- that examined the role that Matt Drudge plays in how our political coverage is shaped.

And what they said was that Matt Drudge is the Walter Cronkite of our era, that there’s no single individual who shapes media coverage and especially election coverage more than he does. And their motto was “Drudge rules our world,” that media executives and producers and editors in the establishment press across the board obsessively check Drudge, because whatever stories he has are the narratives that will end up being predominating in the media. And the fact that, you know, Matt Drudge, -—

AMY GOODMAN: Explain who Drudge is, Glenn.

GLENN GREENWALD: — who in the 1990s was considered such a lowlife gossip that no establishment media outlet would even mention him or report on what he said, had not more than ten years later become the single most influential figure in our political process tells you much, if not almost everything, of what we need to know about how our political press functions. I mean, he’s not just a gossip monger, although he is, and one completely unbound by considerations of truth and fact, although he is that, too, he’s a distinctly rightwing polemicist with a rightwing agenda.

And so, the idea that our establishment press — and since Halperin and Harris said it, many, many other establishment journalists and news executives have said the same thing — the fact that our press is sort of guided by a rightwing gossip monger tells you all you need to know about the content of our establishment press, the liberal media. And one need only look to the journalists themselves to describe how it is that they function, and one can see that that’s the case.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you, Glenn Greenwald, for joining us. Glenn’s new book is called Great American Hypocrites: Toppling the Big Myths of Republican Politics.

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