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Wednesday, December 17, 2008

American Albatross

by digby

In case you wonder what the political media's priorities are, look no further than today's First Read, the "blog" of Chuck Todd and his minions at NBC. Here is the first post this morning:

From Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, Domenico Montanaro, and Carrie Dann
*** The Dem albatross: Just six weeks have passed since Election Day. But with the Blagojevich scandal still dominating the political news, the TV ads haven’t stopped. Yesterday, we reported that the pro-business group Americans for Job Security is up with an ad in Arkansas, Nebraska, and North Dakota -- states with conservative- to moderate-leaning Democratic senators (including two up for re-election in 2010) -- that links Blago with SEIU in the business group’s campaign against a union-backed measure that would overhaul labor law and forbid employers from mandating that workers cast secret ballots in union negotiations. And now the Illinois GOP has a new TV ad demanding a special election for Obama’s Senate seat rather than an appointment. What if F-Rod doesn't leave office soon? Won't he be an easy target for quite some time? This is the frustration Obama's team and congressional Democrats are feeling right now. Blago’s a distraction that will keep on giving to the GOP.

NBC Deputy Political Director Mark Murray offers his first read on concerns about a relationship between Ill. Gov. Rod Blagojevich and Barack Obama's chief of staff Rahm Emanuel.

*** More F-Rod: Here are more developments in the Blagojevich scandal. The legislative panel considering the governor’s impeachment reconvenes today for its first day of testimony, with Blago’s attorney present… We learned that Jesse Jackson Jr. has been sharing information about public corruption with federal investigators for years… Chicago Sun-Times columnist Michael Sneed notes -- in a 44-word item -- that Rahm Emanuel “is reportedly on 21 different taped conversations by the feds,” but an Obama source tells NBC’s Savannah Guthrie that the report is inaccurate… Another Sun-Times piece notes that Rahm was pushing for Valerie Jarrett to replace Obama (until Jarrett took her name out of contention). Next week, the Obama folks are going to need to allow both Rahm and Jarrett to explain when and why she took her name out to clean up the timing issue… And Obama sidestepped questions about Blagojevich at his press conference yesterday. “Let me just cut you off,” he told a Chicago Tribune reporter, “because I don't want you to waste your question. As I indicated yesterday, we've done a full review of this. The facts are going to be released next week… So do you have another question?”

This has taken on a life of it's own.

AB Stoddard of The Hill laid it all out on MSNBC this morning:

Contessa Brewer: Obama is really trying to stay on message here except the press corps is dropping daily hints that the honeymoon may be over ... AB stoddard, editor of The Hill is here. AB what were seeing in these news conferences, is that the amount of time Obama is willing to spend in Q and A sessions with reporters is getting shorter and shorter. What's the motive for Obama here in trying to keep these short and succinct?

Stoddard: Obviously he hopes that every time he rolls out a nominee, they're only going to talk about that and as you see he's calling on regional press hoping that they'll be talking about regional issues related to those nominations. And he going to get Blagojevich questions every single time he comes out in public until they release these findings.

They've pushed that off until next week and you know, according to The Wall Street Journal yesterday, they're just choosing to do this. They're choosing not to talk. There is no legal impediment and no injunction against them. Although Patrick Fitzgerald doesn't want them to talk, they're not legally kept from doing so. They're not. They're choosing not to talk. So in some ways, Barack Obama is doing this to himself. He keeps getting those questions and it's going to be a feeding frenzy next week.

Brewer: And it's leaving room, time to ponder and question and time for doubts to arise. And, in fact, we're seeing this new Marist poll which says that Americans feel the Obama transition is on the right track. [61%] Now that's pretty good. But an NBC/Wall Street journal poll earlier that number was more like three fourths of the people who were responding.

Is the Blagojevich scandal and the surrounding questions, no matter what the answers are, if they remain unanswered, is it likely to affect how people view this transition?

Stoddard: Absolutely. If next week, Christmas week, we find out that no one did anything wrong and, in fact they alerted the feds about anything they knew and they're totally clean, even if Rod Blagojevich doubled down and it remains a story perhaps it's going to go away as a major distraction for Barack Obama.

However, the question that people are not asking about Rahm Emmanuel --- it doesn't matter that he talked 20 times or 40 times about the senate seat. The question is, if he didn't engage in deal making, if he knew that Rod Blagojevich was trying to sell the seat, did he alert the authorities? If we find out that he did not, he may not be in legal jeopardy, but then you have a serious political problem for the chief of staff and a serious political problem for the president if he keeps him on as chief of staff.

Brewer: You just said the question that is not being asked. I know that there are journalists who are taking a lot of heat for not being aggressive and tough with Obama. Do you agree? And if you had the opportunity, what's the one question right now that you would demand that he answer?

Stoddard: That would be the question --- "if Rahm Emmanuel did not engage in deal making when he spoke to the Governor of Illinois about your successor to the senate, did he alert the authorities?" Did he tip off the feds that Rod Blagojevich was looking for goodies in exchange for the seat. And if he didn't, why not? That is the question that has to be answered. Again, I want to repeat, maybe not a legal question --- he has a lawyer but he might not be in legal jeopardy --- and I believe Rahm Emmanuel and Patrick Fitzgerald when they say, "no one's done anything inappropriate" but if Rahm Emmanuel then just sat there and didn't tell the authorities that Rod Balgojevich was looking for prizes, then that's a huge political problem for both him and his boss.

You'll notice that Stoddard just moved the goal posts quite a way down the field. It's no longer a matter of legal or ethical wrongdoing. It's about whether or not Rahm (or any other name that comes up) reported his conversations to the feds. And what's really awesome about this is that the press gets to decide whether or not he should have done it because there's no legal obligation. And if by some chance the rest of the conversations are made public, they get to decide what constitutes "appropriate" and whether they should have ben reported in order to pass the smell test. They will also tell us whether or not Obama himself "should have known" and speculate endlessly about what this whole thing says about his "ability to lead." It's a dream come true.

Two more things stuck out at me about that exchange. First, Brewer brings up something that I've now heard half a dozen times on MSNBC by various talking heads: reporters are "taking a lot of heat" for not being aggressive enough toward Obama. Taking heat from whom?

I expected that after the election the press would come under pressure exactly like this. It's a classic "work the refs" move. But the press is openly using it as an excuse for their own behavior, which is new and changed the rules, it seems to me. While they are haranguing Obama for failing to answer questions, they seem to think it's fine not to reveal who is pressuring reporters to harangue him. Maybe they need to take some questions themselves.

The other concerning thing is that both Brewer and Stoddard seem to be banking on the public validating their obsession by losing faith in Obama. It's possible, but in no way is it assured. And the inevitable result of that is to make the press all the more determined to find something that will. They will come to see the president as having some sort of illegitimate hold on the public which must be broken. If it doesn't take with this scandal, the press will harbor resentment and jump on the next one with even more fervor.

The essential problem is that we all give the press the power to run our politics, both during campaigns and after. We applaud them when they go after those we hate and excoriate them when they go after those we like. And so does the other side. In the end, the media remain in the driver's seat, ginning up controversy and indulging their passion for worthless speculation and scandalmongering. We give them their power by not holding them to a common standard.

I'm as guilty of this as anyone, but I regret it. They are always going to be harder on Democrats than Republicans because there are corporate pressures as well as institutional and social pressures to do so. And frankly, DC Dems just don't have the killer instinct or the establishment clout to put the same kind of "pressure" on the press as the Republicans do. Until the press is reformed it remains an albatross around the neck of the American body politic.


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