The mainstream media widely hailed former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as the “winner” of last week’s Democratic presidential primary debate in Las Vegas. But the way in which they did so illustrates the failure of journalists to do their job, the manner in which celebrity journalism distorts narratives around politics, and the way in which defective journalism lets Hillary Clinton off the hook.
Immediately after the debate it hosted, CNN released a poll showing that 81% of viewers on facebook believed that Bernie Sanders won the debate, while a mere 13% came away convinced that Clinton had won. Now that’s not necessarily a scientific poll, but CNN’s completely unsubstantiated verdict was far worse journalism:
“Hillary Clinton”, the network declared, under the banner “Winner”, “proved without a doubt Tuesday night why she is the Democratic Party’s presidential frontrunner. Clinton remained unflappable throughout the debate, showcasing her political experience and her command of the issues—all the while deftly handling criticism of her flip-flops and displaying a humor that put a more human face to her oft-criticized candidacy”. Their “source” for this verdict, was Obama strategist David Axlerod, who said that Clinton did “very well”.
I remember a high school journalist teacher warning our class about the danger of making big claims based on a single source. She might have stern words for CNN.
But the network stuck to its message, which I would translate as follows: “If you focus on stage-presence, style, and the ability to pander to an audience, and aren’t bothered by flip-flopping, hypocrisy, and lies, Hillary won the debate.”
If we knew nothing about Hillary Clinton outside of her debate performance, she would come across as a passionate and plausible progressive. Unfortunately for her, that is not the case.
We know that when Clinton declared herself a foe of the TransPacific Partnership and of the Keystone Pipeline, she was making a flip-flop of epic proportions in the case of the former, and coming clean after years of silence on the latter. Clinton served in an administration that backed the TPP and deliberated on Keystone endlessly. For a “progressive who likes to get things done” (one of the lines CNN focused on as representing Clinton’s strengths), she did precious little with her position in the administration to shape policy in a progressive fashion.
Instead, she backed and praised TPP, helping to ensure that it moved swiftly through approval processes, while refusing to comment on Keystone, making no contribution to public debate.
We also heard Clinton get tough on Wall Street. This is a significant deviation from the work she did while Senator from New York, and marks a departure from her repeated fundraising trips to the likes of Goldman Sachs, during which she was heard to pledge to protect the financial industry from protestors and politicians who complained about pesky things like equality, justice, and strict, accountable regulatory measures.
No journalist questioned her seriously about that hypocrisy or about her claim to have gone to Wall Street and told them to “Cut it out”. A real journalist might have asked when she made this epic journey, who she spoke to, what she actually said, or how why she was so naïve as to think that an industry renowned for its willingness to break the law and relentlessly test and undermine regulations would knuckle-under when chastised by Senator Clinton.
No one pointed out Clinton’s inconsistency when she pledged to overhaul our economy to create a healthier and more equal society, but dismissed Bernie Sanders’ call to examine the social contracts and models that exist in other countries to secure citizens more rights, more equality, and more security.
It was left to other candidates rather than the journalists on stage to point out Clinton’s dishonesty in dodging questions about her decision to vote for an illegal, immoral, and ill-judged war in Iraq. No one called her out for praising pro-democracy protesters in the Arab Spring when her State Department was dragging its feet and defending dictators and autocrats as key to U.S. interests.
And no one called her out for her lie when she described a non-existent process supposedly open to Edward Snowden that could have protected the whistleblower when he exposed the law-breaking and civil liberties violations of the security state she helped to protect and build.
No one asked her to explain her desire for all college students to work 10 hours a week, or to consider why working through college when she was young (when tuition at the country’s best public universities was non-existent) was more plausible then than now.
And no one in the mainstream media has questioned her credentials as a “progressive who likes to get things done”. Reporters who do actual journalism have concluded that Senator Sanders has actually been quite productive in Congress, something that flies in the face of Clinton’s claims that her record contains more achievements than that of her rival.
Her tenure in the Senate was unremarkable, and she was responsible for no major or even controversial legislation. She kept her head down, made friends and allies, and prepared for a presidential run, casting some decent, party-line votes along the way, and some catastrophically ill-judged ones on the Iraq war, evidence either of the neo-conservative tendencies that have since manifested themselves, or of laziness and poor judgement.
Her time there and in the State Department gives the impression of someone angling for higher office who was more interested in using the trappings of high office to stay in the public eye than in using the power of that office to do good.
John Kerry’s energetic stint as Secretary of State has suggested that Clinton was a poor choice for Secretary of State. She skirted many of the big issues of the day, declining to devote the same public, high-energy, risky commitment to peacemaking that has occupied Kerry. Whether or not you share his politics or agenda at the State Department, Kerry’s drive and commitment and willingness to put himself out on a limb will make his tenure far more productive and memorable than Clinton’s calculating caution.
It might be a bit daft for Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina, a failed CEO who fired thousands of workers, to attack Clinton for not having any significant accomplishments to her name, but I think there is something in that claim.
Clinton’s record is bereft of significant legislative achievements, her tenure at the State Department riddled by misjudgments untampered by any transformation of the role of the U.S. in the world. And her public life for the last 15 years is untroubled by any stands of principle at times when they mattered.
Coming out against TPP after you praised it, negotiated it, and helped to ensure its passage isn’t leadership. Criticizing the Iraq war after you gave the President a blank check to wage it isn’t leadership. Cautioning Wall Street after spending your Senate tenure supporting its interests isn’t leadership. Celebrating the Arab Spring after you backed and armed the dictators who slaughtered its revolutionaries isn’t leadership.
Those are not progressive actions. There are other words to describe that kind of behavior—hypocrisy, expediency, cowardice, criminality, and peripateticism come to mind—and they are not words that bespeak a person of great accomplishments or a person possessed of great leadership qualities.
Debate moderator Anderson Cooper could have exposed the basic falsity of Clinton’s central claim—that she is a progressive who has got things done—but he was too busy basking in his own moment of celebrity and preparing for his post-debate interview lap, a twisted spectacle in which the faux journalist becomes a celebrity and a story in his own right instead of someone with a job to perform for the sake of the public interest.
Fortunately, Hillary Clinton is not the only option for progressive-minded voters. Bernie Sanders’ debate performance might have lacked “polish”, but the things he said on stage are the same things he has been saying for years. His concern over economic, racial, and social injustices and inequalities are not the product of an election-year epiphany or lengthy poll-testing. If he were to become the Democratic Party’s nominee, his message would remain the same during the general election. If he were to become President, his consistency of rhetoric and his political accomplishments suggest that he would work to carry out the agenda he described on the debate stage.
With Clinton, we have no way of knowing whether her flip-flops mark the end or the beginning of a tortured political journey, marked by back-tracking, policy contortions, and hypocrisy.
I hope that when the Democratic Party candidates next take to the stage, the journalists in attendance do their jobs, hold them accountable for the things they are saying, and put what they are saying into context so that when we analyze that debate it won’t be about their poise and their polish, but about the extent to which we can depend on the moral and political framework that shapes their policymaking agenda for our country.