The Secret Patriotism of the Press
In Which We Modify the Theory to Fit the Data: Larry Elder offers a seemingly devastating “apples-to-apples” comparison of MSM’s sex scandal coverage: Jesse Jackson in 1988 vs. Herman Cain in 2011. Both were at some point frontrunners in a presidential race. But Jackson basically got a pass on his “alleged numerous and rampant instances of infidelity.” (Later he fathered a child out of wedlock). Cain is getting slow-broiled by the press. Yes, 1988, was a long time ago. But it was only 3 years later when conservative Clarence Thomas was the focus of a similar potential scandal and … got broiled by the press (though he still made it onto the Supreme Court).
What’s the difference between Jackson on the one hand and Thomas and Cain on the other? It’s not race. It’s the factor John Dickerson strives mightily to avoid–ideology and party affiliation.
This ideological theory has a lot of explanatory power when it comes to predicting which high level politicos will get a pass from the MSM and which will get hammered. Here is the theory: Dems get a pass. GOPs get hammered.** The data:
DEMS: Jesse Jackson, 1988–pass. Bill Clinton, 1992–pass. (The press had to make a willful effort to discount Gennifer Flowers and others. Later most of the stories would turn out to be true. But we only found that out after Clinton had been safely reelected.) Edwards, 2008–giant pass.
GOPS: Clarence Thomas, 1991–hammered (weeks-long national crisis); Arnold Schwarzenegger, 2003–hammered (front page LAT story); McCain, 2008–hammered (front page NYT story).
But there are exceptions. Democrat Gary Hart was hounded out of the 1988 presidential race (in which he was the frontrunner) because of his affair with Donna Rice. And some argue that President George H.W. Bush was given a pass in 1992. (I’m not so sure, because a friend of mine was falsely rumored to have had a dalliance with 41, but let’s assume for our purposes that this charge has at least some merit.) ***
It’s hard to argue that these exceptions are trivial. Some sort of dark matter seems to be at work, occasionally distorting the normal liberal bias of the MSM (though not of Joe Conason). What is it? Here’s a second theory: members of the MSM are Secret Patriots. They tell the public they’re pursuing the truth without fear or favor, but in reality they are also Americans who will act if necessary to protect the Republic. That’s especially true when someone they don’t trust with the powers of the Presidency actually gets close to exercising those powers. Edmund Muskie, the late David Broder told us, was widely considered too ill-tempered to have his finger on the nuclear button. So when he seemed to be crying in a 1972 New Hampshire storm, the MSM made a huge deal of it. Threat averted. Gary Hart just seemed weird–a judgment his post-campaign behavior has not tended to undermine. (He’s stayed married, for chrissake–how weird is that?) George H.W. Bush, on the other hand, seemed eminently presidential. If (hypothetically!) he had a discreet age-appropriate mistress on the side, it obviously wasn’t affecting his performance in office. The Patriots gave him a pass.
Herman Cain is widely perceived as a charismatic, intelligent leader who is nevertheless woefully unready for the Presidency. And yet … he was leading. Pundits thought voters would tire of him, but voters weren’t tiring of him. His tax plan got picked apart–and he kept on leading. His main rival, Mitt Romney, wasn’t going after him. It was becoming clearer and clearer that he wasn’t a joke and he wasn’t just promoting his book. He could really get the nomination, in which case he’d be running against a highly vulnerable incumbent. He might actually win. The first primaries were only a few weeks away. Somebody had to take him down.
You would think the editors of Politico would be especially attuned to this train of establishment thought. They answered the call.
P.S.: Two final points: 1) I’m not trying to sneer at reporters’ Secret Patriotism the way I try to sneer at their Liberal Bias. I would probably be a Secret Patriot too, given the opportunity. But I hope I wouldn’t pretend I was consistently exposing the truth about various types of scandalous behavior; 2) There actually aren’t two explanatory theories.The Secret Patriot theory subsumes the Lib Bias theory, if you assume (as is true) that political reporters are mainly responsible, not-too-leftish Democrats. In their minds, they’re pursuing the nation’s interest both when they punish conservatives and when they protect the country from the occasional unsuitable Dem. “Liberal bias” is patriotism.
Cain loses out on both counts.
**– I’m talking here about the behavior of the mainstream press–did they aggressively report and publicize a potential scandal. I’m not talking about whether the figure at the center of a scandal survived it. Sometimes voters tell the MSM to take a hike, as they did with Schwarzenegger.
***–There are other obvious exceptions–Elliot Spitzer and Anthony Weiner on the Dem side, for example. I think those two really are the exceptions that prove the rule, in that they were both widely reviled by fellow Democrats.