After Gawker revealed that a journalist at The Atlantic was bribed by Hillary Clinton’s spokesman Philippe Reines into describing one of Clinton’s speeches as “muscular” and mentioning certain members of the audience in exchange for an advance copy of the speech, it came out that Mark Landler of The New York Times used the same descriptions. Landler denied any wrongdoing, and The New York Times’ public editor Margaret Sullivan declared him “thoroughly credible.”
In an email to me, Landler wrote that he couldn’t recall whether he had received an advance copy of the speech, and at the time of writing, Sullivan had not responded to my query about whether anyone at The Times demanded to see the correspondence between Landler and the Clinton staff. More importantly, the claim that there was no explicit quid pro quo only highlights that there doesn’t need to be one in order for the newspaper to cover Clinton exactly as she wants.
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In The Times’ blow-by-blow account of Clinton’s leadership in the NATO intervention, we learned that “from the earliest days of the Libya debate, Mrs. Clinton was a diligent student and unrelenting inquisitor, absorbing fat briefing books, inviting dissenting views from subordinates, studying foreign counterparts to learn how to win them over. She was a pragmatist, willing to improvise — to try the bank-shot solution.”
This fawning account of Clinton’s work habits obfuscates what the reporter is actually describing. In billiards, a bank shot involves hitting the ball against a cushion so that it rebounds in a different direction. It is a counterintuitive shot, in this case supporting democracy by backing rebels who Clinton knew “summarily execute[d] all foreign mercenaries.” As had been reported, the “foreign mercenaries” in question tended to be Black people targeted for racial cleansing.
Our “newspaper of record” is deeply enmeshed in our political elite.
“Mrs. Clinton certainly understood how hard the transition to a post-Qaddafi Libya would be.” The article supports this claim by quoting Clinton as saying that political change had been hard in Egypt, “so imagine how difficult it will be in a country like Libya … [Muammar el-Qaddafi] ruled for 42 years by basically destroying all institutions and never even creating an army, so that it could not be used against him.” She was right, but the reporter fails to explore what, beyond the official talking points, might have prompted her to champion the NATO-led bombing anyway.
An interesting place to start would have been an email from Sidney Blumenthal (a veteran Clinton hatchet man dating back to the Monica Lewinsky era, who was paid $10,000 per month by the Clinton Foundation during the Libya crisis while also pursuing business interests there) to Clinton laying out then-French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s motivations for the intervention that boiled down to “a desire to gain a greater share of Libya oil production” and an opportunity for France to “reassert its position in the world.”
The email also mentions Qaddafi’s plan to create a gold-backed currency that would have competed with the dollar and euro. The Times doesn’t entertain the hypothesis that NATO wanted to keep Libya financially dependent, although it would help explain why NATO deliberately destroyed a $33 billion irrigation system funded without foreign debt that provided water for more than half of Libya. As the exposé goes to disconcerting pains to illustrate, Clinton is no dupe, and so it’s unlikely she believed the “humanitarian intervention” would improve conditions in Libya.
But in 12,000 words, the exposé never raises the possibility that Clinton might have had other motives. As Scott Shane, one of the two authors, explained to me in an email, the goal
was to examine how the decision was made by the Obama administration to join the military intervention in Libya; how that initial decision to protect civilians from Qaddafi’s forces evolved into a decision to overthrow him; why the US did so little in Libya after Qaddafi’s fall; and what the results have been. So we talked mainly, though not exclusively, to the people who actually made the decisions or helped make them — Americans, Libyans, the French. Outsiders might have opinions, but they would have little insight into how these decisions were made.
A probing account of the inside process would have been instructive. But the reporters simply took the insiders’ account of the inside process at face value. Thus the essential issues — Sidney Blumenthal’s compromising business affiliations and his influence on Clinton, the Obama administration’s underlying interests in bombing Libya and the use of the Clinton Foundation as a back door to Hillary Clinton — are never even raised.
Instead, the Clinton Foundation isn’t mentioned, Blumenthal is described as an “old friend and political adviser” and the piece ends with a first-person articulation of the Hillary Clinton doctrine: “‘We have learned the hard way when America is absent, especially from unstable places, there are consequences,’ she said at a House hearing on Benghazi in October, articulating what sounded like a guiding principle. ‘Extremism takes root, aggressors seek to fill the vacuum, and security everywhere is threatened, including here at home.'”
Covering the Coronation
Hillary Clinton has been in the public eye so long — and bifurcates public opinion so reliably — that it’s not clear how much a single article could affect perceptions of her. Going into the Democratic primaries, however, Bernie Sanders was a virtual unknown in most of the United States, and the most influential newspaper in the country had a responsibility to introduce him substantively. Instead, in September 2015, The New York Times’ public editor had to apologize:
The Times has not ignored Mr. Sanders’s campaign, but it hasn’t always taken it very seriously. The tone of some stories is regrettably dismissive, even mocking at times. Some of that is focused on the candidate’s age, appearance and style, rather than what he has to say.
The editor goes on to justify the mistake: “Given Hillary Rodham Clinton as such a dominant candidate, with widespread support, lots of money and the Democratic Party’s likely imprimatur, almost any other Democratic candidate looked like an also-ran.”
In other words, five months before the first votes were cast, The New York Times didn’t feel that its job was to provide equal coverage of the five Democratic candidates so that voters could look beyond the choice of the Democratic Party and donor class and decide for themselves.
The newspaper constantly groups Sanders with Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump: “Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump Voters Share Anger, but Direct It Differently“; “Anxious Dramas for the Age of Trump and Sanders“; “The Trump-Sanders Fantasy.” David Brooks is particularly adept at the smear: “It’s striking how many Americans have responded by going for Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, who are bad versions of the bounding in/we-can-change-everything doggy type.”
Back in 2010, after Brooks wrote an article deemed unflattering, Clinton adviser Jake Sullivan wrote to Philippe Reines (the same one who bribed The Atlantic journalist), “An OTR conversation with you is the best way to help guys like Brooks ‘figure out’ how things work.” A couple of months later, Clinton’s then-director of policy planning, Anne-Marie Slaughter, sent a Brooks op-ed to Clinton with the subject line, “JUST A LITTLE SELF-PROMOTION.” The email says, “Just thought you would like to see this — it’s for all the ideas you wanted promoted when you picked me.”
The Times sticks to the Clinton narrative even in its news coverage by failing to provide relevant information, leaving matters to “he said, she said” or simply using an allegation. An article titled “7 Democrats in Congress Say Clinton Email Inquiry Is ‘Too Politicized'” fails to mention that all seven signatories had endorsed Hillary Clinton for president. Bill Clinton’s February 2016 rant against Sanders in New Hampshire is regurgitated without any context for his various allegations:
Criticizing Mr. Sanders’s hastily presented health care plan, which Mr. Clinton claimed the Vermont senator had already disavowed, the former president asked: ‘Is it good for America? I don’t think so. Is it good for New Hampshire? I don’t think so.'”
Far from analyzing Clinton’s accusations, the reporter reinforces them. Sanders’ health care plan is “hastily presented,” and the verifiably false claim that Sanders disavowed his own health care plan is left unquestioned.
Sanders’ difficulties with Black voters are well documented, and they were not aided when national correspondent Richard Fausset let a prominent Democrat malign the candidate without fact-checking him. “Representative John Lewis, Democrat of Georgia, a hero of the civil rights movement, cast doubts on Mr. Sanders’s civil rights credentials,” he writes, without mentioning that Sanders was arrested during the civil rights movement and that Lewis’ assertion about meeting the Clintons during the 1960s was contradicted by his own previous statements.
If The New York Times spent less time covering polls and more time covering records, perhaps its opinion pages would stop propagating the Clinton myth that she is the progressive who actually gets things done. Despite her much-touted resume, Clinton has only held two government posts. In the Senate, Clinton sponsored three bills that became law, the same number as Sanders. Of those, only Sanders’ bill to increase veterans’ compensation was substantial. In her second job as US secretary of state, Clinton’s one arguably “progressive” initiative was the reset with Russia, and it was a disaster. Besides that, she was championing regime change in Honduras and Libya, and heralding the “groundbreaking” Trans-Pacific Partnership.
But the more insidious fiction behind the narrative that Clinton is the progressive who gets things done, a fiction happily taken up by The Times, is that the essential difference between Sanders and Clinton — between the first lady who called African Americans “superpredators” and the picketer arrested during the civil rights movement, between the champion of a military coup in Honduras who supported deporting Honduran child refugees and the mayor who visited Nicaragua to oppose Ronald Reagan’s meddling, between Goldman Sachs’ old friend and Wall Street’s most vocal opponent, between, finally, the senator who went along with the bipartisan Iraq war and Patriot Act, and the congressman who knows that when people are “swept away unthinkingly by what everybody else does and believes in,” refusing to join in is itself a vital form of action — is one of method, and not of intellectual and ethical substance.
Back in 2003, New York Times reporter James Risen was prevented from publishing an investigation on a covert CIA effort to undermine Iran’s nuclear program by his own editors after CIA Director George Tenet and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice urged the newspaper to hold the story. A year later, Risen and fellow journalist Eric Lichtblau were barred from publishing a report of how the National Security Agency collected details of Americans’ telephone and email communications without reference to a search warrant. Risen described the discovery as “my biggest story of the post-9/11 age,” but the White House was able to convince The New York Times’ then-executive editor Bill Keller to shelve the story. In 2005, with Risen ready to publish the NSA story as part of his new book, The New York Times beat him to it and published the original story. Risen won a Pulitzer Prize.
The Times’ willingness to bend to the will of the White House shows there doesn’t need to be explicit bribery; our “newspaper of record” is deeply enmeshed in our political elite. Its coverage of the Democratic primaries shows that the newspaper’s endorsement of Hillary Clinton goes well beyond the editorial board. Throughout this campaign, it has consistently chosen to focus on polls rather than records, quotes rather than facts, and has proven a faithful mouthpiece of the Clinton candidacy. It seems to have abdicated its mission to write “without fear or favor,” and one can only imagine what a robust watchdog it would be to a second Clinton administration.