POLITICS

Republicans Have Always Been At War With The New York Times

06/09/2015 07:23 pm ET | Updated Jun 10, 2015
Win McNamee via Getty Images

So, who's got their dander up, in the world of the 2016 election? By the looks of things, it's Sen. Marco Rubio, the Florida Republican, who was hopping mad on Tuesday at The New York Times. Congratulations to him, for earning his "Beefing with the Times" merit badge, a GOP tradition.

What happened? Well, the Times published an article that takes a rather robust look at Rubio's personal financial dealings, documenting "a series of decisions over the past 15 years that experts called imprudent." There's a litany of said decisions to pore over: the mixing of "personal and political money," a prematurely cashed out retirement account, "significant debt," and some "inattentive accounting." There's even a boat involved, somehow. Great day for boats.

Rubio, as a career politician, will one day cash out and leave the world of "worrying about money" far behind. Meantime, he can't possibly be sincerely worried about his wealth, but the piece has him fit to be tied anyway. As Bloomberg's Sahil Kapur reports:

To the Rubio campaign, this was an arrogant attack on a self-made man who came from modest means. The campaign titled an e-mailed statement to reporters on Tuesday "Elitist New York Times calls Marco's Student Loan Debts 'A Deep Financial Hole of his Own Making.'" Various conservatives unaffiliated with his campaign backed him up.

[...]

"The attack from The Times is just the latest in their continued hits against Marco and his family," Rubio campaign spokesman Alex Conant said in the statement. "What The Times misses is that getting rich is not what has driven Senator Rubio's financial decisions." Rather, Rubio's goal is to provide for his family, Conant said.

Did it suddenly become out of bounds to report on the financial dealings of presidential candidates? If so, that rule comes too late for many of the people working the 2016 hustings. Back in December, Bloomberg's Joshua Green reported on Jeb Bush's "Mitt Romney Problem": A number of "recent business ventures reveal that he shares a number of liabilities with the last nominee."

Is there something to Rubio's complaint that the Times' seems especially insensitive to the fact that many of the things embedded in the newspaper's report, characterized as lapses in financial judgment, are prevalent in the everyday lives of most Americans of modest means? Perhaps, but this isn't a new thing for the media to report on, either. In April, The Daily Beast's Betsy Woodruff published a story about Scott Walker's alarming (or, at least "alarming" to us commoners) credit card debt.

It's possible that the anger Rubio and his allies are manifesting today at the Grey Lady may be mostly over yesterday's news, specifically a June 5 piece in the Times that documented that Rubio and his wife Jeanette "had a combined 17 citations" for various driving violations over many years. Or, as a Miami native might contextualize the story: Marco and Jeanette Rubio are some of the Sunshine State's better drivers.

The Times' piece on the Rubio family's moving violations was almost universally derided as something that wasn't worth publishing. But it's likely this weird campaign story -- quite understandably -- planted a seed of ire in Rubio that is now blooming and, as Bloomberg's Kapur notes, joining many other flowers in the garden: "If going to war with the New York Times is a rite of passage for Republican presidential candidates, Marco Rubio's moment has come early."

Same as it ever was, folks. From as far back as that time President George W. Bush referred to reporter Adam Clymer as a "major league asshole from The New York Times," conservatives have alternated between airing operatic grievances about the paper in public, to reveling in the perceived mutual animosity as a form of political performance art.

It's hardly a secret that Republican politicians prefer to portray the Paper Of Record as an elitist and out-of-touch outpost, created for and by the East Coast's liberal intelligentsia. If anything, that's just the way conservatives compliment the Times. You should hear them when they actually want to bloody their knuckles. That's when you get people like Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) calling the paper "apologists for terrorists," and one-time presidential aspirant Herman Cain accusing it of being akin to the Ku Klux Klan, simply for publishing an opinion piece with which he disagreed.

Rubio's not the first person in the 2016 campaign to feel slighted by the Times. When the Times' Nate Cohn published "Why Ted Cruz Is Such A Long Shot" -- a poli-sci analysis of Cruz' challenges as a presidential candidate -- Cruz responded by calling the paper "a leftist rag." Of course, "left vs. right" had little to do with the conclusions Cohn reached, but the idea that Cohn was somehow biased likely didn't factor much into Cruz's response, either. Cruz just did what comes naturally -- keep his base engaged and positive with a shot at the New York paper.

To a certain extent, a Republican almost has to be ready to put the Times on blast, just to please the base. Jeb Bush once told Fox News Radio's "Kilmeade And Friends": "I don’t read The New York Times to be honest with you, so I guess you’re going to force me to do so.” As it turned out, that wasn't entirely true, and there was a paper trail to demonstrate otherwise.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie told the same CPAC audience that he was not a subscriber, and that he had recently given up the paper for Lent, all in the space of a few contradictory minutes. Whatever the truth was, in these instances, smacking the Times had to be done. They certainly wouldn't have wanted to make the mistake of complimenting the newspaper, as Tucker Carlson once famously did, to some amount of regret.

Of course, as long as we're keeping score here, it's worth noting that Democratic politicians and their allies also are apt to complain about Times coverage. If you cast your mind back to the 2000 campaign, you might remember that Bob Somerby's regular criticism of Times shallow-ender Kit Seelye was the stuff of political blogging legend. Closer to the here and now, Media Matters has been on the warpath with the Times for some time, deriding everything from the paper's cozy arrangements with Clinton Cash author Peter Schweizer to Maureen Dowd's bizarre columns. The organization's contention is that "since the beginning of the year, Republicans are routinely given positive characterizations and compliments, while presumptive Democratic favorite Clinton is often not -- and more often depicted on the Times' front page as either mired in setbacks, or certain to face daunting political challenges." (I guess Marco Rubio ends this trend.)

Still, you shouldn't be thought an idiot if you observe that there is a different quality to the umbrage directed at the paper, depending on whether you're a liberal or a conservative. Surely it's not controversial to note that a Republican who's angry at the Times is more likely to characterize the paper's slings and arrows as business as usual, while a Democrat would probably view it as an unexpected burn. Does this variance in reaction help to promulgate the notion that the Times' is politically biased? Possibly!

But one thing's for sure, you're never going to see a Democratic politician wear a Times' slight as a badge of honor. That is the sole province of Republicans like Rick Santorum, who said that his March 2012 dust-up with Times scribe Jeff Zeleny was not a thing he regretted doing. "You know, if you're a conservative and you haven't taken on a New York Times reporter, you're not worth your salt as far as I'm concerned." Mike Huckabee said much the same back in February 2008, when he responded to an outburst of anger from Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) over a New York Times story like so: "If anything, it's helped John McCain and I'm kind of hoping The New York Times will take me on and run a nasty front page story -- may be the best thing that could happen to me, certainly was to him."

I'm not sure McCain agreed on that score. What Huckabee's glib comment masked was the fact that McCain had a very worthy complaint. The Times had just published its infamous "Vicki Iseman story" -- a fluffed-out nothing-burger bun that laid out a hilariously unsubstantiated claim about McCain acting "inappropriately" with Iseman, an Alcade & Fay lobbyist. It was one of the most cynical stories penned during the 2008 campaign. It outraged both the McCain camp and Iseman's employers, and perhaps treated McCain confidant John Weaver the poorest of all. (Weaver's zealous defense of McCain was packaged by the Times as a "methinks the McCain defender doth protest too much" signal that something was, indeed, afoot.)

All of which demonstrates that the standard Republican positioning against The New York Times isn't entirely unearned, and where the Times has earned it, the complaints often come from pieces that really didn't need to be published, like last week's bit of faff over the Rubio family's automotive misadventures. Did we need to know about that? Not really.

But as the journalism industry hasn't yet figured out a way to monetize restraint, here we are, welcoming Marco Rubio to a proud ideological tradition. Perhaps Rubio had a better cause for anger last week than he does today. Based on the context and the content of those two Rubio stories, that's how I'd conclude. Either way: enemy sighted, enemy met.

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