During campaign seasons members of the partisan opinion press can provide invaluable services to their side by debunking stories with original reporting, supplying unique analysis, and offering up substantive media critiques in hopes of changing the trajectory of big stories.
But over the last ten days as the Herman Cain sexual harassment story has unfolded and gained momentum, the partisan conservative press hasn't been able to uncover one salient fact or change the arc of the narrative in any substantial way. (And it certainly hasn't poked any meaningful holes in Politico's Cain reporting.) Instead, key portions of the GOP Noise Machine have spent their days playing victim, engaging in offensive name-calling, race-baiting, and making sweeping pronouncements, many of which turned out to be entirely inaccurate.
Faced with the first real campaign crisis of the 2012 season, the conservative media marched into a dead end behind its Fox News generals, displayed a casual disregard for common sense, and managed to embarrass itself on an epic scale. At times the media collective behaved more like a confused mob than it did a group of wannabe journalists.
Just as candidate Cain has to deal with the long-term ramifications of the sexual harassment controversy, the right-wing press will emerge from the saga in a much weaker and (even) less trustworthy state. Because rather than waiting for the all facts to emerge, shortsighted partisans immediately began their knee-jerk, blame-game ritual:
- Cain was the victim!
- Conservatives were the real victims!
- Black conservatives were the real, real victims!
But the sustained outbursts had almost nothing to do with the facts that Politico originally reported and which were never in dispute: While CEO of the National Restaurant Association, the trade group paid out tens of thousands of dollars in cash settlements to a pair of female employees who complained about Cain's inappropriate behavior.
None of that is in question. Yet on his Clear Channel radio show, Limbaugh immediately denounced the story as an "unconscionable racially charged attack." (It's a genre he's quite familiar with.) Andrew Breitbart blogger Jim Hoft condemned as "racist" journalists who simply covered the breaking news story. And Ann Coulter manufactured her annual quota of headlines by labeling the Politico story part of a liberal "high-tech lynching." (Coulter was definitely not alone on that talking point.)
Brent Bozell also seemed oddly obsessed with slavery rhetoric, writing that, "In the eyes of the liberal media, Herman Cain is just another uppity black American who has had the audacity to leave the liberal plantation." (The race-obsessed rhetoric was odd considering there was nothing in the original Politico story that even mentioned race.)
A confused Bozell, always on the hunt for mythical liberal media bias, also claimed that ABC, CBS, and NBC were covering the Cain story too much considering how during the `90's they "ignored" Paula Jones's allegations of sexual harassment against Bill Clinton. (The more than 600 Paula Jones news reports that ABC, CBS and NBC aired while Clinton was in office would seem to undercut Bozell's excited claim.)
More purposeful confusion? At RedState, editor (and CNN analyst) Erick Erickson promoted on the homepage a reader diary that suggested the media was covering this week's blockbuster news story about child sex abuse at Penn State University because journalists "think it will hurt Herman Cain." (As Salon's Alex Preene put it, "wow.")
Blogging at Instapundit, Glenn Reynolds dismissed the Politico article as a "hit" job (and a "failure" at that), predicted it wouldn't hurt Cain's standing, and hinted a cabal of liberal journalists were secretly behind the plot to take Cain down.
During the first week of the scandal, many right-wing commentators wondered why Cain's accusers refused to come forward. Fox News answered that question succinctly with a nasty smear campaign, led by contributor Andrea Tantaros who attacked Bialek for being a "scam artist" with a "rap sheet."
Rush Limbaugh, when not making slurping sounds while mocking Bialek's name and hinting at oral sex, was taking aim at her 13-year-old son and ridiculing him on the host's nationally syndicated program. And far-right talker Mark Levin demanded to know why elevator gossip about Bialek's sex life wasn't being reported as news.
At his Tuesday press conference, Cain claimed he did "not remember knowing" Bialek, and also conceded additional women may be coming forward with harassment allegations. Despite the equivocating performance, Fox News crew rushed to reassure viewers that the candidate had done a wonderful job.
According to many Republican operatives (i.e. campaign professionals), Cain has suffered through an awful two-week period and has severely damaged his standing.
The same could be said for the amateurish efforts of the conservative press.
This post was cross-posted at County Fair, a Media Matters blog.