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MRC Special Report: The Media's Obama Miracle

How Journalists Pretend There Aren't Any White House Scandals

Deaths, guns, whistle-blowers and the highest law officer in the land stonewalling a congressional investigation are the juicy ingredients of a story network news reporters would love to cover – if a Republican president were in office. In addition to a quiet media elite, Obama scandals were slow to emerge in 2009 and 2010 because Democrats were in the congressional majority in both houses. When Republicans took over the House of Representatives in 2011, including Rep. Darrell Issa at the helm of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, the story began to change.

In 2009, under Barack Obama, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives began “Operation Fast and Furious,” which allowed licensed gun dealers to sell weapons to illegal straw buyers, hoping to track the guns to Mexican drug cartels, with the hope of tracking the guns as they were transferred to higher-level traffickers and key figures in Mexican cartels, with the expectation that this would lead to arrests. But it all went wrong.     

Only one network and one reporter – CBS’s Sharyl Attkisson – dared to find a scandal, at least until the House of Representatives took the historic step of voting to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress for failing to produce documents in the scandal.  

On the February 23, 2011 CBS Evening News, Attkisson reported “December 14, 2010: the place, a dangerous smuggling route in Arizona, not far from the border. A special tactical border squad was on patrol when gunfire broke out and agent Brian Terry, shown here in a training exercise, was killed....The assault rifles found at the murder, similar to these, were traced back to a U.S. gun shop. Where they came from and how they got there is a scandal so large, some insiders say it surpasses the shootout at Ruby Ridge and the deadly siege at Waco.”   

On March 23, 2011, President Obama appeared on Univision and spoke about the controversy. He said that neither he nor Attorney General Holder authorized Fast and Furious. He also stated, “There may be a situation here in which a serious mistake was made, and if that’s the case, then we’ll find out and we’ll hold somebody accountable.”

 

 

Attkisson was alone in holding the government accountable. Before the story erupted in June of this year, she filed 29 stories and one brief on CBS. ABC had aired only one brief on the June 15, 2011 Good Morning America. In a bizarre turn, ABC White House correspondent Jake Tapper asked Obama about Fast and Furious in October 2011, but ABC refused to allow any soundbite on that subject to appear on Nightline, World News or Good Morning America (which all played clips of the interview.) Instead, on Nightline, ABC found time to air Tapper and the President playfully discussing children’s books and the greatness of Dr. Seuss.   

Even Holder’s admission on November 8, 2011, that he may have misled Congress in a May 3 hearing didn’t shake ABC and NBC out of their slumber. In May, Holder told Congress he’d learned of Fast and Furious just “a few weeks” beforehand. In November, he admitted “I probably could’ve said ‘a couple of months.’” In fact, he admitted Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) had handed him letters in person on the matter in late January. Obama answered Tapper in the unaired ABC interview: “This is not something we were aware of in the White House and the Attorney General, it turns out, wasn't aware of either.”     

On the November 8, 2011 CBS Evening News, Sharyl Attkisson focused on another deception, that Holder claimed in February there was no gun-walking. Holder bizarrely claimed under GOP questioning that his letter was somehow not false, just inaccurate: “What I said is it contains inaccurate information...I don’t want to quibble with you, but  ‘false’ I think implies people making a decision to deceive.” Why would reporters not grasp on a public official saying it’s not a falsehood if it was unintentionally false?    

NBC aired absolutely nothing on their morning and evening newscasts. NBC arrived on the story on June 12, 2012 – 546 days after Agent Terry’s shooting. On June 20, NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams began his program with the House voting to hold the Attorney General in contempt, which forced his hand: “Washington has blown up into a caustic partisan fight...And for those not following the complexities of all of it, it just looks like more of our broken politics and vicious fights now out in the open.”    

Williams sounded like he was angry that someone gave him a reason to cover this scandal. “Those not following the complexities of all of it” could be defined as anyone who relied on NBC News for reporting on the Obama administration.    

It should be noted Chris Hansen, on the April 17, 2011 edition of NBC’s magazine show Dateline, briefly mentioned that the ATF “as part of an undercover operation, actually allowed hundreds of guns to be smuggled to the Mexican drug cartels.” However, Hansen never linked Holder to the operation or even mentioned Terry’s name.   

Hansen’s failure to mention Terry’s name is particularly galling considering his mother, Josephine, repeatedly demanded Holder apologize for her son’s death, most recently after a February 2, 2012 hearing as she called the Attorney General a “coward politician.” Josephine Terry is not being granted the same cause celebrity status that the networks gave George W. Bush-harassing “peace mom” Cindy Sheehan.    

Only CBS put Mrs. Terry on screen, in a story on The Early Show on November 9, 2011: “Brian loved his country. Brian was a true Marine. He was a true American. When Brian was a Marine, he used to always say, you never leave a man behind. And, I think they are leaving my son behind. That’s what I think. And I know that would be a disgrace to him.”   

The networks offered no brickbats for Attorney General Holder. He submitted himself to zero network TV interviews over the last two years. It’s quite a contrast to 2007, when the networks were loaded with hyperbole on the allegedly massive scandal of a smattering of U.S. attorneys fired by the Bush Justice Department. Then-Attorney General Alberto Gonzales tried to put out the blazing story by appearing on five morning-news shows on the same day – March 14, 2007.    

Gonzales was asked 42 questions by the TV interviewers – and ten of them were about if he would resign, including on the Fox News Channel. NBC’s Matt Lauer read from Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus, who accused him of being “an absentee landlord, chronically clueless.” (In another measure of the media’s wildly varying ethical standards, the networks didn’t air a single story when the Clinton administration fired 93 U.S. Attorneys in 1993.)    

When the networks take months and even years to acknowledge a Democratic scandal exists, it also helps to keep the Obama scandals from entering the satire stream of late-night comedy shows. At the White House Correspondents Dinner on February 2, 2012, ABC late-night host Jimmy Kimmel mocked Obama from the left:  “Even some of your Democrats think you’re a pushover Mr. President...They would like to see you stick to your guns and if you don’t have any guns, they would like to see you ask Eric Holder to get some for you.” The networks didn’t replay the joke.