Politics & Policy

The ‘Gotcha’ Game, Fair and Square

It shouldn’t be for one party only.

I attended the dinner in New York City last week during which Rudy Giuliani — an unexpected last-minute crasher — claimed President Obama “doesn’t love America.” The people there reacted the way you would when an angry uncle explodes at the Thanksgiving dinner table: with embarrassed silence. I had been told the dinner was off-the-record, so I didn’t write up his comments, but by midnight, the story was everywhere.

It quickly morphed from Giuliani’s foolish words — it’s unwise to shoot from the lip on people’s love of country — to what every Republican of note thinks about Giuliani, starting with Governor Scott Walker, for whom the dinner was being held. Three days after the dinner Politico reported that Walker was still “hounded by questions about whether he agrees with Giuliani” and even whether he thinks President Obama is a Christian — something Giuliani never brought up.

NBC’s Chuck Todd, the host of Meet the Press, made clear that he “hated this story in so many ways.” Nonetheless, he led his show with it. On one level, he’s right that such stark attacks are “eventually network and cable catnip” for the media. Fair enough. But ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, Todd’s Sunday-show counterpart and a former Clinton aide, at least acknowledged the obvious: “There does seem to be a little bit of a double standard here. The Republicans tend to get asked these questions about their outliers more than Democrats are.”

You think? There’s Debbie Wasserman Schultz, chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, who accused Republican candidates of being accomplices to “nonsense” unless each and every one repudiated Giuliani. But no Democrats of note repudiated her last fall when she evoked domestic violence in characterizing Governor Walker’s record on women’s rights: Talking about women, she accused Walker of “grabbing us by the hair and pulling us back.” She uttered a similarly outlandish and nasty smear in 2011 when she claimed that Republicans “want to literally drag us all the way back to Jim Crow laws and literally and very transparently block access to the polls.” Her evidence? Some states now require voters to show photo ID at the polls, a position backed by more than 75 percent of Americans, including majorities of blacks and Hispanics.

It’s one thing to give politicians a hard time. But the double standard of many in the media when it comes to what Commentary magazine calls “perceived thought crimes” by politicians is clearly egregious.

Joe Biden, the man Democrats have nominated twice for vice president, is a constant head-shaking gaffe machine prone to very odd behavior. But, as the blog Legal Insurrection has noted, reporters never ask prominent Democrats if Biden should stop touching women without their consent. Or if Elizabeth Warren really is a Native American, as she claimed at various strategic points during her climb up the academic ladder. Nor do they press Democrats for their opinions on Bill Clinton’s multiple vacations with convicted pedophile Jeffrey Epstein.

I don’t think those kind of “gotcha” questions are appropriate unless the person being asked has made hypocritical attacks on others. But since “gotcha” questions are an inevitable part of the political season, it’s time for the media to spread the discomfort around. Journalists should at least mitigate the double standard that Stephanopoulos identified today on ABC’s This Week.

Media watchers often say that the real bias in the profession isn’t in how a story is covered, but in which stories the media chooses to focus on and which they ignore or actively suppress. Here it’s certainly true that until his popularity took a tumble, President Obama was the beneficiary of enormous media affection. During his first term, the Los Angeles Times noted that “TV’s leading political humorists have largely backed away from their ritual comic hazing of the president.”

The media’s role in tilting the news coverage before he was elected was even more pronounced. Just before the 2008 election, Mark Halperin, co-author of the campaign tell-all Game Change and now a Bloomberg TV host, was asked at a conference if the media had been too soft on Obama. He answered yes, and went on to say that through the subtle choice of which stories to cover and where to deploy investigative resources, the national media had handed Obama “hundreds of millions in free publicity.”

As I described in 2011:

Halperin attributed the positive coverage in part to the historic nature of Obama’s candidacy. But he also noted that only a few hands had gone up in the crowded room when the audience had been asked how many had voted for George W. Bush. “I find it curious that far more time and media energy has been spent on Sarah Palin’s time in Wasilla, Alaska’s, city government in the last eight weeks than in looking at Barack Obama’s dozen years in Chicago politics and government over the last 18 months of his candidacy,” he noted dryly. And Ms. Palin was only running for vice president.

And we all know how free Chicago’s government is from corruption and juicy stories.

The point here is not that reporters shouldn’t have pursued Rudy Giuliani’s intemperate remarks or that they shouldn’t have asked fellow Republicans about them. It is that the hallmark of real professionalism is to recognize that what’s “gotcha” for the conservative goose should be “gotcha” for the liberal gander. Treating both sides equally also makes for good drama, as anyone can tell if they watch White House press secretary Josh Earnest flail around trying to explain why Barack Obama’s 2008 remark that George W. Bush’s debt policies were “unpatriotic” were different from Giuliani’s recent comments.

C’mon, ladies and gentlemen of the press, the “gotcha” game is even more fun when there are two players, not just one.

— John Fund is national-affairs correspondent for NRO.

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