The Conservative Media Impeaches Taylor and Kent

President Trump’s impeachment hearings began on Wednesday, and after some fairly partisan opening statements from congressional leaders, we were introduced to the proceedings’ first two witnesses: William Taylor (our U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine) and George Kent (a deputy assistant secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs).

Both men were there by subpoena, and answered questions on what they knew of (and had previously expressed concerns over) the hold Trump placed on Ukraine’s security assistance, as well as the president’s controversial communications with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskiy. (Much of the Democrats’ stated basis for impeachment is the implication that the congressionally approved assistance was contingent on Zelenskiy digging up political dirt on Joe Biden).

Taylor and Kent seemed to quickly establish themselves as credible, highly competent individuals — men who’ve served their country honorably, and under multiple administrations. And early in their testimony, they even gave supporters of President Trump some nuggets to cheer for:

But as things continued, and the two described their concerns over the president’s irregular maneuvering (which included the firing of an ambassador, and Rudy Giuliani leading a politically-motivated “investigation” under the mantel of U.S. foreign policy), it became clear that their testimony was rather compelling…and potentially damaging to President Trump.

That didn’t stop some on the right from continuing to find bright spots:

Of course, pretending that this was an important exchange is rather silly. Ratcliffe’s question is a perfectly legitimate one when asked of the Democrats holding the impeachment hearings, but not of the witnesses. Taylor and Kent were subpoenaed fact-witnesses, called on to testify to what they know. They aren’t the ones pursuing impeachment, nor are they burdened with having to make that determination.

To Fleischer’s credit, he didn’t attack the credibility and character of the witnesses. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for some of his colleagues in the conservative media.

While the hearings were underway, Rush Limbaugh, on his radio show, tore into Taylor and Kent, calling them “deep state” operatives and “professional nerds who wear their bow ties, and they have their proper diplo-speak.”

“These guys are simply ticked off that they were not listened to,” Limbaugh added. “They are ticked off that they were not heard… There hasn’t been anything but a bunch of self-important, narcissistic, ‘we run the world’ kind of guys really ticked off that they were ignored, that they were not listened to.”

This went on for some time. Here’s a little more:

“They are from a different world, and it’s a world where they think they are in charge. It’s a world they think they run. They don’t get to determine foreign policy. But in their world, they do. In their world, they are in charge of foreign policy. They believe in their own superiority. They believe in their own competence and importance with a complete cluelessness.”

For a little perspective, one of those “clueless” “self-important nerds” (as Limbaugh referred to him), who had the gall to express his concerns over what he believed to be improper government conduct, is a former captain and company commander in the U.S. Army, who voluntarily served in Vietnam. I’m talking about Taylor, who also happened to earn a Bronze Star and an Air Medal for valor.

Regardless, Sean Hannity shared Limbaugh’s sentiment on his own radio program:

“What you’re really watching are these nerdy guys that don’t know President Trump, never met with President Trump, that speak to the European Union ambassador, make interpretations out of his conversations that actually contradict his testimony, and obviously they have a level of self-importance that is just nauseating to me.”

Aside from the obvious takeaway — that it’s pretty darned funny for Limbaugh and Hannity to be calling anyone “nerds” — it’s interesting that they appeared to be reading from the same script.

Hannity, carrying that script over to his Fox News show, later called the two witnesses “self-important” and “uncompelling.” He said they “seem to care more about Ukraine-first policies than America-first policies.”

Mark Levin, a guest on Hannity’s show agreed, describing Taylor and Kent as “two homeless guys.”

On Tucker Carlson’s show, guest Christian Whiton called the witnesses “deep state crybabies” and said they “looked like people who sat by themselves at recess.”

Carlson himself described them as “washed up bureaucrats.”

Fox News’s Chris Wallace had a very different take earlier in the day, saying that “William Taylor was a very impressive witness and was very damaging to the president.”

This royally upset frequent Trump defender, Sean Davis of The Federalist:

Yes, Davis, who prides himself as someone who exposes unfair media narratives, said that Chris Wallace, one of the most evenhanded national journalists we have, “is every bit as deranged with Trump hatred as the nuttiest guests on CNN or MSNBC.”

You can’t make this stuff up, folks.

There’s a perfectly reasonable (and probably effective) argument to be made that what Trump did doesn’t rise to the level impeachment, and that the Democrats are pursuing this initiative for purely political reasons.  But as is often the case with the conservative media these days, it’s not enough to simply make such an argument. Anyone of notoriety who puts forth potentially detrimental information (or even detrimental commentary for that matter) on this president must be both discredited and burned at the stake.

This serves as a regular reminder that Trump Derangement Syndrome goes both ways, chronically suffered not just by those who can’t find anything right with the president, but also by those who can’t find anything wrong.

Megyn Kelly, on John A. Daly’s new novel, Safeguard.




Krauthammer’s Legacy Deserves More Than Just Remembrance

Last week was the one-year anniversary of the passing of conservative commentator, Charles Krauthammer. To mark the occasion, several of Krauthammer’s former colleagues and conservative media figures paid homage to his memory, both on-air and online. The sentiment was good, thoughtful, and certainly deserved.

Those who’ve followed my work for a while know that I (along with many other conservatives) idolized Dr. Krauthammer and deeply admired his intellect and contributions to the world of political commentary. He was, and still is, an inspiration to my writing. Still, I have to admit that the anniversary caught me off guard.

It’s not that I had trouble reconciling that an entire year had passed. On the contrary. To me, it feels like much longer. And as I was vacationing with my family in South Carolina, and scrolling through some tribute tweets on my phone (as we waited for an alligator boat-tour to begin), I was reminded of exactly why.

Some of the deepest praise of Krauthammer’s legacy, and the admirable qualities that made him a valued voice of integrity, came from commentators who’ve pretty much taken the exact opposite approach in how they’ve chosen to perform the job.

I noticed this same thing last year, right after he had died, and wrote about it in a column:

“Krauthammer had little patience for hypocrisy. He didn’t defend or shrug off dishonesty. He rejected straw-man arguments. He rejected demagoguery and conspiracy theories. He didn’t use whataboutism to excuse conduct he had previously denounced, or to denounce conduct he had previously excused. He unflinchingly retained his character, even as he watched so many of his colleagues relinquish theirs in order to maintain personal and professional relevance in this radically altered political landscape.”

Krauthammer was indeed the gold standard by which political commentary should be evaluated, yet that legacy is nearly the antithesis of today’s prominent conservative-media creed. Thus it sure would be nice if many of those who’ve been expressing their deep admiration and gratitude for Krauthammer’s contribution would take a step back and recognize all that they’ve done to undermine it. And if they could manage to do that, perhaps they could even take steps to help rectify the situation.”

But they haven’t rectified the situation. Not even close. Not the commentators and not their bosses. The conservative media, by and large, has only gotten worse. Thoughtful, intellectually consistent voices are now quite hard to come by — most notably on Fox News where there used to be a plethora of such.

In the era of Trump, most of these people have either been cast aside or successfully pressured into reducing their commentary to entirely predictable Trump-fawning narratives and folklore-esque framings of our president’s greatness that would make the school teacher from Snowpiercer proud:

In this case, however, it’s not so much done in the interest of indoctrination as it is satisfying the network’s most intensely partisan viewers. Ratings drive everything, and if the audience hadn’t dragged Fox News and other conservative outlets in this direction, it would have never come to be.

But this is where we’re at, and if you ever have doubts as to just how much different the conservative-media has become, I would invite you to take part in a fun little exercise: listen to what some of today’s most prominent, self-described conservative commentators are saying about a particular political issue or ethical standard, and then search for YouTube videos (or even tweets) of what they were saying about the same topic three or four years ago. Far more often than not, you’ll find them taking the opposite position.

Even more amusing (sad is the better word) are those instances when President Trump alters his stance on a particular issue or policy multiple times within just days or weeks, and the same Trump-accommodating commentators reliably describe each reversal as the correct (and often brilliant) decision.

It’s a swamp murkier than the one I saw on my gator tour.

Of course, there’s still some commonality with the old days (aka the pre-Trumpian era), comprised mostly of cookie-cutter go-to themes, whether it be liberal media bias, the culture war, or something else. While these are almost always legitimate issues, the discussions of such topics have been largely purged of nuance, perspective, and self-assessment. They’re handled like a lazy reboot of a classic movie, where Hollywood throws out a thoughtless script with some fresh faces, and familiar imagery and punchlines, just to squeeze a few extra bucks out of a proven brand.

What we see today in the conservative media, with few exceptions, is the antithesis of value-added, Krauthammer-style commentary.

Krauthammer’s work and analysis wasn’t beholden to a business model or political loyalties. He took his role in our national discussion seriously because he saw his contributions as a public service and even a responsibility to his country.

Krauthammer’s goal wasn’t to validate, coddle, or profit off of the partisan instincts of his viewers and readers. It was to strengthen their knowledge and understanding of important issues.

How many conservative commentators in the national media can we honestly say that about today?

If you’re struggling to come up with more than three or four names, you’ll understand why it seems to me like a hell of a lot longer than just a year that we’ve been without Charles Krauthammer… or even the nearly two years it’s been since he wrote a political column or appeared on television.

Krauthammer’s legacy is an important one, and it deserves far more than just the fond memories of his peers and the nostalgic affections of his fans.

It deserves to be practiced… continually… and without apology. Tribes be damned.





Why I’m No Longer on the Fox News Channel

On March 7, 2012, while I was a paid contributor at Fox News, I wrote a confidential email to Roger Ailes, who at the time ran the operation.  In it, I told Roger of my concern that while Fox News was more than willing to allow me to challenge liberal bias in the news, at least one person close to him, in a high place at Fox, wasn’t so happy to hear my analysis about conservative bias.

I wrote that “On a few occasions over the years I’ve been asked to comment on some double standard in the media.  Once, the question was about how the media were treating Sarah Palin.  After I went through the obvious – that they were treating her like crap – I made another point:  that there are some in the conservative media whose interviews with her are valentines masquerading as interviews.  That’s when the phone rings and a Fox executive wants to know if I was talking about anyone at Fox.”

The person who called (my agent) was Bill Shine, then a vice president at Fox and now the deputy chief of staff for communications in the Trump White House.  (I tried to talk to him directly but he wouldn’t take my calls or respond to my email. So I went over his head to Ailes.)

Shine asked my agent if I was talking about Sean Hannity, who was a close friend of his.  My agent said I was making a “general statement” about conservative media.  Let me state now that I was indeed talking about Hannity, whose interviews with Sarah Palin – and later Donald Trump – resemble wet kisses a lot more than journalism.

I then wrote about another double standard at Fox.  It was “about how some conservatives in the media went ballistic when [MSNBC commentator] Ed Schultz called Laura Ingraham a slut, then went AWOL when Rush [Limbaugh] threw the same word at another woman.

“Can’t do it, I was told.  Why not, I asked.  Roger will think you’re being disloyal to Fox News.  Really? I see the birth of Fox News as the most important media event in the past 15 years or so.  Fox allows voices to be heard that ABC, NBC and CBS News barely know exist.   When I talk to groups I always say good things about Fox. So how does this ‘disloyalty’ thing work?”

I also told Roger that, “My value to Fox News is based on my being an honest analyst, one without a predictable, pre-determined agenda. Am I conservative? Yes.  But I’m not an ideologue and I think even commentators have to be fair.  I see no reason to mention any Fox person by name – I never have — but answering an anchor’s question honestly – even if my comments point out something the Fox PR department might not approve of — is, in my view, a plus for FNC, not a minus.  It lends credibility to FNC:  Here’s a network – unlike a lot of others – that isn’t afraid to have one of its own contributors give his honest opinion, even if it’s a critical one, about the very network putting him on television.  That, to me anyway, shouts strength, not weakness.”

One day later, Roger Ailes got back to me.  Here is his entire response:

Bernie,

Thanks for your note. Say whatever you want—I think liberals are the biggest offenders but conservatives need to be held accountable when they’re not doing the right thing. Don’t worry about me, I’m actually in favor of free speech.

Warm regards,

Roger

I never revealed the contents of my email to Roger Ailes or his response to me.  I never talked publicly about it.  It was, as I say, a confidential conversation between an employee and his boss.  But Roger is no longer with us – and I, after 10 years as a paid analyst, am no longer with Fox.  It’s time, I believe, to publicly share my views on what’s happened to Fox News since Roger sent me that response.

As many of you know, I used to be a regular on the Fox News Channel, mainly on the O’Reilly Factor, where I was told my appearances were among the show’s highest rated segments.  When Bill got fired, most of the people who were on his show became persona non grata at Fox. For whatever reason, producers, and I assume management, didn’t want to have anything to do with anyone who was associated with O’Reilly.

Despite that, I became a regular on a morning show, anchored by Bill Hemmer – until, without ever telling me why – his staff stopped asking me to offer my opinions and analysis on his show.

As I told a Fox News vice president, “I don’t need Fox’s money or Fox’s air time.”  But I was curious about what happened, about why I was dropped without so much as a word of explanation.

The Fox VP told me that Hemmer’s show had absolutely no problem with me – none. But obviously that was not true.  There was a problem.  And so, I shared with her my theory:

Fox will tolerate a liberal criticizing President Trump, I said, but the network didn’t want conservatives taking shots at him.  Sometimes I defended the president against what I thought was unfair criticism.  But I was also critical of Mr. Trump, of his vindictiveness and his dishonesty.

The Fox vice president pleaded ignorance.  She told me she knew nothing about that.

But here’s what we do know:  Social media would light up within seconds of my saying something negative about the president – light up in a negative way.  Supporters of the president are, if nothing else, loyal to him.  They didn’t want to hear negative comments about a man they supported, no matter how true they were.  Once they wanted to hear what I said about liberal bias in the news.  After all, I literally wrote a book on the subject — a book called Bias. But now, they didn’t even want to hear about that from me, not if there was a chance I was going to also criticize the president.

Producers and anchors don’t need angry viewers.  In cable TV news – at Fox, at CNN and at MSNBC – the business model is easy to understand:  Give the audience what it wants to hear.  Validate the biases of the viewers.  Keep them coming back for more. In that world, I was a problem.

For the record, no one at Fox ever tried to put words in my mouth.  But they didn’t have to. Instead they simply kept me off the air for almost all of 2018 before my contract eventually ran out at the end of the year.  Let’s just say I didn’t lose any sleep over the snub.

What happened to me had happened to other contributors before me. Col. Ralph Peters was a regular on Fox – until he had had enough.  When he left the channel, he went public about his experience:

“As I wrote in an internal Fox memo, leaked and widely disseminated, I declined to renew my contract as Fox News’s strategic analyst because of the network’s propagandizing for the Trump administration. Today’s Fox prime-time lineup preaches paranoia, attacking processes and institutions vital to our republic and challenging the rule of law.”

And there was Erick Erickson, a well-respected conservative whose contract wasn’t renewed.  He too wasn’t pro Trump enough:

“I am neither anti-Trump nor pro-Trump, but a conservative who does not think he is, but thinks he is advancing some things commendably. All news shows on all networks tend to favor a straight R v. D panel and I’m not in those boxes anymore.”

George Will isn’t at Fox anymore either, another conservative who’s not a fan of President Trump.

The important lesson here is not about George Will or Ralph Peters or Erick Erickson or me. What’s important is that cable TV news is not a journalism model.  It’s a business model. Some people are willing to play the game for a paycheck.

I’m not one of them.




Are Conservatives Really Obsessed With Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez?

I planned on writing about a different topic this week, but after the fifth or sixth time a Huffington Post headline reading “Conservative Men Are Obsessed With Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez; Science Tells Us Why” appeared on my social-media timelines, I felt compelled to toss out a few thoughts on the new Democratic congresswoman from New York (and conservatives’ alleged obsession with her).

Let me start by conceding that the headline isn’t completely baseless. A lot of center-right folks do indeed talk about AOC (as she’s known) — perhaps even as often as she’s talked about by her progressive admirers (that include several in the media) who love her youth, energy, and democratic-socialist ideas. It’s not uncommon, after all, to see the 29-year-old’s name turn up in right-wing headlines and in conservative circles on social media.

And of course there was that much parodied dance video from her college days:

So how does “science” factor into all of this, you may be wondering? Well, according to a neuroscientist cited in the HuffPo column, conservatives tend to be more responsive to fear than liberals are. Thus liberal columnist Laura Bassett has concluded that conservatives, in fact, are afraid of AOC.

Cue the song!

This scientific finding of course begs a couple more questions: Why do they fear her, and why is this obsession coming from conservative men (and not conservative women)? Fortunately, Bassett has the answers to both:

“Ocasio-Cortez’s power is a direct threat to conservatives because her very existence in Congress as a young, Latina, working-class woman threatens to upend the social order that has kept white men in the ruling class for centuries. (Eighty-eight percent of House Republicans are white men, most are over the age of 50, and the party’s voters are majority white and male.)”

In other words, it’s AOC’s ethnicity and youth that are making conservative men quake in their boots.

Additionally, Bassett explains that conservative men are horn-dogs, citing a sexualized click-bait piece on the Daily Caller and a tweet from an anonymous Twitter user. She also quotes Caroline Heldman, a gender and politics professor at Occidental College:

“Alexandria presents a challenge, because conservative men or men in general who are encouraged to objectify women are attracted to her, but she’s also ‘unmanageable’ in that she doesn’t exist for them. She is a woman who not only has now formal power, but a lot of informal power, in that she doesn’t give a damn what they think of her. I think it’s a disconcerting place for men who may be used to attractive women seeking their validation.”

There’s much more cognitive liberal-speak throughout the piece, but you probably get the jist of it.

Now, at the risk of coming across as anti-science (as many on the left tend to portray us conservatives anyway), I’m going to offer a much simpler explanation of why conservatives talk about AOC so often:

She publicly says a lot of dumb, divisive, and shamelessly untrue things.

And before people start accusing me of sexism, racism, ageism, and whatever other isms they might be inclined to whip out, it’s important to understand that the reactionary sentiments I’ve described are demonstrably blind to nearly everything but the rhetoric itself.

The reality is that when a populist politician is routinely saying outrageous things that generate a lot of media coverage, people on both sides of the aisle are naturally inclined to weigh in. In such cases, political and ideological allies spin the uncouth oratory with phrases like “truth to power”, “anti-establishment”, and “for the people,” while foes launch into full-blown mockery and condescending Internet memes.

Sound a bit familiar?

One might say that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is the Donald Trump of the Left. And the reactions the two generate aren’t all that different from each other; the teams are just reversed.

It’s not about demographics. It’s about demagoguery.

AOC may sit lower than Trump on the political totem pole, but she and our president actually have a ton of things in common, as The Bulwark’s Jonathan Last described quite well in a recent piece. From the refusal to back down from false and offensive statements, to the incessant tribal pandering, to the fervent use of social media, to the internal mudslinging, these two could be considered kindred spirits.

Yet, no one is attributing the Left’s “obsession” with Trump to his age, his ethnicity, or (hold your laughter) his attractiveness. And any  fear they have of him is tied to either competence or policy… not his “very existence.”

So I dare say that when it comes to political compulsion, the science isn’t settled after all.




Praise Krauthammer, but Also Learn From Him

Last Thursday, conservative commentator Charles Krauthammer passed away. Though his terminal illness had been reported days earlier, along with a characteristically elegant farewell letter that he had written to his friends and fans, news of his death hit a lot of people hard. It certainly did me.

I had already paid tribute of sorts to Dr. Krauthammer in a column on this website. I say “of sorts” because the piece was less about the life of this great man (those who knew him were in a better position to write such accounts) than it was about what he and his legacy meant to me as a conservative writer. As is the case with many political commentators on the Right, Krauthammer was one of my heroes.

Ben Shapiro captured the essence of this sentiment in a piece he wrote the other day:

“Charles Krauthammer is the thinker I aspired to be, the writer I wanted to emulate. I failed; I’ll always fail. But, to be fair, that’s not my fault. He was just that good.”

Shortly after my column was published, a friend of Krauthammer’s emailed me to express her appreciation for what I’d written. I thanked her, but added that there were more things I wanted to say about the meaningfulness of Krauthammer’s legacy — things I felt were important as I listened to a number of media personalities weigh in on his life. I decided that those thoughts could (and probably should) wait until after he had passed. What I wasn’t expecting was to turn on Fox News on Friday morning (the day after Krauthammer’s death), and hear National Review’s Jonah Goldberg channeling my exact feelings.

In a segment on America’s Newsroom, Goldberg paid fine tribute to Krauthammer (who was a friend of his). He shared some heartwarming stories of their relationship, as well as a few of the many traits he admired in his Special Report colleague. He then took the opportunity to get something off of his chest, doing so in an emotional appeal:

“I really hope a lot of my friends and colleagues on the right, who are now in this sort of ‘say anything conceivably possible, no matter how nasty and vicious it is, so long as it makes liberals angry’ — [which] seems to be one of the motivating passions on the right among a lot of my friends these days. And it’s destroying conservatism. That wasn’t Charles. And all of the people who are celebrating his life and his contribution: maybe they should take a few seconds and think about how he modeled a different way. He never gave an inch when he was on principle. He never gave an inch when he thought he was right. But he wasn’t vicious and cruel. He didn’t mock children with Down Syndrome who were in a cage. He didn’t do anything like that, that we see so much of on the right these days, because he was a decent man who took the higher road even though he was in a wheelchair.”

Goldberg took some heat online for closing out the segment in such fashion, primarily from Trump supporters who interpreted his words as a veiled shot at the president (at the expense of Krauthammer’s memory). Of course, Trump wasn’t the target of his criticism. He was referring to those in the conservative media who’ve been — in the era of Trump — reducing conservatism to a doctrine of impassioned anti-Left rancor.

His description was accurate, and we know why it has happened. It’s a cultural byproduct of an election cycle that often associated derision with courage, and malice with strength. In its path and in its wake, opportunistic media figures have increasingly pandered to a transformed, more tribal political base in order to generate bigger ratings, listenership, and readership.

And no, the liberal media isn’t any better. Many on that side of the aisle have been doing the same things, and for a longer time. But we were supposed to be different, and we no longer are.

For the conservatives who don’t fit into this new base, it has been jaw-dropping to listen to some of the Modern Right’s worst offenders praise Krauthammer for espousing traits and principles that they have not only abandoned, but have been downright hostile to over the past few years. It’s not that I would expect or prefer these people to deride Krauthammer, especially at a time when his death is being mourned and his life is being celebrated. On the contrary. I’m glad that respects are being paid (no matter who’s paying them).

But if these individuals are going to portray Krauthammer as the gold standard of his profession (which many of them have), one would hope they would exercise a little self-reflection over their choice to resoundingly reject the professional standards he conducted himself by.

A lot has been made of Krauthammer’s kindness and thoughtfulness, and we can all stand to improve in those areas. But what made his commentary so valuable was his unwillingness to put politics before principles. His views were formulated through earnest (sometimes intense) examination of facts, practices and policies, and they were always grounded in decency. Those views didn’t change in accordance with which party held power in Washington, or with which politicians’ capital or personal egos might be damaged by his assessment of them.

What motivated Krauthammer wasn’t popularity or job security. His interest was in the betterment of society and the advancement of peace and prosperity. He respected his audience enough to be honest with them, even when what he had to say wasn’t what they wanted to hear.

Krauthammer had little patience for hypocrisy. He didn’t defend or shrug off dishonesty. He rejected straw-man arguments. He rejected demagoguery and conspiracy theories. He didn’t use whataboutism to excuse conduct he had previously denounced, or to denounce conduct he had previously excused. He unflinchingly retained his character, even as he watched so many of his colleagues relinquish theirs in order to maintain personal and professional relevance in this radically altered political landscape.

Krauthammer was indeed the gold standard by which political commentary should be evaluated, yet that legacy is nearly the antithesis of today’s prominent conservative-media creed. Thus it sure would be nice if many of those who’ve been expressing their deep admiration and gratitude for Krauthammer’s contribution would take a step back and recognize all that they’ve done to undermine it. And if they could manage to do that, perhaps they could even take steps to help rectify the situation.

It’s a nice thought, but at a time when constructive analysis and intellectual consistency comprise a far riskier revenue model than tribal warfare, I just don’t see it happening. It’s a damn shame, especially being that Krauthammer’s death, and these important discussions about his life, provide such a strong opportunity for reassessment.

Still, one can always hope.