Newsmax's Election, Part 1: The Bias Is Back
It never really went away, of course, but the presidential campaign allowed its biased and misleading ways to return to prominence in attacking Barack Obama.
By Terry Krepel
When it was first founded in the late 1990s as an extension of Christopher Ruddy's Vortex newsletter, Newsmax was among the most vehement bashers of Bill Clinton, rehashing every rumored scandal and a few false ones.
In the past few years, Newsmax has moderated its public face, adding wire stories from the Associated Press, Reuters and Agence France-Presse. Ruddy even toned down his attacks on Clinton and was even laudatory of the former president, mirroring the moderation shown by his business partner in Newsmax, Richard Mellon Scaife.
But as ConWebWatch has noted, Newsmax's anti-Clinton and anti-Democrat bias never really went away; it just became less blatant as the website sought a level of legitimacy by featuring more actual journalism in the form of wire stories. And the 2008 presidential campaign demonstrated that it could easily revert to its old, biased and misleading ways.
The first hints of it appeared in 2007 with chief Washington correspondent Ronald Kessler's sycophantic coverage of Mitt Romney -- which resulted in some creepily fawning prose about Romney's wife. ("She is unpretentious, but she isn’t shy. She lowers her eyes, thinking, and then looks up directly at her interviewer and dazzles him with that smile.")
When it became clear in February that Romney would lose the Republican nomination to John McCain, Kessler -- a longtime McCain critic -- mostly refused to transfer his sycophancy from Romney, though he did eventually sell out his conservative principles by spinning McCain's notorious temper, which he had previously called a "monumental character flaw," into a positive, portraying it in a Newsmax magazine article as a "scrappy approach" that "resembles the way he boxed while at the Naval Academy."
Instead, Kessler focused his energy on attacking Barack Obama. He was one of the early promoters of the out-of-context inflammatory sermons of Obama's pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, attacking Wright's church as "racist" and at one point snapping: "The real Barack Obama is starting to emerge, and for those of us who are grateful to America for everything it represents, it is not a pretty sight."
Kessler's Wright-bashing came to a head in March, when he asserted that -- citing Newsmax correspondent Jim Davis as a source from a article he wrote the previous August -- contrary to Obama's suggestion that Wright "had not used such derogatory language in any of the church services Obama attended over the past two decades," Obama "was present in the South Side Chicago church on July 22 last year," when, according to Kessler, Wright referred to the "United States of White America" and that the "illegal war" in Iraq was "based on Bush’s lies" and is being "fought for oil money." But there was a problem: As The Atlantic's Marc Ambinder pointed out when New York Times columnist William Kristol repeated the claim, Obama spent the day campaigning in Miami.
Newsmax attached a "clarification" to the article that clarified nothing beyond tepidly standing by the story, while Kristol retracted the claim.
As the summer went on, it became clear that Newsmax would contribute to McCain's campaign less by backing McCain -- at least until he picked Sarah Palin as a running mate -- and more by attacking Obama by making false and misleading claims.
A July 2 article by Rick Pedraza repeated the Washington Post's claim that Obama got a "highly favorable home loan," asserting that "Obama joins Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., and Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., on the list of high-profile public figures who received 'VIP' loans that some now are scrutinizing as alleged trade-offs for political favors."
But the Post article doesn't claim that Obama received a "VIP" loan like Dodd and Conrad (and, Pedraza failed to mention, scandal-ridden Bush HUD secretary Alphonso Jackson). While Pedraza misleadingly described the interest rate on Obama's mortgage as "unusually low" loan rate was actually just 3/10 percent below the average rate available at the time, and the Post never described it as "unusually low." Indeed, as Media Matters pointed out, "average" means that a substantial number of loans were below the average interest rate, and no evidence is offered that the interest rate Obama received was in any way out of the ordinary or the result of preferential treatment. Further, as one blogger noted, evidence shows that the Obamas had excellent credit and a good income at the time of the house purchase and, thus, would likely have been eligible for below-average loan rates.
A July 29 article by Jim Meyers repeated claims from Israel's Ma'ariv newspaper that its publication of Barack Obama's prayer left at the Western Wall in Jerusalem "was approved ahead of time by the Obama campaign." Meyers also cited the dubious right-wing website Israel Insider to support his claim. But that claim turned out to be highly questionable: The New Republic reported later that same day that not only has no tangible evidence surfaced to support the claim, a Ma'ariv spokesman said the accusation is "completely false." Newsmax never updated, corrected or retracted the article.
An unbylined July 27 "Newsmax editorial" tried to play fast and loose with poll numbers, complaining that "Press reports this weekend have almost completely ignored the Rasmussen poll" that showed Obama with a 5-point lead over John McCain -- thus showing that Obama didn't a bounce from his trip -- "to only report on a Gallup poll, which showed Obama with a nine-point lead. Not as good as the Newsweek poll from June, which had Obama 15 points ahead of McCain." In fact, the Gallup tracking poll showed a trend of increasing support during the trip, suggesting that there was a bounce.
The "editorial" then tried to downplay the reaction to Obama during his speech in Berlin, asserting that "the crowd’s size was beefed up by the fact that the event was billed as a free rock concert for German citizens, with popular musical performers helping to draw the big crowd. Scant U.S. media even noted the warm-up rock draws of reggae artist Patrice and rock band Reamonn." It's highly doubtful that anyone at Newsmax has any knowledge whatsoever of the German music scene, much less enough to determine that those bands, and not Obama, were the reason thousands came out to see the event.
(This echoed a previous right-wing attack on Obama, made at WorldNetDaily and NewsBusters, attempting to diminish a crowd of 70,000 for an Obama speech in Portland in May by claiming people were actually there to see local indie-rock band the Decemberists, despite the fact that the band had never previously attracted such a large crowd anywhere, let alone Portland.)
On Aug. 4, the promotional headline on Newsmax's front page read, "Obama's Chicago Named Worst 'Nanny State' in U.S." it was accompanied by a photo of Obama and Chicago Mayor Richard Daley that stated, "Presidential candidate Barack Obama wants to bring Chicago-style politics to Washington." In fact, Obama never served as an elected official in the city of Chicago (though he represented a portion of Chicago in the Illinois state senate), so it's misleading, if not entirely false, to refer to "Obama's Chicago." Further, the article being promoted by the misleading headline and photo made no mention whatsoever of Obama.
Another Newsmax columnist, self-proclaimed Democrat Jerry Zeifman, was off in his own little world channeling Eleanor Roosevelt to bash Obama.
McCain's naming of Sarah Palin as his running mate prompted Newsmax writers to swarm in defense of her:
With a candidate it was actually enthusiastic about supporting, Newsmax attacked Obama with new gusto.
Ponte professed to read Obama's mind in a Sept. 11 column, baselessly supporting the Republican claim that Obama's reference in a speech to "lipstick on a pig" specifically referred to Palin: "Yes, Mr. Obama was doing precisely this. ... Obama obviously did this deliberately but clumsily."
In a Sept. 15 article, Jim Meyers dismissed any criticism of Palin as being pushed by "Obama surrogate[s]," ignoring the question of the truth of that criticism. Offering up a baseless correlation-equals-causation fallacy, Meyers wrote: "With the Republican ticket gaining in the polls, guests on the Sunday TV talk shows unleashed new attacks on GOP vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin, challenging her qualifications for office and her stand on earmarks." Meyers offered no evidence that the Sunday shows criticized Palin because she was doing well in polls, nor has anyone at Newsmax admitted that their own criticism of Obama was based on Obama was "gaining in the polls."
In a Sept. 16 column, Humes referred to "Barack Hussein Obama, who was schooled in Kenya home of his Islam-raised father, who had four wives." In fact, Obama did not visit Kenya until he was 26 years old, in 1988. (The statement has since been removed from the column without informing readers of the edit; another version of Humes' column is here.)
Kessler, meanwhile, resorted to his old scaremongering and other attempts at Obama-bashing:
Newsmax went scaremongering in other ways, too, by raising the specter of voter fraud in order to delegitimize any Obama victory -- a tactic it used against John Kerry in 2004.
A Sept. 28 Newsmax article by Dave Eberhart promoted a "revised and updated" version of his factually challenged 2004 book "Stealing Elections." Eberhart claimed that "Fund details Obama’s involvement with ACORN throughout his career," but there are questions about Fund's veracity. As Media Matters detailed, Fund claims that "ACORN also runs something called "Camp Obama," which trains campaign volunteers in the same tactics that Obama honed as a community organizer" -- but the newspaper article Fund cites as evidence of his claim makes no mention of ACORN. In fact, Camp Obama is run by the Obama campaign to train volunteers how to recruit voters for Obama.
Eberhart also stated that Fund's book addresses "how ACORN led 'the worst case of voter-registration fraud' in Washington State’s history." This appears to be a reference to a 2007 case of seven ACORN workers who were indicted in Seattle in 2007 for submitting more than 1,700 voter registration forms that were found to be fraudulent, many of which bore the names of celebrities or "nonexistent people." But as Media Matters also pointed out, no votes were cast under those fraudulent voter registrations.
Ponte -- who issued numerous attacks on Obama, as ConWebWatch detailed -- repeatedly attacked Obama's alleged association with ACORN, pushing the false claim that Project Vote, which Obama worked for in 1992, was "ACORN’s voter mobilization entity" at the time. In fact, Project Vote was not run by ACORN in 1992, though it later became an ACORN operation.
James Walsh, in an Oct. 27 article, referenced ACORN’s alleged "street brawling, fraudulent voter registration, and voter fraud," stated that "This will not be the first time that 'direct-action' tactics have attempted to 'change' a form of government" -- then gave a quick history of the Nazi party.
(Walsh wasn't the only Newsmax writer to engage in Nazi smears: Brennan wrote in an Oct. 10 column: "Like the German people of 1932, many Americans seem to be willing to put our future in the hands of a messianic leader with abundant oratorical gifts, a questionable and largely unknown past and a unshakable conviction born of a socialistic background that America can spend its way out of a debacle initially caused by trying to spend our way into prosperity.")
An Oct. 27 article by Ken Timmerman trumpeted the claims of "Lynette Long, a Hillary supporter from Bethesda, Md., who has a long and respected academic career," in smearing Barack Obama with charges of "fraud" in Democratic primary caucuses. In fact, Long's blog revealed her to be a rather enthusiastic supporter of Sarah Palin. Further, a Washington Post article stated that Long is "not just voting for John McCain and Sarah Palin, she even took the stage at their rally in Fairfax to trumpet her decision to the world."
Newsmax's scaremongering went the route of time-tested distortions, smears and lies.
An Oct. 14 article by Rod Proctor carries the headline: "Obama's Long Record of Flip-Flops Exposed." Mentioned nowhere in Proctor's article: John McCain's even longer record of flip-flops -- which were also noted by none other than ... Ronald Kessler.
Ponte and Timmerman repeated baseless claims about the veracity of Obama's birth certificate, even though an Oct. 22 article by David Patten attacking Obama for being the "most secretive Democratic presidential candidate ever" also cited examples in which "the Obama campaign has offered to provide additional information to reporters if they have specific questions or issues," one of them being ... the birth certificate:
When Internet rumors began to fly that perhaps Obama was born outside the United States, for example, the campaign released images of a birth certificate that verified his birthplace as Honolulu, Hawaii. When that led to suggestions the birth certificate had been altered, the campaign again responded, allowing reporters to examine the actual birth certificate, complete with raised seal. (In late July, according to FactCheck.org, a researcher uncovered an announcement of Obama’s birth in the August 13, 1961 edition of the Honolulu Advertiser).
a Nov. 1 article by Timmerman asserted that "Barack Obama’s ties to the black nationalist movement in Chicago run deep, and that Obama and Louis Farrakhan "for many years ... have had 'an open line between them' to discuss policy and strategy." Timmerman cited "Dr. Vibert White Jr., who spent most of his adult life as a member and ultimately top officer of the Nation of Islam," as the source of the claim, but as Timmerman also noted, White has not been involved with the Nation of Islam since 1995, and Timmerman's quoting of White offers no evidence of a current, "deep" relationship.
Newsmax ultimately was reduced to claiming that the truth was a personal attack.
An Oct. 31 article by David Patten promoted the anti-Obama video "Hype: The Obama Effect," released by David Bossie's Citizens United. Patten sycophantically calls the film "a controversial, no-holds-barred film that debunks the quasi-messianic candidacy of Sen. Barack Obama" and benignly describes Citizens United as "a nonprofit advocacy organization that promotes traditional American values." The words "conservative" or "right-wing" appear nowhere in Patten's article, let alone as an accurate descriptor of Citizens United.
Patten made a minor stab at telling the other side of the Bossie story, if only to set up a straw man for Bossie to slap down:
The liberal Media Matters stated that the DVD “contains numerous falsehoods and misrepresentations of Obama’s record,” then proceeded to attack Bossie personally.
In fact, the Media Matters item on Bossie and his film does not "attack Bossie personally"; rather, it accurately describes Bossie's employment history, which includes being fired from his position on the House Committee on Government Reform and Oversight in 1998 for his alleged role in releasing selectively edited transcripts of Webb Hubbell's prison conversations.
Neither Patten nor Bossie challenged or contradicted any claims made by Media Matters about Bossie or his film.
And Kessler used his final pre-election column on Nov. 3 to complain that the media was "ignoring their obligation to report the news" by not giving what he considered to be sufficient attention to what he considered to be his one big campaign scoop, Obama's relationship with Wright:
I began writing stories about the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Obama’s mentor and former pastor, Jan. 7 with “Barack Obama’s Racist Church.”
Unfortunately for Kessler, He has long ago squandered any journalistic credibility he might have had through his biased (and occasionally creepy) opining for a blatantly partisan "news" outlet, and his entreaties to other news organizations were presumably ignored as the partisan motivations of a political activist.
Kessler concludes: "The media’s continuing cover-up of Obama’s associations with radical hate-mongers like Wright is a shameful chapter in the history of American journalism." If he's so concerned about such associations, why doesn't he expose and denounce his own -- and his employer's -- associations with unrepentant domestic terrorist G. Gordon Liddy?
In the end, Newsmax's biased reporting couldn't keep Obama from winning, and his margin of victory was large enough to take away the voter-fraud argument it had been building. So, it resorted to talking down the mandate of Obama's win.