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Paul Waldman

Paul Waldman is a weekly columnist and senior writer for The American Prospect. He also writes for the Plum Line blog at The Washington Post and The Week and is the author of Being Right is Not Enough: What Progressives Must Learn From Conservative Success.

Recent Articles

Why Do We Worry So Much About Cable News When Its Audience Is So Small?

The Pew Research Center's latest State of the News Media report is out, and as usual it has all kinds of interesting data about things like the slow-motion demise of the newspaper industry (an exaggeration, but only slightly) and the diminished state of network news. But for the moment I want to look at cable news, a medium that occupies a great deal of the attention of people like me who comment on the media. Take a look at this graph:

Pew Research Center (Nielsen Media Research Data)

 

Those numbers go up and down week to week, and they'll probably increase some in 2016 as we get into a presidential campaign, but still, we're talking about a median combined audience in prime time of Fox, CNN, and MSBNC combined of less than 3 million, or fewer than one in a hundred Americans. So why should we care about the latest outrageous thing Bill O'Reilly said?

It isn't completely illogical. Cable news matters in part because those 3 million include a lot of influential people. And cable can set an agenda for other media; one of the reasons Fox News exists is to push stories helpful to Republicans and harmful to Democrats into the rest of the media by hammering on them relentlessly (sometimes they succeed at this, and sometimes they fail). Also, cable news has two basic topics: breaking news and politics, both of which are things the people who write about news and politics are interested in.

But I think the main reason we media analysts are interested in cable news is that it's full of personalities in a way other media aren't. As horrifying as the thought may be, local TV news remains the top source of information for Americans; around 24 million people watch their late-night local broadcasts, while 23 million watch the early evening broadcast. That dwarfs the audience for cable news, but people only know the local news anchors in their city, and even they are pretty much interchangeable; you could switch from your local NBC affiliate to your local CBS affiliate at 6 o'clock, and you'd probably be getting pretty much the same thing. But that's not the case if you switched between Sean Hannity and Chris Hayes.

And unlike the people who produce content for other media, we see them in full. Most readers don't pay attention to the bylines on the newspaper stories they read, and even if they did, all they would know about that person is a name. NPR has a much bigger audience than cable news as well, but those are just voices that don't have faces attached to them, and what personality they do have tends to be shaped into that smooth, friendly, reassuring, serious-with-just-the-slightest-hint-of-whimsy NPR persona. Do Audie Cornish and Melissa Block seem like totally different people to you? Maybe in real life they're nothing alike, but not on the air.

So like so much else, cable news is interesting because it revolves around distinct and distinctive protagonists and antagonists, in a way most other news media don't. Even if you can't bear to watch more than a few minutes of it at a time.

Photo of the Day, Preparing for the Night Edition

Baltimore police preparing for more protests in the wake of Freddie Gray's death.

Finding Meaning In Campaign Coverage

I have a confession to make: When the presidential campaign begins, I not only feel some excitement, as you might expect from someone interested enough in politics to write about it every day, but I also get a feeling you might call relief. For the following 18 months, I know that one of the most challenging parts of my job—finding things to write about on very short notice—will be substantially easier.

One of the big challenges of blogging or writing on a daily basis is being able to look at what's going on in the world and come up with something valuable, or at least interesting, to say about it. And that usually (not always, but usually) requires some new development that adds information, changes something, or reinforces things you've already been thinking, which will allow you to write something (seemingly) fresh about it.

That means that doing daily writing gets easier in campaign season, because it's always changing (in at least some trivial way) and so much of it is public. Sit down at your desk in the morning and a bunch of stuff will have happened since yesterday. There will be a new poll, a candidate will have given a speech on a topic they haven't addressed before, or maybe somebody said something outrageous you can get worked up about. In contrast, the news of what happens when there isn't a campaign on often comes slower and can be harder to find. There might be a fascinating policy initiative in the works over at the Department of Labor, but unless that's your specific beat and you are keyed in to the developments there, you probably won't hear about it until it's officially presented. But the campaign is easy to find.

There's an accompanying danger, which is that if you're writing about the campaign every day you can get bogged down in the trivia of that daily back-and-forth and lose sight of what the whole thing is supposed to be about. The world doesn't actually need the fiftieth article about yesterday's "gaffe," though it might need the first article on a policy topic the next president will confront that hasn't gotten any notice. Jay Smooth is contemplating the temptation to get mired in the horse race part of the story, and he's come to a decision:

Will I take Smooth's "50-50 horse race/human race challenge"? Well...I like the idea, but in a way I feel like I already do that, at least insofar as I try to bring a broader perspective to even the most ephemeral stories. I'm not sure what side of the ledger it falls on when you look at a seemingly trivial matter, step back and try to answer whether it means anything or not, why we get sucked into talking about it, what it would mean if things like that actually have an impact on the race, and so on.

For instance, back in 2008 there was one of these miniature controversies about air pressure in tires, which you've surely forgotten about by now. Gas prices were high, and at one point Barack Obama suggested that keeping your tires properly inflated is a good way to save gas. The McCain campaign hooted in glee, literally passing out tire pressure gauges to mock Obama and sending their candidate to do a photo-op in front of an oil rig. In and of itself, the argument was meaningless, but I wrote a piece about it that I rather liked (titled "I'm Sigmund Freud, and I Approve This Message") pointing out the obvious symbolism of the tire gauge vs. the oil drill, and connecting it to previous campaigns in which Republicans tried to paint Democratic candidates as being insufficiently manly.

Is that horse race or human race? That particular piece wasn't about the policy consequences of the campaign, but I was trying to contextualize the controversy of the moment and say something broader about American politics, which I hope is more useful for readers than just asking whether tomorrow's tracking poll is going to tick up or down. I write about the details of policy quite a bit, but I also do a lot of meta-coverage, which some might argue is no more substantive than ruminating on the latest poll. But it's important to think about how we receive, process, and understand the news in general and the campaign in particular, because it's the informational ocean in which we're all swimming. There's no better time than a campaign, when people are actually paying attention, to examine what the news looks like, what kinds of assumptions are embedded within it, what we're taking from it, and how it might be altering our perspective on the world.

The impulse to just get sucked into the who's-winning-the-morning vortex is something you have to keep checking constantly. Smooth alludes to something I've noted before: one of the reasons there's so much horse race coverage is that if it's your job to write about politics, you almost certainly find the horse race stuff interesting. Campaigns are about tremendously consequential issues, but they're also a dramatic contest between two (or in the case of the primaries, many) antagonists. Most of them are interesting characters, even the ones who might not seem interesting at first (for example, for some strange reason I find Mitt Romney utterly fascinating).  

Of course, it isn't a journalist or commentator's job just to talk about what they find interesting; they're also supposed to be informing the public. But just as there are multiple varieties of drivel, there are many meaningful ways you can analyze the ongoing campaign. Lengthy analyses of the candidates' policy proposals are absolutely vital, but they're not the only valuable kind of coverage.

Photo of the Day, Mourning in Baltimore Edition

The casket with the body of Freddie Gray is taken from a hearse at New Shiloh Baptist Church prior to the start of his funeral service, April 27, 2015 in Baltimore, Maryland. Gray, 25, was arrested for possessing a switch blade knife April 12 outside the Gilmor Homes housing project on Baltimore's west side. According to his attorney, Gray died a week later in the hospital from a severe spinal cord injury he received while in police custody. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Why Hillary Clinton Is Getting a Bum Rap On the Uranium Deal

I'll give Peter Schweizer this: Not since the Swift Boat veterans has someone gotten as much press coverage for their critical book about a presidential candidate. And though his book, Clinton Cash, hasn't come out yet, and it may well contain stories that really do point to malfeasance on Hillary Clinton's part related to contributions to the Clinton Foundation, the story this book rollout has led with—about the approval of a sale of a uranium mining concern to a Russian company—has some real problems. I did a rundown at the Plum Line today, but there's one key point I want to focus on.

This sale had to be approved by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), which is an inter-agency group made up of the heads of nine different federal departments. The whole question here is whether the fact that the Clinton Foundation got contributions from people with an interest in seeing that sale approved led to Hillary Clinton exercising influence over the sale. Schweizer argues that you don't need an explicit quid pro quo for something like that to be problematic or even illegal, which is true. The problem with this case is that there doesn't seem to be any quo at all. The guy who was the State Department's representative on CFIUS says Clinton didn't intervene in the matter, and for the moment we don't have any information to suggest she was involved in the decision in any way. Here's some of what I wrote today:

Even if Clinton had wanted to make sure the sale was approved, it wouldn't have been possible for her to do it on her own. CFIUS is made up of not only the Secretary of State, but also the secretaries of Treasury, Justice, Homeland Security, Commerce, Defense, and Energy, as well as the heads of the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative and the Office of Science and Technology Policy. The Director of National Intelligence and the Secretary of Labor are non-voting members, and CFIUS's work is also observed by representatives of other agencies like the National Security Council and the Office of Management and Budget. The idea that Clinton could have convinced all those officials and all those departments to change their position on the sale, even if she had wanted to, borders on the absurd.

Furthermore, the official who was the State Department's representative on CFIUS at the time, Jose Hernandez, told Time magazine that Clinton did not participate in the evaluation of this deal: “Secretary Clinton never intervened with me on any CFIUS matter,” he said.

So in this case, we have no evidence of a quid pro quo, and we don't have evidence that Hillary Clinton took any action at all with regard to this sale, in favor of the interests of the donors or otherwise. In interviews, Schweizer has referred repeated to "dozens of examples" and "a pattern" in which donations are made to the foundation and official action by Hillary Clinton occurs thereafter. His book hasn't come out, so we don't yet know what he's referring to, but in the uranium case, there doesn't appear to be any official action Hillary Clinton took one way or another.

Schweizer was pressed on that point yesterday by both Chris Wallace and George Stephanopoulos, and he gave essentially the same answer both times. Here's what he said on Fox News Sunday:

Well, here's what's important to keep in mind: it was one of nine agencies, but any one of those agencies had veto power. So, she could have stopped the deal. So, what's interesting about this, of all those nine agencies, who was the most hawkish on these types of issues? Hillary Clinton.

So the alleged wrongdoing isn't that Clinton helped the people who gave donations to the foundation, it's that she failed to oppose them, something that the secretaries of defense, treasury, and all the other agencies also failed to do, with or without donations to foundations controlled by members of their families. Schweizer repeatedly compared Clinton to former Virginia governor Bob McDonnell, who was convicted of corruption, and Sen. Bob Menendez, who is currently under indictment, arguing that in those cases there also wasn't direct evidence of a quid pro quo. But in those cases there were specific acts that the officials took in support of the person who had lavished gifts on them. In this case, Schweizer's criticism of Clinton rests on the fact that she failed to intervene in the sale, and came to the same conclusion about it as the heads of eight other agencies did.

Anyone who's been reading my work here knows that I'm hardly a reflexive cheerleader for Hillary Clinton. I've criticized her plenty in the past, and I'm sure I'll have grounds to criticize her in the future. But on this particular case, it doesn't seem like she did anything wrong. Schweizer's argument is essentially that we have to keep looking to figure out the connection. But if he can't even come up with the official action that was supposedly influenced by contributions to the Clinton Foundation, then he has no leg to stand on.

Does the fact that the Clinton Foundation took contributions from foreign sources who had interests before the U.S. government warrant some examination? Absolutely. Investigative reporters should check all those contributors out. And frankly, I would be surprised if those donors didn't hope that their contributions would buy them some good will (even if the money was going to good purposes). The real question, though, is what Hillary Clinton did.

It certainly would have been preferable if the Clinton Foundation had stopped accepting foreign contributions completely when Hillary became secretary of state. Given everything that's happened in the past, she had a particular obligation to stay 100 miles from anything carrying even the faintest whiff of ethically questionable behavior. She obviously didn't stay far enough away. But that doesn't mean she actually did anything wrong, at least not in this case. 

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