In case you missed it, last night we observed a test of the right-wing emergency bombshell system. It was only a test. If this had been an actual right-wing emergency bombshell ….
But it wasn’t.
In the early evening hours yesterday, Sean Hannity, Matt Drudge and Tucker Carlson started promoting what they claimed to be a “devastating” and previously unknown video of Barack Obama that would completely remake the 2012 presidential race. It would be a bombshell, a game-changer, an “October surprise” that would prove Obama to be an anti-white racist, just as they knew all along. It would do to the incumbent what the “47 percent” tape had done to Mitt Romney, if not worse.
And just to build the suspense, the world was told that for maximum impact, the bombshell tape would be released by Hannity and Carlson simultaneously at 9 p.m., Hannity on his Fox News program and Carlson at his Daily Caller site. Over the next few hours, giddy conservatives practiced their victory dance and whipped each other into an anticipatory frenzy over the video that would finally bring down their hated bête noire.
Nine o’clock came, the tape was released and … ppfffffffffft. Nothing. As in, literally nothing.
I don’t know Hannity personally. Never met the man. So I would have a hard time saying with certainty that he’s a racist fool. But after the way he behaved last night, I have no problem saying that he plays a racist fool on television. The same is true of Drudge and Carlson. In their “big reveal” on Fox, Hannity and Carlson tried vainly to pretend the tape was something it clearly is not, and they made themselves and their followers appear ridiculous in the process.
Here’s the reality:
The tape in question came from a 2007 speech by Obama at Hampton University, a historically black college in Virginia. The five-year-old speech had been reported on extensively at the time it was delivered by, among many others, Brit Hume of Fox News and by Carlson himself, on his ill-fated MSNBC show. As Dylan Byers reports at Politico, “The speech was also covered by CNN, NBC News, ABC News, The Associated Press, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, and the Chicago Sun-Times, among others.”
In fact, the speech was so well known that Politico had cited a portion of it as No. 3 on its list of the top 10 gaffes of the 2008 political campaign.
In the speech, Obama dared to suggest that race — along with the Bush administration’s “colorblind incompetence” — had played a role in the excruciatingly slow response to New Orleans’ plight in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. He was right; it did. Even if you disagree with that assessment, making such a suggestion is certainly not evidence that Obama hates white people, as Hannity and others now try to claim.
Obama also spoke kindly of his minister at the time, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, thanking him for bringing him to Christ. (The speech occurred before the falling-out between the two men.) He talked about the necessity of addressing poverty in the black community, including the need to “help with basic skills — how to show up to work on time, wear the right clothes, and act appropriately in an office. We have to help them get there.”
None of that is new. None of that is scandalous. Yet last night, Hannity and Carlson did their best to pretend otherwise. They even tried to gin up outrage that in a speech to a black audience, Obama adopted a more “black” way of speaking, which they claim to find deeply disturbing.
Seriously? I no doubt speak slightly differently with my Yankee cousins in Massachusetts than I do with my southern cousins in North Carolina. I speak differently in my professional capacity than when I’m having a beer at the bar or playing golf. We all do it to a degree, subconsciously, as a way of establishing common ground with our audience. At this point, if it is truly a scandal to you that black Americans speak differently when talking “among themselves,” I urge you to get out more often and participate in the 21st century.
In other words, this was not a bombshell, and it is devastating only in the sense that it exposes just how cynically and effectively the right-wing media manipulates its core audience, particularly on matters involving race. As U.S. Rep. Allen West of all people put it afterward, “What’s the ‘So what’ of this video? I don’t think it’s going to really go anywhere.”
Elsewhere, other segments of the right-wing media strained to find ways not to dismiss the video as the nonsense it truly is. On Fox News, transcript available here Greta Van Susteren and Newt Gingrich basically acknowledged that the tape is much ado about nothing, yet somehow pretended to be offended at how the media have covered it. Erick Erickson at Redstate took much the same tack, arguing that the video “is damning not of Barack Obama….The video is damning of the media.”
It is an odd argument. You concede that the video is of little consequence, then blame the media for not hyping it to the skies in the name of balance? Even the folks at Fox News understand the lunacy of that claim. If you read its muted account of the video, it is clearly attempting to put as much distance as possible between itself and this “controversy.”
The biggest tell of all, however, comes from the Romney campaign. It is sorely in need of a bombshell and a game-changer, and as it showed in its overly eager response to the tragedy in Libya, it is ready to pounce on any perceived opportunity. But in this case, it has refused to comment on the tape except to note — no doubt accurately — that it had nothing to do with its over-hyped release.
“What is the news?” Romney communications director Gail Gitcho asked in an email to Buzzfeed. “I don’t know.”
Something tells me that Romney will not be using footage of the Obama speech in his campaign ads. In fact, Romney adviser Kevin Madden made it pretty clear this morning that they want nothing to do with it. When asked whether the video was relevant, he said that “Voters … need to look at that video and make up their minds on that individually. I think what’s more important to this debate right now are the president’s policies are the president’s record over these four years. That is going to be the most important topic on stage tonight.”
The Republican National Committee also declined to comment.
On the other hand, the response among many on the left has been to mock conservatives for being suckered in by the hype from Hannity, Drudge and Carlson, and at one level I get that. But I find this whole thing troubling. It bothers me that a significant number of Americans have allowed their hopes and fears to be manipulated by people such as Hannity, who see them as nothing more than marks to be fleeced. They are being played, and it is not a fun thing to watch.
Trapped within the right-wing echo chamber, they have not only lost touch with their fellow Americans, they have lost a sense of perspective as well. When something like this comes along, they respond to it as instructed and then are dumbfounded to find that the American mainstream sees it entirely differently. They cannot understand how something that makes such a big noise within the echo chamber has almost no resonance outside it, so they explain it away as media bias.
It is not media bias. Why do you think the Romney camp is keeping this whole mess at arm’s length? It’s because they understand that “scandals” ginned up for consumption within the right-wing mediasphere simply do not play well among Americans in general. They are professionals, and they recognize the disconnect that exists between reality as depicted within that echo chamber and the reality as experienced by the rest of the country. If they allow those two worlds to collide, they will lose and they know it.
That disconnect is dangerous. It is dangerous for those on the right who find themselves increasingly alienated and estranged from their fellow Americans, and it is dangerous for the rest of the country as well. It is particularly dangerous for the conservative movement, which has an essential role to play in our nation’s future. But it cannot fulfill that function trapped in a separate world of its own creation.
– Jay Bookman