Sunday, February 15, 2015

More Rand Paul media coverage nonsense

Episode #2 of the Bullshit Media Coverage of Rand Paul Chronicles picks up where we left off in Episode #1: this whole vaccine business (you can read Episode 1 in the Chronicles here, for some helpful background).

On February 5th, The Washington Post posted this article as a news feature (not under the opinion section, mind you). Co-author David A. Fahrenthold has a history of reporting negative things about Paul, so much so that he inspired these September 2014 protests from the Paul camp. Their text is highlighted in blue, while my responses are in black. Paragraph breaks may sometimes be added or subtracted from their original text, and accompanying pictures (usually of Rand Paul scowling) have have been omitted.

For Rand Paul, a rude awakening to the rigors of a national campaign

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) found himself in hot water this week over his comments about child vaccination. (John Locher/AP)
David A. FahrentholdMatea Gold February 5
Rand Paul’s plan to get himself elected president relies on two long-shot bets coming true.
So far, neither one seems to be going well.


Paul’s first wager is that his “libertarian-ish” ideas will manage to attract Republicans mad about regulation and Democrats mad about government spying — forming an entirely new American voting bloc. “The leave-me-alone coalition,” Paul calls it.

I pause here to point out that throughout the article, they never return to this point to explain why this bet is a "long shot," nor why it "doesn't seem to be going well." They just say so. In truth, Paul is polling near the top of the Republican hopefuls and usually polls the strongest against likely Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton in a head-to-head match-up. His shot doesn't appear much longer than anyone else's - though it might become so if the media repeats it often enough. This is a classic marginalization tactic: when mainstream, DC-centered outlets like the Washington Post portray Paul as a radical who can't win, everything that follows is filtered through the lens of expectations they've placed before the reader's eyes. Support that might otherwise have been won is abandoned in the belief it is a futile effort. Ideas the reader might otherwise agree with are preemptively discredited for fear of being cast as an unreasonable "extremist" oneself.


The second bet is a bet on Paul himself — a wager that he’s an unusually talented politician persuasive enough to build a coalition out of groups that have never viewed themselves as allies.
This week, Paul’s ideas put him at the middle of a national controversy when he applied his trademark libertarian, skeptical thinking to the question of childhood vaccines. They should be largely voluntary, Paul said, as a matter of freedom. He also said he had heard of children who “wound up with profound mental disorders after vaccines.”I don't think it requires skeptical libertarian thinking to say either of those things. Most people have indeed "heard of children who wound up with profound mental disorders after vaccines," including President Barack Obama. But like most people, both Obama and Paul have concluded that the vaccines are not what caused those disorders, which makes them both safe and wise. Like Obama, Paul vaccinates himself and his children, and praises vaccines emphatically and often. Like Paul, Obama has declined to extend that recommended behavior into a legal mandate, even when directly questioned on whether they would support such a law. Medically, legally, and personally, they agree. Vaccines are voluntary in the status quo, and no national politician that I know of has suggested legislation to make them involuntary - libertarian and skeptical or otherwise.

At times, he has seemed uninterested in — or unprepared for — the basic tasks of being a national politician. 

For instance, this week he “shushed” a female interviewer on national TV. After his vaccine comments drew angry reactions, he accused the media of misconstruing his remarks about vaccines and mental disorders. “I did not say vaccines caused disorders, just that they were temporally related,” Paul said in a statement. “I did not allege causation.”

They say "for instance," and then what follows is not an instance of what they just said. He shushed an interviewer who was interrupting him (and being so altogether aggressive that she apologized a few minutes later) so he could finish his answer and accurately convey his position. If he is preparing for and interested in a national campaign, not having his answer misconstrued seems imperative. For that same reason, he later clarified his comments sensibly, in a way that meshes with all of his other recorded comments about vaccines to date and should have put the entire discussion to rest. How does that seem uninterested or unprepared?

Media distortion is not evidence of Rand Paul's failure to prepare for media distortion. These incidents only give the appearance of sexism or anti-vaxxer craziness to people who weren't listening to the full context of the interview - which is to say people who heard about them second hand, after other media sites presented them with that context deliberately withheld. News outlets cannot allude to their own sensationalism as an unavoidable feature of the campaign landscape, especially when it's unevenly and selectively applied.

Paul could not be reached for comment for this article, and e-mails seeking comment from aides at his political action committee, RANDPAC, were not returned. A spokesman for Paul’s Senate office, when asked whether Paul could comment about his missteps this week, wrote back with a one-word message.


“Seriously?” spokesman Brian Darling wrote.


Seriously, he was told.


Darling did not reply after that.

Context about the prior animosity between Paul and Fahrenthold is important here, but even independently of that, the matter they asked Paul to comment on - "his missteps this week" - presumes he was at fault for what happened in an antagonistic and condescending way. That alone is a giveaway to the hack-job hit piece the article was always intended to be, and explains why Paul's office wouldn't contribute.


Paul — the son of libertarian leader and three-time presidential candidate Ron Paul — has not formally said he’s running for president. But he’s showing all the symptoms. Rand Paul has hired top-flight GOP operatives, has visited New Hampshire and is planning a trip to Iowa this weekend.
Right now, polls put Paul near the top of a crowded and muddled GOP field.


National surveys have shown him running slightly behind former Florida governor Jeb Bush, with his support at roughly 10 percent among Republican-leaning voters. A recent poll in Iowa showed that 64 percent of likely caucus-goers had a favorable opinion of Paul. That was tied for second, behind former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee.


That is better than Paul’s father was doing at the same point four years ago, but not by much.

So if he's second and near the top, why did they say his chances were a long-shot? I guess everyone but Hillary is a long-shot this far away from the race, but I doubt they'd employ the same word choice about Bush or Walker.


He has said his candidacy will work if it catches the country at a fed-up, libertarian moment.
“I think there is a moment that has come to the country, where . . . the ‘leave-me-alone coalition,’ or the limited-government types, [are] the majority,” Paul told a gathering of young libertarians last year. “People aren’t really happy saying, ‘I’m a Republican’ or ‘a Democrat.’ There is a plurality of people, though, that are a little bit of both. . . . We can find that sweet spot, bring those people together.” He would advocate both an old conservative value — “economic liberty,” the right to conduct business without government meddling — with an appeal to “personal liberty,” including traditionally liberal causes such as privacy protections and criminal justice reforms.

A year before the first caucus and 21 months before the general election, it’s impossible to know whether Paul’s libertarian moment will arrive at the right time. The state of the international battle against the Islamic State, for instance, could determine whether Paul’s skeptical views on war seem prescient or out of touch. For Paul, then, it is vital to control the factors that lie within his grasp. In his speech to those young conservatives, Paul said it was important to project a hopeful, almost joyous attitude. “Sugarcoat it with optimism,” he told the crowd, “like a man coming over the hill singing.”

This past week, Paul did not look like a man coming over the hill singing.


You're right, he did not - and that's entirely your fault. You collectively (but especially you individually), as the media outlets who choose which comments are newsworthy, and as the talking heads who choose the light in which to portray those comments, get to decide what Rand Paul looks like, and for month of February you have made a concerted decision to take him down a notch. That was clear before the CNBC interview even happened, when Fahrenthold decided it was a good time to recycle the refuted 2010 non-issue about Rand Paul's National Board of Opthamology. It was clear at the start of the interview, when Evans' opening question began with the words "Did you really just say?". It was clear when her next question began with the words "Maybe you're not aware..." It was clearer yet when her final question began with "speaking of conflict of interest." It was confirmed when Huffington Post, NBC, and the Washington Post plastered their homepages with snippets of Paul's response that indicated his position was the polar opposite of what he'd actually said. And after this article failed to incite enough negative publicity as they would have liked, it was reiterated with a hodge podge of straw-grasping on everything from his college degree to his fabricated homophobia to his alleged doomsday anti-Semitic conspiracies.

“Hey, Kelly! Hey, hey! Shhhhh!” Paul said to CNBC anchor Kelly Evans, putting his finger to his lips, when Evans interrupted him during an interview about a tax proposal. “Calm down a bit here, Kelly. Let me answer the question.”

The "question" Rand Paul was trying to answer here began with "I’m sure you know that most of the evidence on these tax holidays indicate that they actually cost more money than they save…". Next time the media asks Clinton a question like "I'm sure you know that most of the evidence on this thing you support says it's a bad idea that doesn't work...", you tell me what her reaction is. I suspect we might be waiting for a long time, and it's not because the evidence supports her.

On the subject of vaccines, Paul struggled with what might be the first rule of presidential campaigning: Try not to shoot yourself in the foot. And if you do, stop shooting. First, he was asked about vaccinations on Laura Ingraham’s radio show. Paul said that he was not against vaccines but that “most of them ought to be voluntary.”After that raised a controversy, Paul reacted first with sarcasm: “Well, I guess being for freedom would be really, uh, unusual?” he said on CNBC. “I guess I don’t understand the point.”

I don't understand the point either, Randall. Was President Obama also shooting himself in the foot when he agreed that they should be voluntary? What about essentially every other politician in the country, who believes the same thing? Are they unusual? Are they self-destructing? Are they raising a controversy? Or are the people shooting at Rand's feet the ones who persistently try to conflate this common, sensible, status-quo, personal liberty, my-body-my-choice policy with anti-vaxxer lunacy, but only do so for one candidate in particular?

Then he tried spin, saying he hadn’t meant what he’d seemed to say about vaccines and mental disorders. Finally, he sought to play the victim. Paul posted a photo of himself getting a vaccine booster shot on Twitter, with a caption that included the line, “Wonder how the liberal media will misreport this?”

Paul’s handling of the vaccine issue is one of several instances recently in which he has seemed to struggle with the kind of high-pressure interactions that would become run-of-the-mill for a presidential candidate.

Notice how many times in this article Fahrenthold announces that Rand Paul "seemed to _____." He didn't actually say this, but he "seemed to say" it. He might not actually struggle, but he seemed to struggle. He "seemed uninterested". His presidential campaign does not "seem to be going well." This is one of the biggest journalism cop-outs, because it allows writers who pretend to be dealing in facts to present their own opinions: so long as at least one person thinks X, it is technically an objective statement that to some people X "seems" true. You can see why that's problematic when the one person is the author himself.

Last month, Paul spoke onstage — along with fellow senators and proto-candidates Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) — at a gathering of wealthy conservative donors in Rancho Mirage, Calif. Rubio wore a suit. Cruz wore a jacket and slacks. Paul, following a personal fashion trademark, wore blue jeans.

That was viewed by some in the room as inappropriately informal for an aspiring presidential candidate.

Okay. This article has now devolved into unnamed critics second guessing the wardrobe decisions made at a private ranch. Did Mr. Fahrenthold attend this meeting as a reporter for the post? If so, does he also count as "some in the room"? Or was it the wealthy neoconservative sitting next to him who hates Paul's foreign policy views and all-too-happy to invent some trivial criticism? These are the "rigors" of a national campaign that Rand Paul will supposedly have trouble adapting to - putting on a suit?

Paul also stuck out for his tone. He was low-key, almost weary, while the other two were polished and energetic.

Rand Paul is a laid back guy. Supporters would argue that makes him seem more sincere, like he's not putting on a show with false enthusiasm and a phony smile. If Paul's style  doesn't animate you personally, fine, but word choice is everything. When Barack Obama goes casual, he's calm, cool collected, composed, confident, relaxed. When Paul does it, he's weary. This resembles the GOP tripe about Obama saying "uh" too much - attacking the manner in which ideas are presented instead of the ideas themselves. It's scraping the bottom of the barrel.

The rest of the article - a few paragraphs talking about his difficulty wooing neoconservative and socially conservative voters, which I won't reproduce - is actually fair. It's doubtful these voters will support Paul as their first choice in the primary, and remains to be seen if he can win without them. Maybe he can't. Exploring why would make for an interesting article.

But that's not the article the Washington Post published, and there's a reason for that: they just don't like him very much.

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