God Is Mark Pryor's Running Mate
Arkansas Sen. Mark Pryor is facing an arduous battle in 2014 against Republican Rep. Tom Cotton, and a new statewide ad released by Pryor's campaign shows him tightening his Bible belt. Watch:
"I'm not ashamed to say that I believe in God, and I believe in His word," Pryor tells the camera. "The Bible teaches us no one has all the answers—only God does—and neither political party is always right. This is my compass, my North Star. It gives me comfort and guidance to do what's best for Arkansas."
Compare that to this ad released by Tom Cotton's campaign last week showing Cotton's (objectively delightful) mother extolling her son's military service in Afghanistan. The University of Arkansas puts Pryor's approval rating at 33 percent, down from 51 percent in 2012.
Arkansans are socially conservative, yes, but they aren't totally dogmatic either: Forty-six percent of those polled say there should be no legal recognition of same-sex relationships, but 78 percent said gay people shouldn't face workplace discrimination.
Howard Kurtz and the Daily Download: The Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name
As long as I'm ignoring my book and getting into pointless Internet spats about media, let me compliment Andrew Kaczynski for doing what literally no one else in America thought to do in months: clicking on he Daily Download to see if Howard Kurtz's mini-Spruce Moose still existed. It didn't, but that's not the fun bit. The media analysis site/source of badly filmed Kurtz vlogs, which got virtually no attention until the Huffington Post's Michael Calderone asked why it existed, also had a board of "advisers" who didn't know they were advisers.
Sharon Waxman, the editor-in-chief of the website The Wrap and Teagan Goddard who runs the political site Political Wire did not seem to understand why they were listed as advisers to the website.
“Amusing. I’ve never had anything to do with Daily Download,” Waxman told BuzzFeed. “Howie was a longtime friend of mine and asked me to advise them,” she later added when asked if she was clear she was listed as an adviser.
“I have no idea what happened to the site,” Goddard said. “It’s probably not appropriate to call me ‘an adviser.’ I had lunch with Lauren Ashburn and Howard Kurtz once and spoke to them on the phone once.”
“Not a clue. My role was only to give Lauren and Howie some informal advice at the start,” said Jim Brady the editor-in-chief of Digital First Media.
What elevates this from farce to scandal (OK, a very small scandal) is the appearance, in every adviser's story, of Howard Kurtz. Way back in May, when he still hosted CNN's Reliable Sources, Kurtz daringly devoted an entire episode to self-criticism. Media reporters David Folkenflik and Dylan Byers grilled Kurtz about his factual errors at the Daily Beast and his involvement with the Daily Download. I'll just copy the exchange about the latter site:
FOLKENFLIK: Has the effort that you've expended on that venture distracted you from what were already the duties of two full-time jobs at "Daily Beast" and here at CNN?
KURTZ: Well, I have always had, despite all my prolific tweeting, as a way of promoting this new site, I've always had a -- it's always been a limited venture for me. I'm a contributor to "Daily Download" and paid on a freelance basis. I don't have any equity in the site. I don't have any role in the company that owns it. And my basic job was to make online videos...
FOLKENFLIK: Sure. I just want --
KURTZ: And it's on my Twitter page.
FOLKENFLIK: Of course. And I just want to drill down on that. You have mentioned on this show that you've been a contributor. First, I want to make sure, you are an unpaid adviser and paid as a freelance contributor to "Daily Download" as other people are.
FOLKENFLIK: Has that always been the case that you never had any other financial involvement with the firm, or any stake whatsoever in it?
KURTZ: I've never had any other financial involvement or stake whatsoever. I am a freelancer. My friend and colleague, Lauren Ashburn, who started the site and whose company owns it, asked me to make online videos....
FOLKENFLIK: The reason I asked this, I was told by two separate people in the last 48 hours that from your mouth, you had said that you were a founder in this venture in trying to help Lauren attract grants and trying to help Lauren establish this as a go-to site in a way that, you know, has been trying to do. Was that an unfair way for you to describe that? Or are we now hearing a slightly different version?
KURTZ: No, I --
FOLKENFLIK: Why did you say that at the time?
KURTZ: I am not a founder and I have only tried to help promote the site. And I see it as not being very much different than my previous employers asking me to maybe sit next to advertisers at a dinner or a breakfast or have a talk with the board of directors.
The ellipses just remove some repetitive lines from Kurtz about how his day job was not affected by TDD, and how Lauren Ashburn is really terrific. You can read the transcript here. But you probably can't square the explanation Kurtz told the audience of his TV show—that "my basic job was to make online videos" and that "I have only tried to help promote the site"—with Sharon Waxman and Taegan Goddard recalling the times Kurtz appealed to them to join the board.
"I was under the impression that Kurtz and Ashburn jointly ran the site," Goddard told me today. "Kurtz invited me to lunch and paid the bill."
Right, and anyone who noticed the Daily Download's existence wouldn't have been surprised. Kurtz was the star who attracted its investments. Why'd he ever imply otherwise? (Disclosure: Kurtz was very fair and thorough with me when I resigned from the Washington Post in 2010, and I gained a sturdy respect for his journalistic integrity.) Why, in 2012 and 2013, was he going to the mat for a sort of rinky-dink site founded by—let's be honest—a pretty bland pundit with no real profile in D.C., Lauren Ashburn? Why, when confronted about his role promoting the site, did he dissemble? Why, when he moved to Fox this year, did he give a semi-co-hosting role to Ashburn, who has almost nothing to say about anything? (Watch any segment of the new show. It's a cable news Quaalude.)
You know the saddest part of this? Kurtz has tumbled so far down the pyramid of D.C. "newsmakers" that no one's really interested in answering these questions. Occam's Razor suggests a reason why Kurtz might sacrifice his old jobs for Ashburn, but surely there are more interesting media stories to waste time on.
If You Want Reporters to Check Stories Before They Publish, You're a Hater
Instead of doing something productive, like finishing chapter two of my book (it’s going well anyway!), I spent about an hour today noticing how the Internet had fallen for yet another hoax. Elan Gale, a producer for The Bachelor and thereby one of the worst people on the planet, spent part of Thanksgiving live-tweeting what he said was a feud with an irritating woman “in mom jeans” who complained too loudly about her flight delay. Gale sent her drinks and notes telling her to shut her mouth and "eat a dick." The Internet loved it, especially BuzzFeed, whose Rachel Zarrell aggregated Gale’s tweets and photos. Her post, on one of the year’s slowest news cycles, got nearly 1.4 million reads.
One problem: Gale’s story was B.S. Maybe people should have sussed that out, as he took many photos but none of his "target." But they didn’t. Zarrell got to write a follow-up aggregating more Gale tweets about how he punked everyone. I got irritated, not really at BuzzFeed but at Gale—again, Bachelor producer. This guy, for a living, comes up with ideas that stimulate the pleasure or anger centers of the lumpen proletariat’s brains. He did it on Twitter and captivated the Internet with a complete farce. I ribbed BuzzFeed about this (after all, the phony story was worth 1 percent of their record November traffic) and, after a friendly back-and-forth, politics editor McKay Coppins snarked me off.
McKay and I are friends IRL, and I wish our every Twitter interaction did not devolve into petty arguments, but come on—screw this. Elan Gale successfully hoaxed the Internet with a dumb, mean story. BuzzFeed fell for the hoax, with Zarrell tweeting at Gale to ask for an interview but never confirming anything about the flight. Any news organization should consider this a screw-up.
It’s not quite Lara Logan nodding like a parrot as her Benghazi source lies to her, but it’s the sort of shoddy reporting that would get a reporter at a small newspaper fired. Imagine you worked at the Pleasantville News-Leader and you ran an A-1 story about a fight that never happened. It goes viral; it gets debunked.You think you’re able to just walk away from that by mocking the haters?
Oh, I’m not saying BuzzFeed should fire anyone. It ran an update at the bottom of the post. I did ask the reporter, Zarrell, how this came about, but I’m not going to make some federal case out of this. Gale wasn’t grubbing for money or anything. As hoaxes go, this was mostly harmless.
But it wasn't a fluke. That's the problem. In just the past two weeks, the Internet has been told, by sources they trust (and share on Facebook), that a New Jersey waitress was stiffed on tips by an anti-gay family and that Amazon.com was about to launch product-delivering drones. This was just two months after Jimmy Kimmel created a sort of viral ad for his TV show, a video of a "twerk fail" that was reported by multiple TV news channels as real. Or real enough. Hey, it was a video on the Internet! In all three of these cases, readers were pointed to fake stories that were basically PR for successful businesses or—in the New Jersey case—a scam by a waitress whose collegues considered her an inveterate liar. How many news outlets tried to confirm these stories before running them? You don't want to know.
So I'm a little disturbed by the glib response from BuzzFeed. What is aggregation for, anyway? And are people willing to create a lower standard for "reporting"—Zarrell is a reporter, who has worked for other news organizations—if it’s only about a viral story? Earlier this year, the Washington Post fired an overworked aggregator-reporter after she botched some facts. The Washington Post’s aggregation style is fairly unpopular—the paper wants to have some version of stories on its own site, so that readers stay there instead of heading to Yahoo! or Politico. But the aggregations are pretty bland and fact-based. None of them goes as mega-viral as "This Epic Note-Passing War on a Delayed Flight Wins Thanksgiving." And Zarrell’s story wouldn't have gone viral if she'd decided that Gale's story was too flimsy to run with. She wouldn’t have gotten 1.4 million hits. She would be, today, a less valuable employee to BuzzFeed, and someone at ViralNova or the Huffington Post (which also swallowed the story) would be more valuable.
This is fairly messed up. Yes, people on the Internet want to believe salacious stories. Reporters want to publish stories that people read. If there’s a great reward, and little downside, to be had in publishing B.S., the Internet’s going to get more B.S. As one of my colleagues put it, "'Too good to check' used to be a warning to newspaper editors not to jump on bullshit stories. Now it’s a business model."
UPDATE: BuzzFeed news director Lisa Tozzi comments:
Like a number of other organizations, we picked up on the Thanksgiving Elan/Diane saga early on as it was blowing up on Twitter. We used the word "claiming" to describe Elan's tweets, and updated our post several times as it appeared to unfold—but we should have make that skepticism clearer.
We're not in the business of publishing hoaxes and we feel an enormous responsibility here to provide our readers with accurate, up-to-date information. We have since published an update to the original Elan/Diane story as well as a second follow-up noting that this confrontation didn't happen.
Write this in as a "happy ending." Salty language aside, my beef is with the hoaxers who keep taking advantage of social media, not with BuzzFeed. With luck, this might be the meme that broke the camel's back.
Where Is the Most Money Being Spent on Anti-Obamacare Ads?
Kantar Media has created a great infographic showing where the most anti-Obamacare ad money is going. The map measures the amount of money spent on Obamacare attack ads, and the percentage of uninsured people in each media market. Almost all of the money has been funneled into markets where a high proportion—at least 15 percent—of the population is uninsured.
As Sean Sullivan notes, the map shows us, unsurprisingly, that conservative groups are hammering negative Obamacare ads in markets where Senate Democrats are up for re-election in 2014.
Media markets in North Carolina, Kentucky and Arkansas, home to competitive 2014 Senate races, are at or near near the top of the list. Virginia, where there was a competitive 2013 gubernatorial race, also has a big presence near the top of the list. Mobile, Ala., where a heated Republican congressional primary was recently decided, has also attracted a lot of ad dollars. In all these races, Obamacare emerged as substantial focus.
Sen. Kay Hagan, an obvious target of the ads, voted for the ACA in 2009 but recently supported Sen. Mary Landrieu's bill to extend people's old insurance plans even if they didn't meet ACA standards. In the Charlotte area—where the most money has been spent so far this year—23 percent of the population is uninsured. No matter how much Senate Democrats try to bulk up their moderate bona fides, conservative groups will always have those 60 yea votes to hitch their wagon to in 2014.
Check out the map in its entirety:
The Healthcare.gov Horse Race
With the healthcare.gov "tech surge" being covered like the troop surge in Iraq, and Sunday’s Progress Report on the website being covered like 2007’s Petraeus report to Congress, one could be forgiven for forgetting that there’s a giant policy experiment going on behind and beyond this particular .gov.
To see the media flailing in action, look no further than these two seemingly contradictory Washington Postheadlines from Monday:
Sean Sullivan: Why fixing HealthCare.gov won’t fix the fight over Obamacare
Ezra Klein and Evan Soltas: HealthCare.gov will work. That means Obamacare can work, too.
Do President Obama's Poll Numbers Matter?
President Obama's poll numbers are bad. His second-term favorability has him looking more like George W. Bush than Bill Clinton, as Chris Cillizza recently wrote. But do poll numbers matter for a second-term president?
The going conventional wisdom is that the president sets the precedent for his party, so Obama's poor numbers could ripple out toward Democrats seeking re-election in 2014. But as John Dickerson wrote in June, where Obama's approval rating could do (and has done!) the most damage is in the implementation of his health law:
Health care may be the issue where the president’s slide in the polls matters the most. The Affordable Care Act is the president’s signature legislative achievement and its implementation is the president’s No. 1 priority for his second term, according to aides. The administration and the president’s political arm, Organizing for America, are engaged in a monthslong effort to encourage voters to sign up for the program. Senior Democratic senators have encouraged the White House to use the president more in this effort. If his standing with the public is diminished, it will make that hard sell harder. If younger voters don’t sign up, costs might balloon as only the chronically ill join the program.
Former Clinton strategist Mark Penn has talked about the "Rule of 50"—basically, the idea that once a president's favorability gets below the 50 percent mark, lawmakers feel free to criticize his agenda without worrying about it reflecting poorly on them. Obama has now dipped below that mark, and it's been reflected in lawmakers' response to Obamacare's implementation since the Oct. 1 start date. Some Democratic members have been largely mum on Obamacare, while others have defected from the playbook entirely.
The hellish snowball effect for the Obama administration is that the less favorable he looks, the more Democrats are willing to jump ship, and the more Democrats jump ship, the worse Obamacare looks.
Gearing up for the New Hampshire Primary
No, sorry, not that New Hampshire primary—the Republican primary for Senate in 2014. The field is already crowded with state politicians, but two former senators recently joined the party: former Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown, who beat Martha Coakley in the 2010 special election to replace Ted Kennedy but lost to Elizabeth Warren in 2012, and Bob Smith, the former New Hampshire senator who has seemingly made a living from losing primaries for the past decade.
Smith, who is more conservative than Brown, ran a failed presidential campaign in 2000 as an independent, lost his New Hampshire Senate seat to John Sununu in 2002, and ran for Senate in Florida twice, only to quit each time before the primary. In July, Smith told WMUR he was considering a run for his old seat in the Granite State, but in October said he wouldn't run.
Brown and Smith would challenge Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, the freshman Democrat who won with just 52 percent of the vote in 2008. Republicans need to take back six seats in 2014 to regain control of the Senate.
As James Hohmann writes, Brown would likely have an advantage over Smith in national fundraising. And media obsession with Brown is such that entire blog posts have stressed the fact that he dropped "MA" from his Twitter handle last week. But they'd both face cries of "carpetbagger!"—Smith has lived in Florida since 2002, and Brown is a Massachusetts lifer, though he recently, notably, sold his house.
Plus, "Bob Smith vs. Scott Brown" sort of sounds like a Schoolhouse Rock! example of two candidates' names on a primary ballot.
The Corporate Ethos That Contributed to Healthcare.gov's Failure
Newsweek has a deep dive into the doings of CGI, the Montreal-based behemoth who scored the healthcare.gov project. Along with detailing allegations of shady contract-bidding schemes, the story shows how the ethos of CGI Federal, which beat out three other companies for the healthcare.gov contract, could have proved problematic:
CGI has a slim policy manual and relatively little in-house training for its staff -- unusual for a company that now has 69,000 employees across 400 worldwide offices. Under a “make your own job” ethos, CGI Group generally does not give employees job descriptions or job titles; instead, it lumps their skills into a database and requires them to find their own projects within the company. As part of that “manage yourself” mandate, CGI doesn’t even track sick days, and its three-week “bench policy” requires an employee to find a new project in that time-frame or risk being fired. Most employees are identified as “consultants,” and are compensated through profit-sharing plans. All that traces back to [founder Serge] Godin’s favorite saying: “Nobody ever washes a rental car” -- if you own it, you will take care of it.
That "manage yourself" philosophy may work fine within the confines of one company, but when dealing with multiple contractors and federal agencies, it's no wonder one of the problems with the healthcare.gov rollout was a lack of communication between front-end and back-end developers. Of course, CGI is not wholly responsible for healthcare.gov's failure, and the tangle of responsibility is difficult to pick apart. That should be abundantly clear to anyone who watched each agency rep effuse that the site rollout was definitely not their fault during the House Energy and Commerce Committee hearings.*
But as David Auerbach has written, if you're creating a website meant to service a large swath of Americans, and juggling multiple contractors, you'd better have a good management system in place. One step the government could take, as Auerbach mentions, would be for the government to hire a "schedule asshole" to keep the contractors in line. As it is, Godin's proverbial car remains unwashed.
Short programming note: The Weigel blog will be off Friday, Nov. 29. Happy Thanksgiving!
*Correction, Dec. 2, 2013: This post originally stated that healthcare.gov contractors testified at hearings before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.
Colorado Gun Rights Activists Claim Another Scalp
A Colorado state senator unexpectedly announced her resignation Wednesday after facing the threat of a recall election organized by gun rights activists. State Sen. Evie Hudak is resigning in order for the legislature to maintain its Democratic majority.
Gun control is an especially fraught issue in Colorado, where two of the worst mass shootings in the past 15 years occurred. Earlier this year, Democrats in the state legislature passed a spate of gun control bills, for which two Democratic lawmakers have already faced recall elections and been kicked out of office.
Hudak became the next ire magnet for gun rights activists in the state when she told Amanda Collins, a rape survivor and concealed-carry advocate, that having a gun on hand would not have necessarily prevented her assault:
Hudak: Thank you for sharing your story. Very, very unsettling story. I just want to say that actually, statistics are not on your side, even if you had had a gun. You said that you are a martial arts student and yet—I mean person experienced in tae kwon do—and yet because this individual was so large, was able to overcome you even with your skills. And chances are that if you had had a gun, then he would have been able to get that from you and possibly use it against you. The Colorado Coalition Against Gun Violence says that for every one woman who used a handgun to kill someone in self-defense, 83 were murdered by them.
Collins: Respectfully, Senator, you weren't there.
Here's the full video of Hudak's comments from the hearing:
Hudak's letter of resignation is hardly a capitulation:
Most Coloradans believe that going through a background check is a reasonable thing to do if it means we can keep guns out of the hands of violent criminals. Most Coloradans believe that the convenience of high-capacity magazines is less important than saving lives in tragedies like Sandy Hook, Aurora, and Columbine. Most Coloradans believe that people under restraining orders for domestic abuse should not be able to endanger those around them by keeping their guns. That's why I sponsored SB 13-197, a bill that takes guns out of the hands of domestic abusers and will save the lives of many women caught in abusive relationships. I am proud of what has been accomplished over the last year, and I believe these bills will make life better for all the people of my district and for all Coloradans.
By resigning, I am protecting these important new laws for the good of Colorado and ensuring that we can continue looking forward.
There's a weird symmetry between these recalls and Wisconsin's smorgasbord of recall elections from 2011—first two Republican state senators were recalled, then a third recall target, state Sen. Pam Galloway, resigned citing family issues.
Why Conservative Groups Aren't Too Worried About the Latest Campaign Finance Reform Efforts
The Obama administration has proposed new campaign finance rules that, through the Treasury Department and the IRS, would limit the amount of political advocacy "social welfare" nonprofits—otherwise known as 501(c)(4) groups—would be able to undertake and keep their tax-exempt status. Some of these groups have flirted with the line between being a "social welfare" organization and a political campaign nonprofit with unlimited spending capability.
Byron Tau explains the proposed change:
Current IRS rules require that these groups be organized for the purpose of “social welfare.” The new draft Treasury and IRS regulations would explicitly exempt certain political activity on behalf of candidates as counting toward the promotion of “social welfare.”
For example, candidate-related political activity includes communications within 60 days of a general election clearly identifying a candidate or party.
So now's the time groups like Americans For Prosperity should be sending out apoplectic press releases, right? Nope. They're either lying low, or they aren't all that worried about the rule being implemented. Basically, their argument is thus: The fact that the administration has to change the rules to bring these groups into violation proves that they've been following the rules all along.
"By proposing a rule change, the administration appears to be conceding that they can’t get 501(c)(4) groups to change their behavior without changing the rules," one source close to several conservative nonprofit groups said. "So while they may be able to change some behavior moving forward, it’s also a tacit validation that many of these groups have been acting properly since Citizens United."
The problem is, this is a pretty nebulous way to write a rule. Defining tax-exempt status based on whether a group uses communications with candidates could rope in nonpolitical groups. Interpreted widely, for example, it could threaten the tax-exempt status of any nonprofit group that used a member of Congress in a PSA within 60 days of an election. And even if the rule is passed, the administration would most assuredly still have James Bopp to reckon with.