Published May 29, 2013
The Obama administration’s free-speech scandals of today were repeatedly and accurately predicted by conservative pundits during the 2008 election. Obama’s first presidential campaign launched a series of novel and troubling assaults on its critics, leading many conservatives to warn that both the press and political speech would come under attack should Obama be elected president. Some of the predictions about Obama made by conservative writers in 2008 seem uncannily on-the-mark today.
The first incident to spur warnings was the Obama campaign’s move in late August of 2008 to prevent the American Issues Project from airing an ad exploring Obama’s ties to former terrorist Bill Ayers. Rather than simply answering the ad, the Obama campaign threatened economic boycotts, federal investigations of the group’s officers and anonymous donors, and criminal prosecutions. Although the ad ran locally, Fox News and CNN were apparently discouraged by these threats from accepting the ad. Kimberley Strassel wrote in the Wall Street Journal last week about the precedent this controversy set for today’s scandals. Yet the dust-up over the Ayers ad was merely the first of several such incidents.
I know, because I was incident No. 2. On August 28, just days after the controversy over the Ayers ad, the Obama campaign pressured WGN Radio in Chicago to bar my scheduled appearance on the Milt Rosenberg show to discuss my research into Obama’s ties to Ayers. When the station refused to cancel my appearance, it was deluged with calls from Obama supporters acting on instructions from his campaign. They demanded that I be kept off the air.
A few weeks later, on September 15, a flood of callers, again egged on by the Obama campaign, demanded that David Freddoso, then my colleague at National Review, be barred from discussing his just-published biography of Obama on the Rosenberg show.
In late September, a team of prosecutors and sheriffs in Missouri (perhaps not coincidentally, the home state of the group that produced the Ayers ad) was formed to act as an “Obama Truth Squad.” The Truth Squad, said a report, would “target anyone who lies or runs a misleading television ad during the presidential campaign.” The group was to respond “immediately to any ads and statements that might violate Missouri ethics laws.” This apparent threat to prosecute critics of Obama set off a firestorm of outrage, which the local press and the Obama campaign later claimed was all based on a misunderstanding.
Also in late September of 2008, the Obama camp attempted to force yet another negative ad off the air, this one the National Rifle Association’s take on Obama’s gun policy. A letter to television stations effectively threatened to have their broadcast licences yanked should they air what the Obama camp claimed was a knowingly false and misleading ad.
Again and again, conservatives cited these incidents as evidence that something new and dangerous was at work: disregard of the fundamental principles of free expression, a willingness to resort to intimidation tactics, and abuse of the law to stifle criticism. The national press, on the other hand, either ignored these incidents or treated them as evidence of the Obama campaign’s effectiveness, and its sophisticated use of social media.
Let’s consider some examples of the many unheeded warnings that free speech would be endangered should Barack Obama become president. The initial threat to launch criminal prosecutions over the Ayers ad set off a flurry of brief but pointed predictions. Michelle Malkin, one of the first and most energetic to cover these controversies, warned, “The Obama campaign is giving a glimpse of the future for conservative free speech.” Over at Hot Air, Ed Morrissey suggested that ”bullying people through the Department of Justice as a candidate will cause reasonable people to wonder what will happen if Obama gets elected.” The editors ofNational Review decried ”a desperate call for the Justice Department to muzzle political speech through the prospect of a criminal investigation – a demand that provides a disturbing sneak peak into what life would be like under an Obama Justice Department.”
The controversy over my appearance on the Milt Rosenberg show meant there were now two incidents to discuss, so the warnings grew a bit sharper and more detailed. Writing at NRO’s Media Blog, Guy Benson said, “This tendency to lash out and engage in baseless name-calling not only smacks of desperation; it also may foreshadow an Obama presidency’s strategy in handling unfavorable media reports and sources.” Powerline’s John Hinderaker’s remarks seem pertinent today: “If Obama is elected President, will he appoint an Attorney General who will carry out politically-motivated prosecutions like the one he is now demanding? I suppose we can’t know for sure, but why wouldn’t he? If he demands criminal prosecution of free speech that opposes his political interests when he’s a candidate, why wouldn’t he order it as President?” Meanwhile, five years before controversies over the AP, James Rosen, and Sharyl Attkisson, Ed Morrissey suggested that, for their own sake, national media ought to stop ignoring Obama’s assaults on the press: “Maybe other journalists should take heed. If Obama becomes president and they commit the crime of Journalism in the First Degree, how will these same people react with the full weight of the federal government behind them? If they stoop to character assassination now, what will they do when they have much more powerful tools at their disposal?”
In the wake of the David Freddoso incident, Morrissey hit this theme again: “Where is the rest of the media on this? It’s the second time in three weeks that the campaign itself has organized a brute squad to intimidate journalists into silence. This kind of insane, hysterical reaction to criticism is apparently what we can expect from an Obama administration, and the rest of the media seems content to allow it.”
Once the Missouri Truth Squad and NRA controversies hit, the pattern was fully established and Morrissey was up in arms again. After quoting an Andy McCarthypiece on Obama’s serial attacks on free speech, Morrissey hit the media: “I’d settle for an honest accounting of this intimidation tactic by the national media. For an industry that has the most to lose from the election of an administration willing to use thuggery to silence its critics, the national media has been strangely silent. Perhaps they don’t mind cheering the thugs as long as the thugs sympathize with their policy ideals, one of which is distinctly not the First Amendment and free political speech.”
At this point, the notion that electing Obama would endanger press freedom and political speech was widespread among conservatives. Mark Steyn chimed in, “What Obama is doing via pliable Missouri public officials is disgusting – and a revealing portent of what his Administration would do to its enemies.” Michael Barone warned, “In this campaign, we have seen the coming of the Obama thugocracy, suppressing free speech, and we may see its flourishing in the four or eight years ahead.”
Writing at Human Events, Hans von Spakovsky spelled out the problem: “These actions should cause every American to ask, can Obama be trusted with the powers of the Justice Department, the Federal Election Commission and the Federal Communications Commission? This is a man who wants to criminally and economically punish opponents for engaging in political speech that is the heart and soul of the First Amendment.” Spakovsky went on to warn that federal agencies under Obama would hammer political opponents while letting supporters off the hook, and he complained that watchdog groups that ought to be decrying the Obama campaign’s actions were applauding them instead.
Mark Tapscott, of the Washington Examiner, takes the prize for being the only pundit I could find to predict the abuse of the IRS under an Obama administration. Tapscott warned of “multiple moves to silence critics in the media and elsewhere” should Obama be elected. Charging the Clinton administration with using trumped-up IRS investigations to force conservative think tanks to waste time and money defending themselves, Tapscott said there would more of the same, and worse, under an Obama administration.
Last week, Kimberley Strassel argued that getting to the bottom of the IRS scandal requires a look at the Obama campaign’s intimidation tactics of 2008. That context extends much further than the Ayers-ad controversy Strassel discussed. The full pattern sheds light on the Obama Justice Department’s pursuit of the press as well. By refusing to complain, or even report on, what conservatives were up in arms about in 2008, the national media bears some share of responsibility for the troubles it faces today.
Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.