Michael Tracey
Nov 17, 2016 · 9 min read

Note from MT: This is an installment in my ongoing “Pundit Accountability Initiative” series. I would like to reiterate that the aim of these efforts is not to inflict embarrassment or cause anyone distress. I’m sure Mr. Seitz-Wald is a perfectly fine chap. I bear no animus toward him individually. What I do bear animus toward is his role in facilitating one of the worst mass failures in the history of the United States’ elite media, thereby doing irreparable harm to the country.

On February 8, 2016 — one day before the New Hampshire presidential primary — the Super PAC proprietor, Hillary Clinton ally, and former conservative provocateur David Brock issued a “call to arms.” The Bernie Sanders “purity bubble,” he declared, must be burst. (It was reported that the impetus for this “call to arms” was an aggressive anti-Sanders diatribe by none other than Bill Clinton.) Within hours, Alex Seitz-Wald, a reporter at MSNBC, had published a story slamming Sanders’ alleged inability to uphold his own lofty notions of “purity.”

“He’s fallen short of the very high bar for campaign finance purity he’s set for himself,” Seitz-Wald wrote, referencing material he “obtained” which demonstrated that Sanders had attended a Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) event at Martha’s Vineyard to raise money for the Senate Democratic caucus. (Ironically, Sanders’ insufficient commitment to “party-building” would later be cited by Clinton loyalists as a principal reason why he was undeserving of Democratic primary voters’ support. And even more ironically, it was ultimately Hillary’s profound weakness “downballot” that sunk progressive Democrats nationwide, including Russ Feingold, Deborah Ross, and Zephyr Teachout, all of whom lost decisively last week.)

Emails subsequently released by WikiLeaks show Clinton campaign spokesperson Brian Fallon and Clinton Foundation employee Tina Flournoy discussed on February 6 how best to disseminate talking points regarding “Bernie at the DSCC retreat,” the event which served as basis for Seitz-Wald’s breathless February 7 story. Later, in a February 13 email to media mogul and billionaire Clinton mega donor Haim Saban, the Clinton communications director Jennifer Palmieri wrote — in reference to the Sanders/DSCC attack — “We have gamed out this hit.” Saban had initiated the exchange by emailing Palmieri to demand more vociferous smears against Sanders, or as Saban gamely put it: a “simple arrow the heart and the brain.,,,and up his butt [sic]”

WikiLeaks email

Perhaps it was just a crazy coincidence that Seitz-Wald “obtained” the DSCC scoop during this exact time period, within a matter of hours, when prominent figures in the Clinton electoral apparatus were privately mulling how to most effectively plant the story with friendly media.

But one insight gleaned from the correspondence published by WikiLeaks is how assiduously Clinton operatives sought to court, flatter, and fete members of the national press corps, including at ostensibly “progressive” outlets such as MSNBC. This isn’t necessarily surprising — media cozying up to PR hacks (and visa versa) is a time-honored tradition in American politics. But it’s nevertheless illuminating to examine the mechanics of how the failed Clinton campaign’s particular efforts unfolded throughout the 2016 cycle; these granular details shed light on the incestuous and corrupting nature of contemporary digital political journalism.

Foremost among the Clintons’ coveted journalist friends was Seitz-Wald, who has been doggedly covering all-things-Clinton for MSNBC since August 2014, well before the presidential campaign formally began. Thanks to the WikiLeaks publications, his communications with Clinton staff are now a matter of public record.

Seitz-Wald was far from alone in his apparent eagerness to please Clinton campaign operatives. Media figures like John Harwood of CNBC and the New York Times are also shown by WikiLeaks to have functioned as obsequious courtiers; on numerous occasions Harwood paid unsolicited tribute to Hillary’s political skills, which he relayed in flattering emails to campaign chairman John Podesta. (“She was good here in Newton,” wrote Harwood in one January 2016 email subject header.) Whether this sucking-up was done simply to curry favor with Podesta & co. or because Harwood honestly admired Hillary’s chops is ultimately immaterial — it just shows how ingratiating the access-driven press can be, especially among personalities like Harwood who are expected to produce inside-baseball “scooplets” to tout on their various TV appearances.

Seitz-Wald follows in this mold. A former Center for American Progress employee under the tenure of Podesta (who founded and ran the think tank till 2011), the emails clearly indicate that Seitz-Wald has found himself in the good graces of Hillary campaign and Democratic National Committee staff. In April 2015, he wrote a note of appreciation to his former boss Podesta, remarking: “Thanks so much for hosting last night. Nice event. Look forward to seeing you more very soon.”

The “nice event” in question was an off-the-record “press dinner” held at the Washington, DC home of Podesta, at which a handful of journalists covering the Clinton campaign were wined and dined. Queried on Twitter about whether he’d ever disclosed his attendance at this function, Seitz-Wald referred me to a contemporaneous POLITICO article which reported on the existence of the event in only the most general terms. “You can read all about” the partying in the aforementioned POLITICO dispatch, Seitz-Wald quipped. But strangely, there is no mention of Seitz-Wald in the report he cited, so it’s unclear how MSNBC.com readers would’ve been aware of his participation in these soirees if not for WikiLeaks. (Seitz-Wald did reveal that “pasta with walnut cream” was served to the famished journalists. Sounds yummy!)

It appears that a warm partnership between Seitz-Wald and Clinton staff blossomed. Very often, additional emails show, talking points furnished by the Clinton campaign and/or the DNC — two entities we now know were acting in concert, thereby misleading the voting public — would later be dutifully repeated by Seitz-Wald, without much in the way of critical scrutiny.

For instance, in May 2016, Seitz-Wald propagated the falsehood that Sanders delegates were engaging in rampant acts of violence. “Sanders supporters threw chairs, started fights, and booed officials,” Seitz-Wald wrote in the aftermath of a Nevada State Democratic convention meeting, despite a complete lack of evidence that any “chairs” were ever “thrown.” Nor was there ever evidence that any physical “fights” broke out, notwithstanding Seitz-Wald’s unambiguous statement of fact.

Seitz-Wald wrote this story around the time that DNC officials were attempting to prematurely force Sanders out of the race. (DNC emails also released by WikiLeaks show that the party began merging operations with the Clinton campaign well before the primaries concluded, in contravention of their public assurances to the contrary and in likely violation of the DNC charter, which requires that all DNC staff maintain “impartiality” during primary contests.)

Abetting the DNC’s disingenuous effort to force Sanders to “denounce” or “disavow” his supporters’ supposedly violent behavior, Seitz-Wald also transmitted via Twitter (without any kind of critical annotation whatsoever) condemnations of the non-existent “violent” conduct.

“The first line of Seitz-Wald’s piece is a little strong, no?” worried Mark Paustenbach, the DNC’s national press secretary, upon publication of the phony Nevada violence item. “Nope. Chairs are afraid,” replied Luis Miranda, another DNC official who had been in close contact with Seitz-Wald. “Some people are telling Sanders supporters to bring 2x4s to the Wyoming convention,” added Miranda, which turned out to be another total fabrication.

Seitz-Wald is certainly entitled to his own personal political beliefs. If he was passionately devoted to the cause of Hillary Clinton, few would begrudge him that — to each his own. However, over the course of the 2016 campaign he typically put on a posture of feigned neutrality, posing as some kind of “objective” chronicler of the facts. If he had just presented himself as a pro-Clinton journalist, everyone could have been spared a lot of grief. Even so, every once in awhile he let his true views slip, such as during one February 20, 2016 MSNBC television appearance:

Alex Seitz-Wald: She [Hillary Clinton] is right on all these things if you dig down, but it’s the vegetables. She’s trying to sell broccoli and Bernie Sanders is selling ice cream. You’re gonna feel terrible the next day if you eat a lot of ice cream, but for the moment, it sounds pretty good.

Seitz-Wald proved himself a valuable asset to the Clinton campaign as the general election season drew near. In one July 10, 2016 article entitled, “Democrats Advance Most Progressive Platform In Party History,” he matter-of-factly asserted that the party platform was “easily their most liberal platform ever.”

This proclamation must’ve been pleasing to Clinton loyalists and the DNC, who at the time were strenuously attempting to mollify disaffected Sanders voters. (Emails show that DNC officials themselves laughed off the notion that “platform concessions” were in any sense meaningful or binding, and more just a way to “throw Bernie a bone,” as one former DNC official wrote Podesta.) Of course, it was never anywhere close to obvious that the platform was indeed “the most progressive platform in party history” — that assertion would need to be substantiated (one wonders whether Alex researched the 1972 Democratic party platform, for example). The 2016 platform included first-time additions (at the behest of Clinton delegates) of belligerent foreign policy language, such as one provision threatening aggressive military action against Iran, but this oddly didn’t factor into Seitz-Wald’s analysis.

Seitz-Wald’s efforts to further the Clintons’ messaging culminated in October, when he took it upon himself to transcribe alarmist anti-Russia rhetoric propounded by Mike Morell, the former CIA chief and current employee of a PR firm founded by Clinton stalwart Philippe Reines. Rather than perform any kind of journalistic due diligence, Seitz-Wald simply parroted Morell’s outlandish and wholly uncorroborated claims regarding Vladimir Putin’s supposed personal interference in the US presidential election on behalf of Donald Trump. “Putin is aware of all this, he has approved it, he is directing it. This is Putin,” decreed Morell, who was then quoted without a hint of skepticism by Seitz-Wald.

Accusing a nuclear-armed nationalistic foreign leader of personally “directing” subterfuge to undermine US democracy is gravely serious for obvious reasons. It is therefore incumbent on journalists to treat these claims with extreme care and skepticism. But skepticism is evidently not the province of Seitz-Wald. (You’ll notice that since the campaign ended, elite conspiracy theorizing about supposed pro-Trump Kremlin interference has conspicuously ebbed.)

In fairness, Seitz-Wald is not the only journalist to habitually engage in this kind of behavior. But he does embody a certain mindset that has led to failure in the past, caused historic failure this year, and will almost certainly lead to more failure in the future. As a class, journalists have long insisted that they’ve collectively internalized the lessons of the what went wrong in the run-up to the 2003 Iraq invasion, so as to avoid any similar catastrophes. However, journalists’ recent unthinking regurgitation of totally unverified claims by “US Officials” for the purpose of tying Trump to Putin in some kind of sinister collusion plot shows that they’ve not really learned much at all. Seitz-Wald is just one of many who mindlessly repeated official Government claims, thereby setting the stage for potential US-Russia confrontation. It was deeply irresponsible.

In one email, Seitz-Wald happily recounts meeting one DNC official, Raul Alvillar, at yet another exclusive party. “Hey Raul, good to see you at the MSNBC party Saturday,” Seitz-Wald wrote. The two later rendezvoused for a chummy “off-record” meeting.

Journalists may think that they are immune from any detrimental impact that this kind of hobnobbing could have on their work, but when one is so socially indebted to party hacks — and so reliant on their continued favor to sustain their journalism — there is an inevitable corrosive effect. The journalist ends up catering to his media peers and political operatives, whether consciously or subconsciously. Catering to the public interest becomes less of a priority.

Not only is this kind of back-scratching and agenda-pushing morally compromising, it doesn’t serve any discernible journalistic purpose. Rather, the main purpose seems to be sidling up to power. Yes, it may be possible for some reporters to attend these soirees and not have their integrity compromised — for example, McClatchy’s Anita Kumar attended the Podesta dinner party bash, but nevertheless produced critical, hard-hitting work on the Clintons.

Little in Seitz-Wald’s oeuvre suggests he is interested in holding the people he covers to account, however. He shouldn’t be permitted to just carry on in his role as stenographer for political elites without suffering any kind of reputational consequences, as if nothing happened. What just happened is mass elite media failure on a scale never before seen in the modern history of the United States. We must demand that those responsible, such as Alex Seitz-Wald, do not get away with it.


Michael Tracey’s Personal Stylings

Michael Tracey

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Michael Tracey’s Personal Stylings

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