Friday, July 23, 2010

Media Matters: "Context is everything"

Media Matters: "Context is everything":
Why you should (still) never trust Andrew Breitbart

Don't trust Andrew Breitbart.

It's a phrase Media Matters has been repeating ever since the conservative web publisher burst onto the national stage by coordinating the release of deceptively edited tapes purporting to show "illegal activities" and criminality by ACORN employees.

Breitbart's ACORN claims fell apart: after the media firestorm died down, multiple investigations found no evidence of criminality in the "severely edited" ACORN tapes. In other words, countless hours of hysterical news coverage did little more than promote meaningless videos, while propping up Breitbart as the leader of conservative new media journalism.

A similar debacle played out again this week, as Breitbart released another bogus tape, this time smearing (then-) USDA official Shirley Sherrod. The video, Breitbart boasted in a Monday post on, showed "evidence of racism coming from a federal appointee and NAACP award recipient" "against a white farmer," and that Sherrod's "federal duties are managed through the prism of race and class distinctions." Breitbart opened his post: "Context is everything."

Fox News and the conservative media initially lauded Breitbart's "great work." Fox Business host David Asman hailed the video from "our friend" as the "triumph of Andrew Breitbart over the establishment." Unfortunately, even members of the Obama administration gave it credence and forced the resignation of Sherrod.

Breitbart's triumph, however, was short-lived. As conservative blogger Allahpundit wondered when the video was released, "Doesn't it sound like Sherrod was building to a 'but' before the clip cut out?" The alleged victims of Sherrod's racism, Roger and Eloise Spooner, told CNN that those who were smearing her as racist "don't know what they're talking about," and that Sherrod did "her level best" to help them successfully save their farm. And on Tuesday evening, the NAACP released the full video of Sherrod remarks, which exonerated her and showed that Breitbart's descriptions were false. Sherrod was speaking about her actions 24 years ago (not during the Obama administration), and was telling a tale about learning that she needed "to work to help poor people" regardless of whether they were black, white, or Hispanic.

Breitbart, apparently operating without having "slept in 40 hours," doubled down on his heavily edited clip and even bizarrely suggested that the farmer's wife was a plant. Breitbart also offered an avalanche of false claims about his original story, like his scoop wasn't actually "about Shirley Sherrod," and that the real story is racism in the NAACP, as evidenced by supposed "applauding as [Sherrod] described how she maltreated the white farmer." Throughout his flailings, Breitbart never offered an apology to Sherrod.

Fox News similarly circled the wagons. On Tuesday, Special Report anchor Bret Baier absurdly claimed, "Fox News didn't even do the story" on Sherrod. On Thursday, Fox & Friends' Steve Doocy claimed that the "Fox News Channel" didn't touch the story "until she had actually quit." A Los Angeles Times article that day reported that Fox News senior vice president Michael Clemente defended the channel's coverage by claiming he "urged the staff to first get the facts and obtain comment from Sherrod before going on air." However, Fox News commentators ran with the story before getting all "the facts," and reporters for published a story based on the deceptively edited video before Sherrod resigned and without comment from her.

Even after the facts came out, Fox News personalities continued to attack Sherrod. Juliet Huddy claimed that Sherrod's "incriminating" "present tense" statements still "raise questions" about whether she should be federally employed. Glenn Beck said that Sherrod "obviously has some sort of Marxist or redistributionist qualities to her." Dick Morris said employing Sherrod is like "having Reverend Wright on staff." And Fox News contributor Monica Crowley suggested Sherrod may be among "radicals, racists, socialists" in Obama administration.

Glenn Beck, Michael Savage, and Rush Limbaugh even ludicrously speculated that Breitbart and the conservative media may have been the victim of a "set-up" "orchestrated" by the White House.

After Breitbart's implosion, some -- but certainly not all -- in the media correctly noted that the case illustrates that Breitbart has no credibility. MSNBC's Lawrence O'Donnell said, "I think [Breitbart] has lost his standing to present videos to the country at any time." CNN's Anderson Cooper said that Breitbart's actions are "a classic example of what is wrong with our national discourse." Politico's Ben Smith noted, "Breitbart's sites now have a growing credibility problem."

In the end, Breitbart is Breitbart. This was not his first dishonest video, and it won't be his last.

The question is whether Fox "friend" Breitbart's scoops about supposed misdeeds will still be given prominent news coverage, and taken as fact. As's First Read wrote, "you would have thought that all of us in the ACTUAL news business would have learned this lesson about Andrew Breitbart and his protégés: They're not out for the truth; they're out for scalps."

Fox News anchor Shep Smith, frequently the station's lone voice of reason, may have been speaking to his colleagues (once again) when he said on Wednesday that he declined to run the story "because of the history of videos on the site where it was posted. In short, we did not and do not trust the source."

The way to avoid another ACORN or Sherrod debacle is simple: Don't trust Andrew Breitbart.

Fox News' tea party boosterism backfires
Breitbart hasn't been the only Fox News friend to have a bad week.

On July 14, Tea Party Express spokesman Mark Williams wrote a "newly discovered letter" from NAACP president "Precious Ben Jealous" to Abraham Lincoln which portrayed blacks as lazy and Jealous as supporting the repeal of civil-rights laws so that "massa" would again take care of blacks. The letter was subsequently condemned by both Republicans and Democrats as offensive, and led to the expulsion of the TPE from the National Tea Party Federation. Today, Williams "completely cut his ties to the Tea Party Express" and resigned.

The uproar marks a low-point for the relatively new Tea Party Express after it shot onto the national stage thanks to Fox News (sound familiar?).

In August 2009, when the group kicked off its first tour, the TPE became the most visible tea party organization on Fox News, appearing on countless programs. Front and center was Mark Williams, then-chairman of the group. Fox News regularly gave viewers the dates and locations of rallies, with one reporter saying she wanted "to let folks know" their schedule so "they can be a part" of events. Another "reporter" was embedded on the group's bus and gave such fawning reports that a colleague called him a "Tea Party groupie." Fox News offered similarly positive coverage for the group's second and third tours in the fall and spring.

As Media Matters documented, Fox News has openly admitted being the voice of the opposition against the administration. It was natural, then, that Fox News fostered the tea party movement, and defended it from criticism for being pseudo-grassroots and pushing incendiary and racist rhetoric. But if Fox News' intention was to present the tea parties as an independent and reasonable voice for fiscal conservatism, they partnered with the wrong group.

Politico's Ken Vogel noted that the Tea Party Express was started by Republican operatives with the intent of cashing in on the tea party movement. Vogel also reported that "even before the Express launched, [Tea Party Express's coordinator Joe] Wierzbicki worried about having Williams -- along with another PAC figure, Deborah Johns -- as movement figureheads. 'Sure wish Mark and Deborah were just a bit more sophisticated and experienced and 'presentable,' Wierzbicki wrote to a colleague last summer."

Indeed, Williams appears to come from the Ann Coulter School of Punditry, where graduates are purposely controversial in order to garner publicity and money. In recent years, Williams has claimed: Presidents Obama and Carter are "Nazis"; the NAACP makes "more money off of race than any slave trader ever"; Allah is a "monkey god"; Obama is "Our Half White, Racist President"; Obama is an "Indonesian Muslim turned welfare thug turned anointed"; Obama is "engaging in nothing different than did mass murders like Stalin and Pol Pot"; Obama's raping the country; Obama wants death panels like Nazi experiments; voting Democrat may result in a nuclear holocaust; President Carter is a "creepy little faggot"; and -- deep breath -- Obama lacks a valid birth certificate.

Williams, who's received tens of thousands of dollars in "consulting" fees from Our Country Deserves Better PAC, appears to enjoy the attention, telling Dave Weigel in April: "I'm accustomed to being a pin cushion and a lightning rod ... That's one of the things I bring to the table." (Spouting hateful remarks has also earned Williams frequent guest spots on CNN, where Williams has defended his indefensible remarks -- then been invited back anyway.)

Yet as indicated this week, other members of the tea party movement don't enjoy the attention -- especially in the wake of the NAACP resolution condemning racist elements within the tea parties. Ironically, the very spokesman propped up by Fox News to speak for the tea parties proved that the movement has racist elements within it.

It really hasn't been a good week for Fox News friends Mark Williams and Andrew Breitbart.

This weekly wrap-up was compiled by Media Matters research fellow Eric Hananoki.

The Age of Rage

POLITICO John F. Harris and Jim VandeHei

Here’s the optimistic case: The embarrassment of the Shirley Sherrod story — with its toxic convergence of partisan combat and media recklessness — will be a tipping point. It will remind journalists and politicians alike that personal reputations and professional credibility are at stake, and a bit more restraint and responsibility are in order.

Here’s the realistic case: Get ready for more of the same.

Every president since the first George Bush has delivered an inaugural address including as a main theme an appeal for more civility and less cynical conflict. Barack Obama is the fourth in a row to be thwarted in this mission — frustrated by forces that have grown far stronger over the past two decades and aren’t abating any time soon.

That is because there are two big incentives that drive behavior at the intersection where politics meets media. One is public attention. The other is money. Experience shows there’s a lot more of both to be had by engaging in extreme partisan behavior.

The Sherrod controversy is only a somewhat exaggerated version of the new normal. The usual signatures of this new breed of incentive-driven uproar were also on display in another of this week’s controversies, over JournoList, the defunct liberal listserv.

Both stories featured sharp personal attacks against political opponents. Both revolved around indignant claims from people claiming to be victims of bias and the corrupt ideological agendas of their opponents — all the while stoking and profiting from the bias and conspiratorial instincts of partisans on their own side.

Responsible people in power and in the mainstream media are only beginning to grapple with this new environment — in which facts hardly matter except as they can be used as weapon or shield in a nonstop ideological war. Do you dive into the next fact-lite partisan outrage — or do you stay out and risk looking slow, stupid or irrelevant? No one is close to figuring it out.

So, despite a new burst of hand-wringing and talk of “lessons learned,” many commentators predicted in interviews that the situation involving Shirley Sherrod would soon enough be regarded as merely another footnote in the Age of Rage.

Robert Thompson, a media analyst at Syracuse University, said the demands of a 24-7 news culture were the main engine of the Sherrod case. When conservative provocateur Andrew Breitbart posted a video of Sherrod seeming to engage in reverse racism, it was inevitable that other media would follow and politicians would react — never mind that the video soon turned out to be grossly misleading.

“I don’t think the fact that it unfolded in the way it did is going to make them gun-shy about it the next time,” Thompson said. “Their business is breaking news. You put news out as it is available. You don’t wait to contextualize it.”

Conservative commentator David Frum agreed: “I think everyone will for a little while be more cautious about thinly sourced material and clips that look edited,” he said. “The effect may even endure for some time. But beyond that, the imperatives that drive the modern media business are going to remain in place, and it’s hard to imagine that this incident — which after all has had no consequences for any of the people who are at fault — will persuade anyone that they need to do anything differently.”

And a more liberal voice, linguist and author Deborah Tannen, largely echoed this conclusion, though putting the emphasis on conservative ideological activists as much as on the new media environment.

“Why, exactly, did this relatively obscure speech surface in the first place?” Tannen asked. “Only because there is a cadre of people combing the Internet to uncover — or create — something that could damage the administration. This is one of the saddest aspects of the story. Even as we are busy mulling over this one, they've no doubt moved on, giddily seeking the next.”

Situations like the Sherrod case are sometimes explained with the voguish word “polarization.” But this alone doesn’t explain it. Divisions over race, class and war are nothing new in American history. Politics these days does not include riots or lynchings, as in the 1960s or 1930s, or canings on the Senate floor, as in the 19th century. What is different these days is the emergence of an industry — a political-media complex — for which ideological conflict is central to the business model.

Fox News has soared on the strength of commentators like Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity, both of whom fanned the Sherrod story on the strength of the misleading Breitbart video. (A Fox senior executive, by contrast, urged the news side of the operation to get Sherrod’s response before going with the story, The Washington Post reported.) On the left, MSNBC is trying to emulate the success of primetime partisanship. Meanwhile, CNN, which has largely strived toward a neutral ideological posture, is battling steady relative declines in its audience.

If media executives hunger for ratings, politicians hunger for campaign cash and fame.

Obama put it best earlier this year, after Republican Rep. Joe Wilson of South Carolina shouted “you lie” during the president's State of the Union speech. "The easiest way to get on television right now is to be really rude,” the president told ABC News.

Indeed, at first Wilson seemed embarrassed and apologized for his outburst. But within days, Wilson and his opponent were both flooded with campaign contributions; Wilson took in more than $700,000 in the immediate aftermath of his outburst and was a guest of honor on Hannity’s show and Fox News Sunday.

It’s a well-traveled path: Flamethrowers Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) and Alan Grayson (D-Fla.) join Wilson on the list of Top 10 House fundraisers, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

At POLITICO, we have an unusual vantage point on this new reality. We are both an enabler (in the eyes of some critics) of the deterioration of political discourse, and a target of it (as we try to defend our values as neutral journalists amid constant criticism from activists who think we fail at neutrality or are disdainful of the goal in the first place).

There is some truth on both counts. Like all news sites, we are aware that conflict clicks. More traffic comes from an item on Sarah Palin’s “refudiation” faux pas than from our hundreds of stories on the complexities of health care reform or Wall Street regulation. We were slow to write about the initial charge of racism against Sherrod — but quick as anyone else to write about the political fallout. Over the past 36 hours, articles on Breitbart, Sherrod and Tucker Carlson (whose conservative Daily Caller broke the story about journalists taking partisan sides on JournoList) have shared space atop our site with more “substantive” stories on the failed climate bill and the charges against Charlie Rangel.

At the same time, as a nonpartisan news site, we face relentless attacks from the right and left, all looking for signs of bias. There is an entire industry dedicated to this hunt, including the liberal Media Matters, which is staffed like a midsized newsroom. We see almost every day how a small comment, often taken out of context, can toss a reporter or editor into the media.

In this environment, it is little surprise that — while almost everyone says there are lessons to be learned from the Sherrod fiasco — there is no agreement on what those lessons are.

“Well, there are a lot of people who screwed up, but the only folks who were eager to peddle that story was Fox News, and they showed themselves to be piggish character assassins that you'd come to expect,” Rep. David Obey (D-Wis.) told POLITICO. “It's an ideological hatchet machine and they should be ashamed for carrying that kind of crap without checking it out.”

Many Republicans reached the opposite conclusion. “Republicans and conservatives who make even the slightest politically incorrect comments, or take policy stances that are contrary to the left-leaning ethnic interest groups…should expect to be ‘Sherroded’ in pieces and branded racists,” says Cesar Conda, a former top adviser to Vice President Cheney.

A generation ago, a few networks and a handful of powerful newspapers set the agenda and tone for much coverage. This was a more insular and elitist arrangement, but also more restrained. The Sherrod uproar and the Obama administration’s jittery firing of Sherrod from her Agriculture Department job both flowed from the rapid spread of inflammatory but inaccurate information. That happened less in the old media order.

These days almost any news site or commentator is capable of driving the national political agenda on any given day — and a long roster of bloggers, bombastic talk show hosts and new online Web sites compete to do just this.

And the pace of change is breathtaking. Four years ago, there was no BigGovernment, no POLITICO, no Daily Caller, no Twitter — and The Huffington Post and YouTube were innocent newborns.

Most journalists couldn’t have cared less if their work appeared online — and political campaigns were waged on network TV and in the big newspapers. Only the Drudge Report had cracked the code for routinely pushing stories into mainstream circulation.

Now the Web dominates the debate, as a feeder for aggregators and cable. Traffic to ideological sites is exploding. The Huffington Post — the most influential site on the left — has seen its traffic nearly double over the past year and is now bigger than The Washington Post.

Right-wing sites are rising, too. No longer is Drudge the only influential conservative site. Breitbart, a disciple of Drudge, has built a string of fairly popular sites including one carrying his own name, as well as and These sites are often bitterly partisan — and highly effective at forcing obscure stories into the MSM bloodstream.

There is only a small market for moderation and reason. Tucker Carlson seems to be learning this with his site, the Daily Caller. He launched with dreams of offering readers conservative news without harsh tones. But his site didn’t take off until he started pounding the drums on immigration, Keith Olbermann and liberal journalists. Now it’s the toast of the right wing.

Even venerable straight-news organizations such as The Washington Post are getting lured down the partisan road, recruiting bloggers with explicit ideological agendas and giving them top billing online.

So what happens now?

One scenario is that the excesses of this new media order will in time lead to self correction.

Rem Rieder, the editor of the American Journalism Review, wrote on his site: “Not to go all Pollyanna on you, but this might be one of those episodes that — by highlighting (lowlighting?) just how absurd and untenable the current state of affairs has become — [could] have a beneficial impact.”

But history suggests that sentiment is indeed a bit Pollyanna-ish.

In 1989, George H. W. Bush promised a new era of bipartisanship, declaring: “This is the age of the offered hand.” Bill Clinton used his second inaugural in 1997 to promise citizens an “end to the politics of petty bickering and extreme partisanship they plainly deplore." George W. Bush campaigned in 2000 on “changing the tone” in Washington and pledged in his first inaugural to cultivate “harmony” instead of a “chorus of discordant voices.”

And it would be interesting to hear Obama reflect on this prediction, delivered at his inauguration in January 2009: "What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them, that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long, no longer apply."

Zachary Abrahamson, James Hohmann, Keach Hagey and Daniel Strauss contributed to this report.