Sunday, August 22, 2010

Press and punditry stampede tramples good judgment

Press and punditry stampede tramples good judgment, and often the facts, too

When the New York Times published a story last December about plans for a Muslim prayer space near the World Trade Center site, there was little reaction.

After all, the imam in charge was quoted as saying the building was an effort to "push back against the extremists" in the shadow of the terrorist attacks. Only months later did a conservative assault on the project morph into the most incendiary issue on the media landscape.

The herd was stampeding again.

You hear their thundering hooves on cable shows and talk radio, watch the gathering dust on the blogs. They trample everything in their path. Passivity is impossible: Everyone must form an immediate opinion on the matter at hand and defend it passionately.

The quickly labeled Ground Zero mosque -- an Islamic cultural center neither at Ground Zero nor specifically a mosque -- is a classic case. It is a symbolic slugfest that lacks the maddening complexity of health care legislation or banking reform -- "Don't you care about religious freedom?" "Don't you care about the families of 9/11 victims?" -- and is tailor-made for the sound-bite stampede.

The media herd loves to chase stories with colorful personalities that we can either love or hate, defend or denounce. Blago fit the bill: The jury deadlocks on 23 of 24 counts and the insta-punditry begins. Did the government blow the case? Were the jurors out to lunch? Could Rod Blagojevich actually have been . . . innocent?

When prosecutors first released the tawdry tapes, the media mob reached the obvious conclusion, that the Illinois governor was a sleazy operator. He was selling Barack Obama's Senate seat! But as he raced from one television studio to the next, less attention was paid to whether he could be convicted in court. The herd likes morality plays, not legal strategizing. Hey, didja see Blago got bounced off "Celebrity Apprentice"?

What about the facts?

Such lemming-like behavior was also on display in the case of Steven Slater. It's August, you see, and media folks so much wanted to make the JetBlue hothead into an overnight folk hero that they loaded up the story with sociological baggage. This wasn't just a matter of an erratic flight attendant sliding down the emergency chute, it was a clarion call for fed-up workers everywhere! "The last-straw moment a lot of people identify with," said NBC's Ann Curry. "He did what a lot of Americans would have done," said MSNBC's Ed Schultz.

The story soared even as Slater's account was falling apart. Passengers told reporters that he had been rude, that he hadn't been provoked, that he'd gotten a bump on his head before the flight began. But by then the herd was heading off in another direction.

The herd isn't dumb, but it moves so quickly that snap judgments prevail and nuance gets lost. It decided within hours that Shirley Sherrod was a racist, then concluded just as forcefully that she had been framed. The first charge took place over a maliciously edited videotape, the second after the release of the full tape. Having belatedly vindicated her, the herd began a furious debate over the role of the White House, Andrew Breitbart and Fox News.

Some stories appear naturally in the pack's path; others are planted there by people with agendas, as with the Breitbart snippet of a speech by the Agriculture Department staffer. Controversies favored by the right are often pumped up by the Drudge Report, Fox and Rush Limbaugh; liberal crusades get picked up by the Huffington Post and MSNBC. The escalating rhetoric pushes the dispute onto op-ed pages and network newscasts, and there it remains until some countervailing force knocks it off.

At times, the early noise gives way to serious debate. When the BP oil well blew up, plenty of newly minted experts held forth on the advisability of a "top kill" or "junk shot" or other esoteric approaches, not to mention the nonstop argument over whether the president was responding with sufficient emotion. But as journalists gradually educated themselves, the country got a lesson in the risks of offshore oil drilling and the shortcomings of federal regulation.

More commonly, though, the media crowd doesn't stick around long enough to do more than stomp around. There was a furious argument over Obama giving General Motors a $50 billion bailout; now that the company is profitable and preparing a stock offering, the herd is MIA.


It always needs something new to chew on: Is Elena Kagan qualified despite never having been a judge -- and what about those rumors about her personal life? And the herd loses interest when the outcome isn't in doubt. Once it became clear that Republicans wouldn't block Kagan's Supreme Court confirmation, the coverage dwindled dramatically.

The herd is easily distracted by whatever buzzes by. Dr. Laura using the N-word? Was she racially insensitive or just trying to make a point about who gets to use such language? Never mind, she's quitting already. Wait -- Sarah Palin is defending her?

The media treated the withdrawal of the final American combat units from Iraq last week as a one-day story, despite the bloody toll of the 7 1/2 -year conflict. Yes, it was symbolic, the war isn't over and 50,000 U.S. troops remain behind, but the conflict dominated our politics for years -- and claimed the lives of more than 4,400 service members and untold Iraqi civilians. Except on MSNBC, which carried embedded correspondent Richard Engel reporting from the scene for hours, and a few front-page stories, the herd seemed disengaged. The pullout was expected; the new battlefront is Afghanistan.

The controversy over the mosque got a big-time boost when Obama called it a matter of religious freedom, then told CNN's Ed Henry the next day that he wasn't saying the project should be built. But little attention was paid to a Politico report that organizers of the $100 million center have raised only $18,255 -- making it unlikely that it will ever be built. To dwell on that, of course, would spoil the herd's fun.

Media morsels

-- Newsweek is undergoing a talent drain as it waits for 92-year-old Sidney Harman to close on buying the magazine from The Washington Post Co. With Editor Jon Meacham, Mike Isikoff and Evan Thomas already gone or leaving, columnist Fareed Zakaria has jumped to Time. He already hosts a show on CNN, part of Time's parent company.

-- Fox's Greta Van Susteren has challenged her colleague Glenn Beck's plan for a Lincoln Memorial rally Saturday on the anniversary of Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech: "Yes, he has a First Amendment right to do it . . . but what about the wisdom of it?" she blogged. Her solution: Move Beck's event to another location, and move the Manhattan Islamic project as well. "It does not help heal the country on so many fronts if we poke a stick in eyes."

-- Village Voice reporter Elizabeth Dwoskin broke the story about Citibank staffer Debrahlee Lorenzana, who filed a claim -- denied by the company -- that the bank fired her because her bosses found her voluptuous body too distracting. While it was "extremely pleasurable" to watch the tale go viral, she writes in Columbia Journalism Review, it was also "slightly disturbing. As a journalist, you spend so much time plugging away at stories that you hope will impact society. Then, suddenly, you hit on a sexy banker who lost her job, and, delighted as you are, you also can't help but wonder: Is this what it takes to be talked about all over the world?"

Howard Kurtz also works for CNN and hosts its weekly media program, "Reliable Sources."

Incendiary rant exposes Dr. Laura MEDIA MATTERS updater

Media Matters: Incendiary rant exposes Dr. Laura (again)

The year was 1998, and radio host Dr. Laura Schlessinger's celebrity was soaring. A media group had recently paid $71.5 million for her program -- the biggest radio deal at the time -- and the Los Angeles Times reported that she had the "fastest-growing show in radio history, a program now aired on 450 stations in the United States, 30 in Canada -- where she is the No. 1 talk radio personality -- and in South Africa." Schlessinger would soon begin discussions on hosting her own national TV show.

Just a few years later, Schlessinger began to stumble. In 2001, her syndicated Paramount television show was cancelled after a brief run, and in 2002, the New York Daily News reported that Schlessinger's radio audience had lost several million listeners.

Schlessinger's troubles then -- just like now -- began with incendiary remarks aimed at a minority group. During the 1990s, Schlesinger blasted "homosexuality" as "a biological error," "deviant behavior, a dysfunctional behavior," and linked gay men to pedophilia and child molestation. Schlessinger also touted "therapies which have been successful in helping a reasonable number of people become heterosexual."

When Paramount announced it had signed Schlessinger to a TV talk show for the fall of 2000, the group successfully "waged a campaign to dissuade companies from sponsoring the show." Dr. Laura debuted to "disappointing" ratings and Paramount "had difficulty attracting national sponsors to the show," forcing the studio to sell ads at reduced rates (LA Times, 9/22/00).

In the spring of 2001, Dr. Laura -- to no one's surprise -- was cancelled. Schlessinger blamed the cancellation on gay rights groups such as and Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), telling Larry King that "political correctness" "overpowers and overwhelms the United States of America today. ... This was strictly about trying to destroy my voice." Schlessinger defenders claimed that critics were trying to silence her "1st amendment" rights.

Nearly ten years later, the same controversy over Schlessinger played out again -- this time over racially tinged remarks to an African-American caller.

To give you a refresher, during the August 10 edition of her program, Schlessinger took a call from an African-American woman seeking advice on dealing with the resentment she felt when her white husband didn't speak out about racist comments his friends made. During the discussion, Schlessinger used the n-word 11 times, and told the caller that she had a "chip on [her] shoulder." Schlessinger added that "a lot of blacks voted for Obama" due to race and said that the caller shouldn't "marry out of [her] race" if she didn't "have a sense of humor."

After Media Matters posted audio of Schlessinger's racial rant, groups such as GLAAD, Women's Media Center, and UNITY Journalists of Color joined Media Matters to hold Schlessinger's "advertisers accountable and find out exactly where they stand."

Like in 2001, Schlessinger appeared on Larry King Live to claim that her "First Amendment rights have been usurped by angry, hateful groups who don't want to debate. They want to eliminate." Schlessinger announced that she was ending her radio show to "move on to other venues where I could say my piece and not have to live in fear anymore that sponsors and their families are going to be upset, radio stations are going to be upset, my peeps, as I call them, are going to be upset."

Some conservatives predictably rallied around Schlessinger. Michelle Malkin lauded Schlessinger for having "battled political correctness for years." Sarah Palin -- who's scheduled to join Fox News colleague Glenn Beck at his 8-28 rally to "reclaim" the civil rights movement -- defended Schlessinger's n-word rant by claiming Schlessinger has been "shackled" by her critics, and took to Twitter to tell Schlessinger, "Don't retreat... reload" after her "1st Amend.rights ceased 2exist."

The First Amendment argument is as silly now as it was ten years ago. "Censorship, in the legal sense, really only occurs when the government is trying to prevent you from saying something. I think that actions that GLAAD has taken regarding Dr. Laura is the way we in the American system expect the system to work, and Dr. Laura has a right to say what she's doing," explained Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press executive director Lucy Dalglish on the June 15, 2000, edition of PBS's NewsHour.

The purported media critics at NewsBusters, meanwhile, bizarrely accused Media Matters of censorship because we were part of a campaign targeting advertisers. The criticism is strange considering NewsBusters and its parent, Media Research Center, also target advertisers of content they view as offensive. Indeed, MRC president Brent Bozell told the LA Times in 2000 that while he didn't approve of the anti-Dr. Laura cause, "It's perfectly acceptable for an organization to lobby to cancel a program they think is inappropriate. I don't think there's anything wrong with that at all."

At the end of the day, however, Schlessinger's racial rant is only the latest in recent public displays of racially loaded rhetoric by right-wing media figures. The question, as it was in 2000, is whether the audiences will hold figures responsible for their rhetoric.

Shouldn't the GOP be paying Fox?

In April, Rupert Murdoch, the chairman and CEO of Fox News parent company News Corp., responded to a question from Media Matters' Ari Rabin-Havt by stating that he doesn't "think we should be supporting the tea party, or any other party." Yet on Monday, Bloomberg News reported that News Corp. contributed $1 million to the Republican Governors Association. The large donation caps off more than a year and a half of pro-Republican activism during the Obama administration by Fox News hosts, reporters, and "political analysts."

Because it might be hard to keep track of Fox News' pro-GOP activism in all 50 states, here's a brief recap:

GOP fundraisers / events. Fox News hosts and "political analysts" have frequently spoken at or hosted fundraisers or events for Republican organizations and candidates. Recently, Fox News employee Dick Morris -- who's received money from GOP parties -- announced that he's planning to stump for more than 40 Republican candidates.
On-air endorsements. Fox Newsers regularly make on-air endorsements for Republicans. Fox Business host Eric Bolling, for example, told viewers they could "save" the country in 2012 by putting "a Republican in there. Turn it over in 2010."
Endorsing statements. Fox Newsers regularly release statements in support of candidates through their political organizations or social media accounts. Sarah Palin, for example, makes endorsements through her Facebook page, while Mike Huckabee endorses candidates on his Huck PAC website. Fox News has promoted both Huckabee and Palin's outside ventures.
Behind-the-scenes / campaign roles. Last year, Dick Morris worked as a paid consultant for unsuccessful Massachusetts gubernatorial candidate Christy Mihos. Fox News contributor Karl Rove, meanwhile, has been offering campaign advice to Republicans, such as the House Republican Conference and Kentucky Senate candidate Rand Paul.
Political fundraising groups. Fox News hosts and contributors are raising money for Republican candidates and causes using political action committees, 527 and 501(c)(4) organizations. These fundraising groups are also promoted on Fox News.
Frequent softball candidate promotions. Fox News has frequently opened its airwaves to promote Republican candidates such as Republican gubernatorial candidates Chris Christie and Bob McDonnell, and Senate candidates Marco Rubio, Mark Kirk, Scott Brown, Sharron Angle, and Rand Paul. Angle summarized Fox News' friendly haven for GOP candidates when she suggested that she prefers to appear on Fox because they let her raise money.
GOP in exile. Fox News boasts a long roster of possible 2012 presidential candidates on its payroll, such as Mike Huckabee, Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin. Fox News, in turn, gives them exposure and air time while they decide whether they want to run for office.
GOP issue advocacy. Fox News has frequently pushed conservative misinformation about the Obama administration and various other issues. Perhaps most notably, Fox News became the voice of the opposition against health care reform earlier this year.
GOP events advocacy. Fox News has heavily promoted pro-Republican and anti-Democrat events such as the April 15 Tax Day Tea Parties, the Tea Party Express bus tour, and Rep. Michele Bachmann's anti-health care reform rallies.
As The Daily Show's Jon Stewart noted, "If anything, the Republicans should be paying Fox News millions and millions of dollars."

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