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Think Again: Real Reporting and Right-Wing Ideology Don’t Mix

Andrew Breitbart, Hannah Giles, James O'Keefe

SOURCE: AP/Haraz N. Ghanbari

Andrew Breitbart, center, flanked by James O'Keefe III, left, and Hannah Giles, takes part in a news conference, Wednesday, October 21, 2009, at the National Press Club in Washington.

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Erick Erickson of CNN and the conservative RedState blog recently announced that RedState plans to hire a few real reporters for the site. This is ironic for a number of reasons. First, Erickson is best known—to liberals, anyway—for calling former Associate Supreme Court Justice David Souter a “goat-f***ing child molester” and First Lady Michelle Obama a “Marxist harpy.” Second, as The American Prospect editor Paul Waldman writes, conservative commentator Tucker Carlson noted the need for conservatives to take up the cause of actual journalism at a Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC, a few years ago; was subsequently booed; and later created a website where reporting, when it’s there, often turns out to be false.

Thing is, there appears to be a genuine and unbridgeable conflict between reporting and right-wing ideology. You can see it in action nearly every day, just by briefly surfing the Internet. I did this, for instance, on the day I set out to write this column and happened on this story: “O’Keefe partner pays $50K to fired ACORN worker.”

Here we learn that Hannah Giles, partner to admitted criminal and celebrated conservative “journalist” James O’Keefe, was forced to pay $50,000 to the same former ACORN employee to whom O’Keefe was forced to pay $100,000. The payments were the result of a legal settlement in which the worker, Juan Carlos Vera, successfully sued the two for invasion of privacy. This violation, which included illicitly taping Vera against California law, was part of a sting operation undertaken by the two, who then released the video to various media outlets with deceptive edits—all of which was funded by the late conservative author and commentator Andrew Breitbart.

In the video O’Keefe and Giles made it appear as if Vera had been eager to help the masquerading couple smuggle underage prostitutes into the United States from Mexico. But in fact the opposite occurred, as Vera immediately contacted law enforcement authorities to report the proposed crime. O’Keefe and Giles, together with Breitbart—and unfortunately, many lazy members of the mainstream media—misreported the story based on the falsehoods they purposely passed on. Why did they go ahead with their false story? As O’Keefe later explained: “I did want to follow up. I just didn’t end up following up.”

Leaving aside the damage their lies did both to Vera and to ACORN, which no longer exists, it’s important to note that these people are still considered models among many on the right for the kind of “journalism” they believe in which conservatives should engage. The name “Breitbart” is still carried on by a group of the late activist’s acolytes under the mistaken impression that what they are doing, literally in his name, actually constitutes as journalism. Of course, given the various misunderstandings of the term that led to their confusion in the first place, much was lost regarding the notions of original reporting and fact checking. This at least partially explains how the website Breitbart.com could publish a story that attempted to trumpet the “fact” that well-known liberal economist Paul Krugman had declared personal bankruptcy. The article breathlessly “reported”:

Paul Krugman, the economic darling of the left, has filed for Chapter 13 bankruptcy protection, according to Boston.com. Krugman has been the leading advocate for increased deficit spending as the only solution to turn the US economy around. He believes that President Obama needs to be even bolder with continued trillion dollar stimulus programs driving our nation deeper and deeper into debt.

Apparently this Keynesian thing doesn’t really work on the micro level.

Alas, the original story appeared on a website called The Daily Currant—widely considered as a satiric website in the style of The Onion. Of course, minimal journalistic standards, to say nothing of a sense of humor, would have saved them the embarrassment. But these qualities are simply deemed to be irrelevant in the world of conservative journalism.

At this point, my reader may accuse me of picking easy targets from the bottom-feeders of the right-wing journalism world. I’m not actually sufficiently familiar with the pecking order to plead guilty or innocent to the charge, but to demonstrate that it appears to affect every strata of the right-wing journalistic world, take a look at the pundits who are published in the nation’s leading newspapers.

Last week, for instance, The Wall Street Journal’s Peggy Noonan took a walk through an airport she found unpleasant, which led her to explain:

I’m in Pittsburgh, making my way to the airport hotel. The people movers are broken and we pull our bags along the dingy carpet. There’s an increasing sense in America now that the facades are intact but the machinery inside is broken.

Got it? The people movers were shut down, she didn’t like the carpet, and as a consequence, “There’s an increasing sense in America now that the facades are intact but the machinery inside is broken.”

As a result of this nutty notion, she simply wishes away the fact of the nearly trillion-dollar stimulus program:

Meanwhile, the president is stuck in his games and his history. He should have seen unemployment entering a crisis stage four years ago, and he did not. At that time I was certain he’d go for public-works projects, which could give training to the young and jobs to the experienced underemployed, would create jobs in the private sector and, in the end, yield up something needed—a bridge, a strengthened power grid.

And let’s not even bother to note that it was kept unfortunately smaller than necessary, as it happens, by Noonan’s conservative allies in Congress and was later pilloried by these same folks as well. And people make fun of Thomas Friedman for drawing conclusions based on the wise cracks of Pakistani cab drivers.

My skeptical reader may now be thinking, “Well, OK, but Noonan works for a newspaper owned by the notorious Rupert Murdoch. What of those conservatives hired to work in the mainstream media?” Well, what about the dean of conservative pundits, The Washington Post’s George F. Will, who is also a star of ABC’s “This Week”? Will has been known to mess up his science when it comes to global warming and offer racist explanations for American voting patterns, but recently he has taken to rewriting history. In honor of the late jurist Robert Bork, at whose wedding Will had the honor of serving as an usher, the pundit attempted to recast Bork’s role in the infamous “Saturday Night Massacre” during the Watergate scandal. He wrote:

On an October Saturday, when Nixon ordered Richardson to fire Archibald Cox, the Watergate special prosecutor, Richardson and his deputy resigned, urging Bork to execute Nixon’s lawful order, which he did. By the two resignations, Bork became acting attorney general, in which capacity he protected the ongoing investigation of Nixon.

In fact, Bork acted as Nixon’s henchman, signing the order that fired Cox and abolishing the Office of the Watergate Special Prosecution Force—an order that the courts later ruled to be illegal. Had Bork been successful, this would have allowed Nixon to stonewall the congressional investigation and remain in office despite the widespread criminal activities he undertook as president. Fortunately, the near-unanimous anger of the public over this egregious power grab forced the president to cave in to appoint a new prosecutor, Leon Jaworkski, and produce the infamous tapes—with 18-and-a-half minutes mysteriously erased—that ultimately led to his downfall.

(At this point I would like to interrupt the above proceedings to note that I have managed to demonstrate all of the above faults of the conservative media without even mentioning Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, or the rest of the cable news and talk radio luna-sphere.)

It’s fair to conclude from the examples above that it’s no coincidence that each example of conservative “journalism” one attempts to examine turns out to be fundamentally flawed. The reason is that genuine journalism—the kind that allows the evidence to dictate the story—is inconsistent with the conservative worldview. It’s not that “reality has a well-known liberal bias”—though often it does—it’s just that the deeply ideologically driven understanding of the way the world works on the right is inconsistent with the way things really work. When the world refuses to cooperate with right-wing ideology, it’s the world that’s wrong, not the ideology. And hence the reporting of facts and figures and so forth only gets in the way.

This is why it ought to be a matter of public concern to learn that the Koch brothers are reportedly considering a bid for the Tribune Company newspapers, which would bring them control of the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune, among others. This would not only significantly reduce the amount of honest reporting in the news media, but it would also vastly increase the amount of ideologically based lies and ideological fantasy deliberately designed to confuse whatever issue is at hand. No less alarmingly, however, the same article explains that “they may face stiff competition in the form of a debt-free, full pocketed media power player named Rupert Murdoch.”

Should either one succeed, it would be the end of the (journalistic) world as we know it, and it’s up to all of us—not just liberals and journalists—to do what we can to preserve and protect what honest sources of journalism we have left.

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a CUNY distinguished professor of English and journalism at Brooklyn College. He is also “The Liberal Media” columnist for The Nation. His most recent book is The Cause: The Fight for American Liberalism from Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama.

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This is part of a regular column: Think Again

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