The Mainstream Media Opens the Door to Hate

CNN and other popular media sources continue to allow racism, sexism, and other divisive opinions to be freely expressed, writes Eric Alterman.

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CNN is working hard to claim credible nonpartisanship, but it's a seemingly hard sell given the network's push to attract right-wing viewers. (AP/Mark Lennihan)
CNN is working hard to claim credible nonpartisanship, but it's a seemingly hard sell given the network's push to attract right-wing viewers. (AP/Mark Lennihan)

Last week we looked at the manner in which the underlying racial issues raised by the arrest of Henry Louis Gates inspired a rash of racist fear and loathing on the far-right. A previous column on the Sotomayor hearings demonstrated much the same thing.

Obviously, I could spend almost every week demonstrating that the right-wing in the United States is peopled by some very nutty individuals—and believe me, I plan to do plenty of that in the future. History demonstrates what a mistake it can be to treat a crazy fringe as merely that—particularly one with unfettered access to its audience and little sense of responsibility to distinguish between truth and fiction.

How else do you explain the fact that presently, according to a Research 2000 survey, nearly 60 percent of Republicans questioned were unsure if Barack Obama was born in the United States, and therefore may not be the legitimate president of the United States but a lying criminal? (The leader of this movement, Ms. Orly Taitz, has referred to those reporters who question her allegations as “brownshirts” and frequently compares Obama’s actions to those of Adolf Hitler.)

What is perhaps equally troubling, however, is not merely that such things are repeated over and over by what are obviously fringe figures—individuals desperate for attention who would have remained anonymous were it not for their ability to get publicity for their outrageous accusations—but the willingness of the mainstream media to traffic in these same untruths and distortions.

Exhibit A in this regard is clearly CNN’s Lou Dobbs, who, more than any mainstream media figure and even most fringe figures, has done his utmost to stoke this phony controversy.

As the Hillman Foundation’s Charles Kaiser has pointed out, CNN’s experts told network president Jon Klein that “In 2001—the state of Hawaii Health Department went paperless. Paper documents were discarded. The official record of Obama’s birth is now an official ELECTRONIC record. Janice Okubo, spokeswoman for the Health Department told the Honolulu Star Bulletin, ‘At that time, all information for births from 1908 (on) was put into electronic files for consistent reporting.’”

Kaiser wrote that this “seems to definitively answer the question,” but afterward he explained that “Klein told Greg Sargent that Lou runs ‘his own show’ that merely hosts ‘panels’ with birther theorists and asserted that CNN respects viewers enough to let them ‘make up their own minds.’ Klein added that what Dobbs does is ‘his editorial decision to make.’” In other words, CNN takes no responsibility for whether the “news” it broadcasts on its network is true or false, even if calls into question the fundamental legitimacy of our political system. (Would CNN’s Dobbs and Klein have treated just as kindly guests who claim to know that the 9/11 attacks were carried out by the Jews who run the U.S. media? Judging exclusively by the birther controversy the answer would have to be “yes.”)

What’s more, CNN appears to be trying to shut down criticism of its actions. When the progressive media watchdog group Media Matters created an advertisement calling into question the logic of allowing Dobbs to continue to peddle his “racially charged paranoia,” and purchased time on local CNN affiliates to run the advertisement during Dobbs’ program, he slandered them as “swift-boaters” and five of the six cable providers contracted for the project told Media Matters they would not run the spot.

Or will they? It looks like the folks at CNN are deeply conflicted about what to do about this crisis, just as they are apparently paralyzed by the destruction that Dobbs is doing to the network’s reputation. The respected journalist Brooks Jackson has said, "As a former CNN reporter, I believe this episode is an embarrassment to CNN … They have an anchor on there saying one thing and their reporters saying quite another.”

And we cannot help but notice that Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz, who receives a regular paycheck from CNN but often fails to disclose this fact to readers, has proven remarkably shy about wading into the controversy as well, leaving Post readers pretty much in the dark about what is otherwise considered to be a major story elsewhere.

One could go on and on about this case and the egregious refusal of CNN to take responsibility for the poison it is introducing into our political system via Dobbs’ dissembling, but there’s a larger point here: This kind of behavior is hardly limited to CNN.

Last Sunday, ABC’s “This Week with George Stephanopoulos” invited blogger Michelle Malkin to be one of the roundtable panelists. Malkin recently published a book arguing in favor of the wartime imprisonment of Japanese Americans in California merely on the basis of their race and remains a strong proponent of racial profiling today. She even argued that people who were themselves interned, like Norm Minetta, should “be put out to pasture” from their positions in government, because their views have been “clouded” about “what needs to be done now.” (Last summer, “This Week” regular roundtable participant Cokie Roberts took a page from Dobbs’ playbook and attacked Obama for taking a vacation in Hawaii, where he happened to be born and where his dying grandmother lived, because, as she explained, it is a “foreign, exotic place.”)

Meanwhile, two Washington Post reporters were recently viewed on that paper’s website joking about Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s alleged preference for “Mad Bitch” beer. (One is tempted to ask Post funnyman Dana Milbank just “who’s a dick now?”)

You will have noticed by now, I hope, that none of the quotes above can be attributed to Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly, or anyone on Fox News. I’ve not even needed to go to the well for those old reliables, or Rush Limbaugh or Michael Savage, or any of the other geniuses that populate our radio dial. Rather these are supposed to be the responsible gatekeepers of our system. And they are selling naked racism, sexism, and xenophobia. What’s more, they are doing so at a time when much of the Republican Party is basing its appeal on exactly this kind of exclusionary message, designed to imply that only white men can legitimately hold powerful office in the United States.

Whatever the policy outcome of our current debates about health care, economic policy, and Afpak, etc., this is truly a dangerous turn of events for the future of democracy, and one that will only grow more serious the longer we willingly ignore it.

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College. He is also a Nation columnist and a professor of journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. His seventh book, Why We’re Liberals: A Handbook for Restoring America’s Most Important Ideals, was recently published in paperback. He occasionally blogs at The Nation and writes regularly for The Daily Beast.

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Eric Alterman

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