Kevin Jennings, the Mainstream Media, and Right-Wing Target Practice

In recent weeks, the ombudsmen (or “public editor”) of both The New York Times and The Washington Post have chastised their respective papers for paying too little attention to right-wing agitation on talk radio, cable news, and the blogosphere. In order to dampen charges of bias for the Times’ tempered coverage of the Van Jones and ACORN scandals—we wrote about the former here and the latter here—the paper has announced the creation of an editor to monitor the “opinion media.”

The public editor quoted Tom Rosenstiel of the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism, “If you know you’re a target, it requires extra vigilance…Even the suspicion of bias is a problem all by itself.” What Rosenstiel appears to be advocating here is allowing the fringe crazies to set the terms of debate for what constitutes fair and responsible journalism, as if the mere “suspicion” of bias by lunatics like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh ought to give the Times editors guidance on what stories to pursue. A more effective demonstration of the right-wing strategy of “working the refs” would be difficult even to imagine. And of course, with two scalps to its credit and mainstream media-appointed referees blessing their operations, why should the scandal machine stop now?

The right’s most recent target for political assassination is Kevin Jennings, assistant deputy secretary of education for the Office of Safe and Drug Free Schools. Jennings is an experienced teacher as well as being openly gay. He founded the organization Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network, which raises awareness and preaches tolerance for gays in schools. Undoubtedly encouraged by the successful campaigns against Van Jones and ACORN, reporters at WorldNetDaily, The Washington Times, and Fox News have taken up the fight against Mr. Jennings, the so-called “safe schools czar.”

On September 18, Sean Hannity asked if Jennings’s relationship with the GLSEN warranted his resignation from the administration. On September 23, an article appeared on FoxNews.com summarizing criticism of Jennings that has appeared on right-wing websites and blogs since the White House hired him in June. Its opening paragraph reads:

“President Obama’s ‘safe schools czar’ is a former schoolteacher who has advocated promoting homosexuality in schools, written about his past drug abuse, expressed his contempt for religion, and detailed an incident in which he did not report an underage student who told him he was having sex with older men.”

The day after this article appeared, “Fox and Friends” summarized it and asked if Jennings was “the man for the job.” That same day, on Lou Dobbs’s radio show, the host and Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council discussed Jennings. Dobbs said that Jennings had expressed “contempt for religion itself.” Dobbs could have been referring to a speech Jennings supposedly made in 2000, in which he allegedly said, “Fuck [the religious right].” There is no transcript of this speech, and the quotation first appeared in an article on a conservative website. Dobbs may also be referring to quotations used in the Fox News article from his memoir in which Jennings, who was raised by a fundamentalist Baptist minister, said that he abandoned religion as a teenager. Neither Fox News nor Dobbs mentions that Jennings discusses his return to Christianity in the same book. Mr. Perkins, whose organization launched the campaign against Jennings in June, has said, “homosexual behavior is a ‘death-style’ that is sending young people to an early grave.”

Notice the similarity between the way Dobbs and Fox News both conflate Jennings’s inflammatory alleged comments about the religious right and his misgivings about his religion as a young man with an outright condemnation of religion in general.

Dobbs does not disclose the Family Research Council’s role in digging up dirt on Jennings in June. Despite making the same accusations that were made earlier this summer, Dobbs introduces the subject by calling the dust up the “latest issue” in the invented controversy over Obama’s “czars.”

Dobbs implies that Obama created these “czar” positions for people like Jennings. Think Progress produced a fact-check of the most common attacks on Jennings back in July. They include the point that Jennings’s current position was held in the Bush administration by a Texas judge who was fired when he pled guilty to corruption charges, and then by a woman who holds a B.S. in home economics.

Hannity, meanwhile, brought Jennings up again on September 25 after Democrats had killed legislation calling for confirmation hearings for mid-level staffers like Jennings. Michelle Malkin also attacked Jennings in a column on the basis that Jennings was part of the Obama administration’s wider conspiracy to indoctrinate the nation’s children into radicalism.

The Washington Times chimed in with two separate editorials on Jennings in one week. The first recapitulated the Fox story and called for Jennings’s resignation. Once again the article referred to Jennings’s “utter contempt for religion.” The second, published just two days later, complained of a “double standard” in the treatment of former Rep. Mark Foley and Mr. Jennings. Mr. Jennings, who is gay, has received criticism for a story he has told about a male student who came to him for counseling early in his teaching career. The boy said he had been in a relationship with an older man and had taken dangerous sexual chances. The Washington Times editorial takes the opportunity to equate Jennings’s possible breach of ethics in failing to report what the student said to Mr. Foley’s continued sexual pursuit of male congressional pages:

“Whether the press feeding frenzy around Mr. Foley’s disgrace was justified or not, the explosion of coverage was certainly understandable, even predictable. That reality is what makes coverage of Kevin Jennings, President Obama’s ‘safe school czar’ something of a mystery. Mr. Jennings brings all the sleaze of Mr. Foley.”

Sex and the underaged? Check. An older man? Check. Potential misbehavior by a government official? Check.

Of course, in Jennings’s case, the events the Washington Times refers to happened more than 20 years ago. The reason the comments are available to smear him with is because Mr. Jennings spoke publicly about them in speeches and in an interview. Mr. Jennings has brought the incident up to show compassion for closeted students who engage in dangerous behavior when they don’t feel comfortable coming out.

Mr. Foley, on the other hand, engaged in actual harassment of 16-year-olds while he was in office. The Washington Times is walking a fine line with this kind of righteous relativism. Immediately after the second editorial appeared, WND.com ran a piece on it with the headline, “’Safe Schools’ Chief Encouraged Child Sex with Older Man.”

Mainstream media have begun to pick up the narrative as well. On September 30, ABC’s White House correspondent, Jake Tapper, posted a blog saying that Jennings “expressed regret today” for his failure to act on the student’s apparent abuse. Curiously, WND.com posted an article directly contradicting Tapper with the headline “Obama’s ‘gay’ appointee: I’d handle the student differently. But…declines to express ‘regret.’” The WND article did, however, make use of quotations from the comments section of Tapper’s blog to demonstrate public outrage. A few hours later, the Associated Press ran a short item using the same protracted quotation from the dialogue between Jennings and the student that has been used in all of the right wing attacks against him. Matt Drudge of “The Drudge Report” linked to the item the same day and when on Thursday morning Mike Allen picked up the item for his morning POLITICO Playbook e-mail it became a sure thing that the controversy over Jennings made the big time by the day’s end.

Unlike the Jones and ACORN cases, we’ve received no new information in any of these accusations. All the right has done is repeat accusations made against Jennings by the Family Research Council who began the “Stop Kevin Jennings” campaign and the accompanying website, StopJennings.org, back in June. But so long as the mainstream media invites the lunatic fringe to set its agenda, our politics will remain in thrall to a man who claims that Obama retains a deep-seated hatred against his own white mother, and invites black school kids to beat up white ones because, well, just because…

That can’t be why they got into journalism in the first place.

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 http://www.thenation.com/blogs/altercation and is a regular contributor to The Daily Beast.

Mickey Ehrlich is a freelance writer and an English teacher at Kingsborough Community College.