It is a rule of historical thumb that whenever mainstream journalists find themselves the subject of political controversy they fall back on the old adage that “if both the left and right are criticizing my work, I must be doing something right.” But as author, editor, and publisher Victor Navasky points out in his book, A Matter of Opinion, “Ideology is simply a body of beliefs or doctrines…If The Nation has the ideology of the liberal left and National Review has the ideology of the conservative right, then The New York Times, The Washington Post, the newsweeklies, and the networks have the ideology of the center, and it is part of the ideology of the center to deny that it has an ideology.”
Navasky cites the sociologist Herbert Gans in his book Deciding What’s News, who takes a shot at defining the mainstream media’s ideology by identifying eight clusters of what he calls “enduring values.” These are “ethnocentrism, altruistic democracy, responsible capitalism, small-town pastoralism, individualism, moderatism, social order, and national leadership…And it is these assumptions—or prejudices—that prevent publishers and editors from understanding, or even being open to, any new reality that might be an alternative to those assumptions.”
Gans’s book was published 30 years ago and the ideology of the center has undoubtedly moved rightward during those decades. And yet it operates in fundamentally the same fashion. In the past few weeks one mainstream media honcho after another has sought to draw a rough equation between the deliberately dishonest antics of Andrew Breitbart—who has repeatedly and successfully manipulated the mainstream media with deliberate lies and doctored videos—with the contents of purloined email conversations of 400 liberal journalists on the now defunct list-serv, “Journolist,” which were also published in a deliberately doctored and deceptive fashion on the right-wing website of one-time journalist Tucker Carlson.
Examples of this tendency are not exactly hard to find. Writing with Politico editor-in-chief John Harris, Jim VandeHei pronounces the dawning of an "Age of Rage," equating Breitbart and company’s perversion of the truth with the fact that some liberal journalists and academics participated in occasionally less than polite discussions about conservatives (and one another). In the careless reasoning of the Politico honchos these discussions deserved equation with Breitbart’s nefarious techniques because both "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."
VendeHei equates Breitbart’s antics with The Huffington Post’s reporting and opinion in another column. The result of these developments, both editors argue, is that "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."
One of these so-called “responsible people,” Howard Kurtz, is also deeply worried. Kurtz is The Washington Post reporter and CNN talk-show host who reports on both entities (and their respective competitors) and receives a regular paycheck from both of them. In his Monday column, entitled, “In journalism’s crossfire culture, everyone gets wounded,” Kurtz bemoans the rise of what he calls “the nastiness index” and the fact that “all of us are getting sullied in the process.” He laments that “Media outlets, which once merely chronicled this era of hyper-partisanship, now seem to be both the purveyors and often the targets of ugly attacks.”
In just the last few weeks, Salon Editor in Chief Joan Walsh and CNBC contributor Howard Dean have accused Fox News of racism; conservative crusader Andrew Breitbart has delighted in pushing a maliciously edited video smearing Shirley Sherrod and refused to apologize; Fox hosts have denounced mainstream organizations as Obama lap dogs for downplaying a case involving the New Black Panther Party; e-mails from an off-the-record discussion group showed one liberal pundit wishing for Rush Limbaugh’s death and another suggesting that conservatives such as Fred Barnes be tarred as racist; Rolling Stone‘s Michael Hastings was accused of betraying journalistic ethics with the story that torpedoed Gen. Stanley McChrystal, and Hastings’s critics were ripped as lackeys of the military establishment.
If you take a careful look at these examples, you’ll see that Kurtz’s argument is confused in multiple, albeit revealing ways. For instance, in order to make his case that left and right journalists are somehow equally culpable, he needs to cast Howard Dean and Shirley Sherrod as journalists—which, of course, they’re not any more than Breitbart is. (Amazingly, Kurtz scored Sherrod, whose reputation was purposely and dishonestly assassinated by Breitbart and much of Fox News for using “excessive rhetoric” in her complaint of the treatment that caused her to become a national scandal and briefly lose her job.)
What’s more, Kurtz equates the heinous and horrible statements made by these right-wingers in public forums with the private comments of individuals on “Journolist,” though, of course, one was purposely public and the other became public only when it stolen by Carlson’s website, a controversy I addressed in my Nation column. (Though it was the private comments that caused an individual, Dave Weigel, to lose his job with Kurtz’s employer, The Washington Post—a move that Kurtz endorsed.)
Ditto Kurtz’s use of the quotations of Erick Erickson, the founder of RedState.com, who wrote when Justice David Souter announced his retirement that "the nation loses the only goat [expletive] child molester ever to serve on the Supreme Court." (Kurtz left out Erickson calling First Lady Michelle Obama a “Marxist Harpie.”) But instead of meeting a fate like Weigel—who, remember, was forced out of his job for making private comments—Erickson was hired by CNN on the basis of these disgusting sentiments, which after all were made, unlike Weigel’s, for public consumption. Soon afterward, Erickson said that if an American Community Service census-taker came to his house, he would "pull out my wife’s shotgun and see how that little ACS twerp likes being scared at the door." Again, he did this on a public website but met with no apparent sanction from CNN.
Let us also note that note that Kurtz falls back on that famous tool of irresponsible hackery—the passive voice—to complain that “Rolling Stone‘s Michael Hastings was accused of betraying journalistic ethics with the story that torpedoed Gen. Stanley McChrystal.” Well, yes, people are always being accused of something by someone. But in the case of McChrystal, as I wrote in this column, the substance of the complaints of these unnamed (by Kurtz) individuals was the fact that Hastings accurately reported “what McChyrstal and his aides said in explicitly on-the-record conversations to a reporter with a tape recorder and/or notepad in his hand.”
To be fair, Kurtz does come up with one legitimate example. He quotes MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann, observing that Sherrod’s reputation had been "assassinated by Fox News"—which is undeniable—but who also referred to and "that scum Breitbart." Olbermann is always the example that conservatives use, but even though he does go too far on occasion, his antics are in no way comparable to those of Glenn Beck or Rush Limbaugh.
What’s more, there are more accurate ways to refer to Breitbart, such as a “deliberate liar” and a “purposeful character assassin,” though Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne has a point when he notices the newspaper’s ombudsman Andrew Alexander’s willingness to jump on the Justice Department’s decision to scale down a voter-intimidation case against members of the New Black Panther Party, adding, “that this is a story about a tiny group of crackpots who stopped no one from voting.” Dionne wonders if “the traditional media are so petrified of being called ‘liberal’ that they are prepared to allow the Breitbarts of the world to become their assignment editors.”
But the notion that the nastiness and dishonesty that is coming from the left end of the spectrum is any comparable to that coming from Breitbart, Limbaugh, Beck, and the entire cast of characters at Fox News and on conservative talk radio would be laughable were it not mindlessly repeated by the allegedly nonideological guardians of objectivity at places like Politico and The Washington Post. It is also a license to lie, as Breitbart and company have demonstrated in both the ACORN and Sherrod examples.
Finally we note that the White House Correspondents Association voted unanimously Sunday afternoon to move Fox News to the front row of the White House briefing room. Personally, I don’t care who sits where, and find this whole focus on musical chairs by putative adults to be ridiculous. But I wish that the White House Correspondents Association—indeed, everyone who likes to think of him or herself as an honest journalist—would wake up to the fact that Fox is a conservative propaganda network, not a news station. Fox News broadcasters regularly distort what the president says or cut away before letting him finish. They invite Republican politicians and conservative propagandists to come on and lie, outright, about both people and policy and then build on those lies to tell even larger lies.
In doing so, they engage in conspiracy theories so lurid and outlandish that one is tempted to turn on “The Twilight Zone” for a reality check. They all but ignore Republican scandals and obsess about Democratic ones. Their hosts openly raise money for Republican causes, promote and appear at their rallies, and pass along their propaganda appeals. Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee (to say nothing of Karl Rove) are paid to play presidential politics on Fox programs.
And ask yourself (once again):
Would a genuine news network reproduce a Republican press release, replete with typos?
Would a genuine news network run, over a five-day period, 22 excerpts from health care forums in which every single speaker was opposed?
Would a genuine news network allow a producer to cheerlead anti-Obama protesters off camera?
Would a genuine news network take out full-page ads to complain of insufficient coverage of antigovernment protest marches it had promoted?
Would a genuine news network run the following headlines, trumpeting each story as a "Fox Nation Victory"?
- Senate Removes ‘End of Life’ Provision
- Congress Delays Health Care Rationing Bill
- Anti-Tea Party Reporter Dumped by CNN
- Obama’s Drive for Climate Change Bill Delayed
- Obama’s ‘Green Czar’ Resigns
And let us note that I have not had to quote the lunatic ravings of Messrs. Beck, Sean Hannity, or Bill O’Reilly to make my case, but I repeat myself.
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 most recent book is, Why We’re Liberals: A Handbook for Restoring America’s Most Important Ideals . His "Altercation" blog appears sporadically here and he is a regular contributor to The Daily Beast.