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The Shame of the Fourth Estate | The Nation

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The Shame of the Fourth Estate

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This piece was first published by the Hillman Foundation.

About the Author

Charles Kaiser
Charles Kaiser writes Full Court Press for the Sidney Hillman foundation. He is the author of The Gay Metropolis and...

Let me make this utterly clear: What you see on Fox News, what you read on Right Wing websites, is the utter and complete perversion of journalism, and it can have no place in a civilized society. It is words crashed together, never to inform, only to inflame. It is a political guillotine. It is the manipulation of reality to make the racist seem benevolent, and to convict the benevolent as racist—even if her words must be edited, filleted, stripped of all context, rearranged, fabricated, and falsified, to do so.

What you see on Fox News, what you read on Right Wing websites… is a manipulation. Not just of a story, not just on behalf of a political philosophy. Manipulation of a society, its intentional redirection from reality and progress, to a paranoid delusion and the fomenting of hatred of Americans by Americans...The assassins of the Right have been enabled on the Left.

— Keith Olbermann's special comment on the Sherrod debacle

It has become fashionable to dismiss Keith Olbermann as an over-the-top ranter—or as the MSNBC host put it himself, "a mirror image of that which I assail." But there was nothing over-the-top about his special comment about Shirley Sherrod. Every word he spoke was true. And the only thing that made his stance so remarkable is the abject failure of the mainstream media—especially this week—to accurately describe the source of the allegation against Sherrod, or to chronicle the long-term impact of the "complete perversion of journalism" practiced 365 days a year by Fox News (and the right-wing bloggers and radio hosts that make up the rest of this wackosphere).

The "enabling" Olbermann so accurately describes consists of a nonchalant attitude among most media swells toward Rupert Murdoch's main propaganda machine—"oh, that's just Fox"—melded with an inculcation by these same writers of the main "value" informing almost every judgment made in America today: if it makes a lot of money, it must be a wonderful thing.

The perversion of journalism produced by the fusion of these two attitudes has led us directly to the perversion of society we witnessed this week, when a Democratic White House and the nation's oldest civil rights organization both behaved in a precipitous, craven, and disgusting fashion, purely out of fear of how they would be treated by a band of vicious charlatans—men and women who are inexplicably treated by everyone from the New York Times to the Today show as if they were actual journalists.

Here are some of the media choices, each of them chronicled by Full Court Press over the last two years, that have pushed us to this terrible place.

* A gushing page-one profile of Glenn Beck in the New York Times by Brian Stelter and Bill Carter, which celebrated his impressive ratings soon after his arrival at Fox: "Mr. Beck presents himself as a revivalist in a troubled land.… Mr. Beck's emotions are never far from the surface. ‘That's good dramatic television,' said Phil Griffin, the president of a Fox rival, MSNBC. ‘That's who Glenn Beck is.'"

* Time magazine's decision to ask Glenn Beck to assess Rush Limbaugh's importance in America for the 2009 Time 100: "His consistency, insight and honesty have earned him a level of trust with his listeners that politicians can only dream of."

* A decision by the editors of washingtonpost.com to allow Beck to host a chat there to promote one of his books.

* This hard-hitting assessment of Beck by Time magazine TV critic James Poniewozik, who gurgled on, "Sure, he may be selling a sensationalistic message of paranoia and social breakdown. But politics, or basic responsibility, aside, he has an entertainer's sense of play with the medium of TV that O'Reilly, or perpetual sourpuss Neil Cavuto, don't." And why would anybody care about a basic sense of responsibility, anyway?

* A worshipful 1,943-word profile of Fox News founder and president Roger Ailes by David Carr and Tim Arango on the front page of the New York Times—which included this perfectly amoral quote from David Gergen, a perfectly amoral man:

"Regardless of whether you like what he is doing, Roger Ailes is one of the most creative talents of his generation. He has built a media empire that is capable of driving the conversation, and, at times, the political process." And what a wonderful conversation it is.

* And finally, the most sickening piece of all in this splendid cohort: David von Drehele's obscenely sycophantic cover story of Beck for Time magazine, which told us that Beck is a "man with his ear uniquely tuned to the precise frequency at which anger, suspicion and the fear that no one's listening all converge;" that he is "tireless, funny, [and]self-deprecating…a gifted storyteller with a knack for stitching seemingly unrelated data points into possible conspiracies—if he believed in conspiracies, which he doesn't, necessarily; he's just asking."

In a rare and honorable exception to this parade of journalistic disasters, earlier this month Dana Milbank did mention the role of Beck in the creation of the current climate of paranoia:

These sentiments have long existed on the fringe and always will. The problem is that conservative leaders and Republican politicians, in their blind rage against Obama these last 18 months, invited the epithets of the fringe into the mainstream.… Consider these tallies from Glenn Beck's show on Fox News since Obama's inauguration: 202 mentions of Nazis or Nazism, according to transcripts, 147 mentions of Hitler, 193 mentions of fascism or fascist, and another 24 bonus mentions of Joseph Goebbels. Most of these were directed in some form at Obama—as were the majority of the 802 mentions of socialist or socialism on Beck's nightly "report."

But far worse than the kid-gloves treatment of Fox and its friends was the inexplicably benign approach the MSM took toward Andrew Brietbart, the original source of the doctored video of Sherrod's speech before the NAACP that started this whole sorry saga.

In the Washington Post, he was a "conservative activist and blogger"; in Sheryl Gay Stolberg's story in the Times, he was "a blogger" who "similarly...used edited videos to go after ACORN, the community organizing group;" in the Wall Street Journal he was "a conservative Internet activist" who "argued that the Obama administration is insufficiently sensitive to bias against white people"; in the Los Angeles Times, "a conservative media entrepreneur" and to Associated Press television writer David Bauder a "conservative activist" whose website "attracted attention last year for airing video of workers at the community group ACORN counseling actors posing as a prostitute and her boyfriend."

But to find out who Breitbart really is, you would have had to read (h/t Joe Stouter) Joe Conason in Salon, who, "recalling Breitbart from his days as eager lackey to Matt Drudge...warned from the beginning that nothing he produced would resemble journalism."

Although there was not a hint of this in any of the stories I've quoted from above, O'Keefe's ACORN story was actually a "‘scandal' that became a national story only after wildly biased coverage on Fox News Channel, followed by sloppy, scared reporting in mainstream outlets, notably the New York Times, the Washington Post, CNN, and the national TV networks (some of whom flagellated themselves for failing to publicize this canard sooner!)" as Conason put it. He continued:

Investigations by former Massachusetts Attorney General Scott Harshbarger, Brooklyn District Attorney Charles J. Hynes, California Attorney General Jerry Brown, and the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, among others, have served to exonerate ACORN of the most outrageous charges of criminality (while still criticizing ACORN employees and leadership). More important, from the perspective of journalistic ethics, those investigations revealed that the videotapes released and promoted by Breitbart's website were selectively and deceptively edited to serve as propaganda, not news."

The Harshbarger report, commissioned by ACORN's own board of directors, pointed to signs of chicanery when it was released last December. Although O'Keefe, his associate and fake "prostitute" Hannah Giles and Breitbart all refused to speak with Harshbarger, his researchers at the Proskauer Rose law firm were able to make preliminary comparisons between audio and video files on the Big Government website...

Amazingly, the New York Times never covered the Harshbarger report and gave little or no coverage to the other deconstructions of the Big Government "scoop" by law enforcement. Last March, when Hoyt finally offered an excuse for the failure of the Times to adequately correct and explain the complex truth behind Breitbart's ACORN scam, it sounded weak.

The report by Harshbarger…was not covered by The Times. It should have been, but the Acorn/O'Keefe story became something of an orphan at the paper. At least 14 reporters, reporting to different sets of editors, have touched it since last fall. Nobody owns it. Bill Keller, the executive editor, said that, "sensing the story would not go away and would be part of a larger narrative," the paper should have assigned one reporter to be responsible for it."

So, having repeatedly blown the aftermath of the ACORN story, the Times compounded its error by giving its readers no hint whatsoever this week of Breitbart's nefarious background.

The single most ridiculous story of the week was written by "media reporter" Howard Kurtz in the Washington Post. Howie -- as only Howie could, being a man of limitless energy and no judgment -- decided the most interesting angle of the Sherrod affair was Fox's lack of responsibility in promoting it. "Ousted official Shirley Sherrod blamed Fox, but other outlets ran with story," was the headline over Kurtz's report.

Kurtz said this was true because Fox did not mention the story until after Sherrod had been forced to resign -- and he reported that Fox Senior Vice President Michael Clemente had seen an e-mail to his staff which said: "Let's take our time and get the facts straight on this story. Can we get confirmation and comments from Sherrod before going on-air? Let's make sure we do this right."

However, Clemente's memorandum did not prevent Bill O'Reilly or Sean Hannity from convicting Sherrod of her alleged crime on both of their programs on Monday night, even though neither of them had reached Sherrod as Clemente had directed. And it didn't prevent the wall-to-wall character assassination which the network engaged in all day Tuesday, until the full, exonerating version of the tape of Sherrod's speech was finally made public by the NAACP Tuesday night. (As one wise FCP friend observed, "It's great to know they do have standards–even if they never bother to observe them.")

Kurtz's piece prompted FCP to ask him, "Did you ask anyone at Fox why every program there ignored this e-mail from Clemente and ran the story into the ground all day Tuesday--before getting confirmation or comments from Sherrod?"

This was Kurtz's reply:

My focus was on what if anything was reported before Shirley Sherrod resigned. Lots of media outlets, including CNN and MSNBC and a zillion Web sites, ran with the story on Tuesday once the Agriculture Department fired Sherrod. Fox may have done it with more frequency and more enthusiasm, but it's hard to argue that it wasn't a story at all once the firing was confirmed.

Of course there was one small difference between Fox and CNN. While the conservative network spent thirty-six hours constantly repeating the false charge of racism against Sherrod, CNN actually tried to locate the truth about the allegation against her.

That allegation, by the way, was even more disgusting because of these facts: Shirley Sherrod's father was murdered by white men who were never prosecuted for that crime. And as the indispensable Doug Ireland has pointed out, Sherrod's husband, Charles Sherrod "was a real hero to many of us in the '60s for his key role as a leader in SNCC in building an INTER-RACIAL civil rights movement. Charlie left SNCC when Stokely Carmichael took it over, expelled white folks, and adopted 'black power' as its ideology, in order to continue building a black-and-white movement in Georgia. The notion that Charlie's wife could have been guilty of what's being called 'reverse racism' against whites is therefore douibly ludicrous. Some of us who knew Charlie back when, however, haven't forgotten his shining example."

Thanks to Rick Sanchez's intrepid producers, CNN tracked down the farmer Sherrod had supposedly discriminated against, because he was white, and learned that farmer revered Sherrod, because her efforts were the only thing which had prevented him from losing his farm twenty-five years ago. (Brietbart responded by attacking the "purported story of the farmer"–which is one more reason that Olbermann's description of Breitbart is so accurate: "a pornographer of propaganda.")

Since Kurtz has written laudatory profiles of Ari Fleischer, Rich Lowry, Bill Kristol and yes, even Sean Hannity, it was not a big surprise that the Washington Post reporter pointedly ignored Fox's true role in the Sherrod affair.

For that you had to watch Rachel Maddow on Wednesday night, when she pointed out that Fox's hyping of the Sherrod story was just part of the same old pattern of exaggerating the sins of ACORN, hounding Van Jones out of office, and making the alleged harrassment of voters by two members of the New Black Panther Party into a story just slightly less significant than World War II.

All the network was doing, Rachel explained, was to continue the 40 year-old Southern Strategy of the Republican Party, which can be summarized this way: "Be afraid, white people. There's a threat to take you over. The black people are coming for you...and you better band together to not surrender, to fight back."

And it was because Fox has stoked these fears so effectively that the Obama White House and the NAACP behaved so badly in response to the latest ludicrous accusation against one of its appointees.

As David Ehrenstein pointed out in a comment on FCP's previous post about Sherrod, "As you well know, Charlie, being that Rachel Maddow is liberal -- and therefore "biased" in the eyes of the "Mainstream Media" -- her words are to be ignored. By contrast conservatives (or more to the point in Breibart's case fascists) are never to be ignored. Their every word and deed must be regarded with utmost seriousness. The situation is so bad that the offhand snark of a conservative writer, Dave Weigel, comically dissing other conservatives, cost him his job at" the Washington Post.

We leave the last word to Keith Olbermann, because he had the very best advice for the president:

...You must, at long last, Sir, come to terms with the fact that while you have spent these first 18 months and one day of your presidency bending over backwards for those others, they have spent this time insisting you are not actually president, or you are a communist, or you are bent on destroying whatever is starring this week in the paranoid fantasies churned out by Fox News and the farcical Breitbart.

If only for the arrogance of the irony - that this Crusade to prove you a foreign influence is led by an Australian named Murdoch and his sons who pretend to be British, and his second largest shareholder Prince Alwaleed bin Talal al-Saud of Saudi Arabia—you, Sir, must stand up to this attack on you, and on this nation. Their game-plan is transparent:

They can strand together all the forces of anti-black racism in this country, direct them at you and all for which you and this nation stand, and convince the great unwashed and unthinking out there that not only are they not racists, but you, you Barack Obama, and Van Jones, and Shirley Sherrod, you are the real racists, and so in opposing you they are not expressing the worst vestige of our past, but are actually standing up against it.

As you stay silent and neutral and everybody's President, they are gradually convincing racists that they are civil rights leaders and you are Police Chief Bull Connor. And then some idiot at Fox news barks, and your people throw an honorable public servant under the nearest bus, just for the sake of 'decisive action' and the correct way to respond in this atmosphere.

Mr. President, please stop trying to act, every minute, like some noble, neutral figure, chairing a government of equal and dispassionate minds, and contemplative scholars.

It is a freaking war out here, and the imagined consensus you seek is years in the future, if ever it is to be re-discovered.

This false consensus has gotten us only the crucifixion of Van Jones, and a racist gold-shilling buffoon speaking from the Lincoln Memorial on the 47th Anniversary of Dr. King's speech, and now it has gotten us Shirley Sherrod. And your answer is to note a "disservice" and an "injustice."

Sir, get a copy of the Michael Douglas movie "The American President." When you get to the line where he says "I was so busy keeping my job, I forgot to do my job"—hit the rewind button.

Twenty times.

Update: Shirley Sherrod's speech is an extraordinary American document from an extraordinary American. Read the full text here.

Correction: Although O'Reilly and Hannity convicted Sherrod of her non-existent crime on Monday night, and much of Fox's coverage on Tuesday did the same thing, beginning with Fox & Friends, the network also aired a reported piece on Tuesday morning by James Rosen, which included Sherrod's version of the story, as well as the exculpatory part of Sherrod's piece which had already run on another network. Rosen said that part of the speech "appeared to corroborate her claim that she was trying to unite her audience in racial tolerance." 

FCP regrets the omission.

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