Politics, media and the politics of media.
Bill Kristol threw out the main right-wing line on the Baltimore riots, and in his tweet you could hear a plaintive nostalgia for the days when violence in a major city meant an instant, measurable political bounce for his party:
Winning GOP message: Against anarchy & chaos, at home & abroad. Cheney-Giuliani 2016 probably too much to hope for…But if not them, who?
— Bill Kristol (@BillKristol) April 28, 2015
Who, indeed? Kristol’s dream ticket is so monstrous that anything short of it would seem moderate by comparison.
Predictably, the right-wing media are throwing blame on black people and Democrats for the riots, and as usual Fox News is leading the way. So much so that the sanest voice on Fox, Shep Smith, had to tamp down a virtual blame riot on The Five on Monday.
“I haven’t heard anything from any civil-rights leaders. Have you?” co-host Eric Bolling asked coyly. Smith said he had, and “on our air.” Then co-host Greg Gutfeld, somehow sensing that the collective guilt wasn’t being shared enough, tried to pin the violence on the protesters’ parents, to which Smith responded:
…if we want to sit here and indict the civil-rights community and indict the parents for what we’re watching right now, instead of, for now, just covering what happens and then later talk about whose fault it is, because we don’t know whose fault it is.
But acting like you know who’s to blame is second nature to true demagogues. Fox News’s resident psychologist Keith Ablow blames Obama for the riots, saying protesters are taking their cues “from a president who has given the appearance that there is every justification for any level of anger at our country because we’re such despicable people.” Former Illinois congressman Joe Walsh tweeted that the Democrats “have purposely turned blacks into uneducated government slaves.”
What conservatives are hoping for is a repeat of 1968, when the combination of riots in more than 100 cities across the country after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and a police riot at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago that summer helped associate the Democrats with violent civil disorder and helped Richard Nixon narrowly win the White House. Baltimore’s riots in ’68 were so bad they actually changed history—if you’ve got a long memory, you’ll recall that former Baltimore mayor and then–Maryland governor Spiro Agnew was chosen as Nixon’s vice president because of his nattering nastiness toward Maryland protesters.
That election almost half a century ago was incredibly important: Nixon’s victory ended the long era of progressive political dominance in the United States. In comparison to the media’s shock over the post-MLK violence, the often overwrought coverage in 2014 of the riots in Ferguson, Missouri—and their adjunct in blackness, the Ebola scare—seems almost sedate.
The burning buildings in Baltimore this week definitely present a challenge to Democratic candidates, most obviously to Martin O’Malley, another former mayor of Baltimore turned Maryland governor. O’Malley’s “zero tolerance” policy on crime during his time in office was, Ed Kilgore writes, “more Michael Bloomberg than Bill de Blasio”: “[O’Malley] will immediately face claims that ‘zero-tolerance’ policies he put into place as mayor contributed to the deterioration of police-community relations, thanks to a rising tide of arrests for minor offenses that ruined the employment prospects of many young black men (also a major factor in some of the 1960s ‘race riots’).”
It will be difficult to convince Democratic primary voters that O’Malley is the progressive alternative to Hillary Clinton if his record on this issue becomes well-known and poorly defended.
But Hillary, too, is threatened by her handling of Baltimore. She needs to maintain Barack Obama’s margin in the black community, while at the same time reaching out to the whites she’ll need to make up for the inevitable loss of the young progressive voters Obama attracted. Today, she addressed the Baltimore violence in a speech at Columbia University by name-checking recent victims of police brutality (Walter Scott, Tamar Rice, Eric Garner and now Freddie Gray), and saying, “Everyone in every community benefits when there is respect for the law and when everyone in every community is respected by the law.”
“We have to find our balance again.”
She used the word “balance” repeatedly, trying to position herself as “the balance candidate”—the steady fulcrum between left and right, between black grievances and white fears.
That sort of caution might seem nostalgic itself, for a time when Democratic politicians had to plead with Reagan Democrats to return to the fold. But this is not the same America as the one that went through the riots in 1968—for one thing, whites are demographically much less dominant now than they were then. As with same-sex marriage, some GOP wedge issues are close to flipping on their users.
That said, the likelihood that these riots could dull the income inequality issues that were cutting deeply by confusing them with racial tensions is great. As long as the debate is framed around the question of redistributing wealth via government policy, the Democrats were standing to gain electorally. But, if conservatives have their way, Baltimore will leave us debating how the electorate is divided racially, not economically.
Remember, the demographics are close to flipping. Probably the best response is something like Larry Wilmore’s last night on The Nightly Show. “If anything explains America,” Wilmore said over video of the riots, “it’s those pictures: oppression-riot, oppression-riot is exactly the pattern that built this country. Starting with the tax oppression that led to the tea-party riot, the party that you all seem so in love with.”
At some point using racial slurs to marginalize people is going to backfire. Among the gangs in Baltimore is one named the Black Guerrilla Family. “Hmmm,” Wilmore said, “between the Bloods, Crypts and the Black Guerrillas, which one of these gang names do you think Fox likes to say the most?” He showed a montage of Fox voices repeating the name, a good ten times.
“Fuck you, motherfuckers,” he said. “That’s rolling off your tongues a little too gleefully.”
Read Next: Leslie Savan on the increasing irrelevance of “personality coverage” in elections
“We are horrible,” a TV producer covering Hillary’s first day of campaigning, at a community college in Iowa, said after watching a version of the clip above, according to Slate. “Why do we do this?”
The usual explanation is simple competition: ratings and advertising dollars and keeping your increasingly scarce media job demand it.
There’s always been a certain amount of media fear and self-loathing on the campaign trail. From the press complaining about suffering from “Clinton fatigue”—which it acquired from obsessing over Hillary’s every pore—to Maureen Dowd’s vampire-like columns that feed on Clinton blood, the Beltway media herd has always been pretty horrible, especially to Bill and Hill (and I say this not as one of their fans).
As much as the media would like the 2016 elections to turn on Hillary’s authenticity or Jeb’s brotherly love or Marco’s youth, the 2016 presidential contest may actually depend on ideology and practical concerns.
This week a video slugged “This Tea Party Patriot May Vote For Hillary” hinted at how little personality and cultural wedge issues may matter anymore. James Webb, who runs a YouTube gun channel (Hot Lead retired), told his followers that the Democrats, and specifically Obamacare, have helped him in a very personal way.
Hello, YouTube. I’m kinda having a difficult decision…. I don’t know whether to go for a Republican or a Democrat—and I’m serious. Because I asked myself, I said, “Which party has helped me out the most in the last, I don’t know, 15 years? Twenty?” And it was the Repub-, err, Democrat Party. The Democrats….
The Republican Party, they ain’t done nothing for me, man. Nothing. So, I’m leaning toward voting for Hillary. Unless something major comes up. I don’t trust the Republicans anymore. They’re wanting to repeal the Obamacare. And, I don’t want them to do that, man, ‘cause then I’ll have to go to work again.
Sure, some commenters on Webb’s channel slam him for retiring at only 50 and call him a welfare cheat. But Obamacare has been doing exactly what the Congressional Budget Office said it would: It’s allowing people to quit jobs they stuck with only for the health benefits and to do something more fulfilling.
Even as the MSM went on a chipotle break over Hillary’s “listening tour” of Iowa, other pundits—including Krugman and Chait—turned up evidence that the polarization of the two parties had begun to tilt the field permanently to the Democrats’ advantage in presidential elections. Economic issues and the trend towards voting against the other party rather than in support of any party leadership have made personality coverage seem increasingly irrelevant.
Recent polls confirm these shifts. The job-approval numbers for Indiana Governor Mike Pence, hailed for his regular “Hoosier sensibility” when he won in 2012, have dropped almost twenty points since the Religious Freedom Restoration Act fiasco. In Wisconsin, Governor Scott Walker, the GOP presidential favorite just a month ago, has seen his job approval ratings drop sharply at home and is running 12 points behind Hillary Clinton in the state; the same Marquette University Law School poll finds that in a possible 2016 Senate rematch, former senator Russ Feingold (D) would beat current Senator Ron Johnson (R) 54 to 38.
Drawing conclusions from polls this early is itself a media horribleness, and I’m part of that. And of course analyzing the personalities of politicians can tell us a lot about their politics and character, and it’s enormous fun.
But as Clinton’s campaign takes shape, I find myself wondering whether 2016 is already baked in. When both parties were filled with a swinging mix of liberals and conservatives, you could give a pol a wedgie and bring him down. But in a Haves vs. Have-nots contest, actually accomplishing something for the most people is a real advantage.
So here’s an idea for the political paparazzi press: Take some of that energy you put into literally chasing pols and put it into investigating them on the issues that affect people’s lives.
Read Next: Leslie Savan on Fox News and the killing of Walter Scott
The video that Feidin Santana took of Michael Slager, a white North Charleston, South Carolina police officer, allegedly shooting and killing Walter Scott, a 50-year-old black man, is Fox-proof.
The three-minute-plus video shut up the inevitable police apologists who’d always find a way to blame the black guy for his own death by saying he acted in a threatening manner. But now, even Fox News folks are saying it’s right and just that Slager has been charged with murder.
“This is not Ferguson,” Andrew Napolitano said on Fox & Friends on Wednesday. “In Ferguson, there was a bona fide fight over the officer’s gun and the officer won the fight. This is [sic] two disparate cases. This is a victim running away from the police, shot in the back. This is what some people said Ferguson was, but it turned out it wasn’t.”
Dr. Ben Carson, Fox's favorite black GOP presidential candidate, called it “an execution.”
(UPDATE: You might think that the dash-cam video released last night showing the traffic stop and Scott running away would trigger a Fox instinct to reverse course and blame the victim. But, so far, that hasn’t happened. Sean Hannity said last night that Scott “was not a threat to anybody” and that it’s “irrelevant what happened leading up to” Slager shooting him. And this morning on Fox, conservative radio host Lars Larson said he still believes “the officer committed murder.”)
No, the Fox line seems to be that now that Slager is sitting in jail without bail, justice has been served, the system works. So let’s move on, folks. And, oh yeah, it’s not a race thing. Greg Gutfeld on Fox’s The Five claimed, as if channeling the “color-blind” Stephen Colbert, “I didn’t see a black man killed by a white cop. I saw a man shoot another man in the back.”
That’s funny, because the video is incredibly detailed and definitive. Arguably more definitive than the videos showing the death-by-chokehold of Eric Garner in New York, or the death of Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old boy in Cleveland shot by police for playing with what turned out to be a toy gun, or the unprovoked shooting of an unarmed man, Levar Jones, by a South Carolina state trooper, or the brutal beating of Rodney King that set off the Los Angeles riots in 1991 after the officers were acquitted. They are all shocking videos, and they led to various degrees of punishment—or not—for the police involved. But the Walter Scott video is the most overwhelmingly convincing of them all.
While it’s always possible for video to be misleading or confusing, Santana’s isn’t. We don’t have to wonder what’s not in the picture.
First of all, it’s long. It’s true, the video doesn’t show the very beginning, when Slager stops Scott for a broken tail-light and Scott reportedly runs into a nearby grassy field. That’s where Slager used a taser on Scott and claims that the motorist tried to wrestle it from him; the officer told authorities he “feared for his life.”
It’s at that point that Feidin Santana, a young man walking his regular route to his job at a barbershop, began recording the incident on his cell phone. As Scott runs away from him, Slager is seen firing at Scott’s back eight times until he falls to the ground. After cuffing Scott, who is possibly dead at this point, Slager goes back to pick up what appears to be the stun gun and drops it near Scott’s body, as if to frame Scott as a very dangerous man. (The video also appears to show that none of the police who soon arrived administered any life-saving measures.)
Secondly, the video is shot in the middle distance—not so far that people look like blurry dots, nor so close or narrowly framed that vital information is missing. (The too-close classic: footage of people tearing down a statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad after the American invasion. They looked like a passionate, American-welcoming mob—until later footage zoomed out to reveal they were a small group of people who needed help from an American military vehicle to actually take the statue down.)
Santana’s video is choppy and shaky, surely because he was nervous, but also because he was moving with the action. “I witnessed it with my eyes and let the video do the recording,” he said in one of his several MSNBC and NBC interviews. Toward the end of the video, Santana still more bravely walks closer to the officer and Scott’s body. Widely called a hero, Santana said that early on he considered erasing the video because he feared for his life. But after reading the police report that made it seem that Scott was the aggressor, Santana gave the video to the Scott family.
The worst thing about the video is that it surfaced by pure chance. “A gift from god,” the Scott family lawyer, Chris Stewart, told MSNBC’s Joy Reid. “A person happened to be in the right spot at the right time to see this incident, and be quick enough to pull out that phone and record it. And not only that, that probably happens all the time. Right now somebody is probably filming an incident that if they stepped forward it would help that person, but they’re going to keep driving or keep walking or say, ‘Oh, I don’t want to get involved,’ or feel threatened or scared.”
Walter Scott’s younger brother, Anthony, put it best. “I hate that it had to be a video to prove to take it to this level. Because we have fallen brothers all the time, and they just fall for different reasons in different parts of the country, and they’re just not investigated or taken to this level. And I think it should be looked in deeper.” He’s hoping for justice, he said, but “I won’t be satisfied till I hear a guilty verdict.”
Indeed, this video might be Fox-proof but it’s not foolproof. Nor are the increasing number of body cams and dashboard cams used by police departments throughout the country. They can absolutely help—North Charleston has them on order, and if Slager had been using one, it’s reasonable to wager that Scott would still be alive.
Cameras, however, whether wielded by bystanders or police (or with the help of apps that film and upload to YouTube with one push of a button), don’t get to the root of police corruption and systemic racism.
But video is now a matter of life and death, crime and punishment, and all too often it’s the only way that white people and white media will believe what black people have to say.
Read Next: Leslie Savan on Monica Lewinsky, Justine Sacco, John Oliver, and the circle of shaming
In Dave Eggers’s 2013 novel The Circle, an all-powerful Google-Twitter-Facebook-Meerkat-like conglomerate challenges a billion of its devoted users to crowd-source the capture of a fugitive child-killer, in twenty real-time minutes. From photos, the perp is quickly identified—without independent verification—as an old woman in Leeds, England.
“Are we sure we want to find this hag?” the most-liked online comment snarks. “She looks like the Scarecrow from the Wizard of Oz.” Locals track her down at her job at a laundry, and as the whole world watches live, the woman, her face “at once terrified and defiant,” is “trapped against a wall, surrounded by a dozen people, most of them holding their phones to her, aiming them at her. There was no possibility of escape.” She collapses and is hauled off by the police. The Circle found her with nine minutes and thirty-four seconds to spare.
Jump to real life and the circle remains unbroken.
The same year Eggers’s novel was published, a publicist named Justine Sacco sent out a clumsy tweet while on a flight to South Africa: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” Then, as Jon Ronson recounted to Jon Stewart last week to promote his new book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, all hell broke loose. While Sacco was still in flight, a global cyber-mob started passing her “disgusting racist tweet” (as one tweeter called it) around as an example of unacceptable speech. Soon, Ronson writes in a book excerpt, a tweet came in
from her employer, IAC, the corporate owner of The Daily Beast, OKCupid and Vimeo: “This is an outrageous, offensive comment. Employee in question currently unreachable on an intl flight.”
And that brought out a kind of instantaneous circling, tying the Internet’s capacity for snap judgment to a digital witch hunt:
The anger soon turned to excitement: “All I want for Christmas is to see @JustineSacco’s face when her plane lands and she checks her inbox/voicemail” and “Oh man, @JustineSacco is going to have the most painful phone-turning-on moment ever when her plane lands” and “We are about to watch this @JustineSacco bitch get fired. In REAL time. Before she even KNOWS she’s getting fired.”
A new hashtag began to trend worldwide, and someone tweeted, “is there no one in Cape Town going to the airport to tweet her arrival? Come on, Twitter! I’d like pictures #HasJustineLandedYet.”
A local user obliged, posting her photo online and writing, “Yup. @JustineSacco HAS in fact landed at Cape Town International. She’s decided to wear sunnies as a disguise.”
In the name of opposing racism, this digital mob didn’t trap Sacco against a wall, exactly. Instead, she lost her job, not to mention her sense of security and identity. Sacco was “destroyed,” Ronson told Stewart, not by monsters, but by “nice people like us.”
The kicker, Ronson says, is that her comment wasn’t racist, but was instead a poorly delivered critique of whites’ “tendency to naïvely imagine ourselves immune from life’s horrors.”
It was what Ted Cruz might consider a form of reverse racism. “To put it simply,” Sacco told Ronson, “I wasn’t trying to raise awareness of AIDS or piss off the world or ruin my life. Living in America puts us in a bit of a bubble when it comes to what is going on in the third world. I was making fun of that bubble.”
Ronson writes that he himself had once been “a keen shamer. When newspaper columnists made racist or homophobic statements, I joined the pile-on. Sometimes I led it…. As time passed, though, I watched these shame campaigns multiply, to the point that they targeted not just powerful institutions and public figures but really anyone perceived to have done something offensive.” He “began to marvel at the disconnect between the severity of the crime and the gleeful savagery of the punishment.”
For his book, Ronson interviewed “everyday people pilloried brutally, most often for posting some poorly considered joke on social media.… The people I met were mostly unemployed, fired for their transgressions, and they seemed broken somehow—deeply confused and traumatized.”
Another thing they have in common is a mediasphere that presents content without context, and apparently without the shamers pausing to ask themselves whether their rage is justified. But it wasn’t just thousands of impulsive individuals who rushed to judgment. “Respected” sites, like Buzzfeed, which followed her online trail and published “16 Tweets Justine Sacco Regrets,” played a major role in egging on the mob.
Now, we can say what happened to Sacco is just awful, that we would never do that. But when the shaming comes in the thoroughly amicable form of John Oliver, it’s still harder to see it coming.
On his show a week ago Sunday, Oliver was doing a great bit on how municipalities like Ferguson, Missouri, are “balancing their books on the backs of some of their most vulnerable citizens,” as he said. “We cannot have a system that where committing a minor violation can end up putting you in—and I’m going to use a legal term of art here—the fuck barrel.” In fact, the Declaration of Independence should include “the right to fuck up every once in a while without it completely destroying our lives.”
And yet, to illustrate his point, Oliver ran a clip of a cop giving a woman a traffic ticket. Rather than being one of society’s “most vulnerable citizens,” this woman came off as privileged and obnoxious, telling the mild-manned cop, “I know my headlights weren’t on, Yadda, yadda, yadda…. Like I totally get it, like it’s a ticket, I need to pay it, I’m late.”
The clip, from the reality show Speeders, is at least five years old. But Oliver gratuitously brought the unidentified woman’s personality right into 2015. “You just know that woman behaves that way in every situation,” he laughed, adding (shades of Justine Sacco), “She’s probably not thought about that ticket until, I’m guessing, ’round about now, when she’s getting a lot of text messages from friends saying, ‘Amber, you’re totally on HBO right now shouting at a cop!”
Actually, we don’t know how she behaves “in every situation,” and we don’t know the context back then—was she rushing to deliver medicine to orphans, or to her spa? But it shouldn’t matter anyway: Oliver put her in the fuck barrel for a minor violation. And, hey, who’s not obnoxious at times? Should we lose our right to fuck up every once in a while without it completely ruining our lives?
Like millions on social media, Oliver does a great service when he goes after the sins of the powerful and the stupidities of our system. This time, however, he forgot to punch up, not down.
Our small and everyday cruelties aren’t necessarily caused by a lack of character. Some are baked into our technology. On the Internet we can hide behind anonymity, of course, but more specifically, we’re living through what Stephen Marche calls an “epidemic of “facelessness.”
“The precondition of any trial, of any attempt to reconcile competing claims, is that the victim and the accused look each other in the face,” he writes. “Inability to see a face is, in the most direct way, inability to recognize shared humanity with another.”
And checking out faces on a series of screens doesn’t quite cut it. Without actually seeing other individuals—and them seeing us—we get our ethical cues from the faceless crowd of millions.
The solution isn’t to shame the shamers. Monica Lewinsky, who aptly describes herself as “Patient Zero of losing a personal reputation on a global scale almost instantaneously,” says try a little empathy.
“Public humiliation as a blood sport has to stop,” she said at her recent TED talk. “…Just imagine walking a mile in someone else’s headline.”
Or tweet storm.
Read Next: Leslie Savan on what it means when “Hands up, don’t shoot” doesn’t hold up
When the Department of Justice released two reports on Ferguson, Missouri, I, like many on the right and the left, pretty much ignored one and devoured the other. I minimized in my own mind the report showing that the DOJ not only didn’t have a case against Officer Darren Wilson for killing Michael Brown, but that Brown’s hands were not in the hands-up surrender position. Instead, I focused on the second report that excoriated the Ferguson police department and courts for long-held abusive, racist practices. After all, I figured, Fox and the entire right would exploit the Wilson report and ignore the one on Ferguson. It hurts to type these words, but I was like Fox.
Earlier this week, however, in a piece called “’Hands up, don’t shoot’ was built on a lie,” The Washington Post’s Jonathan Capehart essentially called out the left, and himself. It was, he says, “the hardest piece I ever had to write.”
First, he nods to the “good” report, on Ferguson:
Years of mistreatment by the police, the courts and the municipal government, including evidence that all three balanced their books on the backs of the people of Ferguson, were laid bare in 102 damning pages. The overwhelming data from DOJ provided background and much-needed context for why a small St. Louis suburb most had never heard of exploded the moment Brown was killed. His death gave voice to many who suffered in silence.
But the report on the shooting, Capehart writes, “forced me to deal with two uncomfortable truths: Brown never surrendered with his hands up, and Wilson was justified in shooting Brown.”
As Capehart recounts, Eric Holder’s DOJ found that
Although there are several individuals who have stated that Brown held his hands up in an unambiguous sign of surrender prior to Wilson shooting him dead, their accounts do not support a prosecution of Wilson. As detailed throughout this report, some of those accounts are inaccurate because they are inconsistent with the physical and forensic evidence; some of those accounts are materially inconsistent with that witness’s own prior statements with no explanation, credible [or] otherwise, as to why those accounts changed over time. Certain other witnesses who originally stated Brown had his hands up in surrender recanted their original accounts, admitting that they did not witness the shooting or parts of it, despite what they initially reported…
Capehart calls hands up a “lie” (it was sparked by Brown’s companion in the incident, Dorian Johnson), but keeps it in context.
Yet this does not diminish the importance of the real issues unearthed in Ferguson by Brown’s death. Nor does it discredit what has become the larger ‘Black Lives Matter.’ In fact, the false Ferguson narrative stuck because of concern over a distressing pattern of other police killings of unarmed African American men and boys around the time of Brown’s death.
For this, social media went off on Capehart, calling him a “house negro,” accusing of him of mere click-baiting, and worse. The headline of a Salon piece by Brittney Cooper said he’s “poisoning the race debate” and likens Capehart to Bill Cosby and his “respectability politics.”
And in a heated panel discussion on CNN, The New York Times’s Charles Blow said of the two DOJ reports, “You can’t take one and say I believe this one and I completely discard the other. Because the other one provides context for the first. If you’re truly in pursuit of honesty, the truth will never hurt you.”
It is telling that this heated discussion wasn’t on MSNBC, which, except for Joe Scarborough’s Morning Joe, had been firmly wedded to the “hands up, don’t shoot” narrative (as have most of us at The Nation). Even Capehart seems to avoid the controversy when on MSNBC. Sub-hosting on Hardball last night, he referred to the flak he got for the piece, but didn’t quite address the actual lie at the center of the flak.
Others have noticed the suddenly mum MSNBC. The Daily Howler went after Chris Hayes in particular for “trying to muddy the water” about the DOJ report. “Are we liberals really ignoring the Justice report about the shooting of Brown?” the Howler asked. “Yes we are, and so are major mainstream orgs. When we aren’t ignoring that report, we’re often miscasting what it said.”
I still gulp saying this, but, yep, the “hands up” slogan was a lie. It’s when Capehart calls Brown an “inappropriate symbol” for the movement, however, that I lean toward Cooper’s critique. “Brown doesn’t have to be a perfect victim to be deserving of a place in movement history,” she writes. “The Department of Justice would never have investigated the Ferguson Police without Brown being killed and the people rising up in protest.”
And of course the movement is larger than the question of whether Brown’s hands were up, down or fisted, whether he charged at or tried to surrender to Wilson. So when those Rams players put their hands up in solidarity with the Ferguson protesters, a gesture that so infuriated Joe Scarborough, that was no lie. The slogan “Black Lives Matter” goes to a truth, shown again and again, that millions of whites in the United States believe that black lives are expendable. Many indeed see blacks as target practice, like this gun seller at a South Dakota gun show, selling this atrocity.
But just as Michael Brown doesn’t have to be “the perfect victim” to trigger righteous protests, so Jonathan Capehart doesn’t have to write the perfect, left-pleasing piece without being called a sell-out to his race. What he did is a necessary and healthy corrective.
And, lo, similar winds are drifting in from the right. One day before Capehart’s piece came out, conservative blogger Leon Wolf wrote in RedState.com:
No conservative on earth should feel comfortable with the way the Ferguson PD has been operating for years, even according to their own documents….
Anyone who can read the actual report itself and be comfortable with the fact that citizens of an American city live under such a regime is frankly not someone who is ideologically aligned with me in any meaningful way…
Wolf is getting both trolled and applauded from his side, too.
Read Next: Leslie Savan on why the Daily News called one group of Republicans ‘traitiors’
Hands down, this is the boldest political headline of the year: under the subhead “GOPers try to sabotage Bam nuke deal” and photos of senators Mitch McConnell, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul and Tom Cotton, the New York Daily News yesterday stamped the word “TRAITORS.”
The headline is almost as bold for the mainstream media as the open letter that forty-seven Republican senators sent to Iran’s leaders, offering to explain (inaccurately, as it turns out) how under our Constitution any nuclear treaty they sign with President Obama could vanish once he leaves office. “The next president could revoke such an executive agreement with the stroke of a pen,” they wrote, “and future Congresses could modify the terms of the agreement at any time.”
The misleading missive comes as the United States is in extremely delicate negotiations that could lift sanctions on Iran in exchange for it halting its nuclear program for at least ten years. The politically middle-of-the-road Daily News abhors the deal, but it has an almost old-fashioned sense of propriety, saying in an editorial:
Regardless of President Obama’s fecklessness in negotiating a nuclear deal with Iran, 47 Republican U.S. senators engaged in treachery by sending a letter to the mullahs aimed at cutting the legs out from under America’s commander-in-chief.
The News calls the letter a “petulant, condescending stunt,” and its signatories, which include all but seven GOP senators, “an embarrassment to the Senate and to the nation.”
“TRAITORS” isn’t clever, like today’s New York Post line on Hillary Clinton, “DELETER OF THE FREE WORLD,” and it may not become iconic, like the Daily News’s own “FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD.” But it packs into one fist of a word what much of the rest of the media have been thinking but didn’t dare say ever since House Speaker John Boehner went around Obama and invited Bibi Netanyahu to warmonger before a joint session of Congress last week.
— Dr. David Romei (@DavidRomeiPHD) March 10, 2015
— Rusty Cannon (@RustyCannon) March 10, 2015
For his part, Obama reacted coolly, saying, “It’s somewhat ironic to see some members of Congress wanting to make common cause with the hard-liners in Iran.” He left the outrage to Joe Biden, who said, “I cannot recall another instance in which senators wrote directly to advise another country—much less a longtime foreign adversary—that the president does not have the constitutional authority to reach a meaningful understanding with them.”
The goal of both the GOP and Netanyahu is to destroy any chance of negotiating with Iran, the better to one day bomb, bomb, bomb it. For the crazy right, which now officially includes the majority of GOP senators, the letter is of a piece with their attempts to repeal voting rights, the Affordable Care Act, science, the Obama presidency and reality itself. (Andy Borowitz cracked the natural joke: “Iran Offers to Mediate Talks Between Republicans and Obama.”)
To top it off, even as the signers condescend to lecture Iran on our Constitution, they get it wrong, as the Washington Post points out, and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif gets it right, calling the letter “a propaganda ploy” with “no legal value.” From NPR:
Zarif said he was astonished by the letter, saying it suggests the U.S. lawmakers “not only do not understand international law”—a subject in which he is a professor—“but are not fully cognizant of the nuances of their own Constitution when it comes to presidential powers in the conduct of foreign policy,” according to Iran’s Foreign Ministry.
He added, “I wish to enlighten the authors that if the next administration revokes any agreement with the stroke of a pen, as they boast, it will have simply committed a blatant violation of international law.”
Almost as intriguing as the machinations involved in the nuclear deal, and those within the GOP (three signers—Paul, Marco Rubio and Lindsey Graham—are presidential hopefuls) are those at the Daily News that may have led to “TRAITORS.”
The tabloid is owned by billionaire real-estate and media mogul Mort Zuckerman, a staunch supporter of Israel, but not on the Sheldon Adelson scale. The News, which endorsed Obama in 2008, Romney in 2012 and de Blasio the next year, plays it down the middle and several notches more intelligently than its arch rival, the New York Post, owned, as is Fox News, by Rupert Murdoch. Who decided to call sitting senators “traitors”? What was Zuckerman’s input? Was it some kind of last hurrah before the Daily News is sold—possibly to Murdoch?
Just two weeks ago, Zuckerman “shocked” his staff by announcing that he might unload the paper, which he’s owned since 1993. Besides Murdoch, other potential buyers include Mike Bloomberg, “the Dolan family—of Cablevision, Madison Square Garden, and Newsday fame—and the newspaper chain-owning Newhouse clan,” Lloyd Grove writes in the Daily Beast. In the eroding newspaper industry, both NYC tabs are reportedly losing millions of dollars each year—the Post, $70 million, to the News’s $20 million. Grove transmits one of the best lines on the state of newspapering: “New York’s tabloid war, said a battle-scarred veteran, has become a pitiable spectacle of ‘two bald guys fighting over a comb.’”
But that comb has value to Murdoch: if he were to buy and then shut down his rival, he could gain circulation and ad revenue. And most important to Murdoch, he could increase his already enormous political influence in the city as well as the country.
So one day, Murdoch may disappear yet another media outlet, one of the very few in the mainstream willing to call out the Fox News Congress.
Read Next: Leslie Savan on SNL mocking ISIS, Boehner mocking his ultras and why it’s all pretty funny
Two bold, ISIS-themed commercials—one real, one fake—have hit the air this week and in their different ways reveal the depth of American hysteria.
We all know about the Saturday Night Live parody ad: against the pastel atmospherics of the Toyota spot it spoofs, Dakota Johnson plays a young woman leaving home for the first time. “You be careful, OK?” says her tearful dad (Taran Killam). “Dad it’s just ISIS,” Johnson says, and winks. “Take care of her,” Dad tells one of the black-clad fighters, who whispers, “Death to America.”
Funny? Tasteless? Helps ISIS? Hurts ISIS?
You can ask similar questions about this real ad, also starring black-clad terrorists: Tasteless? Helps congressional right-wingers? Hurts them?
Of the two ads, the one above, made by the American Action Network, a Super PAC close to Speaker John Boehner, is far more shocking, because it spews its fear-mongering and patriotic one-upmanship not at liberals, as the GOP’s been doing for years, but against fellow conservatives. As David Nir writes at Daily Kos, “To see the very same rhetoric deployed against Republicans is nothing short of stunning.”
TV spots in the $400,000 campaign are running in the home states of Tea Party–friendly Representatives Tim Huelskamp, Jim Bridenstine and Jim Jordan, and related radio spots and robocalls are targeting dozens of other reps in conservative districts. These are the brainiacs who tried to shut down the Department of Homeland Security in order to (in their own minds) force Obama to reverse his executive action on immigration.
Ultimately, Boehner caved—he allowed the House to vote, yesterday, on a clean bill to fund the DHS through September that passed with mostly Democratic support. Nancy Pelosi pushed Boehner into that corner, but so did some not-crazy Republicans, like former congressman Steve LaTourette, who (using some unfortunate imagery, considering the topic) advised Boehner: “You got to chop off a few heads…and take no prisoners. I don’t think it’s appropriate that after six members who voted against him on opening day have now been promoted to be subcommittees chairmen.”
The ads—and AAN implies there could be others that will spank unruly hardliners in the future—show Boehner finally, if temporarily, entering the arena with a one-two punch. He’s attacking his right flank (no more tears, no talk of his ouster as Speaker, for now) while simultaneously giving the finger to the left by appointing Bibi Netanyahu the new Republican president of the United States.
Actually John Boehner is really letting his freak flag fly lately. When asked earlier this week if he’d let the House vote on a clean DHS bill, Boehner replied by pursing his lips and making kissy faces.
Boehner’s been almost as nonchalant about these questions of import as the SNL ISIS skit was. But the latter’s been the source of more tsuris in media. Elisabeth Hasselbeck railed that there’s nothing “funny about ISIS”; Twitter was all over it, on both sides.
H.A. Goodman wrote at the Huffington Post and said on Lawrence O’Donnell’s show that the SNL skit could do more to defeat ISIS than any bombing campaign—that through satire, “‘terror’ will finally lose its ability to gain followers.” Not true, countered terrorism analyst Evan Kohlmann. ISIS will love this ad. It makes them look glamorous, and surely the marketing-savvy terrorists figure, like Sarah Palin, that any publicity is good publicity when Lorne Michaels is involved.
But whether or not the skit dents ISIS, it does jab at American ISIS hysteria—the belief that Sharia’s coming to get you, that your children are going jihadi, and that ISIS (like Ebola before it) is an existential threat to the American way of life. Or as Lindsey Graham says of Obama, “This president needs to rise to the occasion before we all get killed here at home.” All. (See Graham, other ISIS overreactors, and the Boehner kiss on Jon Stewart ’s show here.)
While SNL did an ISIS spoof in November, with Chris Rock, it’s brave of them to keep cranking them out.
In the end, they’re bolder than Boehner.
Read Next: Leslie Savan on what would actually get Bill O’Reilly in trouble
Why is it that when Brian Williams makes up war stories he loses his reputation and six months of his career, but when Bill O’Reilly spouts the same sort of chest-pounding bull, he ends up even tighter with his audience and his network?
It’s not as if O’Reilly’s fabrications were less outrageous than Williams’s. O’Reilly has claimed he was a heroic network correspondent in the “war zone” (meaning Buenos Aires) at the end of the Falklands war while his CBS colleagues were “ hiding” in a hotel. More Zelig-y than Williams, O’Reilly has repeatedly placed himself at the Florida front door of a shady figure in the investigation of JFK’s assassination just in time to hear the self-inflicted gunshot that ended the man’s life (when there’s a cascade of evidence that Bill was in Dallas at the time).
When Media Matters debunked O’Reilly’s claims to have seen four nuns “get shot in the back of the head” in El Salvador in 1981, he slickly skated away, saying he meant he had seen images of that slaughter and that “no one could possibly” misunderstand his sterling intentions. The latest of O’Reilly’s fairytales to fracture is that protesters bombarded him with rocks and bricks during the 1992 LA riots; not so, say colleagues who were there.
Not in spite of, but because of all this, O’Reilly’s TV ratings this week have surged, as fans rally to him and the curious tune in to see if the cable news giant will admit to even one substantial fib. Of course, he won’t. After countering the Falklands charges on Sunday with a misleading clip, he’s been brushing off the other charges as baseless political assaults from “liars,” “far-left zealots,” and “guttersnipes.”
Unlike NBC and the other networks, which at least aspire to fact-based reporting, it’s in Fox’s DNA to re-invent reality by massaging facts and destroying context, because, as Jon Stewart said, all that “matters to the right is discrediting anything that they believe harms their side.” One of the central tenets of Fox News is that conservative white men are under constant attack from the liberal media, and the O’Reilly flap, which was initially kicked off by Greg Grandin in The Nation and then David Corn in Mother Jones, fits that narrative all too well. (As Grandin and others point out, O’Reilly’s personal pufferies are the least of his reportorial sins.)
No matter how accurate the hits on O’Reilly’s false machismo are, they only make him seem more righteous to his audience. Liberal attacks on right-wing manliness—like pointing out the chicken-hawk status of Cheney & company—have no standing with Fox viewers. “O’Reilly has been given an opportunity to wage war against a phalanx of liberal media aggressors,” Gabriel Sherman writes in New York magazine. “This is what his audience expects.”
Is there nothing that could turn their audience away from them? Doesn’t Fox, like the rest of us, have an Achilles Heel?
Actually, they do, and it’s related to that tough-guy, manly-man act. Conservatives can bluster and bully like steroidal hysterics on any topic, but when they turn their scorn on an individual, usually younger, woman, they risk the ire of Christians, Republican women, and anyone with a working creep detector. As Sherman writes:
One indication that O’Reilly is waging a calculated media campaign is to compare his ferocious response to a true scandal with career-ending implications: the 2004 lawsuit by a Fox News producer named Andrea Mackris, who accused O’Reilly of having lurid phone sex. In my biography of Ailes, I reported how Ailes and Rupert Murdoch were furious at O’Reilly for creating the humiliating mess. Ailes instructed O’Reilly that if he spoke out in public, he was in danger of losing his show. Aside from a handful of muted comments, O’Reilly remained silent about the allegations. His ratings held, and O’Reilly hung on to his job.
Likewise, Rush Limbaugh was seen as pretty much invincible until he, too, attacked a younger woman. In 2012, he called the then–Georgetown University law student Sandra Fluke a ”slut” for supporting mandated contraceptive insurance coverage. “She wants you and me and the taxpayers to pay her to have sex,” he said. In return, he added, he wanted Fluke to post videos of her having sex “online so we can all watch.” Advertisers began to flee the show, to the point where, according to Media Matters’s Angelo Carusone, “the commercial viability of Rush Limbaugh’s radio program has collapsed and remains that way.”
From O’Reilly and Limbaugh to Todd (“legitimate rape”) Akin and James O’Keefe (the GOP prankster whose plans to lure a CNN reporter onto a boat, and seduce her, in 2010, signaled his serious fade-out), sex and gender snafus appear to be one of the few reliable forms of white male kryptonite. You catch a right-winger making his sexual appetites overly vivid or venting them on an identifiable woman instead of an abstract policy, and boom!
That’s the burden of being “the Daddy Party,” and if it faces a “Mommy Party” headed by Hillary Clinton in 2016, it will be a particularly heavy one. If they launch a sexually aggressive campaign that backfires, they’ll surely feel victimized all over again.
Until then, Bill O’Reilly is safe (contrary, I think, to Maddow’s take). He and his viewers are in this together. They need just a drop of plausible deniability (Bill couldn’t have lied—he showed us a tape!) to go on accepting his nightly rants. Part of Fox’s contract with conservative Americans is the right to think magically and to (as Karl Rove told Ron Suskind) “create our own reality.”
Bill can hear a magic gunshot. He can experience war in an upscale downtown neighborhood. He can get hit by make-believe bricks.
And, for now, he can Houdini himself out of all the traps he’s set for himself.
There’s little I can add to John Nichols’s wonderful appreciation of David Carr, the writer and New York Times media critic who died Thursday night at age 58. “What made Carr the necessary guide through an ever-expanding maze of conflicts and contradictions” in the media world, Nichols writes, “was not that he always knew the way. In an age of stupid certainty, and the cruel choices that extend from it, he reminded us to cling to our humanity as we explored the unknown together.”
So I’ll add this, one of his last interviews. Other sites have posted the hour-long panel discussion—with Edward Snowden, Laura Poitras, and Glenn Greenwald—that Carr moderated just hours before he collapsed shortly before 9 pm in the Times newsroom. But there’s another interview worth a long listen. On Monday, on Brian Lehrer’s WNYC radio show, Carr, Lehrer, and Andrew Tyndall take on the Brian Williams fiasco. It’s a rich and nuanced discussion, about memory, celebrity, journalism and confusion—and Carr, as usual, brought to it a wisdom and a generosity of spirit, something that’s increasingly rare in today’s media.
Read Next: Lesbie Savan on Brian Williams.
Everybody’s been asking whether Brian Williams can return as anchor of NBC Nightly News after his six-month suspension for exaggerating an attack on a helicopter ferrying him and an NBC camera crew to a military bridge site in Iraq back in 2003. It’s the big celebrity question of the week, totally replacing our collective wonderment over that weird hat Pharrell Williams (no relation) wore during his Grammys performance last weekend.
But just peaking above the surface in the past couple days is a far more important question: Will the media, prodded by what they’ve judged to be Williams’s “lies,” finally begin to question their own role in boosting the far more serious lies that led to hundreds of thousands of actual deaths in the Iraq war?
Jon Stewart, as usual, saw the ironies. After cracking some gentle jokes at his friend’s expense, Stewart allowed that he’s happy the media is piling on Bri Wi because “ finally someone is being held to account for misleading America about the Iraq war.”
“It might not necessarily be the first person you’d want held accountable on that list, but never again will Brian Williams mislead this great nation about being shot at in a war we probably wouldn’t have ended up in if the media had applied this level of scrutiny to the actual [beep] war.”
America’s corporate media has plenty of false war stories to account for—from the phony heroism of Pvt. Jessica Lynch and the unquestioning acceptance of Bush administration assurances about WMDs to Judith Miller’s lies on the front page of The New York Times and NBC axing the Phil Donahue show for “presenting guests who are anti-war, anti-Bush and skeptical of the administration’s motives.”
Only the usual suspects have continued to point out the media’s hypocrisy. Bill Moyers, for example, said, “Brian Williams’s helicopter lie is nothing compared to the misinformation spewed by US press in lead-up to Iraq War.” In a great post in Mondoweiss, Scott Long writes:
What I don’t get is why this is an issue. Williams made up a story. But he was in the middle of the most fantastic made-up story in American history. The Iraq war, written by Bush with a little help from Tony Blair and Micronesia and Poland, was a gigantic fiction, as beautifully told and expressive of the moment’s cultural mythology as The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, or A Million Little Pieces, or Three Cups of Tea. The reasons were fake, the goals were fake, the triumph was fake. Nothing was true except the dead people, who aren’t talking. The war countered imaginary threats and villainies with imaginary victories and valor. Williams added his embroidery in the spirit of invention. Why are the other tale-spinners turning on him now?
Maybe so many journalists have been drawing arrows on the big fat bulls-eye on Williams’s back—he’s been defended by notably few of his erstwhile friends in the MSM—because his problems distract from their own complicity. It’s also possible that a lot of people, and not just journos, want to avoid their own sense of shame. “[W]hat Williams did is merely an exaggerated version of what any of us might do,” Steve Almond writes. “This is why his lies so offend us. In vilifying him, we help cleanse ourselves of the hidden shame we feel at sanctifying war while living amid such decadent safety.”
It’s hard to get the media industry, much less the public, to focus on the historical big picture when there’s an individual personality so ripe for skewering. And the big picture is itself a work of corporate spin. NBC spent millions promoting Williams as a man to be trusted, endlessly advertising his nice guy bona fides and anchorly rectitude even as the network made a fetish of his father-knows-best affect.
The “NBC family” Williams heads is about as real as The Brady Bunch, and often just as annoying. During his broadcasts as the peacock network’s paterfamilias, Williams told us about his knee surgery and his daughter Allison’s role in the NBC’s version of Peter Pan. If you had a contract with NBC, your baby got airtime—viewing photos of Savannah Guthri’s new baby could make us feel as warm and purr-y as seeing all those cat videos Williams would run.
It’s not that family doesn’t matter, it’s just that nepotism should, too. Over several days last fall, CNN’s Chris Cuomo and his New Day co-hosts took us to their ancestral countries to share their colorful roots; meanwhile, the show avoids mention of a current family member, Chris’s brother, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, whose dismantling of the Moreland Commission on state corruption was real news New Day dodged like an incoming RPG.
Corporations aren’t people, and they don’t have families, either. Look at the way NBC brutally dumped “our own” David Gregory, as if he were an obnoxious Thanksgiving guest. Maybe Brian Williams, if his credibility really seems totally unsalvageable in six months, will be joining Gregory in green-room limbo.
All this family BS is similar to the legally allowed “puffery” in advertising—buying the right car will make you sexy, renting one at the right company will make you a business legend—and it’s advertising, of course, that sustains most big media in the first place. As financial pressures continue to demolish the boundaries between advertising and editorial, fibs, frauds and outright lies come to be equated with profits. And in witty, easy-going Brian Williams NBC found an eager participant in maintaining its corporate habits and achieving its goals.
One of news media’s habits is to obscure the larger context. Remember how Christiane Amanpour was hounded out as host of ABC’s This Week in part for daring to extend the show’s “In Memoriam” segment to “all of those who died in war” rather than limit it to American service members? Remember how the same Fox News whose website showed the twenty-two-minute video of ISIS burning a Jordanian pilot alive in order to, as Megyn Keilly said, “remind people of the enemy we face” had refused to show military coffins returning home from Iraq, even when the Pentagon briefly allowed it? (Obama later lifted the ban.)
Back to Scott Long:
Why is it a scandal when Williams admits misrepresenting himself, but not when NBC admits misrepresenting the world? Why isn’t the scandal that NBC’s Tim Russert said, before the Iraq war, ‘‘I’m a journalist, but first, I’m an American. Our country is at war with the terrorists, and as an American, I support the effort wholeheartedly’’?….The belief that war journalism was about fealty, not fact, came to infect every sentence said on air.
As for Brian Williams, Long writes, “What matters isn’t the man but the environment that made him, where news isn’t fact but a superior sort of fiction, a compound of inflated personalities and imagined stories, a mirror to reality TV. That should be the scandal.”
I guess it’s a super irony that Jon Stewart announced last night, just hours after Williams’s suspension was made public, that after seventeen years he’ll be leaving The Daily Show. The timing was probably a coincidence (though Joe Scarborough suspects that Stewart timed it “as a favor” to Williams), but it does give an edge to jokes about why don’t they just switch jobs. Terrence McCoy wrote that “Jon Stewart, now as much a newsman as a comedian, and Brian Williams, now as much a comedian as a newsman” could go out together.
But it’s not really such a wild joke—apparently, Williams asked to fill Jay Leno’s spot when the lantern-jawed stand-up finally retired from The Tonight Show. NBC had to remind the news anchor that he wasn’t actually a comedian.
Read Next: Leslie Savan on how remorseless warmongers make the best Bibi-sitters