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Leslie Savan | The Nation

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Leslie Savan

Politics, media and the politics of media.

Monica Lewinsky, Justine Sacco, John Oliver and the Circle of Shaming

Monica Lewinsky: The price of shame

Monica Lewinsky gives a TED talk on "the price of shame" in March 2015. (TED/YouTube)

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.

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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

What Does It Mean When ‘Hands Up, Don’t Shoot’ Doesn’t Hold Up?

Black Lives Matter demonstrators

Black Lives Matter demonstrators gather on steps the National Portrait Gallery in Washington. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

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.”

Capehart has had some defenders. Donna Brazile, for instance, tweeted: “Agree. Hands up, don’t shoot’ was built on a lie http://wpo.st/hn490. Error admitted and let’s start the healing process.”

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.

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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’

‘Daily News’ to GOP ‘Traitors’: Drop Dead

New York Daily News cover, March 10, 2015 (New York Daily News)

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.

“TRAITORS” has also provoked, and the News is promoting, a huge Twitter reaction, where #47traitors was one of Tuesday’s top trending hash-tags.

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.”

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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

SNL Mocks ISIS, Boehner Mocks His Ultras, and It’s All Pretty Funny

a TV ad funded by the American Action Network

A TV ad released March 3, 2015 ,and funded by a conservative PAC, American Action Network, to embarrass Republicans who oppose funding the Department of Homeland Security. (Youtube)

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.

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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

There’s Only One Thing That Could Actually Get Bill O’Reilly in Trouble, and It’s Not Lying

Bill O'Reilly delivers his Talking Points monologue on February 20, 2015. (Fox News)

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.

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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.

David Carr on Memory, Celebrity, Media and Confusion

David Carr (CC BY 2.0

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.”

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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.

Finally, Someone Pays for Iraq War Lies—Brian Williams

Brian Williams in 2010

(Reuters/Phil McCarten)

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.)

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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

Brian Williams’s ‘Fog of Memory’ Meets the Fog of Media

Brian Williams

Brian Williams (NBC Nightly News)

THIS JUST IN: “Tom Brokaw wants Brian Williams fired,” New York Post, Page 6.

WAIT! THIS JUST IN: “Tom Brokaw Denies Reports That He Wants Brian Williams To Be Fired,” the Huffington Post’s media page.

It’s all too predictable. The media—from today’s NY Post cover showing “Lyin’ Brian” with a foot-long Pinocchio nose to a Huff Post homepage headline this afternoon “Who’s buyin’ Lyin’ Brian?” (spoiler: I am)—are rushing to judgment about Brian Williams, when they know only too well how they easily themselves can make mistakes, misquote, misunderstand and misinterpret. (Which is apparently what happened with Page 6’s claim that the former NBC anchor wanted his successor fired.)

Brian Williams attributes his false statement that he was in an Army helicopter that took enemy fire in Iraq twelve years ago to “the fog of memory.” But fog can also overtake any story that the media rush to cover and sensationalize and plant with villains and victims.

It is true—at least from what we know now—that the NBC news anchor has told different versions of the helicopter story. The early stories were basically accurate—that he was in a helicopter behind another one that took fire from rocket-propelled grenades (RPG) and small-arms fire. The tale grew more vivid and frightening in later years, most notably on a Letterman appearance, in which Williams says he was in the chopper that was shot down. (For a detailed chronology go here, to Michael Calderone in Huff Post.) When unhappy air-crew veterans finally got through to NBC to point out the errors, Williams issued an on-air apology, and wrote on Facebook:

I feel terrible about making this mistake…. I think the constant viewing of the video showing us inspecting the impact area—and the fog of memory over 12 years—made me conflate the two, and I apologize.

No one is exempt from misremembering, or relying on those who do. CNN media critic Brian Stelter had delivered the news earlier that the pilot flying Brian Williams’s chopper, Rich Krell, said the chopper did indeed take “small arms fire,” verifying at least part of Williams’s account. And it could explain a lot, because most of Williams’s stories mention both the RPG and the small-arms assaults without distinguishing which helicopter took which kind of fire. As he told Letterman on the tenth anniversary of the incident, “Two of our four helicopters were hit by ground fire, including the one I was in—RPG and AK-47.”

But today Stelter reports that Krell now doubts his own memories. Krell texted Stelter this morning:

“Good morning. The information I gave you was true based on my memories, but at this point I am questioning my memories that I may have forgotten or left something out.”

He said, “For the past 12 years I have been trying to forget everything that happened in Iraq and Afghanistan; now that I let it back, the nightmares come back with it, so I want to forget again.”

He concluded, “The men in that article deserve respect. Please understand.”

“Bottom line: this pilot is revising his story,” Stelter writes, “—and, because of that, I’m revising mine.”

Second bottom line: we still don’t know exactly what happened. So slow down, media. It’s starting to feel like Swift-helicoptering.

In this media morass, however, there are a few voices of common sense, even from within Fox News, which is otherwise leading the charge against its mortal media enemy, NBC.

On Wednesday night, Megyn Kelly defended Williams, saying he appears to have made an “innocent mistake.” To which Fox media critic Howard Kurtz replied, “It may be an honest mistake, but it’s an inexplicable one.” (Really, Howard? How do you explain why you left CNN in 2013? “Kurtz’s run has been plagued at times by a handful of whopping mistakes,” writes Politico, “including most recently inaccurately claiming that an NBA player who came out as gay had failed to reveal he had once been engaged.”)

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Then last night, Kelly hit the basic, logical points that are sorely missing from the media’s Brian Williams pile-on:

“We all make mistakes,” she said.

“We don’t know that he lied at all.” A lie, she went on, assumes some sort of intention to deceive. And that doesn’t seem to be the case with Williams at all.

“The passage of time” makes his faulty memory understandable, she added.

And look at the person’s whole history, and Williams’s, Kelly said, is not one chockful of lies.

Of course, a cynic might say Kelly is being compassionate to a fellow anchor in order to protect her own ass for any mistakes she has been or will be caught in. (Like her statement, for instance, that Santa Claus and Jesus were white.) But on behalf of all of my past or future mistakes, I’m with Megyn. Can we stop labeling people liars, until and if we have evidence?

As memory expert Lawrence Patihis says:

We should take care before assuming deliberate deception here. As a memory researcher, I find it credible that Brian Williams had a genuine memory error. We all gradually change narratives about the past in a way that is not deliberate, but because we are under less scrutiny than national journalists, we never realize all the memory errors we make.

Netanyahu: Remorseless Warmongers Make the Best Bibi-Sitters

Benjamin Netanyahu's babysitter ad, released January 31, 2015

Benjamin Netanyahu's babysitter ad, released January 31, 2015 (YouTube)

When I first saw Bibi Netanyahu’s campaign ad in which he shows up at the front door as the “Bibi-sitter” for a young couple who are getting ready to go out, I got angry. Not just because it portrays Israel as a nation of children that only he can protect, but because I liked it. It’s charming, it’s funny, and I’m afraid it will work.

Like most really good political ads, “Bibi-sitter” turns the candidate’s greatest flaw into an advantage. So instead of a reckless, egoistic war hawk who’s willing to risk Israel’s special relationship with the United States in order to score partisan points in the upcoming Israeli elections, Bibi is depicted as a Jewish mensch you’d trust with your kids. In fact, the ad so softens Netanyahu’s hard edges that it ends with him all cozy under a blanket watching TV and chomping on popcorn looking like a babysitting teen.

At the invitation of House Speaker John Boehner and the new congressional Republican leadership, Prime Minister Netanyahu is scheduled to address a joint session of Congress on March 3, just two weeks before the Israeli elections. In a major snub to President Obama, Bibi accepted the invitation without informing the White House, and for the first time in I don’t know how many years, support for Israel has divided along partisan lines, with some Democrats threatening to boycott Netanyahu’s speech. He’s expected to urge sanctions against Iran, and if Boehner, McCain, Graham et al. have their way, Bibi will ride in from the Middle East to help them destroy Obama’s delicate negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program, something the GOP and some Democrats haven’t yet been able to do on their own.

Netanyahu had been struggling in the polls, in part because paying for “lawn mower” wars like the incursion into Gaza and ever-expanding settlements in the Palestinian territories hasn’t left much for butter after buying all the guns. The couple primping in the mirror at the beginning of the ad is a parody of the new generation of Israelis who are impatient with the austere war economy that Bibi’s Likud Party has championed.

But then comes gramps, a puckish fellow, who’s going to allow them to keep their fun social lifestyle and keep them safe. Do they honestly think that his two liberal opponents, “Buji” (Isaac Herzog, head of the Labor party) and “Tzipi” (Tziporah Livni, former justice minister and a former Likud member) would be better sitters than him? “Lo, lo, lo, lo!” they cry.

The kicker? When the parents return from their night out and greet Bibi with a “shalom” (peace), he responds, “Not unconditionally.”

As is true of hard-right candidates everywhere, Netanyahu has done best when fears about his nation’s security are paramount. “With violence on the Lebanese border and worries about Iran’s nuclear program high on voters’ minds, the conservative leader’s reputation for being strong on security helped to raise his approval rating to 51 percent from 46 percent in January,” Jeffrey Heller at Reuters writes, adding, “The poll results will come as a surprise to some: Netanyahu has been fending off criticism at home and abroad over his decision to accept” Boehner’s invitation.

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So the ad isn’t responsible for Bibi’s revived fortunes as much as it’s his way of assuring voters that he’s tough but has a big heart. Netanyahu’s team made a harder-hitting but nearly as charming spot before “Bibi-sitter” in which he played a kindergarten teacher overseeing a bunch of unruly children, each named after one of his opponents, from both the left and the right. That ad was banned, however, because in Israel you can’t show children under 15 in a political ad.

I’ve been unable so far to find out which political consultant made “Bibi-sitter,” but it has all the earmarks of an American production. It’s sitcomy, à la Seinfeld; there’s the subtle mockery of everyone in it, including Bibi. It humanizes him, and that made me a little crazy. It’s reminds me of the enduring lesson in the movie A Face in the Crowdthat a media wizard can humanize anybody, in the same way Andy Griffith’s Lonesome Rhodes lent the nickname “Curly” to the stodgy, bald Senator Worthington Fuller and transformed him into a faux folksy man of the people.

Bibi Netanyahu, the warm-monger.

 

Read Next: Leslie Savan on Larry Wilmore’s Nightly Show

Larry Wilmore: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Multicultural Diversity…

The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore

(Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images for Comedy Central)

Just when the storm over political correctness seems about to burst—a storm stoked most recently by Jonathan Chait’s New York magazine piece accusing the left of virtually censoring free speech (Michelle Goldberg nicely dissects Chait’s arguments here)—Comedy Central has debuted The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore. And damned if this show, more or less from the left, isn’t designed to confront just those PC pieties.

Amazingly, The Nightly Show is currently the only late-night talk show hosted by an African-American, and Wilmore opened his first show, on January 19, with the just the sort of perfectly reasonable ethnic-based complaint that could, if your victimology meter was set on hair-trigger (or in the hands of Rush Limbaugh), be read as “PC”: “Brother finally gets a show on late night TV!” he said. “But, of course, he has to work on Martin Luther King Day.”

But the show’s format and Wilmore’s style—he’s as easygoing and open-minded as Colbert’s character was intense and rigid—defy the Chaity caricature of PC.

Wilmore, a veteran comedian, writer and producer, who played “the senior black correspondent” on The Daily Show—a sly job title that pointed to the show’s overwhelming whiteness—is clearly no black power radical. But his politics appear to be more progressive than his moderate temperament might lead you to believe. As Dave Itzkoff of the Times writes, “Mr. Wilmore said he wanted his show to look at ‘events in the world from the perspective of the underdog,’ while being ‘provocative and absurd, all those things rolled into one.’”

In that first show, Wilmore laughed at Al Sharpton running to protest the Oscar snub of the movie Selma. “Al, Al, Al, you don’t have to respond to every black emergency,” he said. “You’re not a black batman.” Then he asked, point-blank, “Are we protesting too many things here?” Still, Wilmore clearly believes in activism; he zeroed in on recent protests that he believes have produced results: the climate change demos in September that, he says, helped the US and China reach a climate accord; nationwide minimum-wage protests that led to twenty-one states raising their wages.

The Nightly Show seems consciously designed to laugh at the confusions and mystifications that ideological identities, left or right, trail in their wake. The show’s format more closely resembles Bill Maher’s show than Jon Stewart’s or John Oliver’s: After a Wilmore monologue (the only really scripted part of the show), Larry convenes a panel of four different guests every night to discuss a single topic. The panel is a combo of comedians, journalists and people who have some sort of relevance to the topic, like a former sniper when Wilmore focused on controversies over American Sniper, or an anti-vaxxer on measles night. The set-up can, but doesn’t always, kindle conflict.

The show’s signature segment, called “Keep it 100” (as in keeping it 100 percent real), is meant to step on the cracks in a guest’s political identity.

For instance, Wilmore asked comedian Sabrina Jalees, a Canadian and a lesbian, to imagine that there’s “two terrorists, one’s about to blow up a roomful of Canadians and one a roomful of lesbians. You’re a sniper: which terrorist do you take out?” (The Canadians, she joked, because she’s making money up there.)

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He asked Soledad O’Brien, whose father is black and mother is Latino: “If you had to choose one side to identify with, which one would it be?” (Black, she said, “because blacks need a lot of support right now.”)

John Leguizamo, of Puerto Rican and Colombian descent, got the question, “Which Latino identity do you hate being mistaken for the most?” and Leguizamo answered, “I love all my Latino brothers—Argentine.

The questions—many are versions of “Would you do X for a million dollars?”—can be silly. And the gimmick of handing out stickers for the guests who’ve kept it 100, or teabags for those whose answers were “weak tea,” could quickly become tiresome.

But Wilmore does tease people to come out of their ghettos for air, and not to take ethnic and ideological identities so seriously.

Who knows what Larry would ask Jonathan Chait? But it might be something like, If you knew you had to invade a country to take revenge for 9/11, would you pick one that had something to do with the attack, or one that spells its name with the letter Q without the letter U?

Read Next: Leslie Savan on how the French fried Fox News

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