Politics, media and the politics of media.
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
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.”)
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.
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.
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 Crowd—that 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
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.)
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
It’s a true clash of civilizations: France vs. Fox. Fox and the right have been deriding France as a left-banky, “old Europe,” weak-sister nation ever since it refused to support George W. Bush’s Iraq war. But now, in a turnaround, the French are pummeling Fox—with savage satire and threats of lawsuits, and gleefully transforming Roger Ailes’s bully boys into a bunch of Bianca-spraying surrender monkeys.
It’s Fox’s penchant for no-facts zones, not to mention its Islamophobia, that led to this fix. Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo said this week that she may sue Fox News over its false portrayal of her city as full of frightening “no-go zones,” where only Muslims are allowed and police dare not tread. “The image of Paris has been prejudiced, and the honor of Paris has been prejudiced,” she said. And in the sort of dig you might expect from Russell Brand, she tweeted something about the “stigmatizing stupidity of Fox News.”
Bill O’Reilly, whose own “no-spin zone” may have inspired the equally fallacious “no-go zones,” dismissed Hidalgo’s complaints because—zut alors!—she’s a socialist.
The lawsuit, if Hidalgo goes through with it, would seem to have almost no chance of succeeding in the United States, given that libel law here requires proof of “actual malice” and Fox’s actual stupidity could fall short of that. Plus, there’s no real precedent for a city suing for libel. If, however, a suit were filed in France, where standards for proving libel are different, it could, Gawker speculates, make life a little tougher for Fox.
Whether or not Hidalgo sues, she was probably emboldened by the truly breaking news! that Fox had apologized not once but four times recently for its repeated claims that France and much of Europe are pockmarked with areas where Sharia, not local law, rules—“like a caliphate within a particular country,” as Fox’s Judge Jeanine Pirro eagerly pointed out.
Pirro was one of the apologizers, which she did almost with a smirk. She previously had “terrorism expert” Steve Emerson on her show, where he claimed that Birmingham, England, was a city-sized no-go zone and was “totally Muslim.” (In fact, the population is closer to 22 percent Muslim.) British Prime Minister David Cameron called Emerson “a complete idiot,” and Fox soon released a statement saying he was unlikely to appear on air again. (Emerson apologized, profusely, on his website.)
Maybe even more embarrassing was journalist Nolan Peterson telling Fox & Friends’s Elisabeth Hasselbeck that there are “741 no-go zones throughout France.” He said his own past trips to Paris were “pretty scary. I’ve been to Afghanistan and Iraq and Kashmir, India, and at times, it felt like that, those places in these no-go zones.”
Turns out, as Snopes found, the “no-go zones” are an international urban myth based on a bad translation for “zones urbaines sensibles” (ZUS) or “sensitive urban zones,” areas that “are not exempted from policing or French law, and are simply targeted for renewal initiatives.”
Fox left it to host Julie Banderas to give a surprisingly detailed mea culpa:
Over the course of this last week, we have made some regrettable errors on air regarding the Muslim population in Europe, particularly with regard to England and France.
Now this applies especially to discussions of so-called no-go zones, areas where non-Muslims allegedly aren’t allowed in and police supposedly won’t go. To be clear, there is no formal designation of these zones in either country and no credible information to support the assertion that there are specific areas in these countries that exclude individuals based solely on their religion.
Meanwhile, Sean Hannity has been one of the more vociferous zone-truthers, squawking, “Why would France or any other country allow Muslims that have come into the country to basically take over portions of the country? That is madness to me!” I pre-apologize if I’m wrong, but I don’t recall seeing an apology from him, or, for that matter, from any of Fox’s name-brand males. (Several guests and hosts on CNN had also mentioned no-go zones, though far less egregiously than Fox, and yesterday Anderson Cooper apologized for that.)
But why would Fox News apologize at all? Other than the rare “we regret if anyone was offended” non-apology, substantial sorries aren’t in their DNA. CNN media reporter Brian Stelter figured maybe it’s that Fox owner Rupert Murdoch has such “big interests in England.” Then, of course, Murdoch is still trying to live down his massive hacking scandal, as well as his tweet that even if most Muslims are peaceful, “they must be held responsible” for “their growing jihadist cancer.” (This led J.K. Rowling to Voldemort him, tweeting: “I was born Christian. If that makes Rupert Murdoch my responsibility, I’ll auto-excommunicate.”)
But it’s also nice to think that, coming full circle after the Charlie Hebdo attacks, Fox is apologizing because it’s been the target of merciless satire. Not necessarily from US satirists like Jon Stewart, but from France’s version of The Daily Show, Le Petit Journal. Its host, Yann Barthès, has been making Fox, heretofore barely known in France, into a laughingstock. “The credibility of the Fox News clowns disappeared,” he said, “when they show a map of Paris with some ‘no-go zones’.”
Barthès followed up with the hilarious gag of sending “Fox reporters” “Mike” and “John,” armed only with American flag pins, into the wilds of Paris, where they freak out over couscous signs and bearded men (blatantly ignoring their own beards). It’s a little Jerry-Lewis-with-an-anvil, but they nail Fox hysteria with “massive alerts!” and animated fires in the corner of the screen. And whenever Mike and John get scared, they nervously spray their mouths with breath freshener.
Which itself says something about how Fox operates.
Read Next: Leslie Savan on why it's okay for the New York Times to not be Charlie
The new, defiant issue of Charlie Hebdo was published yesterday and sold out around Paris before dawn. The press run of 3 million copies is expected to jump to 5 million today—about fifty times the usual for the satirical magazine, which hovers close to bankruptcy—and CNN reported that single copies are selling for up to $1,700 on eBay.
With that kind of massive popularity you might think that The New York Times and other media outlets that last week, in the wake of the terrorist attacks, refused to publish Hebdo covers featuring the prophet Muhammad might now reverse course and print the new cover: Muhammad shedding a tear, holding a “Je Suis Charlie” sign, under the words “All is forgiven.”
At first glance, the image seems sweet, Muslim-friendly and poetically ambiguous: Is the prophet sorrowfully forgiving the terrorists for defying Islam’s peaceful tenets or Charlie Hebdo for mocking him all these years? Or both? If anything, the cover seems to portray him as a wise granter of forgiveness, like Jesus, and more caring than, say, an earlier Hebdo cover Muhammad who cracked, “A hundred lashes if you don’t die of laughter.”
But of course any image of Muhammad is offensive to many of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims, and so the Times—the media outlet most critics are thinking about when they charge the MSM with cowardice for not running the toons—is holding to its standards and will not run what executive editor Dean Baquet calls a “gratuitous insult” to Muslim readers.
“At what point does news value override our standards?” public editor Margaret Sullivan quoted Baquet last week. “‘You would have to show the most incendiary images’ from the newspaper; and that was something he deemed unacceptable.” In her column yesterday, Sullivan adds:
Mr. Banquet made a tough call, which also includes safety concerns for Times staff, especially those in international posts. (Those concerns are far from frivolous; just days ago, a German newspaper’s office was firebombed after it published the cartoons following the attack, and now new concerns have arisen about reprisals.)
But after previously withholding judgment, Sullivan broke with Baquet and said, reflecting the verdict of many readers, staff and outside critics, that the Times should go ahead and publish the new cartoon:
The new cover image of Charlie Hebdo is an important part of a story that has gripped the world’s attention over the past week.
The cartoon itself, while it may disturb the sensibilities of a small percentage of Times readers, is neither shocking nor gratuitously offensive. And it has, undoubtedly, significant news value.
With Charlie Hebdo’s expanded press run of millions of copies for this post-attack edition, and a great deal of global coverage, the image is being seen, judged and commented on all over the world. Times readers should not have had to go elsewhere to find it.
But why not? Why, exactly, shouldn’t Times readers have to go elsewhere?
You can say that’s denying the readers the news, but who in the world reads only the Times?
The list of stories, ads and specific words the Times won’t publish is long. The Times has been doing this forever, and people have been complaining about it forever, it’s their stock in trade.
Why shouldn’t there be a space in American journalism where certain borders aren’t crossed, where editors strain, however awkwardly, not to inflame one side or the other, and where everyone is a Mr. or a Ms? One reason people buy the Times is to see their rather gentrified worldview, whether they agree with it or not, and most of its readers know the paper’s limits—they don’t write fearlessly about New York real estate, for instance, or, like most publications, their own advertisers; they don’t run semi-nudes or beheading photos. You can get all that elsewhere (the semi-nudes, to my surprise, can be gotten on the homepage of the conservative Daily Caller).
The Times is establishment media, which begets alternative media, like Charlie, or The Nation, or the Daily Caller, or any of the thousands of other alts on the Internet.
The Times needs to be pushed and questioned on this, absolutely, but I’m not sure it hasn’t come up with the right answer for itself for now—cover the hell out of the story and describe but don’t reproduce the cartoons.
Anyway, the Times’s real problem isn’t their sins of omission so much as commission: publishing Judy Miller’s stories, for example, which helped trick us into invading Iraq, or instigating a fruitless and destructive Whitewater investigation, or until very recently, using words like “enhanced interrogation” or “harsh CIA methods” instead of “torture” to describe what American forces were doing at black sites around the world.
To publish or not to publish Charlie’s Mohammad cartoons has become an instant litmus test to see who has political balls. Since the January 7 attacks, Tucker Carlson and other conservatives have been taunting the Times, CNN, the New York Daily News, among other media, as “cowards” and unprincipled for going cartoonless. (Much as the right dared Obama to screen The Interview in the White House before it was finally released online.) Fueling some of the taunts are thinly veiled incitements to crackdown on Muslims.
The really interesting aspect of the Times’s cartoonoclasm is the way this issue has scrambled right and left. An exception to the right’s newfound free-speech absolutism is Joe Scarborough, who today defended NBC’s and MSNBC’s decision to be like Baquet, saying, “If showing a cartoon offends well over a billion Muslims—who are not violent, but who are just as offended by that as I would be offended by seeing a picture of a crucifix in a jar of urine—why, I guess, do it? Just tell people they can find it online.” After all, initially even Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News and The Wall Street Journal abstained from showing the pictures, but both have come around for Charlie’s new issue.
Of course, many of us on the left have also gone after the Times for being flaccid on free speech, like in this classic between Baquet and Marc Cooper (in which Baquet resorted to an alternative media venue, Facebook, to use another word banned by the Times, “asshole”). Most all media have restrained themselves from showing the cartoons that can be interpreted—somewhat mistakenly, says Vox—as virulently racist or Islamophobic.
But as threats against Muslims increase in Europe and here—and as Charlie is for the moment the apple of the world’s eye—it’s important for media on all sides to circulate the lefty Charlie’s anti-racist, anti-Islamophobic images, like this one from “The Charlie Hebdo cartoons no one is showing you”:
As ProgNet notes in Daily Kos: “This cartoon by Cabu criticizes racial profiling, specifically discrimination by the French police against immigrants from North Africa and people of African descent. The caption reads: ‘No to racist controls [identity checks].’”
Read next: Leslie Savan on Fox captures the culprit for the Paris attacks
My first thought on hearing about the killing of at least a dozen Parisians at the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo—including editors, cartoonists and one cop shot on a sidewalk, execution-style, in front of cellphone cameras—was that Bill Maher will feel even more justified in denouncing Islam as a violent religion, the eloquent counterarguments by Reza Aslan and others notwithstanding. The murders were an attack not just on journalism but on comedy itself, not unlike the hacking of Sony over the cartoony Seth Rogen movie The Interview.
My second thought was, “Will journos and comedians now need bodyguards?” Unfortunately, they already do—one of the cops killed Wednesday had been assigned to protect editor Stéphane Charbonnier because of Charlie’s previous cartoons lampooning the prophet Muhammed and jihadist terror groups. The offices were firebombed in 2011 because of Charbonnier’s fearlessness.
Third thought: “How will Fox cover this?” Will they be torn between hating the terrorists and defending the “surrender monkey” French? Will they somehow connect this to the two cops killed in New York and blame Mayor de Blasio and protesters around the country who marched against police violence? Nah, they can’t manage that, can they?
But you can always count on Fox. Within hours of the breaking news this morning, host Martha MacCallum and New York Post columnist Michael Goodwin were throwing the Paris attack and the NYC story into the same blender. After the Ferguson and New York protests, Goodwin said, “police started to second-guess themselves” for fear of being unjustly blamed or worse, killed, for acting too aggressively. The cops, he said, were like journalists who “censor themselves” for fear of being attacked.
Martha nodded. Whether it’s journalists holding their tongues for the sake of political correctness or cops holding back on choke-holds and shooting unarmed black men, “that makes things a lot softer,” she said.
Fox’s Eric Bolling raised the stakes on Outnumbered, saying, “This should be a test case for New York City and cities everywhere. Here’s the point: there’s a very serious push from the left that the police should not be militarized. We should over-militarize.”
An hour earlier, Fox & Friends had been jumping back and forth between the Paris attack and Obama’s threat to veto the first two bills coming out of the new Republican Congress. Elisabeth Hasselbeck teased before two commercial breaks: “Coming up: Hypocrisy brewing over president’s veto threats?” The idea is to link two unrelated things—terrorism and Obama’s promised veto of the Keystone pipeline—by weaving them into the same time and space. Weave and repeat: it’s simple and effective propagandistic association.
Ultimately, Fox connects everything under a still-larger narrative: you are under attack. Different Fox hosts Wednesday morning went on to tie the Paris attack to the release of Guantánamo prisoners, the Benghazi terrorists who haven’t been apprehended, and the likelihood that enhanced interrogation techniques—i.e., torture—won’t be used on any perpetrators because Obama is just too soft on Islamic terrorists.
On cable news this morning, you did hear the caveat to not blame all Muslims—Bobby Ghozi warned against that impulse on CNN; on MSNBC, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Islam was “a “peaceful religion.” And even on Fox, a counterterrorism expert said, “Islam is not the definition of terrorism. Far from it.” But he added that unless we start calling it “what it is—radical Islamic terrorism,” we can’t beat them.
In other words, while much of the liberal media are still trying to sort out just what happened and who did it, Fox is already out of the gate incorporating the attack into its ongoing agenda. And no matter whether or not this terrorist assault helps the authoritarian right over here like 9/11 did, in France it will almost certainly boost the Islamophobic Marine Le Pen and the right in the country’s 2017 elections.
As political commentator and Huff Post French editor Philippe Moreau Chevrolet said on Al Jazeera, “The far right doesn’t need to campaign anymore. [The attack] is doing the campaigning for them.”
Read Next: Leslie Savan on the right-wing media’s demonization of #BlackLivesMatter
For much of the right-wing media it was payday. Two New York City cops were murdered by a troubled gunman who had allegedly suggested on social media that he’d kill cops to avenge the deaths of unarmed blacks by police—and that was all some of the rightward press needed to finally justify attacking Mayor Bill de Blasio and the entire #BlackLivesMatter movement without restraint.
For the New York Post in particular this has been a moment of sweet revenge. During the 2013 mayoral campaign, the Post continually red-baited the left-leaning de Blasio, warning that his opposition to police stop-and-frisk practices would plunge the city’s crime rates back to those of the 1970s (so far, it looks like the city’s become safer). But the Post failed to stir the required hysteria and de Blasio won election handily. But now, with PBA president Pat Lynch accusing both anti–police-brutality protesters and the mayor of having "blood on the hands,” and with police turning their backs on de Blasio when he entered a Brooklyn hospital to pay his respects to the slain officers, Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu, the Post can seem—if you’re not looking closely—to be vindicated.
It’s running cover headlines like “Shamed mayor begs New Yorkers to save cops,” and letting ridiculous invective run loose. “Like most radicals with no real-world experience,” columnist Michael Goodwin wrote of de Blasio, “he assumes the way to fix things is to first smash them into pieces. That’s what he’s doing to New York.” No real-life experience? Smash NYC to pieces? Whatever he’s talking about, it doesn’t matter. The details get swept up by the fury.
The national media smell blood, too, and that’s encouraging them to take bolder moves than usual. Bill O’Reilly interrupted his vacation to call into The O’Reilly Factor and demand that de Blasio resign. Joe Scarborough, who had been railing for weeks against the protesters, the Rams players who supported them, and anyone who chanted “Hands up, don’t shoot” did something Monday he almost never does: he made a direct-to-camera speech; it amounted to an I-told-you-so that “these assassinations were too predictable.”
And of course the usual suspects are all over Fox: former mayor Rudy Giuliani keeps insisting that the largely peaceful (exceptions below) protests that de Blasio rightly allowed wouldn’t have occurred on “my streets” (as if the streets didn’t belong to the public). Former NYPD detective and Fox contributor Bo Dietl has been shouting nonstop about “comrade” de Blasio” and advising him to “take his wife...and go back to Cuba and live there.” (De Blasio and Chirlane McCray’s honeymooned in Cuba in 1994.) Former New York City Police commissioner Bernard Kerik joined in the bloody-hands demands that de Blasio resign. “I personally feel that Mayor de Blasio, Sharpton and others like them, they actually have blood on their hands.” (Fox doesn’t mention it, but Kerik had to resign from the Giuliani administration and was sentenced to four years in prison after pleading guilty to eight felony charges in 2010.)
The resignation meme is no longer confined to Fox. CNN’s Wolf Blitzer asked a guest last night whether de Blasio should leave office. (The answer was “yes.”) As long as people, even if it’s mostly media people like O’Reilly, are putting it out there, it’s a legit question, but you rarely hear a cogent argument for just why he should resign. For losing the respect of some of the police? (For all we know now, most may actually support de Blasio.) For allowing the protests to take place? (De Blasio called for them to cease until after the funerals of the two slain officers, a plea many protesters have ignored.) For even sympathizing with the protesters?
The anger is such that de Blasio’s foes are begrudging a black kid from getting the sound and classic advice to be careful about how he acts around police, advice de Blasio said he’s given to his 17-year-old biracial son, Dante. Former NYPD commissioner Ray Kelly has been all over TV denouncing de Blasio’s public statement as a terrible breach. The right is acting as though the murders of the two police officers nullify every problem with every police force in the US. Suddenly, it's dicey to question law enforcement.
This is a far cry from how conservative media cover the stories of right-wing, anti-government cop-killers.
From Eric Frein, who allegedly shot and killed a Pennsylvania state trooper, which set off a manhunt this fall to Glenn Beck fan Richard Poplawski, who fatally shot three Pittsburgh police office in 2009 to the assassinations in June of two local policemen in a Las Vegas restaurant by Jerad Miller (who had hung with the Clive Bundy crew) and his wife Amanda, the right’s coverage of anti-government cop murderers has been sparse at best. As Eric Boehlert writes of the Miller case:
Raw Story reported that Miller “left behind social media postings that show his concerns over Benghazi, chemtrails, gun control laws, and the government’s treatment of rancher Cliven Bundy.” And according to an NBC News report, the shooter had talked to his neighbor about his “desire to overthrow the government and President Obama and kill police officers.”
Fox News primetime hosts Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity both ignored the shocking cop-killer story the night after it happened; Megyn Kelly devoted four sentences to it.
This stands in sharp contrast to how Fox and friends have covered the Brooklyn killings, says Boehlert, by leaning “heavily on assigning a larger cultural and political blame.” Yet…
Fox News has routinely paid very little attention to breaking news stories that feature right-wing, or anti-government, gunmen….
And critically, when they have touched on those deadly attacks, Fox talkers have stressed that it’s not fair to blame politics. Note that in 2013, after racist skinhead Michael Page started killing worshipers at an Oak Creek, WI., Sikh temple, and then murdered a police officer, Fox’s Andrea Tantaros stressed that the killing spree was an isolated event that didn’t have any larger implications. “How do you stop a lunatic?” she asked. “This is not a political issue.”
Progressives have been trying again and again to point out that protesting police brutality is not the same as protesting the existence of police, much less calling for their death. (After Fox host Brian Kilmeade painted Jon Stewart as anti-police, Stewart came back with: “By the way, jackass, you can truly grieve for every officer who’s been lost in the line of duty in this country, and still be troubled by cases of police overreach. Those two ideas are not mutually exclusive.”)
The tens of thousands of New York protesters have been overwhelmingly peaceful. It is true that some marchers in New York were chanting “What do we want? Dead cops!” about a week before the December 20 shooting of Ramos and Liu. But as the Daily Beast writes, “Evidence from photos, video, social-media posts and interviews suggests it was a single group, desperate to ‘turn up the anger’ at otherwise-peaceful protests.”
At a Monday press conference, after a reporter repeatedly asked de Blasio about the violent rhetoric, the mayor rather uncharacteristically, lashed out at the media. “It was wrong, it’s nasty, it’s negative,” he said. “They should not do that. But they, my friend, are not the majority. So stop portraying them as the majority.”
As if actual calls for “dead cops” weren’t disgusting enough, some in the media are so intent at portraying protesters as violent that they’re putting words in their mouths. Over the weekend, Fox TV affiliate WBFF in Baltimore was found to have deceptively edited footage of a Washington, DC, march to make it sound as if protesters were shouting “kill a cop.” As Gawker pointed out, the actual chant was: “We won’t stop, we can’t stop, ‘til killer cops, are in cell blocks,” but on WBFF it became: “We won’t stop, we can’t stop, so kill a cop.” (Al Sharpton had attended that march, and TPM found that “YouTube videos of the misinterpreted chant contain labels such as “Sharpton’s ‘Go Kill A Cop’ March.”)
WBFF said it was an “error” and apologized on-air to Tawanda Jones, who had led the nonviolent chant. She is the sister of Tyrone West, who died in police custody in 2013. Jones confronted the station, saying, “The interesting part that really gets to me is, where you guys edited it and stopped—like, how could that be a mistake?”
“Once you play that whole thing, you would know that’s not something that’s being said,” she added.
The station didn’t quite come up with an answer.