Politics, media and the politics of media.
As the whole world watches President Obama’s address on combating ISIS tonight, you can depend on the US media to obsess over the “optics.” Is he coming across tough enough, Putin-y enough? Will his demeanor please the Republicans and frighten the terrorists (or vice versa)? And what does his suit have to say about all of this?
From Obama”s refusal to cut short his vacation after the Malaysian plane was shot down over Ukraine, to golfing after commenting on the beheading of journalist James Foley, to his wearing a beige suit (which the press mistakenly called “tan,” a bad habit of white folks, as people of color know), the media has lately been speeding up its favorite game—spitting out millions of words about image (the old word for “optics”) instead of substance.
I’m torn: I write about the nuances of imagery all the time. It holds tremendous power, public figures must know how to advertise themselves, the medium is the message and all that. But today we have so many layers of media interpreting imagery, from cable pundits to billions of tweets, that it’s getting harder for people to see for themselves.
We don’t know how much optics scolds like Maureen Dowd and Fox News have played into Obama’s decision to strike in Syria. But Eric Boehlert reminds us of what happens to journalists when they continually opt for optics: it weakens their already compromised ability to analyze issues, much less reality. Compared to optics babble, he says, analysis “is more difficult, more rigorous, and it’s much needed.”
And Boehlert chronicles how journalists have actually agreed at times with this or that policy but decide to harp anyway over this or that vocal inflection:
The Washington Post’s Ruth Marcus recently agreed that the country’s current immigration failures were the “fault of House Republicans.” She then proceeded to pen an entire column attacking Obama’s “erratic” style because he “looks weak” and he “looks political” in his decision-making.
The same went for Post colleague Dana Milbank: Obama’s comments about the threat Islamic State posed to the United States were “probably true,” but unnerving nonetheless. Why? Obama wasn’t projecting enough panic, apparently. New York Times columnist Frank Bruni argued that while Obama’s recent foreign policy commentary “reflects a prudent disinclination to repeat past mistakes and overreach,” he non[e]theless failed to deliver “savvy, constructive P.R.”
“Worrying about image projection and the degree of savviness in the Administration’s P.R.,” noted media critic Jay Rosen, represents “signs of a press corps that can be deeply unserious about international politics.”
You can read more on the Media Matters blog.
If you want to put your finger on the problem confronting Chuck Todd, who made his much-ballyhooed debut as moderator of NBC’s Meet the Press on Sunday, you don’t have to look much farther than the two “fun new features” introduced on the first show.
Todd said the recurring segment called “Who Needs Washington?” will explore politics beyond the Beltway, which this week meant interviews with mayors of cities that are “going it on their own with little of Washington’s help or dysfunction.” The second new feature is “What everyone in Washington knows but is afraid to say.” This week the thought that dare not speak its insight was “what Hillary Clinton’s really up to.”
But maybe what everyone on Meet the Press is really afraid to say is that Todd’s mission is at best inherently self-contradictory: although his new show desperately wants some outsider cred to boost the ratings, it’s not willing to risk its insider status to do so.
Talking to America’s big-city mayors is hardly new—Sunday shows have always been bringing on local pols who claim to be better at governing than the national leaders. And while the very existence of a Sunday Beltway talk show would seem to hinge on telling you what “everyone in Washington knows” and you don’t, as it turned out, neither Chuck nor his panelists had anything new to say about “what Hillary’s up to.” (And since when was anyone in the media afraid to speculate about that? The only fear you smell is their fear of admitting, “I don’t know.”)
As MTP fell from first to third place during David Gregory’s misbegotten reign, NBC brass realized that something was wrong beyond Gregory, but they weren’t sure what. “The show needs more edge,” NBC News President Deborah Turness recently declared. Format changes, she suggested, will include a panel of journalists questioning guests, as the show did in its earlier, better days. “The one-on-one conversation belongs to a decade ago,” she said. “We need more of a coffeehouse conversation.”
So just how edgy or coffeehouse was yesterday’s show? It stuck to a one-on-one interview, of President Obama, but it usefully tweaked the format so that the panel discussion was interspersed with the interview.
But only one panelist conceivably had “edge,” or his visibly tattooed armed did, anyway: Buzzfeed reporter John Stanton, who’s been a guest on Chris Hayes’s and then Steve Karnaki’s Up—a show that’s edgy enough to not broadcast its need for that quality.
But the other panelists included the usual inside-DC suspects and MSNBC stalwarts: Andrea Mitchell, who has her own MSNBC show and is married to former Fed chair Alan Greenspan; The Washington Post’s Nia-Malika Henderson, who pops up on MSNBC to convey the most conventional wisdom in the most conventional way; and Joe Scarborough, now promoted to an “NBC News senior political analyst.” It’s possible that Joe could bring the edge of his sarcastic annoyance as well as coffeehouse demeanor from Morning Joe. But on Todd’s show, Joe wasn’t allowed to play the alpha male, and he was on his best network TV behavior; he even had only nice things to say about Obama.
Try as he might—and he only might—Todd may not be able to escape the safe blandness endemic to network Sunday shows.
The shadow all the NBC anchors are trying to outgrow is Tim Russert’s, who was MTP host until he unexpectedly died in 2008. Russert had a reputation for “gotcha” journalism, in a good way. He’d use the technology of his era—tapes from the archives—to confront a guest: back then you said that, but now you say this. Some guests were rattled, but the show soon acquired a chummy atmosphere—seasoned pols would lean in and say, “You sure are good with those clips, Tim,” and then chuckle through an analysis of spin. “Meet the talking points,” critic Jay Rosen calls the show.
After all, the hosts and producers didn’t want to alienate the guests they’d need to book down the road. Even more, of course, they didn’t want to alienate the corporate sponsors. Corporations advertised on the Sunday shows to influence policy legislated by the target audience of “thought leaders.” The shows were dominated by companies like GE, Northrup Grumman and Archer Daniels Midland, who helped determine what policies and scandal were not talked about on Sunday shows. Yesterday on MTP, Koch Industries ran its big national ad that says, in so many words, they’re so powerful you’re better off working for them than boycotting them.
The idea is that these corporations are above right/left politics, a delusion the news media helps perpetuate by repeating the false equivalency canard that both political sides are equally guilty of any wrong. This Sunday, Todd kept suggesting that it won’t make any difference if the midterm elections result in a Republican or a Democratic senate majority, because gridlock will rule the day. (Obama gave a decent explanation for why that’s crazy.)
In trying to brand the show and himself, Todd has been repeating his own slogan of sorts: “It’s not politics that people hate, it’s that they hate the politicians that don’t know how to practice the art of it.” That sounds plausible, but it also sounds like a reluctance to examine underlying structural issues to focus instead on the personalities of the moment.
In fact, you might say, it’s not Sunday shows audiences hate, it’s Sunday show hosts.
But as Jason Linkins wrote, “A New Host On ‘Meet The Press’ Isn’t Going To Solve Its Problems.” He made a great case for why John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight “beats ‘Meet The Press’ coming and going. The show literally wandered right onto ‘Meet The Press’ Beltway turf and delivered a report [on the nutritional supplement industry] with a sophistication that no Sunday show has pulled off in years.” It wasn’t just the jokes that made it work, but “the show wanted to have a point” and demonstrated a “real respect and genuine concern for their audience, instead of trying to get over by posing as an ‘insider’ operating under a veil of savviness.”
Todd is smart enough to recognize the problem, but to really shake off that toxic insider status, he might consider Jay Rosen’s advice:
I think it would be wise for Chuck Todd to see himself and his colleagues, Washington journalists, as part of the class that has screwed up politics.
And maybe, in taking over “Meet the Press,” he can begin to address some of how that happened.
“Leadership, thy name is Ron Johnson.” So announced Mike Huckabee yesterday on Fox’s Outnumbered. Even as the image of Michael Brown, the unarmed black teen killed by a Ferguson, Missouri, policeman, was being tarnished by a video allegedly showing him stealing from a convenience store, the media had already found the hero of their story. He was Ron S. Johnson, the State Highway Patrol captain now in charge of law enforcement in the St. Louis suburb.
He’s just what most media want—someone who seems to transcend the left/right and black/white divides and can bring people together. Thursday night, the bald, buff African-American state officer banished the militarized St. Louis County police force and walked with protesters to oversee a peaceful, almost joyous demonstration. Johnson, who was raised in the area, hugged demonstrators, told several young men with tattoos that his son has tats too, and, most important, listened to people.
Johnson also instantly grasped how the surveillance video threatened the perception of Brown’s character and, by extension, the character of all black victims of police violence in the news. And he was subtly critical of Ferguson police chief Tom Jackson for releasing the tape. “I think [the robbery and the shooting] are two separate issues. People in our country commit crimes every day,” Johnson said in an interview with KSDK on Friday. “I don’t want to mix the two. I’m not going to say that one justifies the other, OK? And I think if we’re going to give answers, we need to not give hints. We need to say it.”
The “liberal media” saw his appeal right away. His photo ran above the fold on the New York Times front page two days in a row. Wonkette headlined a story “A Snark-Free Welcome to Captain Ron Johnson, New King of Ferguson,” and went on to say, “Speaking on behalf of the liberal media cabal, we’re behind you, Ron Johnson…”
At the same time, Johnson urged responsible moderation and respect for private property. “In our anger, we have to make sure that we don’t burn down our own house,” Johnson said in a Friday news conference that he turned into a community meeting. Conservatives in particular liked that he said, “This is not a black-and-white issue” (which is not exactly true). And, like Huckabee, they loved his story about his daughter asking him if he was scared in his new role: “I said, ‘Just a little.’ She said, ‘Daddy, I want you to remember when Jesus asked Peter to walk with him in the water. When Peter got scared Jesus picked him up and said have faith.’” “Today,” he told the crowd Friday, “we need to be just like Peter, because I know we’re scared.”
Such a charismatic black male was not around in the aftermath of previous police and would-be police shootings of young black men, not for Trayvon Martin or Jordan Davis, when their deaths became potential teaching moments. Those stories ended up as yet another nasty excuse to battle publicly over the nature of black men—are they choir boys or thugs? The schism has become such a media trope that after Brown’s killing, African-Americans started posting side-by-side photos of themselves at #iftheygunnedmedown, one that seems to confirm a “gangsta” stereotype and one that doesn’t, and speculating on which one the press would feature if a cop shot them.
By the weekend, Johnson had all but replaced Brown as the central figure in Ferguson’s drama, a protagonist both sides were eager to celebrate. Of course, it’s slippery at the top, and you never know how long media approval will last or how events will change. Last night, according to NBC News’ Mark Potter in Ferguson, a few rocks and bottles were thrown during the demo, and police threw “some” tear gas. After midnight, he said, looting started again, but protesters tried to stop it.
But there’s no denying the service Johnson has done for his community by defusing an apparent police riot that had gone on for most of a week. He doesn’t walk on water, but he acted bravely in the eye of a national media storm. And not everyone can do that.
Nowhere was that made clearer than when Johnson stood next to the nervous and evasive Governor Jay Nixon. Nixon is a cautious Democrat who nonetheless found the courage last month to veto a critical anti-abortion bill. Interviewing both of them on Friday, CNN’s Jake Tapper said the St. Louis County police apparently hadn’t bothered to contact some eyewitnesses. Was the governor concerned about the quality of the investigations? Nixon, deferring to other law enforcement agencies, wouldn’t quite answer.
But Johnson stepped up and, speaking directly to any eyewitnesses, said, If you know something, find me here “tonight, and give me your name and number” and I’ll make sure it gets done. “I’ll do that.”
Read Next: A reporter arrested in Ferguson speaks
A lot of conservatives think that “class warfare” is motivated by jealousy. Joe Scarborough—who, as you might have noticed, is on TV a lot—thinks the two reporters arrested during the protests in Ferguson, Missouri, last night just wanted “to get on TV.”
Wesley Lowery of The Washington Post and Ryan Reilly of the Huffington Post had been covering the ongoing protests over Saturday’s fatal shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed young black man. They had dipped into a local McDonald’s yesterday to work and recharge, when police officers entered and demanded they leave immediately. “Officers decided we weren’t leaving McDonalds quickly enough, shouldn’t have been taping them,” Lowery tweeted. He says police slammed him into a soda machine; Lowery and Reilly were both arrested and later released without being charged.
On Morning Joe today, Scarborough characterized Lowery and Reilly as some kind of disobedient fame-seekers. “There is a lot of unanswered questions here, but I do know this,” Scarborough said. “When a police officer asks you to pick up—I’ve been in places where police officers said, ‘All right, you know what? This is cordoned off, you guys need to move along.’ You know what I do? I go, ‘Yes, sir,’ or ‘Yes, ma’am.’ I don’t sit there and have a debate and film the police officer, unless I want to get on TV and have people talk about me the next day.”
Lowery hit back later this morning, telling Kate Bolduan, co-host of CNN’s New Day (which runs opposite Morning Joe):
Well, I would invite Joe Scarborough to come down to Ferguson and get out of 30 Rock where he’s sitting and sipping his Starbucks smugly, I invite him to come and talk to the residents of Ferguson, where I’ve been since Monday afternoon having tear gas shot at me, having rubber bullets shot at me, having mothers and daughters crying, having a 19-year-old boy crying, [pulling] his sister out from a cloud of tear gas thinking she was going to die. I would invite Joe Scarborough down here to do some reporting on the ground, then maybe we can have an educated conversation about what’s happening here.
“I have little patience for talking heads,” Lowery added. “This is too important, this is a community in the United States of America where things are on fire, things are on fire, this community is on edge. There’s so much happening here, and instead of putting more reporters on the ground we have people like Joe Scarborough who are running their mouth and who have no idea what they’re talking about.”
When Scarborough made his comments and claimed there were riots outside the McDonald’s, he got some push back from a guest, Nick Confessore of The New York Times.
“I didn’t see any evidence, Joe, that there were riots outside that McDonald’s,” Confessore said. “I’m just concerned by what seems to be this common misconception that it’s illegal to video a law enforcement officer or take pictures of them—it’s not.”
Joe went on to ask rhetorically, “Am I a sucker for when the police officer comes in and says, ‘Hey, we need you to move along?’ Am I a sucker for actually listening and moving along, or should I sit there and question him?”
OK, let’s grant that Joe’s a sucker. It’s one thing to be a political talking head cum journalist who reads the news, debates it vehemently and interviews newsmakers from behind a desk for three hours a day, five days a week, on cable television. But to then accuse reporters who are doing their job by videotaping police at the center of an increasingly militarized racial conflagration of just wanting “to get on TV” is something else. What exactly, I don’t know.
Watch Scarborough here and Lowery below:
Read Next: John Nichols addresses Ferguson as a constitutional crisis
The best analysis on the titanic but little-noticed shift in media last week comes from New York Times media columnist David Carr. “In just over a week,” he writes,
three of the biggest players in American newspapers—Gannett, Tribune Company and E. W. Scripps, companies built on print franchises that expanded into television—dumped those properties like yesterday’s news in a series of spinoffs.
The recent flurry of divestitures scanned as one of those movies about global warming where icebergs calve huge chunks into churning waters.
Those spun-off chunks include: USA Today, the Louisville Courier-Journal, The Cincinnati Enquirer, the Detroit Free Press (all from Gannett, the nation’s largest newspaper company); the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Baltimore Sun (split off by the Tribune Company—the company the Koch brothers considered buying last year until protests drove them back); and the Commercial Appeal in Memphis and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (dumped by Scripps and its new partner, Journal Communications).
This month’s break-ups follow similar spin-offs in 2013 by both Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. and Time Warner. Carr is typically clear-sighted on what this all means for journalism, but the fine grist of his analysis oddly seems to miss the, really any, culprit.
Carr does chronicle the shaggy treatment the newborn print companies have tended to receive from their former bosses, including saddling them with crushing debt. Time Warner handed Time Inc., the spun-off magazine business, $1.3 billion in debt, he writes: “Swim for your life, executives at the company seemed to be saying, and by the by, here’s an anchor to help you on your way.” For its part, Scripps gave the new print company, Tribune Publishing, “$350 million in debt as a parting gift.”
After years of layoffs, many staff members were immediately told that they had to reapply for jobs when the split was announced. In an attempt to put some lipstick on an ugly pivot, Stefanie Murray, executive editor of The Tennessean, promised readers “an ambitious project to create the newsroom of the future, right here in Nashville. We are testing an exciting new structure that is geared toward building a dynamic, responsive newsroom.” (Jim Romenesko, who blogs about the media industry, pointed out that Gannett also announced “the newsroom of the future” in 2006.)
The Nashville Scene noted that readers had to wait only one day to find out what the news of the future looks like: a Page 1 article in The Tennessean about Kroger, a grocery store and a major advertiser, lowering its prices.
Carr, who invites us to play a “sad trombone for the loss of reporting horsepower that will accompany the spinoffs,” clearly believes that the engine driving print’s demise is Wall Street. Back to his column:
The persistent financial demands of Wall Street have trumped the informational needs of Main Street. For decades, investors wanted newspaper companies to become bigger and diversify, so they bought more newspapers and developed television divisions. Now print is too much of a drag on earnings, so media companies are dividing back up and print is being kicked to the curb….
Newspapers continue to generate cash and solid earnings, but those results are not enough to satisfy investors.
But here’s where the villain of the piece goes missing. After pointing the finger at Wall Street greed, Carr punts:
So whose fault is it? No one’s. Nothing is wrong in a fundamental sense: A free-market economy is moving to reallocate capital to its more productive uses, which happens all the time. Ask Kodak. Or Blockbuster. Or the makers of personal computers. Just because the product being manufactured is news in print does not make it sacrosanct or immune to the natural order.
But why accept the free-market economy as “the natural order,” as a force that’s not malleable, and therefore, somehow, not at fault? There once was a time when newspapers operated in a steady state, making healthy profits, producing news about the local communities and overall doing fine.
It wasn’t so much the advent of the web that started to edge out newspapers (though the web’s use of newspaper copy free of charge helped). Newsprint really suffered its killing blow during the ravenous era of freebooting finance, starting in the Reagan ’80s, when mergers and acquisitions began to reduce the ownership of local media to a handful of giant corporations. Newspapers’ new owners-–often business people who had no journalism experience at all—demanded higher and higher profit margins that were achievable only by cutting the costs of reporting, including of course labor. Those higher returns were needed to justify higher salaries for the people at the top who were putting those unwieldy mergers together.
This whole discussion is a little like the way Republicans today justify kicking people off food stamps so that the 1 percent don’t have to pay higher taxes.
And it reminds me of the Stephen Colbert joke about “the market has spoken,” which is based on something Bill O’Reilly says all the time. What’s happened to the news isn’t a perpetrator-less crime.
Read Next: Has Glenn Beck really evolved?
Glenn Beck claims to have “evolved.” He says he said some stupid things in the past, like that Obama was a racist. He says he no longer wants to call people names when he disagrees with their politics. In fact, he hates politics. He thinks our “cold civil war” will get hot “unless we talk to each other.”
But he still believes a caliphate is coming to get you and that you should stockpile food for the coming economic collapse. “I’m still a conservative,” he says. “I still believe the same things that I did. Do I believe in exactly the same way I did? No. But that’s what it means to be alive.”
That was Beck’s spiel in the first part of a two-part interview with Brian Stelter on CNN’s Reliable Sources last Sunday. (Part two will air this Sunday.) Beck was nothing if not self-dramatizing. He claims he told himself that if he didn’t leave Fox News when he did “you’ll lose your soul.” (Though he was basically kicked off the channel, for going too far out there.) He seems sorry for his role in dividing the country, but he repeats several times how “all of us” have contributed to that. When Stelter asks, “Is there some specific quote, something you wish you hadn’t said,” Beck seems perplexed, saying, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Meghan McCain, who’s had a long-time feud with Beck, isn’t buying any of his purported evolution.
“The most fucked up, disgusting, worst, most insulting things anyone has ever said about me, hands-down, ever, in my entire life, came out of this man’s mouth,” she said on Pivot’s TakePart Live on Monday. “So, what I want to know is, does he regret that?”
“Do you regret barfing into the camera and pretending to barf for fifteen minutes at the idea of me doing a PSA for skin cancer?”
“[If] you’re the type of person who’s going to divide America, which I believe Glenn Beck has played a part in doing, are you now taking culpability?”
Then she threw out a dare: “In all seriousness, if Glenn Beck wants to come on this show, I’m open to having a conversation with him. I think pigs will fly out my ass sooner than that man will come on my show, but we can try.”
Here’s part one of the interview on CNN:
Read Next: Leslie Savan on Rupert Murdoch’s attempted takeover of Time Warner
One bit of good media news this week: Rupert Murdoch is not going to buy Time Warner and destroy what little media diversity we still have left. At least not yet.
A merger of Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox and Time Warner would have “created a colossus that loomed over the industry, combining the two biggest movie and television studios in Hollywood,” writes Sydney Ember of The New York Times.
But in a rare rejection for Murdoch, the media mogul was forced to withdraw his $80 billion bid for Time Warner. His failure might have been due less to Time Warner’s objection to the attempted hostile takeover than to his own non-voting shareholders, who, Ember says, “have been driving down the price of 21st Century Fox’s stock since news of the offer broke, fearing he would overpay to secure victory.”
Either way, the slap-down of the father of Fox News is good for creative and political freedom—for, say, Bill Maher and John Oliver, whose shows on Time Warner’s HBO might not have survived. It’s maybe not so good for Jon Stewart, who’s been running a fake Kickstarter campaign to buy CNN—to save it from both Rupert and its own mediocrity.
It’s good for media competition. “Diversity of ownership, diversity of opinion is so vitally important to this democracy,” Times columnist and CNBC contributor James Stewart said, noting that a Murdoch-owned Time Warner would have reduced “control of the major Hollywood studios to five owners, from six, and major television producers to four, from five.” (In 1983, he adds, “50 companies owned 90 percent of the media consumed by Americans. By 2012, just six companies—including Fox (then part of News Corporation) and Time Warner—controlled that 90 percent…”
And rebuking Rupert is good for the earth. In an interesting bit of speculation, Chris Mooney finds that one reason English-speaking countries are among the biggest climate deniers out of twenty nations, according to a new study, is that they are home to Murdoch’s media empire.
Not only is the United States clearly the worst in its climate denial, but Great Britain and Australia are second and third worst, respectively. Canada, meanwhile, is the seventh worst….
Indeed, the English language media in three of these four countries are linked together by a single individual: Rupert Murdoch. An apparent climate skeptic or lukewarmer, Murdoch is the chair of News Corp and 21st Century Fox. (You can watch him express his climate views here.) Some of the media outlets subsumed by the two conglomerates that he heads are responsible for quite a lot of English language climate skepticism and denial.
In Australia, Murdoch’s native country, significant strides had been made in environmental regulations—and he attacked them with a vengeance. Eric Boehlert of Media Matters writes:
Australia’s carbon emissions repeal represents a dramatic U-turn for a country that just a few years ago was seen as a leader on the global issue under the guidance of previous Labor Party prime minsters, Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd….
Murdoch set his plan in motion to target the carbon tax four years ago. “After the 2010 election—which resulted in a minority Labor government—Murdoch summoned his Australian editors and senior journalists to his home in Carmel, California,” Australia’s The Conversation reported. “He made clear that he despised the Gillard government and wanted regime change.”
Only a few years earlier, Murdoch was gung-ho green. “Climate change,” he said in 2007, “poses clear, catastrophic threats.” He pledged to make News Corp. carbon neutral, and even said that he’d be “subtly introducing [the climate issue] into our content.” (Did you know that not only did Dow Jones go carbon neutral but, according to a recent company eco-update, it uses soy-based ink to print The Wall Street Journal?)
We’re not out of the Fox-ridden woods yet. Never one to take no for answer, Murdoch could come back for Time Warner or other media trophies at any time. Says Jeffrey Goldfarb at the Times:
Yet Mr. Murdoch can walk away looking like a disciplined buyer ready to repurchase more shares and with his stock back on the rise. [Time Warner Chairman and CEO Jeffrey] Bewkes, on the other hand, faces a bigger challenge. Though Time Warner shareholders may have become too greedy, they will now expect the company to deliver soon at least what was on offer from the takeover. If Mr. Bewkes can’t, Mr. Murdoch may yet turn out to be crazy like a fox.
CNN, Fox News and MSNBC all treated the return of Kent Brantly, the American doctor who contracted Ebola in Liberia, as if he were riding to the hospital in a white Ford Bronco. Chopper cams and speculative commentary trailed his ambulance Saturday through the streets of Atlanta with the kind of excited intensity usually reserved for police car chases and killers on the lam.
In the end, the breathless live coverage was revealed to be embarrassingly over-the-top: Brantly didn’t even need a stretcher; he climbed out of the parked ambulance in a hazmat suit and walked, with the support of just one person, into a back door of Emory University Hospital. That was the tip-off that giving a disease the O.J. treatment is a symptom of a media sickness for which there appears to be no cure.
Ebola is a terrible hemorrhagic fever that can kill from 50 percent to 90 percent of those who contract it. It’s also a symbol to the political right of all the Third World horrors that liberals are inviting past the walls of our City on the Hill. But now that two American aid workers—Nancy Writebol has just arrived at Emory, on a stretcher but, so far, with less fanfare—have brought it directly to our shores, it’s a Clear and Present Danger.
Georgia congressman Phil Gingrey went so far last month as to warn that the Central American children who’ve been turning up at border stations around the country might be smuggling Ebola in with them, like so many contagious Trojan horses (even though Ebola fever has never been detected in a patient outside of Africa). Howlers like Gingrey’s—echoed Monday by Representative Todd Rokita (R-IN)—work because Ebola, “diseased” immigrants, and “blood pollution” of all sorts fit neatly into the racist subtext of the radical right’s opposition to Obama. After all, our “lawless,” African-born POTUS, whose parents faked a birth certificate fifty-three years ago this week in order to infect America with socialism today, just happens to be hosting fifty-one African nations at a summit in Washington. How much proof do you need?
Various studies have shown that conservatives have a lower threshold for disgust than liberals do, and Ebola, which is spread through direct contact with bodily fluids (like vomit, feces and blood, but not through sneezing or coughing) certainly crosses that low bar. Nor is it lost on wingers that AIDS originated in Africa, too.
But many of the diseases that humans are heir to are pretty damn disgusting, no matter where they originate. There aren’t two tiers of diseases any more than there are two tiers of humanity.
There is, however, Donald Trump, who tends to elevate fear of cooties into a political philosophy. He sent out a series of tweets—including “Ebola patient will be brought to the U.S. in a few days—now I know for sure that our leaders are incompetent. KEEP THEM OUT OF HERE!”—that exhibit the germ phobia we’ve come to expect from isolated billionaire crackpots (Trump will be wearing Kleenex boxes for shoes any day now). Unusually for a Republican, though, the magnate’s fears aren’t overcome by the fact that the two infected Americans are Christian missionaries. “The U.S. cannot allow EBOLA infected people back,” he also tweeted. “People that go to far away places to help out are great—but must suffer the consequences!”
And never mind that fighting such viruses at their place of origin is far more effective than pretending there’s a disinfectant force-field around the Homeland. Brantly is reported to have been suffering the consequences of doing good with a vengeance until he received two emergency treatments: an experimental serum developed by a San Diego pharmaceutical company, and, according to Samaritan’s Purse, the relief organization working with Brantly, a blood transfusion from a 14-year-old boy who survived the disease after Brantly cared for him in Liberia. Guess which treatment gets more coverage on American TV?
Which brings us back to the fever the media has been suffering ever since the ascent of the Tea Party. Rather than dispel unscientific and political myths, the instinct at many news outlets has been to promote them. The scientific truth the media should have been promoting all along isn’t that Ebola is a Holy Terror emerging from “other” races and immune to Western treatment; rather, it’s a horrible illness with a terrifically high kill rate because up to now it has appeared only in Africa, where clean water, enforced quarantines and disposable medical supplies are hard to come by. That first take played on cable news channels, regardless of their political leanings, is a measure of just how deeply the right-wing anti-science message has taken hold on TV.
But by sheer accident, the car-chase media did the public a service, demonstrating, as Brantly walked into the hospital, that the existential danger over Ebola is being oversold. MSNBC anchor Alex Witt asked on-air physicians, including NBC in-house doctor Nancy Snyderman, if they would be afraid to treat Brantly. No, said Snyderman. Any doctor would be “excited” by the opportunity to use the medical precautions and equipment available in America to find effective treatments for the disease without spreading it.
And maybe, once again, The Onion said it best: “Experts: Ebola Vaccine at Least 50 White People Away.”
Read Next: Leslie Savan on how the KKK wants a “shoot to kill” policy to include migrant children
The Republican leadership is furious that the media keep talking about their plans to impeach Barack Obama, and the GOP knows who’s injecting this false idea into the talking heads: Barack Obama.
Even as he led the House in the unprecedented step Wednesday of voting to sue a POTUS, House speaker John Boehner insists that all this talk about impeachment is “coming from the president’s own staff, and coming from Democrats on Capitol Hill. Why? Because they’re trying to rally their people to give money and to show up in this year’s election. We have no plans to impeach the president. We have no future plans,” Boehner emphasized. “Listen, it’s all a scam started by Democrats at the White House.”
And although any alert reporter knows it’s Boehner’s protest that’s the scam (a dozen or so Republican congressmen have openly called for Obama’s impeachment; White House spokesman Josh Earnest named some of them, including Representative Steve King of Iowa and Steve Stockman of Texas, earlier this week), some in the corporate media nevertheless sniff a chance to deploy false equivalencies once more.
Chuck Todd, for example, said on Morning Joe, “I think the White House ought to be embarrassed at how they’re trying to play it. Boehner, the idea that he’s saying, Oh, we’re not talking impeachment. The lawsuit, please. That’s about placating the impeachment caucus in his own party. This is sort of an embarrassing moment for Washington. The leaders of both parties here, they’re driving away people from the polls. They’re driving people away from politics. This is cynical, it’s ugly, it’s disgusting.”
This pox-on-both-your-houses rant ignores the two houses’ very different dimensions. Calling for impeachment when no grounds for it exist and responding to those calls by raising funds to beat the impeachment-wingers at the polls are not equally cynical. It’s true that Democrats are exploiting GOP calls for impeachment to raise ire and money—several million dollars so far. And good for them. Why, in the age of Citizens United, shouldn’t they? “It would be malpractice if they didn’t do it,” Washington Post columnist Jonathan Capehart said on Hardball.
The Republicans’ inability to throw their base red meat without sane people noticing drives them into high-dudgeon denial. Hilariously so. On Tuesday, Fox & Friends co-host Steve Doocy said, “Republicans, conservatives, not talking about it. Only Democrats. It’s to gin up the base before November.” He said this even though, just days earlier, as Media Matters points out, Fox News legal analyst Andrew Napolitano appeared on F&F “and counseled the GOP to impeach the president, which Napolitano claimed would ‘focus his attention immediately.’”
Fox is also trying to gloss over the impeachment soap opera coming from some of its other contributors, like Allen West and, most famously, Sarah Palin. Yeah, but those are just has-been fringers, not to be taken seriously, centrists point out. Chuck Todd even mocked Josh Earnest for listing pro-impeachment officials currently in office. The White House spokesman, Todd said, was “sitting at the podium trying ticking off names of—oooh-oooh—look at Republicans that want impeachment.”
But look who’s wagging the dog here. According to a CNN/ORC International poll, 57 percent of Republicans say they support impeaching Obama. And Representative Steve Scalise, the new House majority whip, wouldn’t put impeachment off the table when Chris Wallace asked him about it three times. (It was a fascinating example of getting hoisted on your own talking point: each time Scalise refused to rule out impeachment, he blamed Obama for keeping the issue alive.)
For the record, John Boehner won’t take impeachment off that increasingly crowded table either.
Worse, Boehner is ignoring the top GOPer who “started” it: himself. The notoriously weak speaker set this latest round of impeachment talk in motion by bringing the lawsuit against Obama to the floor in the first place. The idea of this “impeachment lite” was to let his Tea Party masters vent their Obama hatred in a way that it would squelch talk of actual impeachment. The Republican leadership knows the issue could backfire on them during the 2014 elections, just as it did when the GOP impeached Clinton in 1998 and lost five House seats that year they previously had in the bag.
But rather than cool impeachment fever, the lawsuit has in fact heated it up by giving extremists in the House another way to question “responsible” Republicans’ true commitment to the cause. At least four of the five conservatives who voted against the lawsuit did so because they think it’s a weenie version of impeachment.
Here’s the bottom line: Boehner responded to impeachment talk from his right wing by filing a lawsuit. Yet when Democrats responded to that same impeachment talk from the same right wing, Boehner claims that it doesn’t exist—and if it does, the Dems are behind it.
We’ve seen this political blame-the-victim game before. Republicans from Glenn Beck to Karl Rove blamed Obama for keeping the birther issue alive by not releasing his long-form birth certificate as soon as they demanded it. (When he did, the Trump-led crazies received a very public pie in the face.) Last October, Republicans with presidential ambitions, like Rand Paul and Ted Cruz, blamed Obama for the government shutdown, even though they both voted for it and maneuvered around their leadership to make it happen. It’s worth recalling that before the shutdown went down, Boehner insisted that it was going nowhere—just as he now swears that impeachment ain’t gonna happen.
Making the GOP bear some responsibility for the crazy in their ranks is the real purpose behind the spotlight Democrats are shining on the right-wing fever swamps. The media’s “both sides do it” reflex obscures the real meaning of this particular charade. Chris Matthews, I think, has it right: he’s been saying the right wants to delegitimize this president (more than they did even Clinton), to put an “asterisk” by his name in the history books so they can pretend that a black man was never really the president of the United States.
If Republicans win the Senate in November, then we’ll be hearing more a lot more about impeachment, no matter how much John Boehner says otherwise.
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The Ku Klux Klan doesn’t want to leave all the immigrant-hating to gun-toting militias and US congressmen. The Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan is calling for a “shoot-to-kill” policy at the border. Robert Ray of Al Jazeera America caught up with two such “knights” in North Carolina, and asked if the policy would apply to child migrants.
The “wizard” hemmed and hawed for a moment, then said: “If we pop a couple of ’em off and leave the corpses laying on the border, maybe they’ll see we’re serious about stopping immigrants.”
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