Blaming the Victim, Excusing the Powerful: What Real Institutional Media Bias Looks Like

Blaming the Victim, Excusing the Powerful: What Real Institutional Media Bias Looks Like

Blaming the Victim, Excusing the Powerful: What Real Institutional Media Bias Looks Like

Eric on this week’s concerts and Reed on how, from Bill Cosby’s victims to drone strikes, the media refuse to protect the powerless.


Click here to jump directly to Reed Richardson.

Steve Tyrell at the Café Carlyle
Tammy Faye Starlite at Joe’s Pub
Some Beatles-related stuff

Steve Tyrell’s run at the Carlyle is now in its eleventh year, since he was chosen to replace the (nearly) immortal Bobby Short. It was a gutsy choice at the time, since Tyrell was a relative newcomer to the cabaret scene, having spent most of his career behind the scenes as a producer and arranger before, somehow, he got the luckiest of breaks by getting to sing on the soundtrack on Father of the Bride and becoming middle America’s favorite wedding singer for that first dance.

That sounds a little snotty, but I don’t mean it to be. Tyrell is a terrific entertainer and a multifaceted musical historian. When I first heard his voice, it put me in mind of Tom Waits and Dr. John, but it’s gotten smoother and no longer sounds at all out of place singing something like “This Guy’s in Love With You” (which he does exquisitely). I knew of some of his work as a producer with Blood, Sweat & Tears and others of a more Tin Pan Alley orientation from having heard the stories he’s told at past gigs. I didn’t know, however, how much experience he got as a young man at Scepter Records working with the Brill Building greats who helped invent rock ’n’ roll.

At the opening night of this year’s holiday run, called “That Lovin’ Feelin’,” he began with the standards, but then, I was quite pleased to see, he self-consciously sought to expand the “Great American Songbook” into the BB era, relying on King and Goffin, Leiber and Stoller, Mann and Weil, etc., and making them sound both new and classic at the same time. He forgot a few lyrics, but a splendid time was guaranteed for all, regardless of age (but not of wealth, of course). You can even take your parent and/or grandparents and nobody will leave unhappy.

You never know what you’ll get when you go see Tammy Faye Starlite, except a great voice, a heart-felt respectful but sometimes mocking imitative performance and a steady stream of dirty jokes. I’ve seen Tammy as Mick, as Nico, as Marianne Faithfull, and at Joe’s Pub on Saturday night, as Loretta Lynn. She had a great Hank Williams loving-band (with Lenny Kaye on pedal steel) and worked the room like she owned it. And while she was funny and played tricks on members of the audience, she was never anything but fun. And yes, the lady does have pipes (and cojones, which are necessary if one is going to go up against Loretta).  And the cost is about a tenth of the Carlyle’s. So at those rates, how can you not have fun?

I’ve been getting more stuff than I can write about today for the gift-giving guide, but I will do an extra long one this week or next. I won’t be reviewing the new George Harrison box, because I didn’t get the box and have never heard some of it, but regarding the individual re-releases, All Things Must Pass is one of the great albums of all time, and everyone should have it, and it now sounds better than ever and is pretty cheap. Extra Texture and Dark Horse are better than I remember them, but very much hit or miss. They are cheap, though, and if you listen in the right mood, you won’t hate yourself for buying them.

And I wanted, finally, to say it’s time again this Friday for the Theater Within’s tribute to John Lennon at Symphony Space, the thirty-fourth year it’s happened. Theatre Within is a grassroots nonprofit dedicated to furthering the performing arts as a positive social force. This year, they’ve already announced Debbie Harry, Kate Pierson, David Johansen, Joan Osborne, Marshall Crenshaw, Amy Helm, Rich Pagano and Ben E. King. I’ll be there, and if you go to, you can be too.

And now, here (finally) is Reed:

Blaming the Victim, Excusing the Powerful: What Real Institutional Media Bias Looks Like
by Reed Richardson

To fulfill the promise of a free press in our democracy journalism can’t be satisfied with assuming the posture of looking down on the powerless. Instead, journalism, at its best, should be—must be—about punching up at the powerful.

Most, if not all, individual journalists wholeheartedly agree with this ideal. And yet, time and again it’s easy to find examples of an institutional media bias that undermines this ethos. By consistently favoring the status quo and reflexively deferring to authority, news organizations that should be exposing and condemning abuse, prejudice and corruption all too often end up excusing, justifying and perpetuating it.

As a result, celebrities, corporations and government officials all command an outsized influence in the traditional media. This phenomenon isn’t new, but the magnitude certainly is. As never before, these entities are able to mobilize a veritable army of handlers, lawyers and flacks to soothe, shape and, spin the press into accepting their version of reality—no matter how tenuously related to the truth it might be.

This fundamental bias marks the central thread that runs through the coverage of everything from Bill Cosby to Ferguson to the US drone strike program. Stripping away each of those storylines’ unique details reveals the same flawed core: a media that grants the benefit of the doubt to the establishment and that saves its cynicism for the voiceless. In a way, this bias acts as a kind broad enabler of all prejudice, allowing whatever latent inequalities exist in the status quo to go unchallenged, if not outright defended. Thus, institutionalized sexism, racism and militarism enjoy a sympathetic ear in the press precisely because they are institutionalized.

Take, for example, the collective mea culpa amongst the media establishment for having ignored for so long the numerous sexual assault claims against Bill Cosby. Sure, the damning case against Cosby received attention from Philadelphia and People magazines in 2006, not long after he settled a civil lawsuit that included thirteen other anonymous victims. (The latest number now stands at nineteen victims.) And website Gawker brought up the allegations again back in February.

But these are the exceptions, not the rule. In perhaps the most telling example, former Newsweek editor Mark Whitaker failed to find room for the many rape allegations of Cosby in his 500-page biography that came out in September. Other major profiles of Cosby in The Atlanticin 2008, and The New Yorkera few months ago, quickly whisked the sex assault claims into a corner of the story and moved on. In a recent New York Times column, David Carr commendably called out these examples, as well as his own whitewashing of the Cosby persona:

“Mr. Cosby was (mostly) out of view, his lawyers pushed back and tried to knock down every story and victim, and no one in the media seemed interested any longer. Mr. Cosby was old news, he had been investigated but never criminally charged, and there seemed to be little upside to going after a now-ancient story.”

In his attempt at absolution, however, Carr misses a larger point here. He, like the male authors of the three previously mentioned profiles of Cosby—Whitaker, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Kelefa Sanneh—all entered their assignments with an editorial agenda that didn’t have a convenient place to put these claims. Though Whitaker has since admitted he was wrong to overlook the charges, the book, which relied upon access to and cooperation with Cosby, was essentially compromised from the start. So, in all of these stories, really, there was an institutional construct biased against exploring the sexual assault narrative.

Last month, Coates addressed this in what amounts to a must-read intellectual correction of his own flawed 2008 essay. In it, he bravely lays bare his own rationalizations for glossing over the Cosby rape claims. But in doing so, he also reveals a lot about the broader editorial decision-making that goes on in the press and how it can so easily can default to self-censorship when it comes to holding the powerful accountable:

“Despite my opinions on Cosby suffusing the piece, there was no opinion offered on the rape accusations. This is not because I did not have an opinion. I felt at the time that I was taking on Cosby’s moralizing and wanted to stand on those things that I could definitively prove. Lacking physical evidence, adjudicating rape accusations is a murky business for journalists. But believing Bill Cosby does not require you to take one person’s word over another—it requires you take one person’s word over 15 others….

“A voice in my head was, indeed, pushing me to do something more expansive and broader in its implication, something that did not just question Cosby’s moralizing, but weighed it against the acts which I believed he committed. But Cosby was such a big target that I thought it was only a matter of time before someone published a hard-hitting, investigative piece. And besides, I had in my hand the longest, best, and most personally challenging piece I’d ever written.”

As we now know, it was not a matter of time. Years would pass, books would be written, and no one in the mainstream press would feel the need to commission such an exposé, even as Cosby prepared for a TV comeback. The charges would have likely remained an embarrassing annoyance for Cosby had someone outside of the legacy media not chosen to take a stand. It fell to a stand-up comedian, Hannibal Buress, to shine a bright, public spotlight on the many claims of Cosby’s sexual assaults by making them a standard part of his act. And to the media establishment’s shame, it was only after the video of Buress’s bit on Cosby went viral that it finally found interest in the story.

Even when the traditional media did notice, one could hardly feel encouraged by the listless response. For instance, this video of Bill Cosby browbeating an Associated Press reporter represents a microcosm of how tepidly the press can perform its duty. To its credit, the AP publish its very mild questioning of Cosby about the many sexual assault claims against him. But to watch this interview is not to witness a media organization proudly fulfilling its role as champion of the powerless. Instead, the experience gives off the distinct whiff of one part of the establishment effectively apologizing to another for daring to ask an absolutely necessary, yet uncomfortable question.

But these are mostly sins of omission. The disappearing of Cosby’s many alleged assaults has also been accompanied by a sadly typical rallying to Cosby’s defense in the press. Right-wing blowhard Glenn Beck, ever the even-tempered gentleman, sickeningly re-appropriated the term for the what was done to the victims and instead made the outrageous statement that it was Cosby who was “raped” in the aforementioned AP video. Rush Limbaugh, faithful guardian of the sexist, male subculture, made sure to falsely diminish the accusations against Cosby down to one woman, while also concluding the multi-decade pattern of assault is all part of some grand, left-wing conspiracy on the part of CNN. And speaking of that network, one of its news hosts, Don Lemon, managed to a pretty good Limbaugh impersonation on his own. During an interview with one of Cosby’s victims, Lemon implied she didn’t do enough to fight back against the alleged assault, asking her why she didn’t bite Cosby’s penis during forced oral sex. (Lemon later apologized.)

Not to be outdone, Fox News got its licks in questioning the accusers’ credibility. Couched as a legal examination of the claims, Fox News anchor Gregg Jarrett authored a piece that trafficked in specious, “he-said, she-said” reasoning, ignoring, for example, the relative scarcity of false rape charges—between 2 and 8%—to instead bring up the infamous Duke lacrosse rape case to helpfully cast doubt on Cosby’s many accusers. What’s more, Jarrett expressed skepticism at the accusers’ motives for coming forward now, all while conveniently neglecting to point out that many women don’t report a sexual assault right away (and some never do) because they know we live in a society where people like Jarrett happily write columns that make a point of discounting those claims.

This same type of victim-blaming by the traditional media isn’t confined to sexual assault cases, of course. As we’ve seen during the past few months, it also plagues incidents like the one in Ferguson, Missouri, where a policeman gunned down an unarmed Mike Brown with no repercussions. In the aftermath of deaths like these—which are depressingly common—the media scrutiny almost reflexively falls on the victims rather than the police, especially if the former come from a poor or minority neighborhood. That assumes the traditional media notices at all, since the events in Ferguson have shown that, just as with the Bill Cosby rape allegations, social media led the news conversation and mainstream media coverage followed.

But in this race to catch up with and surpass Twitter, the press often ends up parroting the same leading questions that are used elsewhere to dismiss the powerless. What was the victim wearing? (Was it something controversial, as Fox News’s Geraldo Rivera insinuated, like Trayvon Martin’s hoodie?) Did the victim bring it on themselves through their behavior? (Were they, as The New York Times put it about Mike Brown, “no angel”?) Does the victim’s family or upbringing somehow suggest the police aren’t to blame? (Did the father have a criminal record of domestic violence, as made sure to share about the12-year-old victim of a police shooting Tamir Rice?) To many victims of sexual assault, these questions are chillingly familiar.

By adopting this language and these narratives on issue after issue, the traditional media effectively man the barricades for the authority’s point of view. So when community anger boiled over regarding the Ferguson grand jury’s decision not to indict Officer Darren Wilson, it occasioned a spate of predictable tsk-tsking from the media last week. A perfect example of this was CNN’s condescending, navel-gazing coverage of the protests last Monday night, which drew a rather incisive, on-air critique from one Ferguson protestor. (The point proved so durable, it was repeated en masse to a CNN correspondent covering a protest in New York City the following night.) With a compliant, “not all cops”-spouting press corps in place, it makes it that much easier for miscarriages of the justice system to be passed off as justice and that much harder for real accountability to ever take place.

Make no mistake, something is clearly wrong with our law enforcement system when statistics show that police kill black males at a rate 21 times greater than white males. But there’s little chance of a necessary policy change occurring as long as the FBI, by default, classifies every police-shooting victim as a “felon” and the media willingly play along with the charade.

The same phenomenon plays out in media’s obedient mindset toward victims of US drone strikes. By default, the Obama administration labels anyone killed in a signature strike a “militant,” language that the media obligingly repeats to this day. And as Steve Coll noted in his recent New Yorker profile of the drone strike program, US officials brook no dissent even during the few times that the accuracy of their attacks is obviously questionable. For example, after a March 2011 drone strike on a Pakistani jirga resulted in the deaths of forty-one people—many of whom were documented as local Pakistani tribesmen and local police unaffiliated with the Taliban—the Obama administration stubbornly stuck to its standard, only-bad-guys-die spin. And, yes, the press dutifully repeated it:

“All of the dead were ‘terrorists,’ an anonymous American official told the Times. ‘These people weren’t gathering for a bake sale.’ The Associated Press quoted an anonymous official offering the same talking point: ‘This was a group of terrorists, not a charity car wash.’”

Finding anything other than government talking points, once again, requires looking beyond the usual suspects in the traditional media, to organizations like The Bureau for Investigative Journalism, an independent, nonprofit news group based at City University London. Back in October, it reported that only 4% of drone strike victims in Pakistan have been named as Al Qaeda members. And just last week, TBIJ, in partnership with human rights group Reprieve, published another investigative report that found, since US drone strikes began, 1,147 people were killed in Yemen and Pakistan in an attempt to target just 41 members of Al Qaeda. It defies logic to think no innocent civilians died in these attacks. Nevertheless, many media outlets in the US continue to enable characterizations of the drone program—almost always at the behest of anonymous U.S. officials—as “precise” and “surgical.”

In a just society, getting blown up by a Hellfire missile, or struck down by a policeman’s bullet or attacked by a serial rapist shouldn’t be met with mere silence or a collective shrug of the shoulders for the victims. Likewise, the exercise of state-sanctioned violence done in our name—whether explicit or implicit—must never simply rest on the word of the powerful. It deserves full, unflinching accountability from a robust, engaged watchdog. Increasingly, alternative news platforms are stepping in to fill that role. That’s good news for the rest of us, but bad news for a media establishment too invested in protecting the powerful to notice that it might soon be among the powerless as well.

Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com.
I’m on Twitter here—(at)reedfrich.

Editor’s note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form

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