Have you noticed a funny thing about America’s long, hot summer of racial tension?
From Shirley Sherrod’s speech to the barely extant "New Black Panther Party" to the very few racist signs at Tea Party gatherings, each incident was essentially an isolated, minor event—before it was blown out of proportion by the media. Unlike other periods of racial strife, from early civil rights protests to more recent battles over busing and affirmative action, there is no massive activity here. There is no national debate. There is only media.
In place of actual events, the media offers a Matrix-like presentation of racial symbolism.
So Ms. Sherrod was forcibly typecast as an angry, racist black woman who wielded government power—in the Obama era—to harm white people. Then she was swiftly recast as a victim of "our" 24/7 culture and "our" rush to judgment. Meanwhile, Fox News’s Panther 2.0 story fuses the enduring fear of black violence with the conspiracy of stolen elections. Suddenly, old video of two crackpots is treated as a national epidemic—a several-week story about rampant intimidation of white voters.
We all know why partisan media and dishonest agitators push these stories. But why does the self-proclaimed objective media keep falling down here?
There are two core reasons. One of them is even forgivable.
First, many objective journalists make a category error when assessing other media. They are bizarrely over-inclusive.
Many reporters apparently presume, for example, that Breitbart’s websites are part of the news media. And they react accordingly. That means citing to him as a news source—or feeling scooped and trying to catch up on his "stories."
Yet Breitbart is not a media competitor in objective news. His actual category is partisan operator. He just happens to run websites that mimic a few conventions of the press.
With the accurate category applied, the traditional tactics of journalism kick in just fine. A scandalous item from Breitbart, like a DNC press release or an operative’s salacious tip, must be researched and fact-checked. And a quote from him, like many quotable political sources, should be presented more for its political relevance than its veracity.
It sounds so pedantic, readers may wonder why reporters are having category failure at all.
To be fair, there’s a ton of new media to learn about, and many have rightly cajoled reporters to pay more attention to the rush of new content in the digital firehose.
And to be real, there’s also pressure on journalists to show a special bias here. Which brings us to the second, unforgivable reason that reporters keep falling down racial rabbit holes.
When it comes to laundering questions and stories through the traditional media, the Right Wing pressure groups have really beaten the video game.
So many reporters, or their bosses, worry about accusations of liberal leanings that they now openly take editorial direction from the most farfetched conservative narratives.
Take Bob Schieffer, the esteemed and courtly host of CBS’s Face The Nation. Fox News attacked him for neglecting to ask Attorney General Eric Holder in a recent interview about the charges against the New Black Panther members. (Recall that Bush lawyers downgraded the charges from a criminal to civil suit, which the Obama Justice Department resolved in May 2009). Schieffer’s response was baffling.
"Had I known about that, I would have asked the question," Schieffer said in response to Fox’s attack, in a CNN interview. He added that the topic "got very little publicity, and you know, I just didn’t know about it."
Schieffer could have said this was the definition of old news—charges dropped by Bush appointees and a civil suit settled fourteen months ago.
Or he could have noted that there was no substance here—as prominent conservatives like David Frum and Michael Gerson have declared.
Hell, even the fact that a pro journalist didn’t come across the item in interview prep sheds some light on the story’s valence in the nonpartisan media. (Some neglected items do deserve to bubble up, of course). Or at least it did. In theory.
Once the conservative kvetching starts, however, many reporters dutifully pretend that Megyn Kelly’s stale conspiracies are the new black.
After Fox attacked, Schieffer issued his baffling, retroactive mea culpa. Then he dutifully convened a segment about the topic on Face The Nation, where Abigail Thernstrom, a former Bush civil rights appointee, repeated her public statements that the evidence for any crime here is "extremely weak."
(Analyzing this repetitive cycle of cooking a story and shaming reporters to cover it, media critic Simon Maloy has documented a six-step Fox effect.)
Then came the newspaper ombudsmen, who increasingly toggle between factual criticism and reacting to right wing fantasies. Indeed, Andrew Alexander, of the Washington Post, recently admonished his colleagues to get an earlier jump on the politically-driven non-stories.
"Better late than never," he wrote in an article headlining the "Silence From The Post on Black Panther Party Story."
More "coverage is justified," Alexander averred, and if Holder’s team is "not colorblind in enforcing civil rights laws, they should be nailed." Another Post editor weighed in, too, conceding that the story was "significant" and the Post should have covered it sooner.
With this approach, newspapers could cut out the middlemen and just invite Glenn Beck and Megyn Kelly to train their reporters directly.
So where does all this leave us?
Well, reporters and ombudsmen cannot extinguish largely disingenuous charges of bias by applying new, politically laundered biases to their editorial choices. They should stop trying. (One encouraging example is Newsweek‘s David Graham, a young journalist who stuck to his objective guns, even after his skeptical reporting on the voter charges sparked pointed attacks from Bill O’Reilly, Megyn Kelly and Breitbart’s sites.)
And journalists can’t win a popularity contest in a mediascape that is continuously expanding content while shrinking the constituency for objective news. An expanding universe makes everything feel smaller. There is one thing, however, that has not changed about journalistic objectives. Reporters were never supposed to be popular—especially not among the most passionate partisans—they were just supposed to get it right.