On the day Coretta Scott King was laid to rest, while most Americans were too busy working to pay much attention to the live coverage, the right-wing spin machine found a way to turn the funeral–before it was even over–into just another talking point for George W. Bush and his party.
It would have happened no matter what, but the target they chose was the Rev. Joseph Lowry, a co-founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference along with Martin Luther King Jr. Lowry, standing at a podium only a few steps away from President and Mrs. Bush, declared that “there were no weapons of mass destruction over there, but Coretta knew, and we knew, that there are weapons of misdirection right down here.” He went on to decry the expanding budget of the Pentagon and the corresponding disappearance of federal help for the poor.
As soon as Rush Limbaugh came back from his next commercial break, he declared that King’s funeral had “gone Wellstone.”
Within minutes Matt Drudge kicked into gear, publishing an outraged headline on his website repeating the comparison between the King funeral and Paul Wellstone’s famously politicized memorial. Drudge Report readers were also reminded of rapper Kanye West’s impromptu “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” monologue during a live Hurricane Katrina telethon last year. Drudge blatantly misquoted it. When a wedge issue is needed, why waste time checking facts? By the time the cable news prime-time lineup rolled around, Lowry’s etiquette had become a greater threat to our national unity than memoirist James Frey’s fibs and calypso singer Harry Belafonte’s affection for Hugo Chávez. Noted civil rights activist Tucker Carlson even invited the 84-year-old who once led the Montgomery bus boycott onto his MSNBC show and disdainfully denounced his “bad manners.”
That the right-wing opinion infrastructure frequently succeeds at spinning news stories its way is no longer news, but the Drudge-ification of Coretta Scott King’s funeral is a reminder of what liberals are up against in the battle for truthful media coverage.
Bill and Hillary Clinton, Jimmy Carter, Ted Kennedy and even George W. Bush himself spoke with varying degrees of eloquence at the funeral about the Kings’ legacy. Without the spin handed to lazy, controversy-loving commentators by Drudge and Limbaugh, every cable network would have had to run with a story about the great things liberals have done for America. The right must have been well aware of the dangerous impact such a widely viewed and unfiltered King memorial could have on Republican prospects in this year’s elections. After all, when Rosa Parks died late last year in the middle of Bush’s worst news season ever, Fox News barely covered it… except when Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito awkwardly hovered over her casket for a photo op.
In a television interview on Wednesday afternoon, Limbaugh made a grandiloquent pronouncement about the impact he and others like him have had on American opinion: “There is a new media out there today that does not let the left get away with defining the news, defining the circumstances, defining personalities and so forth, and they haven’t learned how to deal with it. They haven’t learned how to deal with people like me, the problems they think Fox News causes, and everybody else.” That “new media” is no longer so new. But other than that, he’s right.
Liberal commentators shouldn’t have to plan ahead to spin the funeral of, say, Nelson Mandela in order to make sure the news coverage emphasizes the proud history of liberal activism. But with the right willing to exploit just about any story for its own benefit, it is probably time for those of us on the left to start getting our talking points ready.