Not to be morose, but I'm happy that Walter Cronkite isn't around to see what's happened to television news in this country. And specifically, that the news legend doesn't have to witness the disgraceful performances this week from two leading television news executives who, when faced with painfully clear evidence that their anchors had crossed obvious lines of decency, refused to condemn those actions. Instead, they issued double-talk statements while rationalizing their team's deeply offensive, and even jaw-dropping, behavior.
The disturbing one-two this week by CNN's Jon Klein and Fox News' Bill Shine simply confirms that, at this moment in time at least, there appears to be no standards, no guidelines, of fairness or decency to which key cable news operators will adhere.
Klein's continued defense of Lou Dobbs' misguided adventure down the birther rabbit hole is like a train wreck that just won't end. It's now been several days since Klein decided to back Dobbs' "racist" birther crusade (that's what MSNBC's chief called it), and the damage being done to the network is now approaching the incalculable stage. The fact that both Ann Coulter and Bill O'Reilly have called Dobbs out for shoddy 'reporting' tells you all you need to know about the state of CNN today. Yet there was Klein appearing at the annual TV critics confab this week, continuing to pretend Dobbs hasn't been fueling the flames about Obama's birth place.
Meanwhile, at Fox News, Beck called Obama a "racist" on national TV. Sadly, this was a completely expected development from the radical right, which recently showed extraordinary comfort calling the most recent Supreme Court nominee a "racist." The far-right media in this country is making it quite plain that they're going to toss that label around with ease from here on out. (It's only a matter of time before the First Lady gets his with the tag, and I wouldn't rule out nuts like Beck going after Obama's kids as well.) It's conservatives who are going to play the race card whenever possible in order to divide Americans and foster racial hatred.
Still, Fox News likes to consider itself a news organization, so SVP Bill Shine took the time to issue a statement about Beck's obvious and odious race-baiting. And in that statement Shine insisted, basically, that Beck can say whatever he wants and Fox News takes no responsibility.
Like I said, I'm glad Walter Cronkite isn't around to see this.
UPDATED: And just to be clear about Klein's standard, if in the summer of 2002, Lou Dobbs had gone on CNN for several weeks and embraced the 9/11 Truther conspiracy theory, even though players on all sides of the political spectrum had debunked it, the head of CNN would have defended the anchor's choice to fuel that fire? The head of CNN would have stood by the anchor, issuing platitudes about how much he trusts his anchors to "to exercise their judgment"?
I don't buy it. I think there's an obvious double standard at CNN, among other places, for accepting irresponsible fear mongering when the target is a Democratic president.
Columnist Paul Krugman's July 28 post on his New York Times blog:
Bill O'Reilly explaining that of course America has lower life expectancy than Canada - we have 10 times as many people, so we have 10 times as many deaths.
I need a drink.
We noted this morning that on Fox & Friends, Glenn Beck said President Obama has "a deep-seated hatred for white people." Of the president, Beck went on to say that "this guy is, I believe, a racist."
Tonight, TVNewser posted the following statement from Bill Shine, Fox News' Senior Vice President of Programming in response:
"During Fox & Friends this morning, Glenn Beck expressed a personal opinion which represented his own views, not those of the Fox News Channel. And as with all commentators in the cable news arena, he is given the freedom to express his opinions."
Get it? Beck doesn't speak for Fox News, but we'll keep paying him to say anything he wants.
From a Los Angeles Times transcript of reporters' questions for CNN/U.S. President Jonathan Klein after the July 28 Television Critics Association press tour, and his responses:
Q: If Dobbs wanted to explore whether the British had won the Revolutionary War, would that be a legitimate topic?
A: It would not be legitimate for Lou or anyone else at CNN to explore whether Barack Obama is an American citizen. That's why he hasn't done that. And I think the people who are making noise about that have to look at closely what the discussions have been. It's all about the phenomenon of doubters.
Q: Are you distinguishing from what he said on his radio show?
A: Oh, yes, absolutely. We have no control over what he says on his radio show. It's not a CNN radio program so he does what he does on the radio separate from what he does on our air. So we ask you and anyone writing about this, to look at what he says on CNN. It's the only thing we control.
Q: Are you concerned, though, that it will damage your credibility?
A: I hope not. All we can do is do great reporting about the facts on this and every other story that we cover.
Q: But if he goes on his radio show and contradicts your reporting and then raises the same issue on the air, isn't there some need for somebody to balance that?
A: What he does on the radio is separate and apart from what he does on our air. On our air, he has said very clearly and repeatedly that Barack Obama is an American citizen. Barack Obama was born in Hawaii. Of that there is no doubt. He must have said it 10 times the last time he did the story. So he couldn't be clearer about that. Now, a couple of times he's hosted panel discussions about this phenomenon: Why do some people doubt it still? That's what those discussions are about. There's a real distinction. Does that make sense?
Q: But he also asks: Why haven't they produced the documents when they have, in fact, produced the documents?
A: That's why I sent that note the other day -- to clarify. We had our guys ask that question. It turns out, he can't. It's not up to him. It's not the president's choice. Lou has now stated that. What he then turns around and does on his radio show is not within our purview.
Q: Is it a topic you'd rather see him drop at this point?
A: I would rather all of our leading journalists rely on their best judgments and instincts and our guidance about them. We believe in the editorial compass of all of our people. It's going to be different according to the individual. But that just makes us a more interesting and vibrant place. Lou is listening to a certain segment of the population all day long on his radio show so naturally that's going to inform some of the decisions that he makes. But, again, to be clear: He is not exploring the question of whether Barack Obama is an American citizen. That is settled. It is a dead issue as far as CNN is concerned.
Jonathan Chait points out that today's Washington Post includes an op-ed in which Martin Feldstein claims President "Obama has said that he would favor a British-style 'single payer' system in which the government owns the hospitals and the doctors are salaried but that he recognizes that such a shift would be too disruptive to the health-care industry."
That, as Chait and Paul Krugman note, is altogether untrue. False. Wrong.
Obama has never said that he favors a British-style health care system. Britain does not have a single-payer system. It has a socialized system, where the government directly employs all health care providers. Indeed, if you follow the link in Feldstein's own column, it says, "A single-payer system would eliminate private insurance companies and put a Medicare-like system into place where the government pays all health-care bills with tax dollars." Does Medicare own hospitals and pay doctors government salaries? No. Professor Feldstein, please stop writing about topics you know nothing about.
Single-payer, as anyone who has paid the least bit of attention to the health care debate knows, means a system like Medicare, in which the government pays the bills. It absolutely does not mean a British-style system — and Obama definitely didn't advocate anything of the sort....[I[f I misstated the facts like this in the Times, I'd be required to publish a correction. Will the Post require that Feldstein retract his claim?
Last night, we learned you don't have to know much about politics to write for Politico -- or to be a guest on Hardball. Tonight, we're reminded that Hardball's host also doesn't know as much as you might think, as Matthews discussed Richard Nixon's press conference after his 1962 campaign for governor ended in defeat:
CHRIS MATTHEWS: As we all know, that was not Richard Nixon's last press conference. In fact, ten years later, actually it wasn't ten years later, it was six years later, he was elected president in a landslide.
In fact, Nixon won the 1968 popular vote by a mere 500,000 votes; he won the presidency with only 31 electoral votes more than he needed. Matthews' guest, Pat Buchanan, did point out that the victory was no landslide, which may be the first time Buchanan has ever actually added value to an MSNBC broadcast.
Obviously, it doesn't really matter all that much if Chris Matthews tells viewers that Richard Nixon won the '68 election by a landslide when in fact he won a relatively narrow victory. But it is another reminder of a point I've made several times in the past: the problem with media coverage isn't just the focus on politics rather than policy; it's that they're lousy at the politics part. No matter how much they pretend, they aren't experts, and they rarely have genuine insight -- they're just people who convince themselves and each other that they're experts because they all repeat the same conventional wisdom.
(Here's another recent reminder from Chris Matthews.)
Take a look at the way Politico describes a public health care option:
Reid today was vague on whether he supported the public option, the most controversial and expensive aspect of President Barack Obama's health care push. Opponents of the public option have suggested that a compromise take place that would remove the public plan from the package.
Politico never got around to indicating what supporters of the public option think, which is a pretty glaring lack of balance.
But that isn't the only problem with this paragraph. Politico describes a public option as "the most controversial and expensive aspect" of health care reform. Well, gee, that sounds awful. Why would anyone support it?
Think about how differently that paragraph would read if Politico focused on the effects of a strong public plan rather than the costs. On the positives, rather than the negatives. Or if Politico at least included both.
This is typical of the way the media covers health care (remember the presidential primary debates, when the Democrats kept getting grilled about how much health care reform would cost rather than about what it would do?) And that anti-reform framing is a big part of the reason for the situation we're in.
Newsbusters' Seton Motley couldn't have screwed this one up more badly if he had tried. The right-wing media critic picked a fight with New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, but only succeeded in making himself look like a fool.
Here's Motley, trying to ridicule Krugman's column about Toyota deciding to open a new plant in Ontario, Canada:
Krugman's Nobel-prize winning economic mind then offers up:
So what's the impact on taxpayers? In Canada, there's no impact at all: since all Canadians get government-provided health insurance in any case, the additional auto jobs won't increase government spending.
Really? Adding workers brought in from outside Canada to the government rolls won't increase government spending? A little of Krugman's new math: X plus 5,000 still somehow equals X.
Who said anything about "Adding workers brought in from outside Canada"? Not Krugman. In fact, Krugman specifically wrote that Toyota chose Canada in part because of the quality of Ontario's work force.
Motley then purported to rebut a Krugman point about the quality of health care in Canada and the U.S. But while Krugman cited an actual study that used, you know, actual data and stuff to measure the effectiveness of various health care systems, Motley "rebutted" it by assertion:
The key words being "timely" and "effective" - two words never associated with government medicine.
OK, Motley didn't have data or studies to point do -- but he did have bold and italics to bolster his case. He must be right.
Then, at the end, Motley suggests Krugman do "a little due diligence and some rudimentary research."
After all, that's why it's called a conspiracy theory. Over the years all the great ones (9/11, Whitewater, JFK and the grassy knoll) have all shared a common bond, which was the realization that facts were irrelevant to the pursuits of conspiracy theorists.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs had it about right yesterday when he stressed that it didn't matter what he said, or if there were DNA evidence to put this who-dunnit to bed, the whole point of a robust conspiracy theory is to make sure that facts don't get in the way of anything. And speaking as someone who spent 30 minutes this morning taking calls from birthers on a Denver radio program, I know from experience.
That's why this kind of context, from ABC's the Note, sort of bugs me [emphasis added]:
Surely this will quiet the birthers: "I, Dr. Chiyome Fukino, director of the Hawaii State Department of Health, have seen the original vital records maintained on file by the Hawaii State Department of Health verifying Barrack Hussein Obama was born in Hawaii and is a natural-born American citizen," reads the new statement put out by state officials Monday.
I don't know, maybe The Note was being tongue-in-cheek and actually gets the joke that nothing will quiet the birthers. But I wish journalists would be more straightforward in making this point: the facts don't matter. Period.
Tucker Carlson, on Henry Louis Gates:
What happened to him likely had little to do with race, but it's still appalling. His crime? Failing to be polite to a policeman. Except that's not a crime, or shouldn't be, and the rest of us ought to do all we can to make sure it doesn't become one.
I have no idea how much, if at all, race played a role in Gates' arrest, so I won't endorse Carlson's assessment of its likelihood. But the rest of Carlson's statement seems spot-on, and illustrates the way the media mishandled this story.
See, Barack Obama said all along that he didn't know if race played a role in the arrest. And he said the arrest was stupid anyway. That's almost self-evident -- Gates was arrested in his own home, and charges against him were dropped.
But the media pretended that Obama had said something hugely controversial -- and they did so by ignoring the fact that he had gone out of his way to make clear that he was not saying race played a role in this specific arrest. They just disappeared that part of his comments, and often suggested the opposite.
Had the rest of the media approached this the way Tucker Carlson did -- understanding that it's completely obvious that Gates shouldn't have been arrested -- their coverage would have been much better.
On the other hand, Carlson describes Gates as a "self-righteous whiner who probably cries racism every time he gets the wrong order at Starbucks." I tend to assume that if any 58-year-old African American had spent his life "crying racism" every time he encountered it (let alone every time he got the wrong cup of coffee) there would be enough examples to fill a book. As that isn't the case with Gates, Carlson's assessment of the professor seems ... odd.
Questioned by a reader about that description of Gates, Carlson pointed to a statement in Gates' Yale application. I'm reasonably sure that by 1970, Henry Louis Gates had experienced racism more significant than getting the wrong order at Starbucks, and almost as sure that Tucker Carlson knows this. When a reader pointed that out, Carlson took issue with Gates' use of the word "Whitey" in that application. Seems a little silly for a wealthy white man in 2009 to get so upset about a black man who grew up in a segregated town using the word "Whitey" 40 years ago, but that's Tucker Carlson for you.