When even Mark Halperin decries the media's focus the inconsequential "freak show" rather than on the substance of health care reform, you know things have gotten bad. Here's Halperin:
HALPERIN'S TAKE: WHY EVERYTHING ABOUT THE HEALTH CARE MOBS IS A NATIONAL DISGRACE
1. Coverage of the mobs is playing into the hands of the mobsters.
2. Coverage of the mobs is crowding out a needed national debate about health care.
Meanwhile, the New York Times has what it bills as "A Primer on the Details of Health Care Reform." I don't endorse all of the points contained in the primer*, but this is exactly the kind of thing the media should be doing.
And MSNBC is, as I write this, doing a segment on "Heath Care: Fact & Fiction," in which Dylan Ratigan and Politico's Jonathan Martin are discussing and assessing the truthfulness of various health-care related things you may have heard. Again, without endorsing everything they've said, the mere fact that they're discussing policy is a huge leap forward from Friday's madness.
And, in an example of how the media should approach insane and false claims, ABC's Jake Tapper provided a pretty strong debunking of Sarah Palin's off-the-charts false claims about "death panels."
* Just one example: in the section on whether people could keep their current health plan and doctor under proposed health care reform, the Times repeatedly emphasizes that while the proposed reforms does not require anyone to change plan or doctor, their current plan may change, or their current doctor may stop accepting that plan. Well, OK, that's true -- but doesn't really have much to do with the proposed reforms; those things may well happen without reform. The Times doesn't make that clear.
I've written a lot lately about Howard Kurtz's conflicts of interest, which are glaring enough that they really should disqualify him from being the Washington Post's media critic. But the other part of the Kurtz story is the question of what qualifies him to be the nation's most famous media critic.
That's a topic I dealt with in a column a month ago: Kurtz just doesn't seem to understand journalism.
Here's a (granted, small) example, from yesterday, when Kurtz Tweeted: "My interview with Linda Douglass, who claims health critics are spreading 'disinformation' with old Obama clips."
"Claims"? Well, is her "claim" correct? That's kind of important, don't you think? Reporters shouldn't be in the business of telling us what political figures claim; they should be in the business of telling us whether the claims of political figures are true. Why should somebody who doesn't understand this be paid to pass judgement on other reporters?
Oh, and during that interview with Douglass, Kurtz said "I'm still skeptical on whether using someone's actual words is disinformation."
Really? Really? Howard Kurtz doesn't understand how you can misrepresent someone's position while using their own words? And he gets paid -- by two different news organizations -- to analyze the media. Astounding.
The conservative writer continues to play dumb, and now it's getting embarrassing.
Over the weekend I noted the extraordinary double standard that's now on display within the conservative press and it's deafening silence over Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck's recent Nazi obsession.
They shrieking hypocrisy revolves around the fact that during the Bush years, writers like Byron York were out front in ridiculing liberals who dared suggest the Republican president was like Adolf Hitler. From the perspective of the National Review, the Bush/Hitler comparison was loopy, irresponsible and simply highlighted how deranged the left-wing was; how completely unhinged it had become and how its hatred of Bush had become all-consuming. The Hitler chatter was part of the "Stupidity vortex," as NR's Jonah Goldberg wrote.
But today, with Limbaugh and Beck dipping into the Nazi pool? It's mostly crickets from the conservative media. Few writers will even acknowledge it's happening, let alone condemn it. ("Stupidity vortex"? Never heard of it!)
As I highlighted, York during the Bush years wrote again and again about how liberals had embraced the misguided Nazi comparison. (York loved to tarnish libs with the Hitler brush.) Yet today, nothing about Limbaugh and Beck.
Well, on Sunday York, now at the right-wing Washington Examiner, finally got around to addressing Limbaugh's Nazi chatter. But guess what? Suddenly, York made no sweeping generalizations about people who compare presidents to Nazis, and York certainly did not condemn it the way conservative writers robotically (and cheerfully) did when Bush was in power. Instead, York simply raised the issue as a way to serve as Limbaugh's errand boy. On Sunday, York dutifully posted the spin Limbaugh needed distributed to the masses after New York Times columnist David Brooks called Limbaugh's Nazi talk "insane" on national television.
For a writer who seemed so deeply concerned when liberal raised the Nazi specter a few years ago, York today is amazingly unconcerned about Limbaugh's new rhetoric.
UPDATED: By the way, Limbaugh's spin posted by York in response to Brooks' "insane" put-down made no sense. Limbaugh claimed he wasn't surprised that Democratic leaders in Congress didn't like his Nazi talk. But it was Brooks, a conservative columnist, who labeled his rhetoric "insane."
Byron York writes:
On "Meet the Press" this morning, host David Gregory played a brief clip of Limbaugh's monologue -- a sentence in which Limbaugh said, "There are far more similarities between Nancy Pelosi and Adolf Hitler than between these people showing up at town halls to protest a Hitler-like policy" -- and then asked guest David Brooks to comment. "I hadn't seen the Rush Limbaugh thing," Brooks said. "That is insane. What he's saying is insane."
I asked Limbaugh for a reaction, and here is his answer:
Everyone seems to ignore that Pelosi started this, saying town hall participants were showing up with swastikas, etc. That's calling them Nazis, as Dick Durbin referred to our Gitmo interrogators from the Senate floor. I've been listening to the left compare George W. Bush to Hitler for eight years. I've been listening to Democrats and the left compare conservatism to Nazis my whole career. This time I responded. In kind, by comparing the radical left policies of the Nazis to today's radical left leadership of the Democrat Party. I'm not surprised they don't like it.
On June 17, Washington Post Ombudsman Andrew Alexander wrote a blog post about Howard Kurtz, the Post media columnist who also hosts a television show on CNN. Two days earlier, Kurtz had conducted an online chat for the Post in which he defended CNN from criticism of its coverage of the Iran election controversy. As Eric Alterman noted, Kurtz did not disclose his relationship with CNN during the chat.
Here's Alexander, in his June 17 post:
Eric Alterman, a well-known New York-based journalism professor, columnist and author, was struck by what Kurtz didn't say and e-mailed me with a complaint.
"Howard Kurtz, who draws a regular paycheck from CNN, but is described in this chat exclusively as a 'Washington Post staff writer and columnist,' offers the lamest possible defense of CNN," he wrote. "(B)ut nowhere in the chat does he bother to inform readers that he is in the pay of the network whose dereliction of duty he sees fit to defend."
"This is not 'the appearance of a conflict of interest,'" he continued. "This is an actual conflict of interest."
He is correct that Kurtz should have disclosed his CNN connection. When I queried Kurtz, he readily agreed.
"When I took a couple of questions about CNN's Iran coverage in this week's chat, I didn't mention it in my haste to answer the questions," he said. "That was an oversight and won't be repeated."
Won't be repeated? In the few weeks since, it has been repeatedly repeated.
I have previously explained how Kurtz' dual roles with the Post and CNN have compromised his coverage of the Lou Dobbs/Birther controversy -- Kurtz was slow to address what was a raging media story; when he finally did, he omitted any mention of CNN president Jonathan Klein's endorsement of Dobbs' Birther conspiracy theories. To this day, Kurtz has still never mentioned Klein's defense of Dobbs -- a defense which is not only inconsistent with Kurtz' own criticism of the Birther nonsense, but is inaccurate, as well.
That's a huge, glaring, undeniable conflict of interest, and one well worth the attention of the Post Ombudsman. But here's something else: When Kurtz has written about Dobbs and CNN in recent weeks, he has failed to disclose his ties to CNN.
In a July 22 Media Notes column, Kurtz mentioned Dobbs in a section on Birthers -- but Kurtz didn't disclose his financial relationship with CNN.
In an August 3 Media Notes column, Kurtz mentioned Dobbs in a section on Birthers -- but Kurtz didn't disclose his financial relationship with CNN.
In an August 3 "Media Backtalk" online discussion, Kurtz answered two questions that referenced CNN and three that referenced Dobbs. But Kurtz never disclosed his financial relationship with CNN.
Remember: On June 17, Washington Post Ombudsman Andrew Alexander wrote that Kurtz should have disclosed his CNN connection when writing about the cable channel. He quoted Kurtz agreeing, and assuring him the "oversight" would not be repeated.
And then Kurtz went right out and did it again. And again. And again. It's almost as though he's thumbing his nose at Alexander.
And here's something interesting: Kurtz's Media Notes columns immediately following Alexander's June 17 rebuke carried a note at the end indicating that Kurtz hosts a show on CNN. This column, for example, makes only two passing mentions of CNN -- but at the end, it notes "Howard Kurtz hosts CNN's weekly media program, 'Reliable Sources.'" Curiously, that note went missing right around the time Kurtz began covering (or not) CNN and the Birther mess.
To be sure, there's a bigger problem with Kurtz' reporting lately than his failure to disclose his ties to CNN. The bigger problem is that Kurtz has been giving CNN president Jonathan Klein a pass, while cashing paychecks from CNN. That's the biggest conflict of interest in contemporary political journalism.
The fact that Kurtz has also been breaking his own (very recent) promise to disclose his CNN ties when he writes about CNN, just weeks after being chastised by the Post's Ombudsman for failing to disclose, is just icing on the cake.
Though it does raise the question of whether there's anybody at the Post to whom Kurtz is accountable. Does Washington Post management care that Kurtz is not only giving his CNN bosses a break, he is breaking promises made to Post readers, via the Post Ombudsman, to disclose his conflict when he writes about CNN?
UPDATE: Kurtz devotes nearly all of today's "Media Notes" column to a profile of AOL's Politics Daily site. AOL is owned by Time Warner, which also owns CNN, which employs Howard Kurtz. Did Kurtz disclose his financial relationship with AOL's parent company? No, he did not.
Should Lou Dobbs stay or go?
Q. Longtime CNN anchor Lou Dobbs is making trouble for the network, reported a story popular on AT&T Yahoo! this week. His coverage of the "birther" movement, which questions the authenticity of Barack Obama's birth certificate, has brought the most fallout. His persistence with the story has embarrassed CNN execs and also contributed to a drop in ratings, say insiders. The bad press has put his job in jeopardy.
What do you think? Should Lou Dobbs keep his job?
Yes. He's an important voice in the news industry.
No. It's time for him to go.
Not sure/No opinion
While hosting MSNBC on Friday afternoon, John Harwood took a viewer question -- and, in his answer, provided a glimpse of the shallowness the mainstream media's attitudes about their own biases:
Viewer Question: You grew up in Washington, DC, so some people would probably consider you an "insider." How do you maintain your objectivity when reporting on politics?
John Harwood: Guilty as charged of being an insider. I did grow up inside the Beltway. Let me just say this about press bias and objectivity: The notion of liberal bias in the media is not a fantasy. It is a fact, if we're talking about the orientation of people who go into journalism. However, it's also true that conservatives whine about it too much, and it's less consequential than it's been in the past because people are more mindful of it, pay more attention, and try to make sure that their own biases and their own inclinations don't come across too clearly in their news reporting.
Note, first of all, that the questioner didn't say anything about "liberal bias." She asked about Harwood's status as a Washington insider affecting his objectivity. Harwood didn't address that; not even glancingly. He just stipulated to "being an insider," then put the matter aside, betraying not so much as a hint of recognition that his insider status might affect how he views and reports on politics and policy.
And, after blowing off the question about whether his insider status affects his reporting, Harwood answered a question that wasn't asked, about "the notion of liberal bias." That's how knee-jerk defensive reporters are about "liberal bias" -- they respond to such allegations even when they haven't been asked. Harwood dismisses conservative complaints as "whining" -- but his own defensiveness makes clear that whining has worked.
And Harwood's response displayed a stunning lack of recognition of the difference between "the orientation of people who go into journalism" and the content of the news reports those people produce. John Harwood's own New York Times, for example, absolutely savaged Al Gore throughout the 2000 presidential campaign -- often inaccurately and typically unfairly -- while giving George W. Bush a free pass. Then there's Judith Miller and the Times' coverage of the run-up to the Iraq war. After those two failures -- each of historic proportions -- it is simply absurd for any Times reporter to reflexively assume that the key question about the media is whether it displays a liberal bias.
And yet, that's exactly what reporters assume. They have internalized the conservative whining, and they have clearly not come to terms with the media's conduct during the most important events of the past two decades, from their treatment of the Clintons to the 2000 campaign and the Iraq war debate.
For those who wonder why a few progressive media critics -- Bob Somerby of the Daily Howler, me -- insist on bringing up the 2000 campaign and other past examples of media failures over and over again: This is why. The fact that a New York Times reporter upon hearing a question about media objectivity immediately starts talking about liberal bias rather than apologizing for what his paper did to Al Gore shows that they really don't understand what has happened over the past two decades.
Remember back in May, when a Gallup poll found a majority of Americans call themselves "pro-life" -- a nine point margin over those calling themselves "pro-choice"? Remember how the media rushed to tout the findings, despite the fact that the poll had glaring flaws that rendered the findings dubious at best?
Well, last week, Gallup released the results of a new poll -- one finding that 47 percent of Americans call themselves "pro-life," just a hair more than the 46 percent who say they are "pro-choice," providing further evidence that the May poll was an outlier.
This would be a good time for Ramesh Ponnuru to acknowledge that I was right when I pointed out the obvious flaws in the May Gallup poll.
Gallup acknowledges that whatever shift towards the "pro-life" label there has been over the past year has occurred among Republicans, and states that it is a reaction to the election of Barack Obama rather than a shift in beliefs:
The source of the latest shift in abortion views -- between 2008 and 2009 -- is clear. The percentage of Republicans (including independents who lean Republican) who call themselves "pro-life" has risen by nearly 10 points over the past year, from 60% to 68% -- perhaps a reaction to the "pro-choice" presidency of Barack Obama -- while there has been essentially no change in the views of Democrats and Democratic leaners.
The new Gallup poll also found that only 18 percent of Americans think abortion should be illegal in all circumstances. But don't expect to hear the media say much about that poll result; they have a lengthy track record of privileging opposition to abortion.
(For the record, I continue to find questions asking people to label themselves "pro-life" or "pro-choice" less illuminating than questions that ask people whether they think abortion should be legal in specific circumstances, for reasons I explained last month.)
From Washington Post ombudsman Andrew Alexander's August 9 column, "Foot-in-Mouth theater"
The decision to pull the plug stemmed from a July 31 segment playing off President Obama's Rose Garden beer chat about race with black Harvard scholar Henry Louis "Skip" Gates Jr. and Sgt. James Crowley, the white officer who arrested him on disorderly conduct charges that were later dropped. In their skit, Milbank and Cillizza envisioned beer brands that politicians might be served. For "Mad Bitch" beer, an image of Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton appeared. A predictable uproar ensued.
There was so much wrong with "Mouthpiece Theater" and the way The Post handled the controversy that it's hard to know where to begin. But there was also something very right about it. More on that later.
The basic concept was flawed. Milbank might have pulled it off as a solo act. His Washington Sketch column can be biting and funny, and his occasional accompanying videos are creative and entertaining. It's his job to voice opinions. But Cillizza is different. He writes straight news on The Fix, his popular Post politics blog, and his stories appear on the news pages. Teaming with Milbank created a branding problem for him and The Post. It left readers confused about his true role -- reporter, commentator or comic? -- and about The Post's standards. Cillizza acknowledged this "somewhat discordant marriage" on The Fix after "Mouthpiece Theater" was killed.
Second, satirical humor is risky. Clinton aside, there was mention of Gates requesting a "Big Black Stout" and Crowley ordering a "White Rascal." Some critics charged misogyny and racial insensitivity. It's important to remember that this was meant as comedy. And Milbank and Cillizza poked fun at themselves by hoisting "two cans of Jackass Oatmeal Stout." But allusions to race and gender, however innocent or evenhanded, invite trouble. What's funny to some is hurtful to others. The Post's Stylebook is clear: "Avoid ethnic labels and stereotypes such as hard-drinking Irishman, tempestuous Latins or Chinese fire drill."
Third, the lack of quality control was disturbing. "There was no systematic approach for viewing the content before it went up," Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli told me last week. "Mouthpiece Theater" was intended to be edgy. Scripts were reviewed, but not all images. The absence of final vetting invited disaster. Late this week, a new system was put in place. According to an internal note, key managers have been assigned to review all videos for "fairness and taste." Questionable videos get sent to higher-level managers. "If in doubt, run it up the flagpole," the note says. "Remember the no-surprises rule."
Finally, the apology. If the video was deemed unsuitable, an unequivocal apology was in order. Instead, Post communications director Kris Coratti issued a statement saying only that "a satirical piece that lampooned people of all stripes" had been removed because part of the video "went too far." Cillizza apologized, but briefly, to his followers on Twitter. The Post has since carried apologies from Milbank and Cillizza.
This is just atrocious.
Sheryl Gay Stolberg does the GOP a big favor today by suggesting it's both conservatives and liberals who are responsible for unleashing "ugly" mobs on town hall forums and turning them into free-for-alls. Of course, Stolberg can't point to any actual proof to back up her claim. But it's just easier--and neater--to say both sides are at fault, right?
Actually, Stolberg does find evidence of how liberals and Democrats are helping make civil discourse this month impossible:
President Obama's political organization sent a mass e-mailing urging supporters to turn out for a[n]... event at a library, to "make sure your support for health insurance reform is seen and heard."
Got it? The White House sent out an email urging people to attend town hall forums, and that's just like conservatives hanging politicians in effigy, issuing death threats, hounding Congressman all the way to their cars, and making it impossible for actual town hall debates to take place.
It's exactly the same.
And watch here as Stolberg plays dumb about the mimi-mobs [emphasis added]:
In some respects, last week's town halls — fueled on the right by antitax groups backed partly by industry, and on the left by unions — are the logical outgrowth of decades of American political activism.
It makes perfect sense that mini-mobs would descend on public forums to shout down legislation that's still be written. Why would anyone at the Times think that was odd or unusual? It's logical.
And behold this:
But last week's "town brawls," as the news media dubbed them, do seem to represent a shift.
Gee, you think?