CJR's Megan Garber continues her excellent coverage of the "Mouthpiece Theater" debacle with an explanation of why the "it was just an experiment" defense falls flat. Garber:
Should Milbank and Cillizza-whose "experimental" journalism involved the duo dubbing themselves "two of the biggest maws in Washington" and treating politics as if it were alternately a sport/a game/a spectacle/an object of mockery-really be applauded for the reductive insult-to-all-involved that was "Mouthpiece Theater"? More to the point, was the series really embracing the kind of experimentation we want to see defining news's future?
No. And: no. Experimentation may well be what will guide us out of the desert journalism is currently wandering; still, Hey, we were just experimenting! cannot be a blanket defense for the blanket abandonment of journalistic ideals. Which, in the end, is what "Mouthpiece Theater" was. In journalism, as in everything else, there are principles that must transcend platform-messages, as it were, that must transcend medium. Among them are: intellectual honesty, a commitment to information, and a fundamental seriousness of purpose. And that's so even when it comes to satire.
There's much more; check it out.
As Garber notes, Washington Post Ombudsman Andrew Alexander, after criticizing the execution of Mouthpiece Theater, wrote "Milbank and Cillizza should be applauded for embracing the spirit of experimentation underlying [the series]."
Alexander was, at times, refreshingly blunt in his assessment of the videos. "Critics justly panned it as sophomoric," for example. And "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 his assessment also left a lot to be desired. He continued the Post's description of the videos as satire that went too far. I don't buy it. What were Chris Cillizza and Dana Milbank "satirizing" when they called Hillary Clinton a bitch and described a wife suing for divorce from a cheating spouse as a "bitter woman from hell"?
Alexander -- like Milbank, Cillizza, and the Washington Post spokesperson who first commented on the controversy -- seems to think "satire" means simply "jokes." That isn't what "satire" means. This is:
1. the use of irony, sarcasm, ridicule, or the like, in exposing, denouncing, or deriding vice, folly, etc.
2. a literary composition, in verse or prose, in which human folly and vice are held up to scorn, derision, or ridicule.
So, again: What human folly or vice were Cillizza and Milbank holding up to scorn, derision or ridicule? None. They skipped the "human folly or vice" part and went straight to scorn, derision and ridicule.
What Milbank and Cillizza did wasn't satire that went too far. It was mean-spirited insults. There is a difference. Saying that they simply went too far in their satire lets them off the hook. It isn't a legitimate defense; it's spin.
Speaking of letting them off the hook: Alexander suggests Cillizza's only flaw in this debacle was hanging out with the wrong crowd:
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.
Alexander did not mention that Cillizza, not Milbank, was the one who attacked Chip Pickering's wife as a "bitter woman from hell." In fact, Alexander didn't mention that comment at all. Alexander is not alone in that -- I don't believe either Cillizza or the Post has ever acknowledged it. All parties seem content to let people believe Milbank's "bitch" comment was the only misogyny contained in the video. That is, perhaps, understandable coming from Cillizza and the Post -- they are, after all, concerned about the damage done to the branding of "The Fix." But readers might have expected better from the Post's Ombudsman.
... Brent Baker fires up his computer:
CBS and NBC targeted Rush Limbaugh -- NBC's Kelly O'Donnell charged "some anger...gets stoked by the provocative megaphone of Rush Limbaugh, who went so far as accusing Democrats of wanting the socialized medicine of Nazi Germany" -- without bothering to acknowledge Limbaugh was reacting to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi who first put Nazi comparisons into play by accusing the opponents of "carrying swastikas and symbols like that to a town meeting on health care." [Bold and ellipses in original]
Got that? Rush Limbaugh accuses Democrats of wanting to duplicate the policies of Nazi Germany -- but according to Brent Baker, it was "Nancy Pelosi who first put Nazi comparisons into play." How did she do that? She pointed out that health care opponents have brought swastikas and other similar symbols to health care meetings.
Seems to me that Nancy Pelosi cannot be said to have "first put Nazi comparisons into play" if she was talking about the fact that conservatives had already used Nazi imagery. Newsbusters, apparently, uses an activist interpretation of the word "first."
Not to mention the fact that Baker can't see the qualitative difference between comparing something to the Nazis and denouncing Nazi comparisons.
You can see where the coverage--where the media narrative--is heading this week. First the New York Times, and now ABC.
Rachel Martin's lede [emphasis added]:
The debate over health care reform is getting louder on both sides.
It's obvious journalists are more comfortable blaming both sides; pretending that liberals and Democrats are also to blame for town hall free-for-alls where the police are now routinely summoned and Congressmen and women receive death threats.
By adopting that phony (GOP) storyline, and avoiding the truth about how the mini-mobs are a creation of the radical right, journalists know they won't be attacked by the right-wing for displaying "liberal bias." So by ignoring the facts and diluting what's really going on, the press plays it safe. Of course, playing it safe has nothing to do with accurately informing the public. But I'm not sure at this point most journalists even care.
Here, BTW, in its entirety, is ABC's proof that "both sides" are doing it:
The AFL-CIO and other labor unions are urging their members to show up in force at congressional town halls around the country and voice their support of health care reform, as a counterpoint to the conservative protesters. And the liberal group MoveOn.org is using the conservative protests as a rallying cry to their membership in an effort to raise money to fight back.
Union members are being urged to attend town hall forums and MoveOn.org is raising money. At ABC News, that's just like joining a mob, screaming at politicians, hanging them in effigy, and swarming their cars.
Honestly, I'm not sure false equivalencies come more pronounced than that.
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.