If you've been under the impression that right-wing radio host Michael Savage, who claims Barack Obama was born in Kenya, was schooled at a radical Islamic madrassa, and is now "raping America," was a hate merchant who operated on the edges of common decency, and represented a primetime player in the unfolding far-right campaign to delegitimize and dehumanize the president, The New Yorker wants you put those assumptions aside.
If you thought that Savage was cultivating a culture of extremism by claiming the Obama administration espouses "the same exact policies as the Nazi Party," The New Yorker thinks you have it all wrong.
And if you bought into the silly notion that Savage was part of a right-wing movement playing off racial fears, The New Yorker thinks you're being simplistic and naïve.
Because in its August 3 issue, the mighty New Yorker magazine, in an in-depth profile of Savage (subscription required), mostly set aside the host's nasty streak and suggested instead that the paranoid, gay-hating, xenophobic talk show host was really just misunderstood.
In truth, or at least in the gentle hands of New Yorker writer Kelefa Sanneh, Savage is "a marvelous storyteller, a quirky talker, and an incorrigible free-associater." He hosts "the most addictive program on radio and one of the least predictable." To Sanneh's ear, Savage's daily rants by the jazz-loving host are "engrossing."
In other words, he's an artist weaving a broadcast tapestry.
Savage doesn't preach hate. (That's so cliché, people.) Instead, the host merely engages in some old-fashioned "rabble rousing." Sure, he broadcasts an "antipathy for liberals." And yes, he does show flashes of an "immoderate" and "incendiary style." But deep down, Savage is really just a throwback to "garrulous old-school New York radio personalities." In fact, Savage isn't all that much different than famed shock jock Howard Stern. Besides, The New Yorker loves the "counter-culture feel" of Savage's program.
Plus, once you get to know Savage and hang out with him on his deck at his Bay Area home and share a beer, you discover he's "a first-rate host, chatty and solicitous." And who knew that Savage "loves to talk about his well-worn Hebrew Bible, which is full of annotations and post-it notes"? Indeed, Savage is a man in search of "the right way to articulate his Jewish heritage."
What's the big deal, Sanneh seems to be asking throughout the article. And in an audio interview posted online at The New Yorker website, the writer seemed bemused that when it came to the topic of Savage, "liberals get all worked up about, 'Oh, this guy is really offensive and vile and hateful.' "
Personally, Sanneh just didn't see it. "I think a lot of people who don't listen to his show would maybe be surprised by how weird it is and how funny it is," he told his online interviewer. Indeed, according to the writer, "part of the fun of listening to his show" is the way Savage "wrestles on the air" with life's bigger, philosophical questions.
And, oh yeah, Savage is actually a "political idealist, a sucker for a sob story, and firm believer in the power of friendship."
Question: Does he like puppies, too?
Honestly, The New Yorker could not have picked a worse time to publish a puff piece about Savage. Arriving on newsstands the same week we learned that 58 percent of Republicans either don't believe or don't know whether Barack Obama was born in America (a rancid conspiracy theory that Savage has peddled for months), and arriving the same week that Fox News' Glenn Beck went on national television and called out the president of the United States a "racist" with a "deep-seated hatred for white people," The New Yorker's soft-pedaling of Savage, as well as the larger unhinged right-wing movement to demonize and dehumanize Obama, was just embarrassing. (By the way, in the same article, The New Yorker described Beck as "deftly channeling the defiance and bewilderment of dissident America." I suppose that's one -- softball -- way of putting it.)
Sorry, but in case The New Yorker hadn't noticed from its lofty, literary perch, there's a not-very-subtle movement within the right-wing media to paint Obama as illegitimate (i.e., the Manchurian Candidate) and as a looming threat to our liberties and freedoms. There's also a burgeoning race-baiting movement afoot. And Savage is helping to lead that charge.
According to Savage, Obama is "surrounded by terrorists" for friends and is "raping America." He's a "neo-Marxist fascist dictator in the making" with a plan to "force children into a paramilitary domestic army." Savage has also attacked gays as people who are "raping our children's minds." He has condemned illegal immigrants for having "destroyed" California and accused them of having "raped and disheveled" the Statue of Liberty.
In terms of Islam, just listen to this in order to get a taste of Savage's disturbing, guttural hatred for the religion and its people:
More? Savage has called talk show host Barbara Walters a "double-talking slut" and a "mental prostitute." He claimed CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer "would stick Jewish children into a gas chamber." And he called former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright a "hag" and a "traitor" and a "monster in a dress."
What's telling (and, frankly, disturbing) is that Sanneh was aware of Savage's vicious outbursts but seemed to try to dismiss them in his article:
The immoderate quotes meticulously cataloged by the liberal media-watchdog site, mediamatters.org, are accurate but misleading, insofar as they reduce a willfully erratic broadcast to a series of political brickbats.
Apparently, Sanneh thinks clips of Savage's own words don't accurately capture what he says on his show. The clips don't properly capture the artistry of Savage; his genius.
If The New Yorker wants to pretend that Savage is merely "weird" and "fun" to have a beer with (the writer and the radio host had "a great time together" according to Sanneh; Savage confirmed on his show that he "liked" the writer), and that liberals ought to chill out and not get so upset about the sewage that Savage dumps into the mainstream, that's The New Yorker's (elitist) choice. But it certainly represents a glaring case of journalism malpractice.
I'm not suggesting the weekly had to print a straight-up Savage hit piece, or that it couldn't seek out some nuances about the host, his life story, and his show. If The New Yorker wants to paint a rich portrait, be my guest. But to just play dumb on an epic scale about the hallmark of Savage's program, with its almost unmatched level of hate, was wildly misguided.
As Right Wing Watch lamented last week, "Sanneh seems uninterested in considering whether the kind of political rhetoric Savage specializes in has the potential to fuel hatred and violence." Apparently that's too obvious. It's not the cool thing to do. Instead, what passes for edgy is to embrace creepy contrarianism and to show how The New Yorker is above mere partisan politics and therefore can see the wisdom and artistry others cannot. To showcase how its writer can connect with his subject on a personal level. ("This is a bromance made in publishing hell," quipped one blogger last week.)
Sadly, The New Yorker's ill-advised Savage valentine simply continued the troubling mainstream media trend of playing nice with right-wingers, and of playing dumb about what they're really about. It's become an iron-clad rule: the hate speech must never be addressed in detail. (Behold your liberal media at work.)
By the way, no critics of Savage were quoted in the piece; months ago when Sanneh first emailed the host requesting an interview, the writer assured Savage that he "enjoyed" his program. Also missing from the profile was even a single reference to the weeks-long controversy that engulfed Savage last year when he announced autism was "a fraud, a racket." For some reason, that career-defining episode fell right down The New Yorker's memory hole.
Savage, of course, was thrilled with the final result: "It's the first media depiction of Michael Savage that truly captured the artistic side," he told listeners last week, via the third person. In the eyes of the host, he'd clearly been legitimized by the prestigious New Yorker, a magazine he seems to idolize. The weekly liked what he does on the air. The magazine practically celebrated it for seven pages. So of course there's no need for Savage to rethink his hate crusade. He's been validated by The New Yorker, why change course? In fact, in the wake of the puff piece Savage asked if listeners thought the magazine profile would help attract new converts to the show.
Be choosing to actively camouflage what Savage and the larger right-wing media hate movement is about, as well as the cultural dangers it poses, The New Yorker not only missed a truly compelling story, it also abdicated its role as a clear-eyed truth-teller.