Media Matters: The tea party teapot tempest rages on

››› ››› SIMON MALOY

It's fitting that a week that began with conservatives warning about the president indoctrinating schoolchildren would end with those same conservatives acting like schoolchildren in the face of perceived indoctrination.

It's fitting that a week that began with conservatives warning about the president indoctrinating schoolchildren would end with those same conservatives acting like schoolchildren in the face of perceived indoctrination. Leading up to President Obama's September 8 back-to-school address to our nation's students, the conservative media loudly voiced their opposition to the speech, insisting that the president was recruiting children to his political goals and conscripting them into his civilian army. Of course, when none of that happened and Obama delivered the speech he intended to deliver, conservatives still managed to declare victory, claiming -- with an admitted lack of evidence and an implied lack of sense -- that the White House had secretly changed the speech in response to their heroic exposé of Obama's attempt to corrupt the minds of the youth.

But conservatives wouldn't have to wait long for some genuine "indoctrination," as the president took to the dais of the House of Representatives on September 9 to restate the case for health care reform. And they reacted in true playground fashion. "You lie," screamed Rep. Joe Wilson (R-SC) in the middle of Obama's address, much to the shock and chagrin of the assembled legislature. While Wilson's Republican colleagues upbraided him in public and private and Wilson himself apologized, the conservative media got busy enshrining a new hero. Rush Limbaugh "was ecstatic when he heard" Wilson's shout and wished he hadn't apologized. "Joe Wilson simply articulated what millions of Americans were saying," said Limbaugh. Hot Air blogger Allahpundit responded by calling the president a "jackass." Obama wasn't the only "jackass" of the evening, as Red State's Erick Erickson, in the midst of lauding Wilson "a great American hero," called Sen. Bob Bennett (R-UT) a "jackass" for "clap[ing] when Barack Obama bashed Sarah Palin over the death panels."

Slightly less maddening than the sophomoric reaction from the right was the phony equivalence put forth by media outlets seeking to downplay Wilson's outburst. Fox & Friends doggedly tried to convince their viewers that Nancy Pelosi's criticisms of the CIA were no different from Wilson's heckling of the president on the House floor. The Washington Post's Dana Milbank balanced Wilson's verbal attack on the president with Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-NJ), who "insisted on making a victory sign with his hand and waving it at Obama." It's a wonder Milbank didn't lump in all those boorish members of Congress who kept banging the palms of their hands together at various times throughout the speech.

And let's not forget that Wilson was wrong. Very wrong. Demonstrably wrong. And yet, that simple fact seemed conspicuously absent from much of the reporting on Wilson's outburst. Viewed through a broader lens, Wilson's two-word interjection during the president's address to Congress is a distillation of the right's approach to the health care debate thus far - short on substance, but long on spectacle. You saw the same scenario play out all last month as town hall after town hall was disrupted by loud protesters shouting about "socialism" and making nonsensical demands that the government keep its hands off Medicare. Their views were fringe, and they were often in direct contradiction to the facts, but the video of angry town hall protesters dominated the cable news channels because they made great TV.

It's a symptom of a broken media culture that a small group of fringe conservatives can scream insults and falsehoods at the president or their representatives in Congress, bring no facts to bear in support of their allegations, and still be treated as major players in a policy debate.

Other major stories this week

What speech did they hear?

While not turning Rep. Wilson into a latter-day Spartacus, the conservative media turned their critical eyes on President Obama's health care speech, leaving many to wonder whether they heard the same speech the rest of the world did. Sean Hannity proclaimed that Obama "said tonight that insurance executives are bad people." In reality, the president said the exact opposite: "Insurance executives don't [treat their customers badly] because they're bad people; they do it because it's profitable." Joseph Curl of The Washington Times reported that Obama "cut out" from the speech a line about bringing "both parties together" in health care debate. In fact, the president delivered that line exactly as prepared -- a fact noted by a separate Washington Times article.

Noted paragon of accuracy and credibility Karl Rove appeared on Fox News to attack the president's alleged "series of very glaring misstatements or distortions," all the while advancing health care falsehoods and distortions of his very own. It should be noted that Rove was just one of the many Fox News partisans to inveigh against President Obama's speech and his health reform proposals. And it's no surprise that Fox News would function as the epicenter of media opposition to Democratic health care reform. The self-proclaimed "voice of the opposition" has taken a contrary position to the White House and the Democratic Congress on just about every issue, frequently engaging in political activism by advocating the tea party protests, the town hall disrupters, and Glenn Beck's cult -- er, 9-12 Project.

Fox News on the hunt for "czars"

Watching Fox News these days you'd think we were in the midst of the October Revolution, such is their newfound distaste for "czars" -- special advisers to President Obama whom the network's commentators have pledged to take down. Seizing upon past statements Obama's "czars" have made, Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck have falsely attacked several of the president's advisers, claiming that they are too controversial or unfit for their jobs, all the while ignoring these advisers' credentials or actual job performance. Hannity proclaimed that his "job" is "to get rid of every other ['czar']," and got things rolling by falsely claiming that White House science and technology adviser John Holdren "advocated compulsory abortion," and arguing against the evidence that State Department legal adviser Harold Koh "advocates the use Sharia law in America." Meanwhile, Beck led the charge against former "green jobs czar" Van Jones, using Jones' past statements to inexplicably reassert the connection between Obama and Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

As noted above, however, the anti-"czar" fervor at Fox News is something of a new development, arising -- coincidentally, no doubt -- with the transition from the Bush to Obama presidencies. In fact, "czars" were such a non-issue at Fox News during the Bush years that Bill O'Reilly called for the appointment of several new "czars" to handle immigration, charities, and disaster relief, and not once was he denounced by his colleagues for advocating a "shadow government" with "unchecked power."

7 months, 22 days, 2 hours, 16 minutes

If that was your pick in the "How long will it take for Rush Limbaugh to demand that President Obama resign?" pool, step forward and claim your prize.

This week's media columns

This week's media columns from the Media Matters senior fellows: Jamison Foser discusses how the coverage of Wilson's outburst at Obama's speech shows how the media have not learned from their "death panel" mistakes; and Karl Frisch examines why Fox News hasn't given up on Glenn Beck, even as advertisers continue to flee.

Greg Lewis brings us Limbaugh health care falsehoods here, there, and everywhere in The Friday Rush, a review of Limbaugh's radio shows over the past week.

This weekly wrap-up was compiled by Simon Maloy, a deputy research director at Media Matters for America.

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