Media Matters: Dobbs, dropped

››› ››› SIMON MALOY

On July 15, Lou Dobbs introduced a story on his CNN news program by saying that "new questions are raised about the president's eligibility to be president." Unbeknownst to the long-time cable news veteran, the moment he uttered those words, he embarked upon a steep downward trajectory that, just a few months later, would result in his departure from CNN, the network he had called home for the better part of three decades.

At least, that's the story told by the New York Post this morning, which reported that Dobbs' coverage of the phony controversy surrounding President Obama's birth certificate ran afoul of CNN president Jon Klein, who sent a memo to Dobbs' staff telling them to knock it off with all the "birther" stories. The Post also reported that Klein's memo enraged Dobbs -- he hadn't let facts, sense, or reason prevent him from covering the "birther" garbage, so it was unlikely that the network president could stop him either. It's a tragicomic tale, when you think about it. Dobbs, after 30 years of success on cable news, decided to make his last stand in defense of a story whose primary agonist is a lawyer/dentist who claims to be the victim of a conspiracy engineered by Obama, the Justice Department, and Microsoft.

The Post's reporting doesn't name any sources, which isn't surprising, but when you place it next to The New York Times' initial story on Dobbs' departure, which reported that Klein told Dobbs he could keep his opinions confined to the radio or leave CNN, a theme emerges -- CNN finally had had enough of Dobbs' nonsense. But that raises an obvious question -- what took so long? Make no mistake, "birther"-ism is a special kind of disqualifying offense when it comes to legitimate journalism, and Klein's ultimatum to Dobbs, if true, was completely justified and the right thing to do. But Dobbs' dalliance with the "birthers" was only his most recent descent into conspiratorial race-baiting.

By all indications, the wheels started turning on this after Media Matters began highlighting Dobbs' "birther" coverage, building upon years of assiduous documentation of Dobbs' deleterious influence on the national dialogue. Media Matters was also a lead partner in the Drop Dobbs Coalition, educating Dobbs' advertisers about his incendiary rhetoric and false reporting and persuading major corporations to stop advertising on Lou Dobbs Tonight. Long before the 2008 election, long before Dobbs ever had the opportunity to lie about Obama's birth certificate, he was waging a smear campaign against Hispanics and immigrants and using his cable news perch to spin elaborate conspiracy theories with no basis in fact.

You can go all the way back to 2005, when Dobbs' correspondents first started reporting that undocumented immigrants were responsible for a spike in leprosy in the United States. That was completely wrong, and when confronted with the evidence, he refused to correct the false reporting, instead actively defending it or simply pretending it never happened. In 2006, Dobbs started in on "La Reconquista," the idea that Mexico is attempting to retake the land it lost to the United States in the 19th century by sending, in Dobbs' words, "illegal immigrants" to the U.S. as "an army of invaders." On Dobbs' show, a visit from the Mexican president was described as a "Mexican military incursion." And let's not forget that it was during one of these "Reconquista" reports that Dobbs featured a graphic sourced to the Council of Conservative Citizens, a group that "oppose[s] all efforts to mix the races of mankind, to promote non-white races over the European-American people through so-called 'affirmative action' and similar measures, to destroy or denigrate the European-American heritage, including the heritage of the Southern people, and to force the integration of the races."

Dobbs' other big story of 2006 was the so-called North American Union, the alleged effort by the governments of Canada, Mexico, and the United States to "merge" the three countries into a single entity. It's a claim that's so whacked-out that other CNN journalists dismissed it as "a lot of talk in the blogosphere and conspiracy theorists." But Dobbs reported it as fact on his program dozens of times, serving as a sort of port in a storm for the chronically disreputable.

If, as has been reported, CNN's goal has been to mold itself as a "middle of the road" alternative to competitors Fox News and MSNBC, then one has to wonder why the network waited until now to part ways with Dobbs. But if the Post is right in reporting that Dobbs' "birther" coverage was what prompted CNN to say "enough," then that's perfectly understandable, and ultimately they made exactly the right call.

Other major stories this week

Rupert Murdoch's get-well card to Glenn Beck

Glenn Beck ran into a bit of health trouble last week, which resulted in an emergency appendectomy for the Fox News host, as well as one of the most cutting bits of satire ever filmed for television. Beck made a quick recovery and was back to work this week, and his speedy recovery was likely helped along by two important factors: the care provided by nurses who are members of the "radical, Marxist" Service Employees International Union and well wishes from his boss, News Corp. chairman Rupert Murdoch.

But Murdoch, as we know, has a flair for the dramatic, so a simple Hallmark card and cookie bouquet wouldn't suffice. No, Murdoch decided that the best way to comfort his ailing ratings giant was to go on television and proclaim that Beck "was right" to call President Obama a "racist."

It was a special thing to say for several reasons. First, it effectively undid what meager attempts at damage control Fox News had made immediately after Beck made the remark, like senior vice president of programming Bill Shine's statement that "Beck expressed a personal opinion which represented his own views, not those of the Fox News Channel." Second, it offered a clear look at how the operating procedures of Fox News contrast with those of more reputable news outlets. In the immediate aftermath of Beck's diatribe, MSNBC's First Read noted that "[t]here was a time when outrageous rants like this would actually cost the ranters their jobs." As noted above, CNN decided to get rid of Dobbs rather than continue tolerating his increasingly conspiratorial and racially charged commentary. Fox News, on the other hand, handles their purveyors of conspiratorial, racially charged commentary by agreeing with them.

And finally, it was such an inexplicably dumb comment that Murdoch's spokesperson didn't even try to explain anything in the after-the-fact denial. According to Politico's Michael Calderone, Murdoch's spokesman said in a statement: "He does not at all, for a minute, think the president is a racist." That's it. No elaboration whatsoever. To be fair, it was probably the smart thing to do, as any attempt to explain how that makes any sense would just end up causing more trouble for Murdoch. But as a consequence, we're all left to wonder how it is that Murdoch "does not at all ... think the president is a racist," but at the same time thinks Beck was right to call the president a racist.

Fox, lies, and videotape

Following the success of the Tea Partiers' 9-12 March on Washington, 5,000 protesters gathered on the National Mall on November 5 at the bidding of Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) to protest the health care reform bill before Congress. These 10,000 protesters were summoned on short notice to the event, and 15,000 of them showed up, where they marched -- 20,000 strong -- to the Capitol building, leaving Capitol security hard-pressed to deal with a crowd of 50,000. Put simply, it's always a newsworthy event when 100,000 people show up, and Fox News' Sean Hannity wasn't about to pass on covering this million-man protest.

And if you think this little exercise in crowd inflation was egregious and crude, you should have seen what Hannity did. During a segment with Bachmann, Hannity aired a video montage of the event that spliced together footage of the poorly attended November 5 event with footage from the considerably larger September 12 march, giving the appearance that many more people showed up on November 5 than actually did. The Daily Show got wise to Hannity's game when they noticed that some of the clips in Hannity's montage featured green, leafy trees, which are not to be found in early November in Washington, D.C.

So yes, Hannity's a liar, and he got busted big time -- so badly, in fact, that he offered something that approximated an apology. But here's where Fox News' screwed-up operating procedures come into play again. Other news outlets, when they catch their staff pulling tricks like this, set heads a-rolling. Reuters fired a photographer in 2006 for digitally adding more smoke to a photograph of Beirut after an Israeli airstrike. A Los Angeles Times photographer was fired in 2003 for making a composite of two photos he had taken while covering the Iraq war. Fox News staffers, on the other hand, do this stuff all the time and never face any consequences.

Glenn Beck tried to pass off a piece of wall art in California as a protest sign in Pittsburgh. Hannity clipped a comment of Obama condemning "9-11 sympathizers" to claim that the president gave them "a voice." Perhaps most famously, the crew of Fox & Friends decided to take a little revenge on a pair of New York Times reporters who criticized the network by photoshopping their publicity shots, giving the reporters yellow teeth, big noses, and circles under the eyes. Were any of them fired? Nope. Is there any indication that they were even reprimanded? Not at all.

It all boils down to a lack of accountability. Fox News staffers basically have a free hand to lie and defame, because the worst thing they'll get is the support of their boss.

This week's media columns

This week's media columns from the Media Matters senior fellows: Eric Boehlert looks at "The GOP's looming (media) civil war" and Jamison Foser asks and answers "How can health care reporting get any worse? Add abortion to the mix."

Greg Lewis notes that Rush Limbaugh seems to be on a quest to irrelevancy in The Friday Rush, a review of Limbaugh's radio shows over the past week.

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This weekly wrap-up was compiled and edited by Simon Maloy, the deputy research director at Media Matters for America. Maloy also contributes to County Fair, a media blog featuring links to progressive media criticism from around the Web, as well as original commentary.

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