It was one of those ironies that the new issue of The Atlantic, which features the brilliant article “The Story Behind the Story” by Mark Bowden, arrives just after ACORN, Van Jones, and Yossi Sergant were brought down by bloggers, young conservative activists and talk-show hosts on Fox News. What Bowden deals with is the amazing debate that took place during the period that Judge Sonia Sotomayor was preparing for her Senate hearings prior to her Supreme Court confirmation.
We all recall watching on virtually every news station — not only cable but the MSM key outlets — her remarks at a Duke University panel in 2005 and a speech at Berkeley Law School in 2001, at which the then Circuit Court judge said that her identity as a “Latina woman” made her judgment superior to that of a “white male.” At the Duke panel she seemed to say that appellate judges make policy, and then followed that with these words: “I know this is on tape and I should never say that, because we don’t make law, I know,” at which her law school audience all laughed.
It was these remarks that led many conservatives to oppose her and caused many to argue that Sotomayor was not going to be the moderate she claimed to be. How did these videos get to the stations immediately after it was announced that Obama picked her as his choice? The answer is that it came not from scores of network or news reporters combing through files, but from one conservative blogger in particular. He is Morgan Richmond, a man who runs a computer consulting business and blogs during his spare time as a hobby at the relatively unknown website VerumSerum.com, which he runs with a Christian conservative, John Sexton. His goal was, Bowden writes, “to develop original stories that attract attention” and would resonate, not to damage the candidate.
Usually his website gets 30 readers a day. Yet what he uncovered, after going through long tedious tapes of the judge speaking at the two law schools, would soon be known in almost every American household, at least those who watch at least one news program. Every news program ran his tapes and never verified their accuracy, or checked to see if Sotomayor’s remarks were made in context. Nor did they cite the source of the videos, thereby, as Bowden says, “abdicating its responsibility to do its own reporting.” Thus, he writes, “several hours of Internet snooping by Richmond at his upstairs computer wound up shaping the public’s perception of Sonia Sotomayor.”
Critics portrayed her as a racist and liberal activist, which Bowden, and even Richmond, now acknowledge was not accurate. Richmond told him: “She’s really fairly moderate, compared to some of the other candidates on Obama’s list … she really wasn’t all that bad.”
Bowden says in conclusion that we now live in a “post-journalistic” world, in which our democracy is in a constant political battleground. Bloggers exist to help one side or the other, which leads to what Bowden sees as “distortions and inaccuracies, lapses of judgment, the absence of context,” which do not bother the bloggers, since they are simply ammunition for their own chosen side. Truth is simply what comes out of whoever wins a particular battle — it is winning that is key, not who is right. This, Bowden argues, is not journalism.
What he despairs is the result that we have more propaganda, and not news, with no room for compromise. Hence he asks a key question: “Isn’t there, in fact middle ground in most public disputes?” Can’t one weigh public good against factional goals? Can’t we decide the public interest in other than through a “partisan lens,” in which “politics becomes blood sport”?
Here is Bowden’s key paragraph:
Television loves this, because it is dramatic. Confrontation is all. And given the fragmentation of news on the Internet and on cable television, Americans increasingly choose to listen only to their own side of the argument, to bloggers and commentators who reinforce their convictions and paint the world only in acceptable, comfortable colors. Bloggers like Richmond and Sexton, and TV hosts like Hannity, preach only to the choir. Consumers of such “news” become all the more entrenched in their prejudices, and ever more hostile to those who disagree. The other side is no longer the honorable opposition, maybe partly right; but rather always wrong, stupid, criminal, even downright evil. … In a post-journalistic society, there is no disinterested voice. There are only the winning side and the losing side.
What he would love to see restored (and he doubts that it can ever take place) is what he calls “honest, disinterested reporting over advocacy.” Rather than shaking preconceptions, the new post-journalists reinforce prejudices, writing or reporting to gain a victory for either the conservative or left-liberal side. He favors those who aspire “to persuade” and are seen as fair-minded and trustworthy by those “who are inclined to disagree with him.” Bowden is firm: no liberal or conservative, he thinks, can have the “disinterested voice of a true journalist.”
I guess that leaves only Mark Bowden, who must be one of the few without predilections or strongly held views. Is he right in his well-argued essay?
Let us examine a few recent developments. First, the resignation of Van Jones. The expose of Jones’s background and previous life as a far-left revolutionary was exposed by a blogger who writes under the name Gateway Pundit. Material about Jones was made available at David Horowitz’s website DiscoverTheNetworks.com. The material was relevant to the public’s right to know whether such a man should have ever been appointed to a White House position. The blogs were completely ignored, until Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck took up the case and nightly aired segments about him. But it was not until he resigned that readers of the “paper of record,” the New York Times, ever heard one word about him. Clearly, liberal editors and reporters, knowing that conservatives were responsible for digging up the easily found data about Jones, thought it could be ignored. That decision further inflamed Fox’s viewers, whose protests and ruckus forced the administration to ditch him.
Had they done their job, the placing of Fox News alone as the only media outlet concerned about Jones might not have taken place. I think Bowden neglects the fact that regular reporters were not interested; nor were their editors. Indeed, they probably decided to not look into it when they found out where the sources about Jones came from. It was a decision that seriously hurt their own credibility. At that point, the Jones case became a battle between Fox News and MSNBC; i.e., Beck and Hannity versus Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow. We were at the point described by Bowden in his article.
A similar thing took place with ACORN. As we now know, the recent actions to defund them by Congress and for the IRS and Census Bureau to break their contracts with the group came after the independent videos made by the now famous duo of Hannah Giles and James O’Keefe were put up at Andrew Breitbart’s Big Government website. After the Fox News regulars aired them repeatedly, they became major news — and eventually, one knew it was over for ACORN once Jon Stewart and Jay Leno both ran biting sequences ridiculing the community organizing activist group.
How one feels about this depends on what network one watches. If you watched Rachel Maddow Thursday night, she ran a lengthy sequence defending ACORN as a victim of a fierce right-wing conspiracy out to destroy them. If you regularly watch Beck or Hannity, you can easily find scores of times they ran the videos and ran features condemning the group. It’s practically every night. As they see it, the group gets federal funds to carry out illegal voter registration meant to increase the Democratic rolls from registering the poor. They concentrate on that element alone, and on the irresponsible action of the ACORN employees caught on the videos. They do not go into the more complex charges made by others — of such things as ACORN’s possible illegal lobbying (discussed here), its supposed shell-game with money (discussed here), and its shakedown of banks and its contribution to the mortgage crisis (discussed by Sol Stern here).
It’s, as Bowden says, charge and counter-charge — ACORN is either a blameless, innocent victim of a right-wing that does not care about the issue of income inequality or a vicious and corrupt group that stops at nothing to manipulate the poor on behalf of its own radical agenda. There is no in-between. It’s Fox News vs. MSNBC; one is right, the other wrong.
How does one sort out the truth? Clearly, the charges made by Republican senators in reports and by defenders of ACORN like Peter Dreier have to be examined closely and carefully. Is there any truth to the charges either side makes? If one listens simply to the TV talking heads, no one will know what is true or what is false. You watch the side you already agree with, and take the argument of those who you listen to in order to reinforce the opinion you already have. Right now ACORN is on the defensive, and if it loses as seems to be the case, no one will care about further examination of the facts.
So what do journalists do? One fair comment comes from the liberal journalist Wendy Kaminer, writing at The Atlantic website. Partisans, she writes, say that “your political enemies engage in criminal or morally repugnant acts; your allies, friends, and relations make mistakes or bend the rules for the greater good.” One might expect Kaminer to do the usual — defend ACORN uncritically. Instead (and I suspect being on the magazine’s staff, she read Bowden’s article), she boldly states:
“Activists, advocacy groups, politicians, and pundits, left and right, display equivalent moral hypocrisy when rationalizing illegal or unethical conduct by some of their own. It’s the hypocrisy bred by the self-righteousness of people convinced that they’re on the side of the angels, that their commitment to the right cause makes them incapable of doing wrong. It’s the hypocrisy that led the ACLU national board to trivialize, misrepresent, or conceal serious misconduct by its staff and lay leaders. … It’s the hypocrisy that has consistently characterized the “progressive” response to recent and still unfolding ACORN scandals. By ignoring, minimizing, or rationalizing grossly unethical and even criminal conduct, ACORN’s left-wing friends have harmed it more than its right wing enemies ever could.
With chapter and verse, Kaminer continues to plow “the depth of ACORN’s dishonesty and dysfunction.” That includes, she writes, that “ACORN’s leadership seemed to persist in concealing misconduct instead of acknowledging and correcting it.” They have done this repeatedly in the past, Kaminer says, and today its apologists continue to trivialize its offenses. Like any other interest group with dishonest leadership, she concludes, it is interested in rationalizing and explaining away its possibly criminal and evil acts, because its leaders think it is done for the purpose of serving the poor and the “progressive” community. Will people on the left, to which Kaminer is sympathetic, listen to her? Or will they consign her also to being part of the vast right-wing conspiracy?
So is there any media source one can listen to on TV that is not part of the either-or mindset? Fortunately, if you get up early, there is Joe Scarborough on Morning Joe each day 6-9 am East Coast Time. He and his guests of different persuasions discuss things rationally, without screaming at each other, and in a mature and serious way. They have the kind of conversations you would have yourself with friends, probing those you disagree with and trying to reach them with arguments. It doesn’t always succeed, but it is a refreshing change to watch after spending an evening with Beck, O’Reilly, Hannity or Olbermann and Maddow — or a radio interlude with Rush Limbaugh. I wonder if Mark Bowden agrees?