What? Journalists Lie?

OReilly-Williams

As you’ve no doubt heard, NBC news anchor Brian Williams has been suspended for stretching the truth about his coverage of Iraq. Which just goes to prove that them librul journalists are all nothing but a pack of liars. (NBC is librul, of course; every network is assumed librul unless it proves otherwise by bashing Obama to a sufficient degree, and then it can be safely classified as fair and balanced.) And in the frenzy over that revelation, it has surfaced that Fox’s Bill O’Reilly is also guilty of padding his resume several times. Which just goes to show that them libruls have no compunctions about maliciously spreading the truth if it helps their cause.

And although it hasn’t received nearly as much attention, it happens that at least one more Foxer has been tipping the liar meter quite a bit for self-promotion: one Emily Miller has built a career out of an anecdote about a terrifying home invasion she supposedly experienced, but actually didn’t. Which just goes to show that them librulz… well, something or other. In any case, it’s all left a lot of people wondering to what extent journalists can be trusted, anyway.

If I absolutely had to answer that difficult question, I’d probably say something to the effect that I believe most journalists are trustworthy most of the time — and I say this having had a bit of experience as a journalist myself. Nonetheless, I know that inaccurate information does get reported; it’s just not easy to know exactly how often, even in this Age Of Google.

I’ve also been on the receiving end, having been written about in a fair number of media stories. And while the information reported in those stories was about 98 percent accurate, virtually every story contained at least one error — even when the writer had actually interviewed me. Usually, they were minor details that almost nobody but me would know about. And they were honest mistakes, generally the result of connecting dots that had no business being connected. Still, it makes you wonder how frequently the same sort of thing happens to reporters facing a blazing hot deadline to cover breaking news events.

But the fuss isn’t really about mistakes committed because journalists are human. It’s about deliberate misrepresentations such as those committed by Williams and O’Reilly. And with some frequency or other, they do indeed occur.

In 1981, Janet Cooke was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for a story she wrote for the Washington Post about an 8-year-old heroin addict named Jimmy. But she was stripped of her prize when the story turned out be just that. Jimmy was a figment of her imagination. Perhaps she felt justified with the fabrication because Jimmy represented certain genuine cases. But further investigation revealed that she’d also fabricated part of her own credentials and experience.

Many years ago when I was living in San Francisco, a respected dance critic was fired after writing a review of a performance he apparently didn’t attend. Had he done this kind of thing before? Quite possibly. This time he was caught only because he criticized a couple of dancers who, as it turns out, had been replaced at the last minute. Oops.

Ironically, this critic wrote for the S.F. Chronicle, which shortly thereafter was acquired by the Hearst Corporation. That’s Hearst as in William Randolph, who set an astoundingly high bar for journalistic disintegrity.  Although his reputed quote to the effect that “you furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war” is possibly apocryphal, it does give a good indication of his actual attitude, influence and modus operandi. Whether he uttered the statement or not, his propaganda did, to an extent, “furnish” action in the Spanish-American War.

In 1941, cinematic wunderkind Orson Welles produced, co-wrote, directed and starred in Citizen Kane, which many critics regard as the greatest movie of all time. But since the story appears to have been loosely based on the life of William Randolph Hearst, the newspaper baron did not take kindly to it, and barred the film from being so much as mentioned in his media properties. He also had his journalists repeatedly libel Welles, and he lobbied the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to avoid bestowing honors on the film. Not only did the “Greatest Film Of All Time” fail to win the Oscar for best picture, but Welles was even booed whenever his name was mentioned during the ceremony that year.

Hearst also waged a sensationalized crusade against marijuana, as did much of the media in his time — though the popular notion that it was fueled by a desire to eliminate hemp as a cheaper alternative to paper is highly dubious. Still, he was definitely a titan of yellow journalism and a highly vindictive practitioner of smear tactics. He was, in short, the Rupert Murdoch of his day.

Speaking of whom, it’s a sign of the times that there is so much focus being directed on the efforts of talking heads to swell their heads even bigger, and so little focus on the more pervasive falsehoods that potentially have much more impact on us all. By all indications, Fox lies far more often than any other network — which is hardly surprising, since Fox is only marginally a news network, and it’s questionable whether its personalities can even be classified as journalists. Politifact has found in recent cursory evaluations that Fox lied, at least in part, about 60 percent of the time. Another estimate has the network lying more than 80 percent of the time. (And bear in mind that its few truthful utterances include those that depart from its normal ideology.)

Jon Stewart (what a void he is going to leave) responded to Fox’s pot-and-kettle accusations that he had been lying by challenging them to a “lie-off”, and producing a clip of 50 Fox lies in 6 seconds. Of course the 50 lies had been gleaned from a much longer time span than 6 seconds; but as you may recall, I previously found 8 lies in a real-time Fox clip of just under two minutes. And it was a clip chosen essentially at random.

Stewart also bemoans the tortuous pretzels that the official story often gets twisted into in order to accommodate extreme right-wing dogma:

Fifteen states have approved Voter ID laws in the absence of any meaningful evidence of voter fraud. An Oklahoma state committee voted to ban AP history for not sugar coating slavery enough. Abstinence is approved sex education. Scientific fact isn’t reported now. It’s debated.

Actually, it’s even worse than Stewart indicates. We’ve reached the point that virtually any fact is considered negotiable; many people seem to have the attitude that evolution and global warming will just disappear if we have strong enough opinions about them. You’ve probably heard a lot about the “debate” over global warming and the “debate” over vaccines. In reality, there is no debate on either subject. There are only arrogant and gullible individuals who are convinced they know more than the experts. And in order to reinforce that belief, they are quite willing to latch onto whatever falsehoods the hucksters toss their way.

So let’s see now. We get a whole lot of media focus on Brian Williams. Much less on Bill O’Reilly. Less still on Emily Miller. And (aside from media watchdog sites on the left) damn little about Fox’s relentless dishonesty. Could it be that there is more attention paid to “liberal” dishonesty and considerably less to “conservative” dishonesty. Nah, can’t be. We all know that there’s an overwhelming librul bias to the media, right? So what’s the alternative? That the more trivial a lie is, the brighter the spotlight on it?

In light of the persistent and consistent record of Fox mendacity, it might seem a bit trifling to make such an opera out of a couple of TV personalities fibbing to boost their credentials. But they do say that sunshine is the best disinfectant; and maybe, just maybe, airing out the relatively petty transgressions of Brian Williams and Bill O’Reilly will lead to some level of accountability for Fox. But my advice, for what it’s worth, is not to suspend all respiration until it happens.

Advertisements

Playing Ostrich on Race

Ferguson protest

Whenever an unarmed black teen gets shot by a white guy — which seems to be becoming a trend these days –you can count on two things happening. First, there is an outrage among the public. Second, there is a campaign by many in the media, and other right-wing extremists, to gloss over the incident and the public reaction. It’s really no big deal, they try to tell you. Get upset over something else instead, they say. We saw this with the killing of Trayvon Martin. And more recently, we’ve been seeing it with the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.

Fox “News” and company have gone into hyperdrive declaring how sick and tired they are of all the media coverage of protests in Ferguson even as they offer endless coverage of Ferguson, and how the real racists are the ones who talk about racism even as they go on and on about racism.  Fox bit off more than it could chew in one priceless unscripted segment in which Steve Harrigan was, in the condescending words of a colleague,

trying to explain the reality of what is happening now — that in the middle of the night, a bunch of people are out for show.

When Harrigan patronizingly referred to the protests as “child’s play”, he was overheard by an angry participant who confronted him and schooled him in very blunt terms — asking him, among other things, “Who’s the child playing with toys? Us or them?”

Fox, of course, is not designed primarily as a news organization, but as the voice of the “conservative movement” (one of my favorite oxymorons) which likes to play ostrich with racial tensions. Republicans sometimes bill themselves as “the party of Lincoln”, forgetting (if they ever knew in the first place) that the party has undergone a radical makeover in more recent decades, and Abe wouldn’t recognize anything about it except the name. The GOP — and Fox — often trot out the scant handful of African-Americans in their midst and pretend that they are a much larger contingent than they really are, and that everything is just peachy keen.

But anyone who’s attended a Republican convention can vouch for the scarcity of dark faces among the delegates, though there might be plenty of them in the service staff — for whom black delegates are often mistaken.  I recall reading about one African-American attendee of a state GOP gathering in recent years who, though he was wearing a badge that clearly identified him, was asked to carry bags or call a taxi six times. But if you shine a light on this lack of ethnic diversity, then wingers, rather than trying to address it, are likely to upbraid you for “playing the race card”.

The trigger-happy cop in Ferguson didn’t even give Michael Brown a chance to carry his bags. What he did was shoot an unarmed teenager — not once, but SIX TIMES, who according to witnesses, was holding up his hands and moving away from the officer. The friend who was with Brown reports that when the cop drove up he yelled at them to “get the fuck on the sidewalk”.  One witness says that he then started driving away, but abruptly reversed his vehicle, after which the confrontation started. After Brown was gunned down, his body was allowed to lie in the street for FOUR HOURS.

Now suppose you didn’t know anything about the color of the parties involved, or you knew that everyone was the same race. Wouldn’t you find it alarming that law enforcement personnel could conduct themselves in this manner? Hell, there are lots of Libertarianoids out there who seem to be on a fulltime campaign to convince people that police in general are jack-booted Storm Trooper thugs; they scout out and publicize every little instance of alleged police misconduct they hear about, and tout it as representative of police activity in general and proof that all police forces should be totally emasculated. And yet they’ve been rather behind the curve when it comes to outrage over the death of Michael Brown. Why? (It isn’t true, as some have suggested, that Libertarians have been totally silent on the matter; but they haven’t been nearly as vocal as one might expect given their obsession with all things constabulary.)

The really extreme right-wingers, however, certainly have not ignored the incident. Instead, they’ve done their best to convince you that there’s really nothing to see here, so move on. And that includes trying to convince you that the dead kid “got everything he deserved”, in the words of pundit Pat Dollard. As phrased by an article in AlterNet (“4 worst Right-Wing Reactions to Michael Brown’s Killing and the Ferguson Protests”),

Conservative media has never met a young black man it couldn’t retroactively [i.e., posthumously] enlist into the shadowy urban gangs of its fevered imagination.

The campaign to smear Michael Brown is virtually a carbon copy of the campaign to smear Trayvon Martin. They’ve claimed he had a criminal record. Not true. They’ve claimed he had a gang affiliation. Not true. they’ve claimed he had marijuana in his system. Possibly true, but irrelevant. They’ve circulated photos of another, more menacing-looking individual, and falsely identified them as Brown. They’ve claimed that he broke the eye socket of the policeman who killed him. Not true. They’ve circulated still frames taken from a surveillance video which they claim depicts Brown robbing a convenience store earlier that day. But the video does not prove any such thing. It shows a young man fitting Brown’s description bringing merchandise to the counter, having a discussion with the clerk, then leaving — pushing the clerk, who has come out and gotten into an altercation with him. In any case, the officer who shot him did not stop him because he was suspected of robbery; his crime that cost him his life was walking in the street.

Yet pretend that all of the rumors about Brown are true. Say that he really was as monstrous as the wingers would have you believe, and then some. Even so, is it justified to shoot him six times when he’s unarmed? Would anyone ever say that a white teen, because he lived a less than exemplary life (like most teenagers) deserved to be pumped full of lead? Would people say (as some have of Brown) that slaughtering a white teen amounts to “taking out the trash”?  It wasn’t very long ago, lest we forget, that many of these people were manufacturing all the outrage they could muster because the Obama administration gunned down Osama bin Laden. So now they high-five over the same thing happening to an unarmed American kid who apparently never hurt anyone?

“Conservatives” loudly insist that race is not a factor in slayings of this type, yet they undermine their own narrative by trying to justify the perception of the victims as suspicious characters on the basis of their appearance. Fox’s Geraldo Rivera speculated that “the hoodie is as much responsible for Trayvon Martin’s death as [the killer] was”. The rumors of Michael Brown being a gangster have been bolstered by the fact that he sometimes wore red clothing. And LiberalLogic 101, a site that purports to expose flaws in “liberal” reasoning but only exposes its own utter lack of reasoning skills (we mentioned it previously in the post on straw men), suggested that judging someone for wearing a hoodie or a red shirt is no worse than judging someone for wearing a Klan robe. Such is the “conservative” logic behind LiberalLogic 101. And if you really think like this, you have your head stuck in something worse than sand.

Incidentally, the folks at LiberalLogic 101 also recently ran a cartoon depicting President Obama saying, “My position on beheadings is that I be heading to the golf course”. Coincidentally, researches in one study found that they were able to manipulate the favorability/ unfavorability with which many participants viewed Obama by subtly altering the skin tone in his photograph.

Such individuals have a habit of treating each shooting of this sort as an isolated incident, wrenched free of social context, But as many people, including the author of the AlterNet article have pointed out, the killing of Michael Brown did not occur in a vacuum. Jon Stewart, spot on as usual, goes into a bit of detail about what a vacuum it didn’t occur in.

Forget that in Ferguson, 94 percent of the police are white, and 63 percent of the people are black. Forget that 92 percent of police searches and 86 percent of car stops are for black people.

He goes on to present an account of an incident in which 4 Ferguson police officers beat a 52-year-old man and then cited him for defiling government property by staining their uniforms with his blood. Indeed, the Ferguson P.D. has an apparent history of heavy-handed behavior. Its strained relations with residents, particularly with those of the African-American persuasion, was a time bomb waiting to detonate. And it has.

Stewart also hands Sean Hannity his testicles on a platter for the umpeenth time (not a particularly difficult feat to pull off) and punctures another popular right-wing talking point: that the attention focused on an event like Ferguson or the death of Trayvon Martin is way out of proportion to the attention given to the killings of black citizens that occur in some cities on a daily basis. In the words of one clueless Foxster:

If I were African-American, I would be outraged that more journalists aren’t covering what’s happening in Chicago, and more outraged that people like Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson don’t head to those areas.

Which is an amazingly brainless comment for at least three reasons. First, as Stewart facetiously asks, “Why all the interest in holding police officers to a higher standard than gangs?” And second, it’s not an either/ or proposition; and as it turns out, those African-American leaders whom the wingers so often upbraid for not addressing gang violence have been very involved in, um, addressing gang violence. Third, there are good reasons for the discrepancy in media coverage: see Trayvon Martin and the “Double Standard “Standard, Part 1 and Part 2.

Okay, we’re being hard on right-wingers here, but there’s a simple explanation: they’ve earned it.  Yet observers on both the left and the right tend to cloud the issue by conflating racism with racial bias. Racism is blatant and deliberate, and as such is readily noted. But racial bias is more subtle and unconscious, and therefore does a lot of damage under the radar.

Racism suggests that the Ferguson cop killed Michael Brown because he was black. That’s probably not true — although it doesn’t speak well for him that the KKK and other racists are rushing to his defense. What’s much more likely, however, is that Brown’s ethnicity contributed significantly to his being a “suspicious character” in the first place. No matter how you slice it, it’s quite possible, if not probable, that if he had been white, he’d still be alive. Compare what happened to him to what happened when a white man walked down the street brandishing a gun, threatening and insulting police and daring them to shoot him. And what did the police do? They negotiated with him for 40 minutes, pleading with him to put down the gun, and all but invited him home for tea.

The killers of both Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown have, thus far, walked free. Compare this to John McNeil, a black man who is serving a life sentence for fatally shooting a white man (who was not a teen) who was armed and threatening on McNeil’s own property. Once again, let me quote Jon Stewart (Don’t you get tired of having to get the facts about current events from comedians?) because he puts it so memorably:

I guarantee you that every person of color has faced an indignity — from the ridiculous to the grotesque to the sometimes fatal — at some point in their,,, I’m going to say last couple of hours. [to the Foxsters] You’re tired of hearing about it?? Imagine how fucking exhausting it is to live it.

As he mentions, this blatant racial profiling occurs even in the “liberal bastion” of New York City.  Indeed, it’s everywhere. Research indicates that people with darker complexions are more likely to be considered untrustworthy or suspicious, and are more likely to be convicted of crime when accused. This bias is often present even among African-Americans themselves. It’s not a simple problem, but it’s a very real, and sometimes deadly problem. And I don’t know what the solution is — although I suspect that an increased awareness would go a long way toward a remedy. Whatever the solution, I’m pretty sure it doesn’t involve playing ostrich.

Shooting the Messenger: More on Stewart/ PolitiFact/ Fox

One of the occupational hazards of telling people what they don’t want to hear is that it invites attacks. Particularly if you’re telling them that certain beliefs they cherish, and perhaps have cherished for years, are erroneous. I’ve already fielded a few attacks on this rather young and mild-mannered blog. So as you can imagine, a public figure like Jon Stewart is going to receive his share of harsh backlash. And when he dared criticize fairandbalanced Fox “News”, it’s not surprising that there were people out there who wanted to question his credibility. It’s worth taking a look at some of the techniques they used, since this is by no means the only time you’ll ever see them.

The Singular Standard

For one thing, some of his critics seem to have forgotten that Stewart is a humorist, and instead treated him like a journalist. Which is to say that rather than looking at his larger point that Fox “consistently” misleads viewers, they focused on whether his claim that this is reflected in “every poll” on “every issue” is literally accurate. Perhaps this is because they were under the mistaken impression he was speaking on a bona fide news program, rather than as a guest on Fox, where anything goes. In any case, fair enough, I guess. After all, Stewart, though he (to the best of my knowledge) has never painted himself as a journalist,  is considerably more accurate than many who do. And if you think I’m nodding in particular toward the TV network he was commenting on, you must be psychic.

Bait and Switch

Trouble is, PolitiFact’s criticism didn’t exactly address the same thing that Stewart’s remark did. Stewart said Fox’s viewers were the most MISINFORMED. Politifact cited polls to establish that they are not necessarily the most UNINFORMED (or “ill-informed”, which they were using in the same sense).  Two different things. Uninformed is not knowing things that are true. Misinformed is “knowing” things that are not true. Fox may correctly tell its viewers that Lincoln is the capital of Nebraska, but it also tells them (far more often) that global warming is a liberal hoax, and scientists can’t be trusted. An uninformed/ ill-informed person might not know who the president of the United States is. A misinformed person may know, but also may believe he’s a socialist/Nazi/Muslim/satanist.

Selective Reading

In addition to a misreading of the word “misinformed” there was a selective reading of the word “every”, which can be interpreted in at least a couple of different ways. I call them the comprehensive (Every state has its own flag.) and the cumulative (Every time I forget my umbrella, it rains.).  In other words, “every” may mean either “all” or “each”. Did Stewart mean all polls on all possible issues? Not bloody likely, since he surely realizes that it would be virtually impossible to devise a poll covering every possible issue – and if you did it would be so damn lengthy no one would sit still to answer it. Most likely, he meant that each poll conducted reveals Fox viewers to be among the most misinformed on each topic covered. But some, apparently having intimate knowledge of the inner workings of his psyche, insist that not only did he mean the first sense, but he was deliberately misrepresenting the facts; in other words HE was the one lying! It’s somewhat like saying, “Every skunk I smell causes me to throw up”, and then me saying, “Liar! You haven’t even smelled every skunk.”

Sleight of Hand

As you well might expect, another ploy has been to question the credibility of the polls themselves. Well hey, that’s not such a bad idea. Sometimes polls are untrustworthy because of faulty methodology or deliberate bias or both. But this becomes considerably less likely when a number of polls stack up in the same direction. One critic of Stewart found one poll particularly questionable because it gauged Fox viewers’ misinformation on the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. But, notes this commentator, Iraq did possess such weapons once upon a time, and furthermore, they still had some just before the U.S. invasion. (How do we know this? Because he says so!)

It turns out, however, that the poll he references actually asked whether WMD’s were FOUND in Iraq AFTER the U.S. invasion. The correct answer, I suppose, is that it depends on what the definition of “is” is.  I suppose that if the Iraq Survey Group had found thousands of skeletons in body armor, Fox could have argued that they constituted a mighty army. What they found was nothing that qualified as an active WMD, nor as evidence that a WMD program was still in place. They only found impotent remnants of chemical weapons that had been stashed for a decade or so, and which the ISG and the CIA determined were of no military value. But Fox, of course, knows better, and so do its viewers.  Just as they do on numerous other issues, including some covered in that very same poll.

Red Herrings and Straw Men and Tangents, Oh My

Oh yes, and there was even the suggestion that Fox shouldn’t be given credit for the lies it relentlessly promotes if someone on its payroll didn’t actually originate them. C’mon, do I really need to comment on that??? True, Fox didn’t invent the Death Panel rumor. Nor, for that matter, did one of Fox’s specific components, one Sarah Palin. That honor apparently belongs to Betsy McGaughey, a former director for (Surprise!) medical supply corporations. But she only said it a few times, and how many people have even heard of Betsy McGaughey? Fox has repeated it dozens if not hundreds of times, and how many people are familiar with Fox?

This is probably not an exhaustive list of the smear tactics used against Stewart, mind you. It’s just a suggestion of a few things to look for as you hear this thing they call a debate.

Stewart Responds to PoltiFact Responding to Stewart Responding to Fox

Throughout history, the humorist has been to some degree revered in virtually every culture, and rightly so.  Humor is a way of seeing reality with its masks stripped away, and it’s safe to say that Mark Twain is quoted far more often than Immanuel Kant. Court jesters were prized by their employers not only because they provided diversion from the tedium of attending royal feasts and ordering beheadings, but also because their foolery frequently contained valuable insight and implicit sage advice, often expressed more bluntly than anyone else dared.

In the contemporary era, there are few humorists more astute and audacious (and therefore more hilarious) than Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart. They speak boldly and hilariously not only to political power but to media power. But I repeat myself.

Recently, Stewart was a guest on Fox “News” and pointed out that Fox’s viewers are the most misinformed segment of the American population. Host Chris Wallace naturally  protested. And he received some backup from a rather unlikely source: the nonpartisan fact-checking organization PolitiFact. They said Stewart was wrong, because Fox viewers rate supremely ignorant only in some studies, while in others they’re just somewhere near the bottom – which even if perfectly accurate doesn’t negate the observation that they’re the most misinformed overall.

Stewart responds as only Stewart can. Feigning humble ignorance he “apologizes” for his mistake, then casually points out some of the lies Fox has spread. And then some more, and then some more until he is visually buried under a mountain of them. But bear in mind that by no means is he listing ALL of Fox’s recent lies; he’s just enumerating SOME that PolitiFact itself has pointed out. These include two lies PolitiFact awarded its Lie Of The Year honor in 2009 and 2010 (“death panels” and “government takeover of healthcare” respectively). In other words, in order to challenge Stewart, PolitiFact had to challenge itself. Utterly surreal.

When the foremost propaganda arm of a major political party successfully masquerades as a news organization; when in fact that propaganda arm is the most popular among “news” networks in the country; when even nonpartisan watchdog groups can’t be relied on anymore, there’s only one thing to say.

Thank heavens for the comedians.

(See the sequel to this piece for the response to some of the silly reactions to it.)