The Swiftboating of CNN: “Working the Refs”




He’s at it again. Apparently immune to self-humiliation, a certain self-described “citizen journalist” with a long history of producing dishonest and deceptively edited videos has released another one. His previous efforts have gotten him arrested, sued, forced to pay $100,000, and repeatedly debunked and proclaimed a sham even by (some of) his fellow right-wing fanatics. But he still gets plenty of media exposure for being a fraudulent hack, so he still keeps doing it.  And this time he has a target that his fans are particularly eager to pounce on: CNN.

It’s astounding, and slightly amusing in a perverse way, to hear how often people peg CNN as a staunchly “liberal” network, whatever that means. Mention to one of your right-wing friends or relatives what a cesspool Fox “News” is, and chances are the Pavlovian response will be something like “Oh yeah? Well what about CNN?” During the recent presidential campaign it was common for reactionaries to refer to it as the Clinton News Network. And the current White House Occupant himself, who simply parrots brainlessly whatever he hears from the loony fringe media, has declared the network to be “fake news” and barred it from media conferences.

All of which is supremely ironic; CNN is also a frequent target of criticism by Media Matters, which is devoted to exposing “conservative misinformation”.  In fact, almost every day, Media Matters documents at least one instance of right-wing bias at CNN — evidently the highest frequency of any non-Fox media source. Furthermore, CNN has hired two of the White House Occupant’s lackeys as commentators. And lest we forget, it gave us a decade or so of Lou Dobbs, who, while nominally a centrist, railed against President Obama in a manner reminiscent of Father Coughlin railing against FDR, and now has found a home at Fox. CNN also has offered a frequent platform to the likes of George Will, Robert Novak, Charles Krauthammer, William Bennett, Jonah Goldberg, Tucker Carlson, and even Pat Robertson and Ann Coulter.

Of course, the network also has its instances of left-wing bias. But that’s just the point. Whatever its shortcomings may be as a journalistic source (and it does indeed have some) it’s rather balanced ideologically.  The Pew Research Center ranked it slightly left of center based on the ideology of the average viewer:

Network bias

And bear in mind that such a criterion as viewership probably makes CNN seem more left-leaning that it really is, since progressive (“liberal”) viewers face more limited options — as witness the domination of the media landscape by a rabid Fox,  which sends other networks scrambling to match its strides.

So why would the right-wing punditocracy single out such a relatively middle-of-the-road network to externally brand as the flagship of the legendary (and largely mythical) librulmedia? Simple: precisely because it is relatively middle-of-the-road. Establishing CNN as a benchmark for “liberal bias” by playing up its leftward tilts and ignoring its rightward tilts, the manipulators hope to utterly discredit anything even slightly left of center.

Immediately after the fraudulent anti-CNN video was released, White House spokesbot Sarah Huckabee Sanders declared that any media criticizing her president is “fake news” and in almost the same breath urged everyone to watch the video, “whether it’s accurate or not”. The head can’t stop reeling from the bombardment of irony these days.

Meanwhile, the White House exploited the video in a fundraising letter (Fundraising?? Wasn’t the point of electing a pampered billionaire so the president wouldn’t be so dependent on the public’s money?), citing it as proof that CNN is “pushing phony news stories to boost their ratings, rile up their (wait for it) rabid liberal base, and take us down”.

It’s a tactic that Eric Alterman describes nicely in his book What Liberal Media?, which is well summed up in a column at The Nation. (It is Alterman, by the way, from whom I have borrowed the strikingly appropriate term punditocracy.) He quotes then-chair of the GOP Rich Bond:

If you watch any great coach, what they try to do is ‘work the refs.’ Maybe the ref will cut you a little slack on the next one.

Right-wingers have carried this strategy to outrageous extremes. They howl about the “liberal bias” of the media any time there is a news report that does not reinforce their narratives and beliefs. It’s all part of a strategy to work the refs, shift the goalposts and tilt the playing field. And it’s paying off handsomely.

The ultimate objectives in crying wolf over the librulmedia are twofold: first, to bully media outlets into being even more right-leaning than they already are, and second, to have mainstream news outlets branded as radically leftist in the mind of the public; and by comparison, then, an unhinged right-wing outlet like Fox will be perceived as … well, fair and balanced.  And we’ve already traveled very far down that Orwellian road.



Snope It Out!

As mentioned previously, wacky rumors are still circulated on the Internet quite frequently these days – perhaps more often than ever. Which is really bewildering since it is easier than ever to discredit them, thanks to a number of online resources, some dedicated especially to deflating myths. One of the best is They do a thorough, prompt and even-handed job of examining myths, urban legends and rumors, and they do so without partisanship – therefore, not surprisingly, they’re often accused of “liberal bias”. (In fact, the site was founded by a Canadian citizen and a registered Republican.)

Snopes doesn’t just cover political rumors, though, but rumors in 41 categories. So if you read it in a forward, chances are you can see it debunked there. I can’t guarantee that the site is infallible, but I’ve never known it to err yet. At the very least, it’s an excellent place to start.

Since it was an Obama rumor that sparked this whole discussion, it’s worth noting what his coverage on Snopes indicates about the intense campaign of hatred and rumor mongering that has been waged against the current president. It’s especially illuminating to compare his “Snopes index” with that of his predecessor.

George W. Bush governed with an arrogant “my way or the highway”, “you’re with ME or with THEM” stance that is guaranteed to make some enemies. (It was the kind of chest-thumping insolent insularity that has dominated his party as a whole for the past 30 years or so- but ratcheted up a notch or two.) Even though in the 2000 election he lost (at the very least) the popular vote, he admonished congressional Democrats to get aboard his agenda or “be left behind”. After the 2004 election, which itself was rather close, he boasted, “I earned political capital, and I intend to spend it”. (He was referring to both elections, incidentally.) The media spun this hubris as “strong leadership”; and the ever-entertaining National Review, while jumping on that bandwagon, also suggested that perhaps his greatest asset was his modesty. Seriously.

Naturally, this kind of polarizing figure is going to inspire some rumors. Accordingly, after his 8 years in office, Snopes has listed 46 Bush rumors, 20 of which are true and 17 false. (Nine of them are partly true, doubtful, or undetermined.) We should acknowledge that not all of these rumors are negative; one includes the claim that Bush’s house is more ecologically friendly than Al Gore’s. (This is true as far as it goes, but there are additional facts you might want to consider before circulating it – particularly if your aim is to peg Gore as a “hypocrite”.) The vast majority of the rumors, however, are considerably less complimentary.

Now consider Barack Obama, who’s spent less than 3 years in office. Unlike Bush, he’s been quite willing to compromise and work with the opposition -just compare the boldness of the original healthcare bill with the emasculated version that barely survived. (To the spinmeisters this makes him, simultaneously, a pussy and a tyrant.) His Snopes total so far is 103 rumors – more than double that of Bush in less than half the time.  Of these, only 12 are true (11% compared to 43% for Bush) and 69 false (67% compared to 37% for Bush). The number of decidedly false rumors circulated about Obama considerably exceeds the total number of rumors circulated about Bush. All of which solidly underscores the conclusion that the vendetta against Obama is based on something besides his actual performance on the job.

But the purpose here is not to defend or denounce any particular politician. The purpose is to remind you that sooner rather than later, you will be forwarded some breathtaking allegation about Obama. Or Bush. Or Hillary Clinton. Or Jane Fonda. Or somebody. And you may be so outraged that you’re tempted to pass it on, particularly if it reinforces beliefs you already hold. But you might want to pause and snope it out first. It just might prevent you from making a fool of yourself.


NOTE: (Added 11/4/11) Some Internet rumors include the claim that the information has been “verified by Snopes” when it hasn’t. In some such cases, Snopes has even discredited it. There’s no substitute for checking it out yourself.

25 Things You’re Supposed to Believe (Because You’re Just Supposed to Believe, So Shut Up and Don’t Ask Questions)


1. The U.S. is in every way vastly superior to every other nation on earth. And we’re God’s favorite.

2. Everyone deserves his or her financial status, whether rich or poor. If you work hard enough, you’ll be successful, and if you’re poor, you’re just lazy. The only rich people who are just lucky are Hollywood celebrities, who are pampered airheads totally out of touch with the real world. (Except for Chuck Norris.)

3. Giving a pittance in handouts to the poor encourages dependency and is a major burden to taxpayers; giving billions in handouts to the rich encourages industriousness and is good for the economy. If we take care of the rich first, it will trickle down to everyone else.

4. The Confederacy was a noble cause, and the Civil War was inevitable. It was really about states’ rights rather than slavery.

5. The bombing of Japan was necessary to end the war, and it saved more lives than it destroyed.

6. The Democratic Party is the party of tax and spend, and the Republican Party is the party of fiscal restraint.

7. Eating meat makes you strong and healthy.

8. Ronald Reagan won the cold war, and brought about the downfall of the Soviet Union.

9. The Founding Fathers were all Christian, and intended the U.S. to be a Christian nation.

10. Islam is a more violent religion than Christianity.

11. It’s impossible to have a moral compass without religion.

12. It’s easy to read and understand the Bible; the English translations we have are very accurate.

13. Trying to guarantee equality of economic opportunity is the same as trying to guarantee equality of economic achievement; and it’s socialist/ communist/ fascist/ whateverist.

14. Capital punishment deters crime.

15. Outlawing abortion is an effective way to prevent it.

16. Pro-choice is the same as pro-abortion.

17. The Second Amendment gives you the right to own a gun.

18. Firearm regulation (“gun control”) means trying to outlaw guns.

19. Evolution means that humans descended from apes; and it’s only a theory.

20. Secularism means suppression of religious freedom.

21. There is an “invisible hand” guiding the economy, and if we just leave it alone, everything will turn out fine on its own.

22. Regulation of business practices is an unwarranted interference in free enterprise, and is socialist/ communist./ fascist/ whateverist.

23. Sex education just gives kids ideas that they’d never be able to think of otherwise; what really works is to tell kids to just say no.

24. “Political correctness” is a totalitarian mindset that squashes free speech.

25. There is a “liberal” bias to American media.