“We Expect A Higher Standard From The Old Guard”: Brian Williams’ Lies Are Not Equal To Those Of Fox ‘News’
There’s this speech I give my students. Distilled, it goes like this.
“Your primary asset as a journalist is not your dogged curiosity, your talent for research or your ability to make prose sing on deadline. No, your one indispensable asset is your credibility. If you are not believable, nothing else matters.”
Which brings us, inevitably, to Brian Williams. The NBC Nightly News anchor saw his career crumple like used Kleenex last week after he repeated one time too many a story he has been telling for years: how a U.S. military helicopter on which he was a passenger was shot down over Iraq in 2003.
But the man who was flight engineer on that copter said on Facebook that Williams was never on it. Instead, he was on the one trailing it. Williams apologized for conflating the two, blaming the “fog” of memory.
The incident was remarkably similar to candidate Hillary Clinton’s false 2008 claim that she came under sniper fire as First Lady during a 1996 visit to Bosnia. As it turns out, an American dignitary was shot at in Bosnia — just not Clinton. Rather, it was then-Sen. Olympia Snowe, six months before.
Then, as now, one is tempted to ascribe the lapse to false memory, that phenomenon where you recall with clarity things that never happened. Then, as now, one is hampered by the sheer drama of the events in question. A person may honestly misremember eating at a certain restaurant or seeing a given movie. But you’d think you’d be pretty clear on whether or not somebody almost killed you.
So now, people are poring over old newscasts to determine whether this is an isolated incident. A statement by Williams of seeing bodies outside his hotel during Hurricane Katrina was initially mocked, but has been found on closer inspection to be more credible than first believed.
Fans of Fox “News,” at least to judge from my email queue, are having a ball with all this. I wrote a column a few weeks back blasting Fox for its habitual, ideology-driven inaccuracy. Attacking Fox is not for the faint of heart. Its viewers (like Rush Limbaugh’s listeners) tend to take it personally, responding with such a nasty, visceral outrage that a body might think you’d blasphemed their deity rather than criticized their news outlet. I savaged CNN in this space last year and while some folks took issue, no one called me a “bleephole” or invited me to “bleep” myself. With Fox fans, that’s the salutation.
So this latest news brings a flood of email crowing over Williams’ troubles and demanding I give him equal treatment.
As I wrote in the aforementioned column, serious people do not take Fox seriously. Indeed, consider the level of angst, the sense of expectations betrayed, that has attended Williams’ failure and ask yourself: Would there be a similar outpouring if someone at Fox had told this whopper?
Fox is what Fox is, but its distortions and mendacities are generally only mistaken for gospel by a stratum of the electorate already predisposed to its bizarre worldview. The rest of us like to think we can expect a higher standard from the old guard of the news media, meaning the likes of CBS, NBC and The New York Times. And usually we can.
But every time that belief is betrayed — meaning not garden variety errors of fact, but catastrophic failures of journalistic integrity — the damage is exponentially greater precisely because the level of trust is exponentially higher. Such failures feed the disaffection and cynicism of a politically polarized nation where the universally accepted fact is an endangered species.
It’s a state of affairs that makes it hard to run a country. Or to be one.
So people asking that I give Brian Williams equal treatment are missing the point. If, indeed, he lied, then his sins are not equal to Fox’s.
They are worse.
By: Leonard Pitts, Jr., Columnist for The Miami Herald; The National Memo, February 11, 2015
Back in October I stared at enough Ben Carson remarks to begin to grasp the man’s very unusual definition of “political correctness,” a term he uses constantly. To him, it basically means the practice of contradicting or mocking right-wing conspiracy theories in a way that “intimidates” people into no longer articulating them, which in turn suppresses political debate and thus makes America no longer America or something. So I wasn’t surprised when Carson went into full anti-PC mode after Wolf Blitzer (among others) called him on comparing the United States to Nazi Germany (per David at Crooks & Liars):
Possible Republican presidential candidate Dr. Ben Carson on Wednesday lashed out at CNN host Wolf Blitzer for “focusing on the words” that he used when he compared the United States to Nazi Germany.
Earlier this year, Carson had told the conservative news outlet Breitbart that the U.S. was “very much like Nazi Germany” because President Barack Obama was using the government to “intimidate the population.”
“What I heard the comparison of the United States of America — the greatest country in the world, the greatest country ever — to Nazi Germany, I said, what is he talking about?” Blitzer told Carson on Wednesday.
“See, what you were doing is allowing words to affect you more than listening to what was actually being said,” Carson insisted. “Nazi Germany experienced something horrible. The people in Nazi Germany largely did not believe in what Hitler was doing, but did they say anything? Of course not. They kept their mouths shut.”
“The fact that our government is using instruments of government like the IRS to punish its opponents, this is not the kind of thing, as far as I’m concerned, that is a Democrat or Republican issue. This is an American issue. This is an issue that threatens all of our liberty, all or our freedom.”
Blitzer, however, wasn’t satisfied: “But to make the comparison, Dr. Carson, to Nazi Germany, the slaughter of six million Jews by the Nazis, the devastation that erupted in Europe and around the world to the United States of America, I want you to reflect on what that means.”
“Well, again, you are just focusing on the words Nazi Germany and completely missing the point,” Carson replied. “And that’s the problem right now, that’s what PC-ism is all about: You may not say this word regardless of what your point is because if you say that word, you know, I go into a tizzy. We can do better than that.”
Read that through a couple of times and you get there’s no reasoning with people like Carson. Anyone who doesn’t accept his planted axiom that the IRS is being used as a political weapon by Obama (you know, through that well-known totalitarian tactic of slow-walking applications for a phony “social welfare” tax exemption designed to hide the identity of political donors) is smothering his argument with “political correctness.” Anyone hung up on the meaning of “words” like “Nazi” is undermining the sacred right to lie and make outrageous false analogies. Carson sees no obligation on his own part to be slightly more careful in his characterization of political opponents as akin to slave-drivers and Nazis. And so until people like him are, God forbid, fully in charge of America, any expression of dissent from his bizarre world-view is in fact oppressive, and any debate is the suppression of debate.
Yeah, the more I listen to him, the more it’s clear Dr. Ben Carson is the true and perhaps ultimate leader of the Post-Modern wing of the conservative movement, where “facts” are just an inconvenient artifice.
By: Ed Kilgore, Contributing Writer, Political Animal, The Washington Monthly, December 4, 2014
“Wanted; Less Terrible Political Coverage On TV”: An Increasingly Tiresome Model Of Political And Current Events Coverage
Jon Stewart is nothing if not America’s foremost cable news critic. On Sunday, he couldn’t help telling CNN what he thinks of them—and he did it on their network. “I want more of good CNN,” Stewart said. “CNN is very similar to the doll Chucky. Sometimes it’s good Chucky, but you really got to watch out for bad Chucky.”
It’s not just CNN. Much of what passes for political coverage these days is (to borrow a phrase) “bad Chucky.” What Stewart admires are the “brave correspondents” who cover things like the Arab Spring. What he doesn’t like, though—the breathless and feigned “BREAKING NEWS” time fillers and pearl clutching—is what cable news relies on the majority of the time spent between revolutions and natural disasters. It’s an increasingly tiresome model of political and current events coverage.
Aside from Fox News (as evidenced by the ratings), MSNBC’s Morning Joe (as evidenced by its status as a tastemaker), and comedy shows like the Daily Show and Last Week Tonight with John Oliver and HBO’s Real Time (by virtue of their place in the cultural zeitgeist), politics on TV doesn’t seem to be as good anymore. Maybe it’s just me. Then again, cable news ratings are down more or less across the board, and Americans find much of the media untrustworthy.
There are other exceptions, no doubt. But whether it’s cable news or the Sunday morning talk shows, something just doesn’t seem right. One gets the sense that they’re flailing, that the world has changed, but they haven’t. That they’re trying to figure out how to make it work, but so far it’s not coming together.
And I think it’s worth noting that among the shows that I believe to be “working” include several examples that are, ostensibly, comedy. And that makes me wonder if maybe the networks and shows might not want to look to them for guidance? And, of course, they already are: Jon Stewart was seriously considered as host for Meet The Press, a move that would have either changed the whole damn paradigm—or failed spectacularly. But the larger question lingers: Why do these shows work, while much of what passes for straight political commentary and analysis (not to be confused with straight news) seem so stale?
A theory: As our political system—not to mention our coverage of it—becomes more absurd, there’s a natural yearning to point out that absurdity in a way a show like Meet the Press is not equipped to handle. MTP and shows like it are all about how serious this is. These are senators, don’t ya know—statesmen. It’s like the whole format is left over from the Washington that existed in an Allen Drury novel, a time before the message was controlled and you rose in the ranks on your ability to avoid gaffes and raise cash.
Our politics—our culture at large, really—now disincentivizes loose informality when it comes to political coverage. It’s really quite schizophrenic: we urge you to be loose and fun and interesting, but we’ll crucify you if you trip up. ‘It’s all absurd, yes, but don’t take it lightly!’ seems to be the mantra, and there’s a million tripwires to look out for if you’re a senator talking on a set. So we settle on this arrangement that has this sort of bloodless/uber-serious political coverage on the one hand, and Jon Stewart absurdity on the other. A politician or pundit screws up on one, and is made fun of on the other.
But there’s a missing middle ground here—a warm wit, a little mischievous but not cynical—that Sunday shows kind of miss now.
I’m not advocating that we dumb down political analysis and chase the lowest common denominator. Quite the opposite. The irony is that shows that are meant to be funny are often also the smarter shows. There is a long tradition of Swiftian satire, and in this regard, the comedy shows are selling themselves short when they cast themselves as mere “entertainment.” One could argue that they are providing a service—and a service that could be replicated by other outlets and media.
But as faking sincerity is difficult, replicating insouciance is a challenge. It helps to have fun, smart hosts who don’t have an ideological ax to grind. That’s not to say Stewart and Oliver and Maher (just to mention three) don’t have a point of view; they tend to universally lean leftward. But they are probably more intellectually honest—more willing to call their own team for BS—than most political commentators.
They’re also funny. For them, the rule has to be to “be funny first.” You can have an agenda, but it’s always second fiddle to being funny. Or, if your show is about ideas, then I think it has to be intellectually stimulating first. My point here is that scoring political points probably can’t come first, at least if believe this is the model that works best.
Here, talent is important, too. There were a lot of things about that infamous Jon Stewart rant on Crossfire that I thought were unfair, but one thing he got completely right is that being funny is harder than doing political commentary. On the other hand, Stewart and Oliver and Maher have some huge advantages over their political interlocutors, such as a team of writers helping them come up with one-liners. They’re also held to a lower standard, partly at their own insistence, allowing them to quickly move back and forth between serious public-service style journalism and “we’re all just having fun” irreverence.
So I leave you with this: Could a cable network—tasked with providing content 24/7 replicate the quality of these shows, day in and day out? There’s probably no way that would happen. It’s so much easier and cheaper to book guests to gab about the news of the day. There’s little time or money for flying the perfect guest—maybe a smart author—across the country to have an elevated discussion. But it could work as a model for the Sunday shows which, let’s face it, would benefit from a little more levity.
Political commentary will slowly evolve, and what I think we’re witnessing right now is a kind of transitional period—an adolescence, if you will, and that’s rarely an attractive stage. The current formula for TV news isn’t working, and the networks know it, but they haven’t quite figured out what will replace it. Yes, there will always be a place for serious discussion about policy, but this much seems obvious: A decade from now, political punditry will look very different. And I’m betting on the funny guys.
By: Matt Lewis, The Daily Beast, November 19, 2014
“Television Media Played Into Republicans’ Hands”: TV News Does A Complete 180 On Ebola Coverage After Midterms
Network news coverage of the Ebola virus abruptly and dramatically fell off following the midterm elections earlier this month, according to a new study by Media Matters.
After reviewing transcripts from Oct. 7 to Nov. 17 in the 5-11 p.m. time slot, Media Matters discovered that evening broadcast and cable news programs aired close to 1,000 segments on Ebola in the four weeks leading up to the elections, and only 49 segments in the two weeks that followed.
“In early October, the GOP developed a plan to make the federal government’s response to Ebola a central part of its midterm elections strategy,” the study reads. “Television media played into Republicans’ hands, helping to foment panic about the disease.”
CNN showed the most significant decrease in Ebola coverage following the midterms, airing 335 segments in the weeks leading up to Election Day and just 10 in the period after. Fox News’ coverage fell from 281 segments to 10, and MSNBC recorded a disparity of 222 segments to 13.
Broadcast networks showed a pronounced dip in their Ebola coverage as well.
“CBS’ 54 segments dropped to six, NBC’s 44 segments dropped to five, and ABC’s 39 segments dropped to four,” according to the study.
But even before the compilation of this data — before the correlation between Ebola and the midterm elections became so clear — the media faced harsh criticism for the fervor and panic with which it reported on a virus that had only infected, at most, a handful of U.S. citizens.
In October, Fox News’ Shepard Smith scolded his colleagues in the press for their “irresponsible” and “hysterical” handling of the story.
USA Today columnist Rem Rieder, notes Media Matters, called the “breathless, alarmist reports” on Ebola “the antithesis of what responsible journalists should be doing,” in a piece published a week prior to the midterms.
And despite all the reports and panels, and the hours upon hours of segments leading up to Election Day, the coverage was still rife with misinformation and largely incomplete. News outlets obsessively scrutinized the handling of few isolated cases of Ebola within the U.S. while all but ignoring the thousands dying from the disease at the source of the outbreak.
“If poor media coverage can create an atmosphere of anxiety and misinformation, then the right kind of coverage can lead to a more active and productive public response,” Jason Linkins wrote for The Huffington Post in October. “To achieve this, the media needs to recognize that the true center of gravity in the Ebola story is the crisis in West Africa.”
By: Jackson Connor, The Huffington Post Blog, November 19, 2014
Sen. Lindsey Graham’s (R-S.C.) principal focus is probably on this year’s re-election campaign, which he’s expected to win easily, though the senator has also begun hinting about his national ambitions and plans for two years from now.
And if the South Carolinian does become a serious presidential candidate, it stands to reason quotes like these will be a problem.
South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, who is toying with the idea of a presidential bid, joked in a private gathering this month that “white men who are in male-only clubs are going to do great in my presidency,” according to an audio recording of his comments provided to CNN. […]
The audio snippets were provided to CNN on Wednesday by two separate South Carolina Democrats who received the recordings from a person using an anonymous Gmail address. Graham confirmed the recordings in an interview Wednesday with CNN.
The senator also joked about Baptists who drink alcohol but don’t admit it, though it’s likely the “white men” quote will have a greater impact.
Context, of course, is everything in a case like this, and according to CNN’s report, Graham was speaking to an all-white audience earlier this month at an all-male club, which had invited the senator to deliver “irreverent” remarks.
“I’m trying to help you with your tax status,” Graham says in the recording. “I’m sorry the government’s so f***ed up. If I get to be president, white men in male-only clubs are going to do great in my presidency.”
He was apparently trying to be funny.
There will, of course, be plenty of time for 2016 speculation after the midterms, though I don’t think it’s too early to say that Graham would struggle in a crowded GOP field. Still, he recently talked with the Weekly Standard about his plans.
In a recent, hour-long interview, Lindsey Graham said if he is reelected to the Senate in November, he will begin exploring a bid for the presidency. […]
In our interview, Graham repeatedly spoke of the challenges that will face the next president because of the mistakes made under Obama. And he suggested that he might just be the one to fix them. “If I get through my general election, if nobody steps up in the presidential mix, if nobody’s out there talking – me and McCain have been talking – I may just jump in to get to make these arguments,” Graham said.
White men in male-only clubs will be delighted.
By: Steve Bene, the Maddow Blog, October 30, 2014